Iris Polley remembers being in a hurry.
She was leaving a wedding, headed down Route 119 through Ashuelot on her way to a comedy show. She remembers driving about 10 miles per hour over the posted speed limit. Angry about something, she threw her phone into the passenger seat. It slid off, onto the floorboard, and she reached over to grab it, taking her eyes off the road.
From there, her memory gets fuzzy.
“All I remember is that when I lifted my head, I was heading for green, and a voice in my head said, ‘So this is how it’s going to end.’ ”
Polley woke up in a hospital 10 days later, surrounded by her parents, her partner and her best friend.
Since that October day in 2007, Polley has had no movement or feeling in her legs or left arm. She’s paralyzed from the waist down and uses a motorized wheelchair.
After years of struggling with her limitations, though, Polley found the strength to forge a path forward and the determination to be herself again, all in a new addition to her family: Denis the bunny.
A life, upside down
Before the crash, Polley, of Hinsdale, said nearly every facet of her life involved physical activity. For more than 20 years, she had worked with children at the Brattleboro Retreat as a part-time mental health worker. She had more recently become a trained massage therapist. Polley enjoyed hiking and kayaking, being outdoors, stretching her legs.
The accident left her with permanent damage from two major injuries. One was to the first lumbar vertebra in her spinal cord, paralyzing her from the waist down. Polley likened the other injury, called a brachial plexus avulsion, to an electrical cord being pulled from an outlet too hard, tearing the cord. The nerves in her left arm were essentially “yanked” from their socket at her shoulder.
Reflecting on the crash, Polley said taking her eyes off the road was “innocent but stupid” and something of which everyone is probably guilty.
“(It was) just not being mindful at the moment, which I think we all do. … We can do it only for so long. I used to change my clothes going to softball practice in the car,” she said, laughing.
But she, of all people, knows it isn’t a laughing matter.
“After that, I was a mess for years,” Polley said of the crash.
With the realization that she would never again hike a mountain, kayak on a lake, or even work as a massage therapist, Polley found it difficult to cope.
“It’s like your entire identity has ended,” she said. “... So you can imagine that I certainly didn’t mind if I never woke up the next day.”
Her partner at the time was a nurse and helped take care of Polley for a few years after the accident, but the emotional turmoil took its toll on the couple. Her partner left in 2015.
Seeking companionship after the relationship ended, Polley went to the Monadnock Humane Society and began volunteering. While there, she met a black Netherland dwarf bunny named Denis Hopper. The pair fell for each other fairly quickly, despite the fact that Polley had never owned a rabbit.
“He’s certainly a bucket full of entertainment,” she said. “... What I found is that I wished somebody had brought a bunny to me when I was laying in my bed and couldn’t move.”
While at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston in the weeks following the crash, Polley said therapy dogs were brought in to visit the patients. But she said dogs can have an intense energy.
“A bunny is a very quiet and complacent sort of character,” Polley said. “… If you hold (Denis), you’ll see. He’ll lower your heart rate. … He’s just got a really nice effect on people.”
And she wanted to share him with the world. Almost immediately after adopting Denis, Polley started pursuing the idea of certifying him as a therapy animal through Pet Partners, a nonprofit organization that advocates for therapy animal programs.
A therapy animal is not the same as a service animal, according to Pet Partners’ website. Service animals are not considered pets and can only be dogs and, in some cases, miniature horses. Instead of performing tasks for people with disabilities, the website says therapy animals “provide affection and comfort,” often in hospitals, assisted living facilities and schools.
Polley said she’s in the process of checking off all the requirements, one of which is ensuring that Denis comes when he’s called by his name — and he gets stubborn sometimes, she said, laughing.
Once Denis is a certified therapy bunny, Polley wants to bring him into hospitals and rehabilitation facilities to visit others who have been paralyzed.
“(I want to help) calm them, just have them feel alive, which is something that you don’t feel after you have a spinal cord injury,” she said.
In addition to her push to make Denis a working therapy bunny, Polley volunteers twice a week at the Monadnock Humane Society, and she doesn’t shy away from the small critters. With a rat of her own at home, Polley happily pets the rodents and teaches visitors how to handle them properly.
Ashley Okola, an assistant manager at the humane society, said Polley’s knowledge of small animals, including rabbits and rats, is helpful to shelter staff, who may not always have one-on-one time with every visitor. Because Polley brings Denis and handles the other animals, Okola said, she offers hands-on experiences to potential adopters and children.
“It’s really helpful, especially for rats, because some people see them as scary or gross and she kind of breaks down that barrier,” Okola said. “... She’s just such a welcoming presence to have when she does come in because she has a connection with every animal that she works with.”
As for Polley’s attachment to Denis after adopting him, Okola thinks it makes perfect sense why anyone struggling to overcome a physical or mental obstacle might find comfort in a new pet.
“Animals have this unconditional love for the people in their life, and I think that alone is enough,” Okola said. “… Animals don’t judge us, and I think that’s a key component.”
Looking back on her life, Polley said she spent nearly 10 years after her crash “rolling through the dark forest,” trying to find her way out. When she and Denis found each other, she said it reinvigorated that energy within her to make change.
“I’ve realized there’s a lot that I can give of myself to the world and make a difference,” Polley said. “… OK, my legs don’t work. My left arm doesn’t work. But I can still make a difference.”