Ava Smith is on an uncertain journey. She is 13 years old and lives in Cornelius. Just 18 months ago, she was a national champion show horse rider. Now she is in a wheelchair, afflicted by a mysterious ailment that has left her unable to use her legs.

That journey, however, has brought her a new companion – DAPHNE, a service dog who is with Ava day and night, assisting her and bringing her comfort.

This May, CARE | Charlotte Animal Referral & Emergency is honoring dogs like DAPHNE – and the humans they serve – for National Service Animal Eye Exam Month. Bring your active, certified service dogs to CARE, and our board-certified ophthalmologist will provide a free exam to look for any diseases that could threaten their vision and limit their ability to serve.

“We know the critical, caring role service animals play for people of all ages,” says Dr. Joshua Broadwater, ophthalmologist at CARE. “We want to do what we can to keep them healthy so that they can continue to help guide their owners through the challenges they face.”

For Ava Smith, that challenge began in early 2016 when she felt discomfort and weakness in her left arm. Her condition quickly worsened. Ava has spent time in hospitals from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, says her father, Todd Smith. She has occasionally shown improvement, but despite endless tests and bloodwork and more than a dozen MRIs, doctors have yet to make a diagnosis or formulate a treatment plan beyond physical therapy.

During Ava’s first hospitalization at Hemby Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, Ava met Gator, an Anatolian Shepherd therapy dog who belongs to CARE surgeon Laura Dvorak. At the time, most of Ava’s body was paralyzed, and she was experiencing tremors. When Gator laid on top and beside her, the tremors calmed, bringing Ava her first bit of comfort at the hospital.

Several hospitals later, at Duke University, Ava and her mother learned of paws4people, a Wilmington, N.C., non-profit that matches children and veterans with service dogs. “They introduce the clients one-by-one to many different service dogs,” Todd Smith says. “paws4people ultimately chooses the animal that bonds the best with the client and their individual situation.”

For Ava, that dog is DAPHNE, a golden retriever whom she first met last July. DAPHNE, who received daily training at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, trained monthly with Ava and was able to go home with her right before Christmas 2016. “It was the only bright spot of 2016,” Todd Smith says.

DAPHNE serves Ava as both a mobility dog and an anxiety dog. She senses if Ava’s anxiety level is high and directs Ava to focus on her. At night, if Ava is having a nightmare, DAPHNE is trained to nudge her awake with her nose.

“DAPHNE has 100 commands,” Ava says. “She can help me stand – she’s a wall to push up on. She can help me get up and down stairs. She can turn lights on and off.”

Mostly, and critically, DAPHNE is simply there – at Ava’s feet and at her side, bringing comfort to a journey that they now share together. “It’s this huge benefit, both physically and mentally,” Todd Smith says. “DAPHNE is Ava’s best friend.”

To register your service animal for a free eye exam at CARE, call 704-457-2300 to schedule an appointment in May. The free exam does not include any follow-up appointments, treatments or surgeries. To learn more about CARE’s ophthalmology services, go to carecharlotte.com/services/ophthalmology/

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