A New Treatment for Mariah

ABSTRACT (for those who want a shorter story):
Hello! My name is Mariah, I am 22 years old, and I just graduated from MIT. I have a dream to become a doctor and perform research in signal processing on the body to help advance medicine, but my chronic illness is thwarting that plan. My illness causes me to suffer a range of often debilitating symptoms, such as severe nausea that keeps me in bed all day and chest pain so painful it feels like a heart attack. My doctor and I have tried many different medications and therapies, and I spent a month in the hospital (my second hospitalization) at the beginning of this year due to the severity of my symptoms. After a great deal of research and a discussion with my doctor, we have decided a Service Dog is a great treatment option in addition to my current therapy/medication. Service Dogs can be trained to help alert me to my symptoms before they become so severe that medication has no effect on them, and they can be trained to help shorten the duration of and lower the intensity of these symptoms using certain techniques such as deep pressure therapy.
I need about $15,000 to get my service dog trained through DogWish (this is on the lower end of the cost range for service dog training), but my family and I do not have the financial means to pay for this. I am currently making minimum wage and can barely pay my rent because my disabling illness prevents me from working full-time hours. I have little money of my own to put toward a much needed service dog, and so I am figuring out ways to fundraise for this promising long-term treatment.
Any donation you can provide would be so helpful, even if it is a dollar. And if you can't donate, please share this on your Facebook page or let people in your community know about this, so others can hear my story and support my cause. Please help me raise funds to train one of these amazing, life-changing service dogs, so I can accomplish my goal of getting an MD-PhD.

                                   The Full Story:

Hello. My name is Mariah. I am 22 years old. I just graduated MIT with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, and I am working on applying to an MD-PhD program in signal processing so that I can fulfill my life-long dream of becoming a doctor. However, there is one thing holding me back: my chronic illness, and I am in need of a new approach to treatment.

The Issue

Most people do not know this about me, but I suffer sudden, random attacks of debilitating symptoms, caused by adrenaline surges in my brain. I also suffer these symptoms at a lesser intensity constantly throughout the day. These symptoms can range from sudden painful nausea to sharp pain and a disturbing shakiness in my chest; tingling extremities, concentration problems to the point of being unable to speak properly, painful acid reflux, and on and on. The best way I've found to endure these symptoms that sometimes last all day is distraction, usually with tactile sensation or pain; sometimes I rub rough textures, other times I hold ice. There are even times when my symptoms are so severe that I must hold my hands in boiling hot water for hours to get through the symptoms. During the worst attacks, I feel like the symptoms could kill me and simultaneously I want to pass out to escape.

And sometimes I do "pass out." It's called dissociating; you loose a hunk of time but you still function normally during the blackout period. It's marvelous adaption that our bodies have to pain and overwhelming stress, but it's not so marvelous when it happens randomly. I've had this happen on my bike multiple times; one time I almost ran into a truck.

These attacks are characteristic of Panic Disorder with severe General Anxiety Disorder along side. For me it really has nothing to do with worrying or how most people experience normal/healthy anxiety; for me it is all physical. The lack of nervous thoughts during the attacks make it impossible to calm body down. It's also very hard for me to tell when an attack is starting, such that I can take medication or leave a social situation to manage the attack before it becomes too severe.

There are also secondary complications to Panic Disorder, such as agoraphobia. Most people probably know agoraphobia as the fear of leaving one's house, but that is not really what agoraphobia is all about. Agoraphobia is caused by panic disorder. People with agoraphobia become afraid of situations in which they are likely to have panic attacks. Sometimes this becomes so severe that they are afraid to leave home. I also suffer from agoraphobia with severe avoidance. While I will leave my apartment, it is very hard for me to go outside alone; I find that having someone I trust with me when I go out helps me deal with the attacks I am bound to experience while I'm out. I also avoid social situations, especially crowds where people are too close, and this is why I am rarely seen in synagogue on Shabbat mornings. There are so many people at services that I will have panic attacks, and it's really hard to manage these attacks in public, let alone pray. Therefore, I can only go to synagogue in the afternoons when there are not many people, but even those times are stressful.

I don't like not being able to be a full member of my Jewish community; I don't like not being able to go outside or to the grocery store without feeling sick and dazed.

I want to get better.

And so I have sought professional help from both a psychiatrist and a therapist. I am on a strong cocktail of medications to help with the Panic Disorder and my constant general anxiety (a lesser form of the panic-attack symptoms) and depression. The typical treatment for Panic Disorder and depression is an anti-depressant class called SSRIs. They have been shown to be the most effective in controlling panic attacks. There is another type of medication, called benzodiazepines (e.g. Ativan), that are very effective in stopping panic attacks in their tracts and preventing them.

