Joan Patterson finds purpose with the help of four wheels and four paws

Joan Patterson felt a strange sensation on the left side of her face one day in 1988. It was similar to the feeling of Novocain wearing off after a visit to the dentist, but the feeling never went away.

Her doctor thought the condition was due to a pinched nerve, and he suggested bed rest and use of a contraption to keep her from further inflaming the nerve. However, when the feeling of numbness spread to her left arm a few days later, Joan thought she had a serious problem.

“It wasn’t totally numb, but more like the feeling of falling asleep with one of your limbs in an awkward position,” said Joan. “Since I’m left-handed, I really noticed it. When I returned to the doctor, he admitted that wasn’t a pinched nerve.”

That began a one-year odyssey to figure out what was going on with her body. Joan took a lot of tests and even had an MRI scan of her brain. But a definitive problem could not be found.

“They’d tell me I had all the symptoms and signs of multiple sclerosis (MS), but they ruled it out because my MRI scan was clear of the telltale white lesions on my brain,” she explained. “The situation got even more scary because nobody seemed to have an idea what was causing the problem.”

Joan lives near York, Penn., and was sent to nearby Hershey to consult with an MS specialist. She was reluctant to have more testing, especially after being assigned to an intern doctor who agreed with the previous diagnosis.

“The MS representative talked me into going back to that clinic one more time. This time she assured me I would see the head doctor,” Joan explained. “He came into the exam room and had me do some things with my arms and legs. It didn’t take long before he announced I had MS. The doctor made the diagnosis without looking at my MRI scans because he said they are often inconclusive.

“He said you have MS, but you have not had an exacerbation, which is a major flare up,” said Joan. “Two years later, I understood what he was talking about. I was sitting in church and noticed I started to slump forward. I tried to sit up, but couldn’t.”

After a trip to the family doctor, which confirmed she was experiencing an exacerbation, Joan’s life changed forever as she started living with a neurological disease that would ultimately confine her to a wheelchair.

“I actually got better for a while after knowing what I was fighting. The stress was gone, but I had a lot of fatigue in addition to the numbness,” she explained.

A major turning point

Joan was in her 40s at the time and working as a high school business teacher. Only her principal and immediate family knew about her condition.

“One day, I woke up and went to take a step, but almost fell. My left foot dropped in that I could no longer lift it when walking,” said Joan. “I wound up dragging my foot around all day until I could see my doctor.”

For the next two years, Joan would teach by sitting and projecting notes on a screen rather than standing in front of her students.

“Everyone was wonderful at accommodating my needs, but it was a huge turning point for our family,” she explained. “Our oldest son was away at college and our youngest son was a junior in high school. He was also the co-captain of his basketball team.

“Our son would have to carry me to the car, drive me to school, take me home and carry me back into the house. Then he would drive back to school for basketball practice,” said Joan. “My husband couldn’t help because he had jumped off a roof and landed on a nail that went into his bone. As a result, my husband was basically tied to an IV pole for six weeks.

The entire Patterson house relied on their youngest son to keep things going. After the young man completed the regular season and his team made the playoffs, he told Joan he had just quit basketball. She strongly objected.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Mom, I can’t quit school and I can’t quit taking care of you and dad, but I can quit basketball,’“Joan recalled. “That was when it truly hit me as to how limiting my MS really was.”

The illness progressively gets worse year after year. She may have a temporary improvement, but it was short-lived until the next exacerbation set her back even further.

Maintaining mobility

When Joan could no longer fully control her left foot, she relied on a quad cane to get around and a brace which went from the bottom of her foot to the back of her knee just to hold her foot up so she could maneuver. The quad cane helped her with her unsteady balance.

“Before I got the brace, there was a business fair at my church for which my students were required to participate,” she explained. “In that day and age, professional women wore high-heeled shoes to work and even to attend church.

“My foot was still dragging, but I felt I had to look professional, so I did what they call furniture walking by moving from table to table without letting go,” she added. “My husband told me I didn’t look very professional stumbling along the tables. So, I put on a pair of old, scuffed shoes and completed the fair.

“After that, I knew I could no longer wear high-heeled shoes, which was another big turning point for me,” said Joan. “I carefully wrapped them in tissue paper and put them away. It was like putting them into a casket and it really hurt because high-heeled shoes were a sign of femininity at the time.”

Since she could only walk short distances, Joan started using a three-wheeled scooter, but it required a little crane to be installed in the back of her station wagon so Joan could have it whenever she left the house.

“I was fine using the scooter, but had already replaced two of them because I wore them out.,” she explained. “A physical therapist came to fit me for a new scooter. She brought a power wheelchair for me to try. By the way, they are referred to as power chairs, not electric chairs. We are not particularly fond of electric chairs.

“I was reluctant to try the power chair, but my therapist could see what was happening to my body. She encouraged me to just sit in it,” said Joan. “As soon as I sat down, I looked at her and asked why she didn’t bring this to me after my first scooter died.

“She said, ‘I did, but you weren’t ready to use it yet,’” Joan explained. “That’s a problem with any kind of disability. You have to learn how to deal with it in stages.”

