Friends indeed: Charlotte Cleverley-Bisman pays tribute to her assistance dog

In a heartwarming new book, Friends inDEED, people who with disabilities reveal the vital roles assistance dogs play in their lives.

Charlotte Cleverley-Bisman is used to media attention, but the 15-year-old schoolgirl’s dream is to be in the spotlight for a different reason. As a 6-month-old baby, she attracted both local and international media attention as the country’s youngest quadruple amputee after miraculously surviving a severe case of meningococcal disease.

But now the teenager wants to lose the “Baby Charlotte” moniker and make a name for herself as a singer-songwriter.

“Publicity has been a two-edged sword for Charlotte. She wants to lead as normal a life as possible and she’s doing great,” says her father, Perry.

Pam and Perry’s daughter is a determined and capable young woman who not only lives her own life to the full but inspires others with her can-do attitude. She achieves this with a combination of inner strength and the support of her parents and her assistance dog, Callie.

Charlotte was only 10 when the black Labrador became her right-hand dog and best friend. There was some concern about giving an assistance dog to such a young child, but Charlotte had an affinity with animals and her parents were confident that she would manage.

“We fought hard for her because not only was the dog a companion, but having public certification meant she would be able to take it everywhere with her,” says Perry. “The dog has been a real blessing for Charlotte. Wherever Charlotte goes, Callie goes too.”

He describes Callie’s presence as life-enhancing rather than life-changing, paving the way for Charlotte’s increased independence and confidence.

Callie starts her working day by helping Charlotte get dressed in the morning. “I’m not really fussed with what I wear. She styles me.”

Callie selects clothes from different racks in her wardrobe. She can differentiate between “pants” and “shoes” but often grabs a mouthful of tops for Charlotte to choose from. “She sometimes gets a little confused, especially if she’s just woken up.”

If Charlotte wants something, she will point to it and say “pick it up” and Callie will fetch it for her. “When I’m at school she picks up my pens and things. I don’t get her to pick up my phone as she might leave saliva on it,” adds the teenager who texts at speed using a small cleft in her arm.

Callie opens doors for Charlotte and holds them while her wheelchair goes through.

Charlotte also has a hoverboard for getting around on, which is less cumbersome than the chair. She has had an array of prosthetic limbs over the years, but rarely uses them as she finds them painful to wear and hard to fit because of scar tissue.

Charlotte drives her wheelchair to school every fine morning, with Callie trotting at her side. The dog stays till morning tea-time when Pam or Perry come and pick her up.

“Callie loves going to school,” says Charlotte. “She wanders around the classroom checking on everyone. At first patting was forbidden, then I got easy on it. She’s not only my assistance dog, she also likes to support other students and is very aware of people’s moods.”

Callie, who has her favourites, gets a lot of attention from Charlotte’s friends and gives high fives in return. “She likes to make people happy. There are lots of smiles on people’s faces when Callie arrives, and when she’s not around, everyone says ‘where’s Callie?’ She sort of makes people behave better.” Of her own relationship with her dog, she says: “I’m like the mother. She can be a bit naughty but never when she’s working. Then she’s very sensible.”

Charlotte participates in most school activities, including swimming and basketball, and has taken up boxing to keep herself fit and strong. But her greatest love is music.

“I’ve always wanted to be a singer-songwriter,” says Charlotte, who wrote and performed her first song for the inter-school Rock Quest. Music is in her blood.

Her mother and two older sisters are good singers and Perry plays an array of instruments. “She’s always had good rhythm. Even when she was a little kid she would belt out tunes on her toy keyboard,” he says.

Callie shares her musicality. “When people are dancing to music she likes to join in,” says Charlotte. Drama is her favourite class as there are no desks or chairs. Callie joins the circle of students on the floor, expressing herself in her own theatrical way.

“She rolls around on the floor and wags her tail so hard she slaps people in the face. Her tail is a weapon. When she’s really happy it goes wild.”

The teacher describes Charlotte as talented and brave.

“I think she’s incredible. There’s so much going on for any teenager without the physical challenge on top of that. But Charlotte is willing to put herself out there. She’s very creative and expressive.”

Callie came to the dress rehearsal of the school production but was barred from opening night after making several unscheduled appearances on stage. The Best Supporting Actress knows her place, and it’s at her star’s side.

