WESTERLY — John "Chase" Rushlow doesn't like to dwell on the past or tell "sob" stories. Instead, he focuses on the future and how he can help others the way he was helped when he started his journey of recovery from a severe stroke.
In November of 2016, at the age of 22, Rushlow woke up in a hospital bed. He could not speak. He had no use of his right side and he did not know where he was. He had just awakened from a month-long coma caused by the stroke.
At the time of his stroke, Rushlow was studying for a master's degree at the University of Central Florida. He grew up in Hope Valley and then moved to Florida with his family when he was 10 in order for his father to pursue a career opportunity. The stroke was caused by an arteriovenous malformation, a congenital disorder of the brain and spine characterized by a complex, tangled web of arteries and veins in which there is a short circuit and high pressure due to arterial blood flowing rapidly in the veins.
After four years of occupational, speech and physical therapy in Florida, Rushlow, now 27, relocated to Westerly with his family. On a recent morning he shared his story and explained why he and his service dog, Lake, go to Westerly Hospital twice a week. It's not for Rushlow to receive care, but instead it's for he and Lake to visit patients to provide pet therapy. They have been making the visits for about six months after they both received certification from Pet Partners, an organization that provides training for both pets and their owners.
"I'm not one to tell you the sob story. I would rather tell you the wonderful story about how I got Lake or how he and I came to this just so we can make some amount of good," Rushlow said while seated in an office at the hospital with Lake lying under his chair.
While he was a patient at Orlando Regional Medical Center, Rushlow was visited by a therapy dog named Mario, a golden retriever. They connected immediately.
"When I was out of the coma we had Mario and he helped me. It was so much fun and I knew from that point on that I would, if I got a dog, go and help others," Rushlow.
Rushlow has had Lake, also a golden retriever, for three years. Lake was initially trained as a service dog before becoming certified as a pet therapy dog. On Tuesday, the faces of patients lit up when they saw and touched Lake.
"Every person that I've seen — they fall in love with him and I'm so glad I can be a part of that," Rushlow said.
As Rushlow and Lake moved through the hospital's hallways, several employees stopped to pet Lake and say hello. "Everyone knows Lake now," said Fiona Phalen, a hospital spokeswoman.
Rushlow acknowledges having had challenging days along the way as he regains functions and continues to recover. The knowledge born of the hard days serves him well as he tries to serve others, he said.
"It's been difficult at times for me and for my parents, my sister, and my brother, but with the help of my therapy assistants I can now give back to these people. Maybe they are having a bad day and maybe I can help them because I've had a bad day a lot of times," Rushlow said.
Lake assists Rushlow with daily tasks such as doing laundry and can pick items up off of the floor and give them to Rushlow. He is also trained to detect when Rushlow might be struggling with the anger or sadness that sometimes comes up and provide comfort.
"He's my best friend. He helps me through the bad times. He's a good boy in every sense of the word," Rushlow said. "I can't say enough about him."