Having a power chair required Joan to get a van and have it modified so she could move the 400-pound chair in and out of the vehicle. Her third specially modified van, a 2019 Toyota Sienna required $160,000 in modifications.

“They had to take the floor out and drop it by 10 inches to accommodate the ramp. Then my driver’s seat had to come back and swivel so I could transfer in and out of that,” said Joan. “They made additional modifications so I could drive the van from my wheelchair when it gets to that point.”

God’s gift

It was around the time Joan started using a power chair that she realized having MS was actually God’s gift to her.

“Without MS, I would not have the relationship I do with God,” she explained. “That’s by grace. There are so many things for which he has shown himself to be faithful. I would not be aware of those things if I was just walking around.

“When you are up and walking around, you’re often busy and you don’t notice things,” she added. “Because I could no longer do everything I used to do, I had to slow down. Now, I see life from a whole different perspective.”

The fact Joan is still driving is an answer to a prayer.

“As my limbs started to get weak, I sent a silent prayer to God asking him to allow me to continue driving,” Joan explained. “My arms were weak, so they needed to install special steering with zero resistance. I have to be careful because a little turn sends the vehicle in another direction. My husband said my van is the most difficult vehicle he ever learned to drive.”

Maintaining her independence by driving wherever she needed to go was a big blessing from God. However, Joan’s world would soon be transformed in ways she never imagined.

Faith arrives as a dog

Joan knew she needed a service dog because her physical therapist recommended one every time she had an MS flare up. But she couldn’t get one because her husband had an allergy to dogs. She had other options, like a monkey or a miniature horse, but Joan thought she was already in a circus and didn’t need to amplify that reality.

“One year, my husband came home from his yearly checkup and announced he was no longer allergic to dogs,” Joan said. “So, I was ready to get a lap dog, like the chihuahua I grew up with. My husband was raised with dogs, but they stayed outside and were never allowed inside the house.”

Once Joan knew a service dog may be an option, she started seeing all kinds of articles and announcements about demonstrations.

“I sensed God was telling me I needed to check into the option, so my husband and I attended a nearby over-50 expo,” she explained. “As I went past a booth, I noticed a woman who was sitting in the same type of power chair I had, so we struck up a conversation.

“She also had a white, full-sized poodle sleeping next to her. We talked for a while and the woman explained she also had MS, but the service dog made her life so much better,” said Joan. “By the time we left the expo, I decided to apply to get a service dog from Canine Partners for Life.”

The application process was bewildering to Joan because of the amount of seemingly irrelevant questions being asked and the volume of information the agency needed from her during the interview.

“For example, they asked which hand is my strongest and what I like to do in my downtime, which was reading. I could not understand what that had to do with a service dog,” said Joan. “At the end of the interview, the woman told me it would take anywhere from six to eighteen months to get a dog.

“On the way home, I was having a discussion with God about him encouraging me to get a service animal, but now he was telling me to wait a year and a half for a dog to arrive,” she added. “I told God I was disappointed, but trusted him to be in control. In obedience, I waited.”

A few months later, Joan received a call from Canine Partners for Life announcing they unexpectedly had a service dog come available that might work for her situation. Joan was invited to their office to meet the dog.

“I had no idea why I needed to meet a service dog, nor did I have an idea what I should look for when evaluating one,” said Joan. “I went to the office and was ushered into a room where the trainer came in with this black lab.

“The dog sat in front of me with the silliest little grin on her face, as if to say, ‘I know something you don’t know,’“she added. “The trainer said, ‘This is the dog we think will work for you. Her name is Faith.’

“God had used everything but neon lights to tell me this was my dog,” said Joan. “I later found out the dogs are named at birth, which was two years earlier.

“I was in tears when I realized that two years before I said okay to God, and even before my husband found out he was no longer allergic to dogs, Faith was born and being trained to be my service dog,” she explained.

Four paws equal two feet

It didn’t take long for Faith and Joan to form quite a partnership. The dog could turn light switches on and off, and lift the footplates on her wheelchair so she could transition on and off much easier.

Faith can open drawers and doors, and close them again after an item is retrieved. Her skills are so refined she can even pick up a dropped back to an earring, Joan explained.

“I had a long shoelace on every knob that Faith would take hold of it to pull open doors and drawers,” said Joan. “I have a different dog now, but he is just as capable as Faith was in providing assistance.”

Both dogs were also trained to detect latex after Joan discovered she had a highly-sensitive allergic reaction to any items containing latex.

“By just touching it, I would break out in hives, so I decided to teach Faith to detect the presence of latex,” she explained. “It was a challenge to get Faith to sit whenever she encountered latex.

“As a Labrador retriever, for two years she had been trained to bring things to me,” she added. “Now, she had to learn to not even touch it. If her nose touched latex and then she touched me, I would have a reaction.”

Over a ten-year period, Faith faithfully stayed at Joan’s side every day. They were only separated for a total of nine hours.

“When I was in the intensive care unit attached to a ventilator because I had a latex reaction, Faith was at my side,” said Joan. “The nurses told me later that Faith was so in-tune with me that if the dog suddenly got up and walked the nurses as her leash would allow, they knew something had changed in my body without even looking at the monitors. That blew me away.

