Connie Lucas has experienced an unthinkable tragedy.
On the weekend of Easter 2000, Lucas and her entire family were driving back to their home in Kentucky after her daughter’s equestrian competition.
“It was the most beautiful day and what can you hope for other than to live every day as a beautiful day,” Lucas explained.
In an instant, everything changed. That’s when a van careened across the median, crashing into the family’s SUV and instantly killing six people, including Lucas’ father and husband.
“We literally had no idea that was goodbye,” Lucas said.
The crash was later ruled a murder-suicide: the driver of the van had apparently called his mother minutes before, telling her he no longer had the will to live.
It left Lucas in a coma and put her on a very long path to recovery.
“When things are overwhelming and you just can’t digest that you’ve lost your family. I lost my face, my identity, my career because I was self-employed,” Lucas explained. “It was so overwhelming that I had to to start just leaning into accepting phases of it one stage at a time.”
Those phases included learning to walk again – originally doctors believed that both of her legs would have to be amputated.
She also had to cope with a new face – surgeons completely reconstructed what was damaged in the crash.
Then came the phase of thinking about the future.
“It does give you pause to evaluate what’s important to you, what you’d like to do,” Lucas said.
What she wanted to do was check something off her bucket-list: finishing her college degree.
That brought Lucas to Old Dominion University.
However, as a poly-trauma survivor, the crash has left her with injuries that will never fully heal, so Lucas knew she’d need help in her new adventure as a college student.
That’s where service dog Balboa comes into the picture.
Rescued from a shelter in southwest Virginia where he was recovering from dog-fighting injuries, Balboa has received special training to help Lucas navigate college life.
“He has the ability to navigate and make for sure that I’ve seen all the oncoming traffic and sort of takes the lead and guides me through all of that,” Lucas said.
Balboa is one of four service dogs on the campus of ODU this semester.
It’s brought a new challenge for Kate Broderick, the faculty and community liaison in ODU’s Office of Educational Accessibility.
“When I first met Connie, I first thought ‘Amazing, courageous woman on a mission.’ I immediately thought, ‘How can I help?’” Broderick explained.
Broderick has helped spearhead a campaign on campus to let faculty and students know that service animals like Balboa aren’t pets.
“There’s a natural curiosity of the public – you know, he’s a magnet,” Lucas explained.
Now Lucas and Balboa are embarking on a new adventure together at ODU, because Lucas says giving up has never been an option.
“You can choose to be a victim or a survivor and for me it was the path of being a survivor,” Lucas explained.