Tandem Training

Jordan Sestak, MSIV, has had a special buddy during her years of medical school

Aspects Volume 38 No. 2

Written by Rebecca Budde • Photography by Jason Johnson

Jordan and Abe at Match Day

The crowd stands shoulder-to-shoulder in the Emmet F. Pearson Medical Museum on Match Day. The room is abuzz with expectation as members of the Class of 2015 pose for photos, chat with family and make mental plans based on the anticipated news in the green envelopes.

Next to Jordan Sestak, MSIV, stands the support system she’s relied on during her medical school journey. The one closest to her is Abraham Anthony, a handsome, 2-year-old yellow lab (today is his birthday) who wears an orange vest that reads, "Service Dog in Training." He’s been her shadow since the end of her second year of medical school when Abe was just 8 weeks old. Despite the excited crowd of more than 100, Abe stands attentive to his surroundings, a picture of calm amid the cheering of the medical students and their families.

Though she calls him Abe, Jordan chose the dJordan and Abe frequent the Enos Park neighborhood surrounding the School's campus.og’s name after Abraham in the Bible – a fitting moniker for a dog who will soon be the faithful companion and aide to someone who will need his abilities. But Jordan had another reason for choosing the name: "I wanted a name that when I heard myself say it – and I did yell it a lot when he was a puppy – I remembered why I chose to do this," she says. "Taking on the responsibility of training Abe during medical school really was a leap of faith for me." A lifelong dog lover, Jordan was inspired by a friend with physical impairments to train her first service dog in college. She was a founding member of the program called Illini Service Dogs at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (U of I). Because it relies strictly on donations and volunteers, the program can only afford to train approximately five dogs at one time. Jordan’s positive experience led her to search for breeders who might have a dog suitable for training. With some financial help from her parents, John and Kathy Sestak, she bought Abe with the intent to train him for the program and then donate him. "I had already decided to get Abe, and then my parents generously told me that they would help with the cost – buying him, the vet bills and food," Jordan says.

As Abe progressed in his training, Jordan found that her experiences with him and her medical training were funneling her toward a career in physical medicine and rehabilitation. After a year at SIU for a residency in medicine, she will begin her residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Carolinas Health in Charlotte, NC.

Jordan’s demanding schedule during her third year meant long spans of time away from home and Abe, who was, as most puppies are, full of energy and a bit of orneriness. Waking well before sunrise, she squeezed in time for Abe, whose routine requires a minimum of two hours of training a day. Twelve-hour shifts at the hospital left Jordan reliant on others, mainly her parents, who live in Springfield, and Carly Hunt, a local college student, to help with Abe’s care and instruction. "Being around people and in public is so important," Jordan says. "It wasn’t just that I needed help, but living alone and being on such a hectic schedule was hampering his training."

Knowing it could ease some of the burden, she reluctantly moved back home with her parents. "There’s always something happening at my parent’s house, so we moved back in with them towards the end of my third year," Jordan says. "Last year is all a blur; I don’t know how, but with help, it all got done. It wouldn’t have been possible without help, but I have learned to be efficient with my time."

"It’s important to match the dogs with the person who best fits their personality and needs. They’re going to be together a long time, so we want them to be compatible." - Jordan Sestak, MSIV


Above Image Caption: Jordan and Abe frequent the Enos Park neighborhood surrounding the School's campus.

Training Abe is serious business, but a service dog’s life is not all work and no play. Abe is active and thrives on attention, and he gets plenty of it. Free time at home usually means hitting the books, but Jordan says her playful companion usually had other ideas. "He used to like to steal things for attention; he’s the most energetic Lab I’ve ever met," Jordan says. She brings the dog nearly everywhere she goes, including stores, restaurants, lectures, sporting events and even church. "Early in his training, I would have to prepare him for the event of taking him out in public." After running and playing for a while, Abe’s energy would wane, making him more docile.

Abe has learned to temper his excitement and remain calm when Jordan needs him to, especially in more unfamiliar or hectic situations, such as a hospital. While Abe would love for everyone he meets to greet him with a pet or a scratch behind the ear, his vest clearly says, "Please don’t pet me." Only when Jordan gives the command, "Greet!" is he allowed to approach someone.

Abe is the epitome of a "good boy." His demeanor is a reflection of his champion hunting stock pedigree and his quality training. He proudly walks beside his handler wherever she goes and willingly and excitedly does her bidding. Jordan enters the student lounge, holds out her black, gloved hand and commands, "Abe, tug." Without hesitation, Abe uses his soft muzzle to gently pull the gloves from her hands. He unzips her coat and tugs the sleeves off with similar ease. "Teaching a service dog doesn’t require hard techniques; it’s persistence, repetition and routine," Jordan says.

With each command, Abe completes a necessary task that will someday help someone incapable of accomplishing these actions alone: turning lights on or off, opening and closing cabinets, opening the refrigerator, retrieving specific objects or pushing handicapped push plates to open doors. And all of these actions he does just to receive Jordan’s praise. "It’s amazing what you can get accomplished by just being excited for them," says Jordan, who only uses treats for training Abe to do the "really difficult tasks" such as turning the lights on, which can be easy for some dogs, but has proven difficult for Abe. "He needs to respond to these commands because he wants to, because he wants to please his handler."

Based on his skill set and tall, lean body type, Abe’s future handler will likely be someone in a wheelchair. For realistic simulation, Jordan often uses a wheelchair to help Abe adapt his actions. While Abe knows more than 40 commands, Jordan continues to perfect the execution of the commands he already knows and also is teaching him some more advanced skills. "It’s tiring wheeling yourself around all day if you’re in a wheelchair, so he may learn to pull a wheelchair," Jordan says. "We also play hide-and-seek so he can learn to find someone who needs help when they call."

The original plan was to have Abe graduate from training when Jordan graduates from medical school. A recent injury to Abe – a rupturAbe pushes the elevator button for Jordan.ed pectineus muscle – and surgery set the schedule back a bit, but the hope is that he will be ready to be placed with his new owner this summer. Abe and Jordan join the other dogs and their handlers once a month at the U of I. Here, they continue training and also meet potential candidates for Abe’s placement. "It’s important to match the dogs with the person who best fits their personality and needs," Jordan says. "They’re going to be together a long time, so we want them to be compatible."

Jordan is proud of Abe’s achievements, but she always knew the day would come when she had to turn his leash over to someone else. "I feel like I am getting asked every day lately if I’m going to miss Abe and if I’ll be sad. And, of course, I will miss him!" Jordan says. "The best way I can describe it is when he curls up in my lap I think, ‘If I love him this much, I can’t imagine how I will feel about my future children.’ But I got Abe with the intent that I wouldn’t keep him forever; I’m happy that the day is coming."

The week after Match Day Jordan said goodbye to Abe. She knows it will soon hit her that Abe’s not around anymore, but she is excited for her future in medicine and knows that Abe also needs to move on to do what he was trained to do. "I don’t need his skills. Someone else really does."

Right Image Caption: Abe pushes the elevator button for Jordan.