They were standing in another of his favourite places, the viewing platform, watching the North Canterbury landscape rattle by, when the safety rail broke and Morgan Jones plunged on to the track below. The little boy’s horrific injuries left him blind, partially paralysed and with his right leg amputated below the knee.

Twenty-five years on, and “The Boy Who Fell Off The Train” is a young man who might have lost his sight and a limb but hasn’t lost his zest for life or sense of humour. He has conquered white-water rafting, rock-climbing and abseiling (“I tell people I’m not scared of heights, I’m just scared of the dark.”) and lists Latin dancing and modern jive as his favourite activities. (“Yeah, I’m crazy. I’m a blind amputee. I really shouldn’t be dancing.”)

Morgan strides out into the world with an equally personable black Labrador at his side. Jessie J is Morgan’s second guide dog and together they make up the latest J Team.

His first guide dog was OJ, also a black lab, and the family Jack Russell had been called BJ. “So when I got Jessie, she naturally became Jessie J,” says Morgan, whose love of music made it all the more appropriate that his companion shared her name with the British singer-songwriter.

Morgan can remember being able to see. “In some ways it helps and in other ways it doesn’t because you know what you are missing out on,” he says, adding that the first few years after the accident were hard. As well as the months of pain, his disabilities meant major upheavals in the young schoolboy’s life. He was moved to a school with a visual resource centre and developed some behavioural issues.

“I was treated as if I had an intellectual disability. It was very confusing,” he remembers.

But with the support of his family, Morgan negotiated those early obstacles and set out on a path that led to university. Inspired by his grandfather who was a conservationist, he completed a science degree majoring in biology and later added a certificate in medical terminology to his qualifications.

During those university days the young man was joined by his first black dog. Morgan and OJ were a familiar sight around campus, and the Labrador was at his side for his graduation.

OJ’s guidance and companionship gave Morgan the confidence to move out of home and live independently in a townhouse in his mid-20s. He has had a few flatmates over the years and assistance with chores such as cleaning and shopping. “Cooking is my weak point,” he says. “It’s hard measuring ingredients and I’m not that motivated to cook, so I live mostly on microwave meals.”

It was a sad day when OJ retired, but a consolation that he went to live with Morgan’s parents until he was put to sleep after developing cancer. Working with a new dog was also a good distraction, especially as Jessie J has the propensity to get a little distracted herself.

Some dogs have a penchant for cats or sausage sizzles, but Jessie J’s obsession is grass. “She grazes,” says Morgan. “I don’t know whether it’s because she’s a black sheep or a silly cow. Whatever, she’s clearly a lab experiment. I try to stop her, but I don’t always succeed.”

Because Morgan’s left side is weakened by paralysis, his guide dog walks on his right, and the pair set a cracking pace. “Sometimes I give a tree a hug,” he says, admitting to a few near-misses with traffic.

“I judged it wrong and got clipped by a car once with OJ.

Electric cars make it hard, especially when they’re idling. You get halfway across the road and go ‘oh there’s a car there’.”

“Leave it” is an oft-heard command as Jessie J guides Morgan along the city footpaths, sometimes veering into the verge to graze. “I don’t think OJ ever figured out I was blind but she has. I can’t see you eating grass but I can hear you,” he says to his dog, who gazes up at him adoringly. “People tell me she’s always looking at me. It’s a bit sad that I can’t see that, but I can feel it when she comes and sits with me. She’s my mate.”

In the evenings, Morgan can often be found on the dance floor with Jessie J sometimes watching from the wings. He enjoys a range of dance styles, and has won an award for Latin dancing. As well as keeping him fit, dogs and dancing are useful conduits for meeting people, especially girls.

Morgan has part-time work transcribing dictation for a community support organisation, where he astounds his co-workers by speed-typing with his one good hand.

They say Morgan’s humour helps put everyone at ease while his mischievous sidekick cruises around the office sharing the love and checking the bins.

Morgan has inherited his grandfather’s passion for birds, and demonstrates with perfect renditions of bellbird and shining cuckoo calls. He still lists the bush-clad Marlborough Sounds as his favourite place despite that fateful journey, and dreams of working in conservation. Meanwhile, with the help of friends, he is designing his urban backyard and filling it with native plants while Jessie J watches on, slightly alarmed that the lawn appears to be shrinking.

Friends Indeed: Assist Dogs and Their People, by Sue Allison (New Holland, RRP $29.99) is available now. It features 41 interviews with owners of assistance dogs.

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