By Trina Trice
Barb McCarter smiles these days thanks to a one-year-old dog named Panther.
Panther is 90 percent service dog and 10 percent playful pooch, and this is what McCarter likes to show off to local school children when she gives demonstrations at schools.
Getting around wasn't as easy for McCarter, though, before Panther came into her life.
Born in New York, McCarter suffered from various complications as a baby that "have caught up with me," McCarter said.
She worked as a nurse for 16 years, her chronic pain from various afflictions, such as muscle and joint problems, missing valves in veins in her legs, potential congestive heart failure, and malfunctioning heart valves, forced her to give up the career she loved.
"I should be dead," McCarter said.
When explaining why she believes she's still alive, McCarter points a finger up to the sky.
Last year, though, McCarter's situation worsened.
Although she qualified for a home nurse, she turned it down because of pride.
"I've been on the other side," she said.
But hope came in the form of a program that provided free service dogs to those who could not afford to purchase one.
Fully trained service dogs can cost between $10,000 to $15,000 per dog.
However, there was a catch n the waiting list for the program was five to 10 years long.
McCarter found a bit of inspiration while on a trip to the local Wal-Mart where she found a sign for free puppies.
That's how McCarter found Panther who had been abandoned and left to live wild, yet found by an animal lover who wanted to find a good home for her.
McCarter describes their first meeting: "She ran out straight to me and licked my bandages. I was like, ?Whoa, wow!'. Panther jumped right into my truck."
McCarter discovered Panther had the "right temperament, intelligence, and patience" to be trained as a service dog.
To be a service dog, Panther learned voice and hand commands that enable her to assist McCarter with answering the receiver of a telephone, opening the refrigerator, picking up dropped objects, protecting McCarter from harm, and improving McCarter's overall attitude.
"I'm able to go out to eat and I feel normal, whatever normal is," she said. "But the most important thing is that she makes me happy."
Because McCarter and Panther have grown so close, Panther has developed skills all her own.
"Sometimes I'll be sad, even though I try to keep a happy face. But sometimes when I'm driving, I'll be sad and" Panther "will put her paw on me."
Panther also reminds McCarter to take her medication by jumping on the bed, a phenomenon demonstrated in a coloring book McCarter created for children to whom she teaches service dog etiquette, such as not to pet a dog until permission is received from its owner. She also teachers them about understanding and being kind to individuals with disabilities.
About visiting schools to talk to children, McCarter said, "It's fun, it's educational. I teach them about the handicap sign. I teach the young to teach the adults, kind of, to pay attention to the handicap signs" in front of parking spaces. "There's still a segregation and not many people are comfortable with seeing handicapped people. It's tough being handicapped. A lot of times people won't talk to you, people just don't know how to approach you.
"Thanks to Panther," McCarter said, "People just come up to us. She's a godsend."
For more information about Panther and McCarter, call (770) 968-1280.