Through Pain, a Profusion of Hard-Earned Lessons
If Lorrie Starr were to write a book about her life, she’d call it “Life with a Circus Dog.”
Lorrie, 67, began using a service dog decades ago and has a memoir’s worth of lessons and experience—including a humorous encounter where a woman misheard the word “service dog” as “circus dog” and loudly shared her mistake with a packed restaurant.
Lorrie recounts the story with a laugh and a joke about getting back to Barnum & Bailey. She manages to see the bright side of a dark journey fraught with pain, tragedy, and loss.
RELIEF OF SERVICE DOG TEMPERED BY OTHERS’ LACK OF UNDERSTANDING
Lorrie was diagnosed with undifferentiated connective tissue disease in her 20s, a disorder that affects the tissue supporting the organs and parts of the body. Lorrie’s condition resembles Raynaud’s disease; hot and cold temperatures cause discomfort in her extremities and joint pain. She also began experiencing vertigo and the sensation of the room spinning.
While juggling medications, dietary restrictions, and treatments, Lorrie began a dual PhD program in counseling and school psychology. Her vertigo continued, and she began to experience falls. Her doctor advised her to use a service dog instead of a cane.
“I was kind of mortified to be using a service dog,” she says. “It was really an uphill battle a lot of the time. People are better educated now, but [back then], they wouldn’t want to let you in a restaurant or a movie theater or whatever.”
Lorrie’s hypothetical memoir would include stories about being accused of not having a disability when using accessible parking spots. About people running up to pet her dog while the animal was working, increasing her risk of falls. About being denied entry or service.
For her psychology residency, Lorrie matched at a well-known and reputable medical institution. “It did not even cross my mind that I needed to talk about my service dog. It’s perfectly within the law,” she says. “When I showed up with a service dog, you would have thought that I brought a giraffe and an elephant. It was absolutely abhorrent what happened.”
Lorrie was told she could not use her service dog, named Roughette in honor of a favorite horse, and had to leave him in the intern office. Every morning when she arrived, an administrator would wait for her at the end of the hall and repeatedly harass Lorrie by calling her dog, trying to break his concentration.
“My dog got to where he was just shaking when we would be going into the building, because he knew he was supposed to be doing his job with me,” she says. “That was very traumatic.”
An administrator suggested Lorrie could “grab onto” someone if she was having balance issues. “I’m sure this did not endear me to [the administrator] any further, but I took her glasses and said, ‘Just ask someone if you need to read; it’s the same thing.’”
Lorrie filed an Americans with Disabilities Act complaint. The next year, she transferred her residency to the Phoenix Indian Medical Center, whose mission she said was close to her heart. “It was a great fit, and everybody loved my dog,” she says. Lorrie uses a Bouvier des Flandres as her service dog because of the breed’s height and ability to brace—her new coworkers in Phoenix compared her dog to a buffalo, which Lorrie says is the greatest compliment she could receive.
Lorrie is a tribal member of the Western Cherokee Nation. She was born to the Long Hair Clan. She credits her tribe’s spiritual beliefs and customs for centering her and keeping her balanced.
“I can only do what I can do in my corner of the world,” she says. “I can join with others in praying and sending loving kindness and energy to the people who need it, that are in really tough situations. My situation may seem tough at times, but you look around and there’s always someone whose situation is harder.”
A VIOLENT SETBACK
As her residency continued, Lorrie began having double vision. At the end of a weeklong conference, her dog was exhausted, and Lorrie decided to leave him home to rest and go to dinner alone at the end of the week. “My animal needed to be thought of too,” she says.
She was assaulted in the parking lot that night.
“A man grabbed my ankle from between cars. I didn’t even have time to put my hands up. My face hit the concrete. I was unconscious fast and just left for dead.”
Lorrie had a traumatic brain injury.
“I’ll never forget seeing the face of the woman who saw me and the kind of car she was driving,” she says. “I was in shock, just shaking all over. The ambulance driver said, ‘What hospital do you want to go to?’ And I said Phoenix Indian Medical Center, because I knew everybody there. They laughed and said, ‘Oh, you don’t want to go there.’ You know, it was that kind of prejudice.”
Shortly after her TBI, Lorrie began experiencing uncontrollable crying and was diagnosed with pseudobulbar affect. The injury also caused headaches and balance issues.
“That combined with the connective tissue stuff, and my neurologist said, ‘You can’t work anymore,’” she remembers.
Even now, she gets teary recounting it. “My dissertation chair said, ‘You might as well admit you aren’t going to finish this.’ I was just so determined, because that is what my dream was. I knew what I wanted to do.”
It took her six years—and a new adviser—but Lorrie graduated with a dual PhD.
CALLING FOUND IN SERVICE—THEN ANOTHER BLOW
Lorrie has always felt called to service. She started a child life program at the University of Missouri Hospital. “I saw a young mother who was a single parent, whose young child was sick and eventually died. This woman was out of pocket over $30,000. She was a secretary. And I thought, there is no way she doesn’t need the support of having the option to go to therapy without a copay or having to pay for it.”
Lorrie’s dream was to start a nonprofit and offer pro-bono therapy services for children and families in similarly tough spots. She did that through the founding of “A Little Kinder” in Phoenix, working primarily with seriously ill children and their families. After almost a decade, the land she used was sold, and she was not able to renew her lease. Her nonprofit was shuttered, and that chapter of her life was over.
A friend who lived in Columbia, Missouri, reached out and offered Lorrie a place to stay. Lorrie packed up and moved. Her friend passed away shortly after.
“I moved here just spontaneously. Part of the problem with my brain injury is that it affects executive functioning,” she says. “It was an impulsive decision.”
Continuing her spell of bad luck, Lorrie’s service dog also passed away, another was stolen by a trainer, and then the pandemic struck. She worries her current dog, again named Roughette, hasn’t gotten enough exposure and training in the “real world.”
Despite living with pain from her brain injury, as well as arthritis, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome, Lorrie wants to get back to work—but with her head injury, she is worried she won’t be able to study and pass Missouri’s counseling credentialing exam.
Even after doctors said not to work as her double vision worsens, Lorrie can’t see a world where she doesn’t help others. She has obtained a variety of certifications in energy medicine techniques and is developing a toolkit to virtually help people build coping strategies. As the world becomes more overwhelming, she wants to empower people to tune into their emotions and find peace.
“I miss terribly being of service,” she says.