Tess Hawkins and her guide dog Merlot at their home in the Gorge neighbourhood. Hawkins struggled to find work due to the presence of her dog, however she has overcome that and is in her third year with the government, working as a policy analyst with the Accessibility Secretariat in Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction. (Black Press/File Photo)

Purple Day marks long journey for Gorge resident

Legislative Assembly to recognize epilepsy on Tuesday

Three years ago Tess Hawkins and her guide dog Merlot sat deflated on the front step of her Saanich home in the Gorge neighbourhood.

While Hawkins was deflated, Merlot, at the time just two years old, was mostly energetic. After all, Hawkins couldn’t land a job, while Merlot – then new to Hawkins – had just found her calling as a full-time working dog.

Hawkins lives with epilepsy and she relies on Merlot to bark for assistance when she has a seizure, which occurs about once every week or two. Not only that, Merlot has grown to sense when Hawkins is too hot, or hungry, which both trigger seizures. Needless to say, Hawkins benefits dramatically by having the dog with her full time.

So it was crushing for Hawkins, who has a masters degree, to be turned away multiple times by a potential employer because of the dog and/or for her invisible disability.

READ MORE: Guide dog proves barrier to employment

“The fact it’s taken this long for me to get here, and the barriers that I’ve overcome, were a lot,” Hawkins said.

It took patience but Hawkins moved through the struggles and started as an administrative assistant in the government and then with a temporary assignment as a policy analyst. She’s now in policy assessment with the Accessibility Secretariat in Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction. She’s also the vice-president for the local Headway, Victoria Epilepsy and Parkinson’s Centre, and co-organized a Purple Day recognition in the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday.

A group of the Victoria Epilepsy and Parkinson’s Centre clients, family and friends, as well as some government colleagues, were sitting in the gallery to hear Minister Rob Fleming and MLA Anne Kang speak on Purple Day.

READ ALSO: Purple bouquets bring awareness to epilepsy

The Accessibility Secretariat was born out of 2013 consultations that showed a desire to create a central place where people who have questions about accessibility, initiatives or an inquiry can go.

“Purple Day is an awareness-raising event, we need to get the word out about epilepsy because there’s a lot of people who don’t know what epilepsy is, what the seizures are, or what to do when someone has one,” Hawkins said.

More than 50 million people worldwide live with epilepsy, one of the most common neurological disorders.

However, not everyone living with epilepsy is surrounded by as much support as Hawkins is.

If she suffers a seizure at home, when she’s alone, her life line will recognize it and alert her family elsewhere while Merlot will also bark until someone comes. Her landlords know to check on her. Everyone at Hawkins’ work is well versed in what to do for a seizure.

As for Merlot, she quietly accompanies Hawkins at work, free from discrimination, but she will not stop barking if there’s a seizure until someone comes, even if she just senses a seizure coming.

“It’s called intelligent disobedience,” Hawkins said. “She’s figured out on her own that heat will trigger a seizure. She won’t stop until I take my sweater off, open the window, and cool down.”

How does Merlot know Hawkins is hungry?

“I really don’t know, ask her,” she laughed.

With her career underway, Hawkins is now in the exploratory phase of resective surgery where the section of the brain responsible for seizures is removed.

“Not everyone qualifies, it’s a nerve-wracking [proposition] with mixed feelings,” she said, adding the relief is enticing.

For more information on Purple Day and Headway visit vepc.bc.ca. Headway has also started a First Nations support group along with support groups up-island. For more on how to react when someone has a seizure visit bcepilepsy.com/resources/faqs.

reporter@saanichnews.com

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