For a lot of people these drugs work great, but apparently my body is a rebel without a cause. When I tried two different SSRIs (one which is least likely to cause this reaction), I got akathesia both times (akathesia is a form of chemical torture and it's way worse than a panic attack). And the many times that I have taken benzodiazepines, they have had no effect on my symptoms, even at high doses.

Luckily, there are older antidepressants and antipsychotics out there that my body can tolerate, and they work as long as I stay in my apartment. I am no longer constantly in such discomfort that I give myself blisters trying to fight through the physical anxiety. However these drugs are more dangerous. Some of my drugs have raised my heart rate to an almost dangerous level, and there is a chance they will change the natural rhythm of my heart, which is very dangerous. Also some of my medications cause weight gain with a risk for diabetes; I gained 40 pounds immediately after starting these drugs.

The medications don't work to get rid of all the anxiety and depression, and most days I still fight through debilitating symptoms and cognitive impairment, which makes working a job a challenge. I'm barely making 30 hours a week; I'm barely able to pay my rent. However, if I don't take my medications, I live in constant unbearable anxiety and become a risk to myself.

I'm not looking to get rid of my medication, but I am looking for a new, additional form of treatment. After a lot of research and a discussion with my doctor, we have decided that a service dog is the best treatment supplement for me.

A Promising Solution

A service dog is a dog trained to perform task to help mitigate symptoms of a disability or increase the independence of their handler. Service dogs have the ability to alert their handler to chemical changes in their bodies, such as right before a panic attack; they can sense when their handler is dissociating and can snap the handler out of it by licking or nudging; and they can help their handlers alleviate panic attacks through deep pressure therapy, in which the dog uses his weight to apply pressure to the handler's body to elicit a calming effect, and tactile stimulations.

Here is a list of some tasks my service dog will be trained to do for me to help mitigate my symptoms and the side effects of my medication:
-alert handler to panic attacks/anxiety
-provide tactile stimulation and deep pressure therapy during anxiety attacks
-wake up handler when medication causes hypersomnia
-help handler out of upsetting situations in public (e.g. panic attack) in an inconspicuous manner
-buffer handler against people in crowded areas so people don't get too close and set off my anxiety
-reduce hyper-vigilance in public by constantly keeping my attention on the dog rather on the people around me
Also my service dog will accompany me where ever I go, thus helping alleviate anxiety related to my agoraphobia. This will allow me to go out alone more often, rather than relying on my boyfriend to accompany me.

There is a lot of medical research that documents the benefits of service dogs on patients with chronic mental illness. In a patient-survey study of psychiatric service dog handlers, "84.4% (n=54) of respondents report that their psychiatric symptoms have diminished subsequent to canine partnership, and 40.0% (n=26) of respondents report that their use of psychotropic medication has decreased." A service dog could help me experience less symptoms, decrease the amount of medicine I take on a daily basis, and help me deal with anxiety in social situations and at work.

A service dog will give me back my independence.

Once I discovered how a service dog could help me, I went searching for a training group. After a lot of research into trainers, I have decided to work with DogWish (dogwish.org), an organization that specializes in training service dogs for clients with neurological and/or mental health disorders. They will match a dog with me and then will train this dog for around 6 months to perform tasks tailored to my specific needs. Then I will go train with them and my service dog for four days to learn how to handle my new service dog in public and at home. After this, DogWish will stay in close contact with me to help me navigate public access laws and issues related to handling a Service Dog. Their experience with clients with similar disabilities as mine and their commitment to supporting their clients during and after the training process are why I have chosen to use them to train my service dog.

If you're interested in learning more about DogWish, here is a video about DogWish and their Service Dog Training:


DogWish is asking for $15,000 to train a dog for me ($3,000 to start training), so I am looking into many ways of fundraising because I am making minimum-wage and struggling to keep full-time hours due to my symptoms. I also have to pay for rent, food, and will start paying off my loans in the coming year. I will not have any financial support from my family in paying for this dog, so any donations you can offer me would be gratefully appreciated, even if it's only a dollar! If you would rather not donate through GoFundMe, send me a personal message on Facebook or email mariahamurray-AT-gmail.com and I'll send you my address. And if you can't donate, please at least share this on your Facebook page, so that others will hear my story.

For the first time in a long time, I feel hope for the future because of the amazing potential a service dog has to help me overcome my struggles with my disabilities and allow me to get back on track for applying to medical school.

Please help me make this dream a reality!

Mariah Murray
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Mariah Murray 
Cambridge, MA
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