Dedication to helping others by one man and his dogs

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Watching Brian Russell play with two-week-old spaniel Issy, the bond between the two is clear.

But this is no ordinary dog and owner relationship. Issy is in training to be a Hearing Dog for Deaf People and Brian is her puppy socialiser.

Issy will live with 71-year-old Brian and his wife, Val, at their Knaresborough home for most of the next year, before she is assessed to see if she is suitable to go onto the next stage of her training and then hopefully be found a recipient.

“We’ve had four puppies and, while it is sad to see them go, you know that hopefully they are going on to change the lives of other people. That gives you a great sense of satisfaction,” says Brian.

As well as being a puppy socialiser Brain is an active member of the Harrogate and District branch of Hearing Dogs for Deaf People and tirelessly raises awareness and funds for the charity – often dressed as a dog himself.

But earlier this year the active grandfather-of-two was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer.

“I’d been to my GP with a sinus infection and while I was there he just happened to ask whether everything was OK. It was a throwaway comment and I nearly said ‘yes everything’s fine’.”

But Brian did mention that he thought he might be getting a hiatus hernia. His quick-thinking GP sent him for an endoscopy and the tumour was discovered.

““I feel very lucky that it was found so quickly. Even then they thought they might not be able to operate.”!

But after a course of chemotherapy Brian underwent a gruelling nine-and-a-half hour operation at St James’s Hospital in Leeds to remove the tumour, followed by radiotherapy.

It was a worrying time for Brian, his wife Val, son Gary and daughter Stephanie – the future seemed uncertain. But despite his treatment Brian’s thoughts were never far from the charity he is dedicated to.

Val said: “When Brian was diagnosed with cancer, we didn’t think he would still be here. But when he went into hospital my daughter gave him a photo of the little hearing dog we were puppy socialising and he had it by his bed. Staff would come up and say: ‘Is that your dog?’. Brian would say: ‘No – it’s a hearing dog’. So even in his hospital bed after a major operation, he was still telling people about the charity.”

He even continued to man the charity’s awareness stand at the same time as receiving chemotherapy drugs from a pouch like a camera bag on the side of his body.

Brian’s commitment to the charity is total. On the same day as the critical nine-hour operation,he insisted that his wife and daughter dropped a friend’s hearing dog puppy off at the training centre near York rather than worry about his condition in hospital.

Now Brian’s commitment as a volunteer has seen him recognised on a national level.

A month after finishing treatment he was awarded the charity’s Desmond Wilcox Volunteer of the Year accolade – named after the late TV producer and husband of TV presenter Esther Rantzen – at the Hearing Dogs Awards 2011 in Central London.

Brian received his award from the couple’s daughter, Rebecca Wilcox, and later met the former That’s Life presenter at the event.

“It was such a surprise and an honour. But it isn’t just about me. There are a whole group of people in the Harrogate district working hard to help improve the lives of deaf people.”

Hearing Dogs for Deaf People began life back in 1982. Over the past 30 years, 1,600 hearing dogs have been placed with deaf people across the UK. Currently, there are around 750 hearing dog partnerships nationwide.

Hearing dogs alert deaf people to a range of sounds including the alarm clock, doorbell, mobile phone text message alert, telephone, cooker alarm and fire alarm – sounds which hearing people take for granted.

In addition, the burgundy jackets worn by hearing dogs when out in public help to bring a visibility to deafness. They also bring their recipients greater independence and confidence as well as relieving the stress and isolation deafness can often bring.

Brian’s dedication to the charity is unwavering and he seldom misses an opportunity to promote the work of Hearing Dogs for Deaf People.

“What I get in the main is a lot of satisfaction that I am doing something really worthwhile to try and help people with a severe hearing impediment regain their confidence and independence,” says Brian.

“I don’t think what I do is out of the ordinary, but other people seem to.”

Since receiving this award, Brian also claimed the Harrogate and District Volunteering Oscars Award for Volunteer of the Year 2011 and has been put forward to attend the Queen’s Garden Party during her Jubilee Year.

With the number of people suffering from a hearing loss in the UK rising to one-in-six, the need for services such as a hearing dog are only going to rise. On International Volunteer Day, Hearing Dogs for Deaf People is hoping Brian’s story will inspire more volunteers to come forward.

The vital work carried out by the charity’s volunteers is not lost on its hearing dog recipients.

Simon Moore, 26, from Norwich has Treacher Collins Syndrome and has been deaf since birth. He received his hearing dog, Foggy, back in 2006.

“I really believe that Foggy has changed my life. Before I had him my life wasn’t brilliant. I would never go out and would stay in my room where I would be happier alone. However, when I got Foggy, it felt like the start of a new life.”

Brian is as loyal to the charity as a hearing dog is to its recipient. He is now hopefully on the road to recovery and remains an inspirational man to all those associated with Hearing Dogs for Deaf People.

catherine.scott@ypn.co.uk