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"Rescue and Jessica" is a new children's book about a girl and her dog.
First, the dog: Rescue is a black lab with a big head and brown eyes that are always fixed on Jessica. Rescue was expected to be a seeing eye dog. But life took an unexpected turn, and he ended up a service dog. He was given to Jessica after she had an unexpected turn in life, as well.
Now about Jessica. She's not a tween-age girl, as in the book. She's 37-year-old Jessica Kensky. Five years ago, Kensky and her husband, Patrick Downes, were watching runners at the Boston Marathon finish line. The two of them were struck down by one of the bomb blasts. They both lost their left legs below the knee. And then Kensky's other leg had to be amputated.
The dog, Rescue, entered Kensky's life when an organization called NEADS, based in Princeton, donated him to her. Rescue, now 6 years old, helps Kensky with things like turning on lights, opening doors and fetching her cellphone or her prosthetic legs.
The idea for the book took hold when the couple put on their artificial legs and went places with Rescue. They kept noticing something: "Kids were just so mesmerized," Kensky says. "I mean, you could see them pulling on their mom or dad's sweater, being, like, 'Please explain to me what my eyes are seeing. I've never seen anything like this ... three metal legs and a dog in a little coat.' "
Downes says they'd answer those kids' questions and even let the children touch their prosthetic legs.
"They'd look up at us and smile because it wasn't a mystery anymore. It was real. They could touch it. They saw the smiles on our faces," he recalls. "And then they started to marvel at it and admire it."
Downes is a clinical psychologist and Kensky is an oncology nurse. They say writing the book became a form of therapy — a welcome distraction from Kensky's exhaustive surgeries.
The book was illustrated by Scott Magoon, of Reading. He was running the marathon and was near the finish line when the bombs went off.
Kensky and Downes knew they didn't want to write about the bombing itself. It would be too frightening for children. Downes says they figured out a different way to tell the story.
"We had to think about how to use this language in a way that was straightforward but also acknowledged the emotional weight of it all," he says.
Here's what they settled on for describing how the doctor broke the news to Jessica:
In a hospital in the city, a girl named Jessica was worried. Both of her legs were badly hurt. Everyone hoped her right leg would heal, but the doctors had to remove part of her left leg so she could be healthy again. "You're an amputee now, Jessica," the doctor explained. "You have to wear a prosthetic leg or use a wheelchair for the rest of your life." That was hard to hear. She had only ever walked on her own two legs.
"We thought it was so important for the doctor to take a very literal approach," Downes explains. "'Your legs were unhealthy. We had to remove one so that you could be healthy again.' But also, [we wanted to show] the difficulty of hearing that news."
"We've only had a chance to read this to a few kids so far," he says. "They get this emotional weight. They can sit with the sadness and despair. And then on the next page, when we start to see Rescue and Jessica meeting each other, they get the hope that can come with that kind of partnership."
Kensky says the comfort Rescue brought her as she went through her second amputation, which is part of the book, was "immeasurable."
"The depression was darker and deeper than I ever imagined it could be," Kensky recalls. "That decision of the second amputation had just been looming for so long. I remember distinctly feeling like, 'I'm in my early 30s, I'm married. I'm going into the hospital, I'm going to leave in a wheelchair.' The only way I had imagined that was leaving with a baby."
Kensky recalls her in-laws, sister, brother-in-law and parents being at the hospital that day.
"I remember them all coming into the room and kind of staring at this now-giant gap at the foot of my bed. And I so in my heart just felt like I should have been holding a newborn. It was incredibly painful. And to have Rescue leap up in that gap in the bed and snuggle me ... I don't think anything else in that moment could have been that soothing.
"[Rescue] doesn't necessarily change my circumstances, right? The leg is still gone. Our family planning got completely derailed by the bombing, and we still had a long road ahead. I was in a ton of pain. But he just he softens and soothes everything," Kensky says.
Downes says he and his wife hope the book will serve as a window for able-bodied kids to see into the lives of people with disabilities. They also hope it will help kids with physical disabilities understand that they, too, can be "heroes in a book" and can overcome obstacles with the help of people — and animals — that love and support them.
"Then we hope it creates a conversation with kids and the adults in their lives about what it means to be a person with physical disability," Downes reflects. "What about our collective responsibility to each other is so important? How do we care for each other? We feel as though the book is rich with a lot of those themes."
This segment aired on April 11, 2018.
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