Years ago when Sarah was in elementary school, I remember asking her what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I want to be a vet,” she said.
“And what about Tuesdays and Thursdays?”
“I think I’ll be a chef.”
“Well, I’m not coming to your restaurant.”
“Because if animals go missing from your clinic, I’ll know what happened to them.” I don’t remember what happened after that, but I’m sure that remark earned me a slap on the arm.
Oh, yes. My little sister had big plans. A lover of both cooking shows and the Emergency Vets program that used to air on Animal Planet, she had a hard time deciding which she loved more. In the end, though, I think the vet program won out.
Her dreams may not have seemed the most conventional, but neither was she. When she was about a year old, she contracted a condition known as alopecia areata. An autoimmune disease, alopecia reprograms the body to attack hair follicles, resulting in partial to total hair loss.
But my sister didn’t let a little hair loss stop her. She owned a rad collection of ballcaps – one for almost every outfit. Other than her condition, she and I had a relatively normal childhood.
We lived in the countryside for a while, surrounded by farms. In the winter and spring, we sledded and built snowmen. In the summer, we frolicked through dandelion fields, built dams in puddles and creeks, and picked blueberries. And in the fall, we raked leaves and jumped in the piles.
I was eight and Sarah was five when we moved from the Pennsylvanian countryside to the suburbs of Greenville, South Carolina. A year later, Sarah came down with a cold. It started normally enough – sore throat and sinus trouble. But one night changed our lives forever, and I’m not just being dramatic.
We had just returned home. Sarah and I went to sit on the couch, probably to watch TV. Mom had other ideas, though. She told us to go upstairs and get ready for bed. I complied, but my sister just sat there. Thinking she was acting out, my mom told her again.
Sarah slumped to the ground. Believing it was just the antics of a six-year-old, my mom tried to get her to stand up, but it was only then that we realized she had gone completely limp. Somehow, the cold virus had attacked her heart, and she had a stroke.
How can someone so young have a stroke? When my mom called 911, even the dispatcher was having a hard time believing it. But as I have noticed, things happen regardless of belief. The stroke paralyzed her right side and left her with a permanent heart defect.
The beginning of love
The next six years proved quite the rollercoaster ride. Some years remained relatively quiet, while others were spent in and out of hospitals, either in Greenville or the pediatric cardiology section of MUSC in Charleston. With physical therapy, Sarah regained most of the use of her right side, but there always remained tests to be done, medication to be changed or updated, and new treatments or monitors to be tested.
Besides Jesus and her family, one of the only constants in Sarah’s life was her avid love for animals. She and I were pretty typical girls in that respect. I wanted a horse, and she wanted a puppy. We hoarded stuffed animals, and every one of them had a name. We made up imaginary animal friends, checked out animal books from the library (until I discovered The Hardy Boys!), and when we got really bored, even read the dog section of the encyclopedia.
My sister’s frequent hospital trips helped to kindle that love even more. Fortunately, there are more to hospitals than stark white corridors, needles, beeping machines, and drifting in and out of sleep between nightly nurse check-ups. Kind people, for example.
A while back, my parents had helped Sarah start her own “doctor kit” – a.k.a., a plastic container filled with first-aid supplies that they had collected over the years like gauze, bandages, and other safe items. When she went to the hospital, she’d take that kit along and perform “surgeries” on her stuffed animals to pass the time.
The doctors and nurses became very familiar with Sarah and knew that she wanted to be a vet someday. During every hospital stay, my sister would make out like a bandit with all the trinkets they would give her to add to her kit.
On more than one occasion, I caught my sister performing a C-section on her “pregnant” stuffed dog, which was this giant black lab puppet. She would stick smaller stuffed dogs inside of it, put an IV on its paw, “sedate” it, and then perform the surgery. Of course, she would be following along with an episode of Emergency Vets while she was doing it.
The beginning of a relationship
During this time period, we had three cats: Ribbon, Buttons, and Cleopatra Queen of Sheba. (Yes, I’m aware that Cleopatra wasn’t the queen of Sheba. The name had a nice ring to it.) Because Ribbon had asthma, we would take her to the vet about every 6 months for medicine and a check-up. In the process, our family became good friends with the head veterinarian, Dr. Malphrus, at the clinic in Greenville. She loved Sarah and also knew of her vocational aspirations.
Dr. Malphrus called up a contact at the veterinary hospital, who allowed Sarah and my mom to watch a couple of surgeries from the observation window. Needless to say, my sister was over the moon. My mom, on the other hand, was less enthusiastic; she had to step outside because she became so nauseated. And because I had to go to school, I plied my sister for all the grisly surgery details when I got home.
The beginning of life
When my sister was around ten, she was put into hospice care. If you’re familiar with hospice, then you know that they specialize mainly in providing in-home care for older adults who have roughly six months left to live. Such care for terminally ill children was more rare at that time than it is now.
The projected six months turned into two years. Because of the long duration, Sarah took on the role of guinea pig in the realm of pediatric in-home care of upstate South Carolina, including the use of therapy animals. Unlike Hos-Pets, though, these therapy animals were provided through a friend of Dr. Malphrus’s: Joan Gilreath.
A farmer herself, Joan had been training a Sheltie named Maverick to herd sheep. When Maverick wasn’t in the fields, however, he would provide comfort to those in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and others in need of doggie love.
Having always wanted a puppy, Sarah instantly fell in love with Maverick. While she sat up in bed, hooked up to an oxygen tank, he would lie next to her and the two would happily play with Beanie Babies until our cat came into view. (By that time, we were down to just Buttons.) Buttons is white, fluffy, and large. Maverick was trained to herd sheep. You can imagine the scene.
Maverick wasn’t Sarah’s only furry visitor, though. Joan participated in a group of pet owners to provide animal therapy. After a few visits with the Sheltie, other animals made appearances: two large Golden Retrievers and some black-and-white puppies, to name a few. Waiting for them to visit became like waiting to open presents on Christmas.
Although therapy animals didn’t miraculously cure my sister, they were small miracles in themselves. When the child who always smiled couldn’t smile anymore for the pain, they became her smile. They were innocent friends who would never look at her oddly because she was different.
And when my sister became bedridden, and our family became both physically and emotionally cut off from the rest of the world, those dear creatures shone little flashlights into our more dark and dismal days. They were the best listeners, the most loyal of friends, and the most patient of bedfellows that a dying girl and her family could have ever hoped for.
I don’t know whether there are animals in heaven, but if there are, you’ll find them at my sister’s place. I just hope she isn’t operating on them!