“In fact, if my IV bag got empty, an alarm would go off. Faith got so upset that the nurses never let the bag get empty again,” she explained.

Faith provided the same care in the home, too. If the dog sensed Joan was in trouble, Faith would go through the house to bring someone to Joan.

“One day, my oldest son and his family were at our house. I had fallen in the bedroom, so I sent Faith to get daddy,” Joan explained. “But everyone was involved in conversation, so Faith was ignored.

“After I sent Faith out three times, my oldest son suggested they check up on me,” she added. “After that, I trained Faith to bump the person with her nose so he or she would know help was needed.”

During the first night of dog training, the teacher from Canine Partners for Life told Joan, “Congratulations. You just made a commitment to be married to a 2-year-old for the rest of your life.”

But it was a marriage made in heaven. The bond that formed between Joan and both of her service dogs was strong and inseparable.

“Faith was a special dog. She would do a command before I had the whole thing out of my mouth,” said Joan. “My current dog, Giles, just looks at me after I give him a command like he’s asking, ‘Do you really want me to do this?’”

A Matter of Faith

Joan’s service dogs were so instrumental in her life, and such tremendous answers to prayer, she wrote a book about her experiences with them. It’s titled “A Matter of Faith: Surviving Life’s Crises with Four Wheels, Four Paws and a Loving God.”

“My book is a compilation of stories about different adventures my dogs and I have had over the years,” said Joan.

One story recalls an experience at a local park overlooking the Susquehanna River. The rules required our dog to be tethered to something whenever it was not in an enclosed area.

“I had one end of the rope clipped to Faith, but there wasn’t really a place for me to attach the other end, so I tied it around my waist,” said Joan. “I didn’t know how long the rope was, but I soon found out.

“I threw the ball to Faith, but she deflected it with her nose onto the grass at the top of a hill where it started rolling downhill and icked up speed,” she explained. “Faith took off for the ball as fast as her four legs could go. The next thing I knew, I was flying through the air with the greatest of ease and landed on all fours.

“It was not a graceful Olympic landing either,” she joked. “I wasn’t hurt, but just rolled over and laughed and laughed. Faith was delighted because now I was on her level. So she started licking me all over my face.”

Joan uses the story as a metaphor to ask people where they’ve anchored their lives, whether it is sand or the rock of Jesus.

Finding God in the midst of MS

Early in her diagnosis, Joan had to make a choice. Would she accept multiple sclerosis as a gift from God and, in obedience, do what he was telling her to do? Or, would she have a lifelong pity party blaming God for allowing her illness to happen and remaining angry at him and the rest of the world?

“Getting angry at God makes you bitter, and you end up in worse condition,” said Joan. “So, I learned to accept it and I thanked God every day. There were days when I saw people doing things I used to be able to do, like a couple walking hand-in-hand.

“But there is so much that God has done for me, and anyone else living in this country, that I can only praise him for all he has done,” she added. “There are so many resources available for disabled people in America today.

“Years ago, if you were disabled, you were stuck in the house and that was it,” she added. “In some circles, you were seen as having sinned and the disability was a punishment or a sign God was mad at you.”

Joan recalled hearing Joni Eareckson Tada talking about a similar experience that left her completely paralyzed.

“She talked about lying in bed one night unable to move her arms or legs,” said Joan. “Joni cried because she couldn’t even move to kill herself, if she wanted to. Instead, she asked God to show her how to live.

“Where would the Christian community be today without such a faith-filled person like Joni Eareckson Tada?” Joan asked. “I’m not as famous, but I try to exemplify God so that when people look at me, they see God. Today, my purpose is to speak to others to provide them with hope and encouragement.”

She wants people to understand, especially women, that the culture’s priorities do not matter. What matters is having a loving relationship with God.

“God will get you through more than the culture ever will,” said Joan.

Advice for people over 50

Joan offered some advice for people over 50 who are looking for a sense of purpose or more direction for their lives.

“Do not wait to do the things you like. Cherish the time because we are never guaranteed tomorrow,” said Joan. “Too many people say they’ll do this or that after they get a certain amount of money or when they have the time. No! Do it now. Find your passion.

“If you don’t know what that passion is, spend an afternoon without the phone or the TV and just think about what you like to do the best,” she added. “If you’re not sure, ask your friends and family what you take pleasure doing, because they see joy in you when you’re doing that activity.

“It will show on your face and in your actions. Then, once you find that, latch on to it,” said Joan. “Don’t make excuses by saying, ‘I’m over 50, so I can’t do that anymore.’

“Yes, MS forced me to slow down, and there are some things for which my body says, ‘No way,’“she explained. “But, if you do nothing, you will soon be able to do even less. The object is to remain active.”

Joan recalled a piano teacher she knew years ago who was in her 90s. Her hands were gnarled and her fingers were out of shape.

“But it was a joy to hear her play the piano,” said Joan. “Find a way to use your brain and use your body. Enjoy life and use this time to be a mentor. When I wanted to quit writing, God opened doors to give me a whole crew to help me out. That was his way of saying, ‘Joan, you’re not finished yet!’”

To connect with Joan, visit or email her at

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