A reason to smile

Heather is here in the atrium of the Danny Thomas Research Center for Kicker, the golden retriever. He reminds her of her dogs back home, and besides, she loves all pets. She drops to her knees and hugs him tightly. She strokes his thick, clean fur and tells him hello. He leans into her.

Heather’s mother, Terri, stands at a distance, watching her daughter take comfort from their Tuesday morning tradition. Eleven-year-old Heather is slim and bald, and to the world outside St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, she looks heartbreakingly fragile.

Only Terri knows Heather’s strength. She’s watched her daughter endure brain surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and progenitor cell transplants. These are medical procedures, and Terri thanks God for them. They have helped her little girl have a chance at beating the brain tumor called medulloblastoma, which doctors discovered in January 2008. Kicker and these visits have helped Heather too.

Kicker didn’t shrink the tumor or keep it from coming back, but he put a smile on Heather’s face and made her want to wake up every Tuesday. And that’s a great gift when your child has cancer.

Ever since they were 7 years old, Heather and her best friend have wanted to be veterinarians. They played pretend games together—one would be the dog, and the other would be the vet. When they’re grownups, they’d like to open their own animal clinic together. Terri very much wants this for her daughter.

During her long months of treatment away from home in Florida, Heather ached for her two dogs and two cats. She talked by phone with her older brother, urging him to love the animals as often as possible on her behalf. Each time she had to go inpatient, her mother packed pictures of the pets, and they flipped through the photos together as they passed the hours.

“I just miss them,” she told her mom.

One night during her inpatient chemotherapy treatment, Heather began to cry. On that particular night, she missed her cats. Two of her St. Jude nurses talked for a little bit, then came into Heather’s room and got down on their knees and began purring. “I’m Pepsi,” one of the nurses said. “I’m Zoe,” said the other nurse. Those are the names of Heather’s cats.

Of all the moments that have touched their family during Heather’s time at St. Jude—and there have been many—this one stands out.

“I thought it was amazing and so personal,” said Terri.

A few weeks after they arrived at St. Jude, Terri learned of the pet visits. The specially trained dogs of the Delta Society are brought into the atrium of the Danny Thomas Research Center every Tuesday morning for an hour, and the children who feel well enough can come say hello. The program is called Doggie Daze, and it’s coordinated by the Child Life department at St. Jude. Terri sensed these visits would be just the thing to lift Heather’s spirits. She worked with the St. Jude staff to rearrange Heather’s radiation schedule so Heather could visit the dogs. Heather was thrilled.

When Heather felt well enough, she got down on the ground to play with the dogs. Otherwise, she rolled up in her wheelchair, and the dogs walked up and laid their heads on her lap.

Heather loves all the dogs, but Kicker the golden retriever is her absolute favorite. When her cousin sent her a golden retriever stuffed animal as a present, she named it Kicker and bought it a pair of sunglasses. The real Kicker has his own pair of sunglasses, so Heather took a picture of the two dogs together, looking cool.

Heather sleeps with her Kicker stuffed animal, but in a few days she’ll be going home and she’ll have the real thing. She imagines that moment. How nice it will feel to hug her pets again. Her dogs were puppies when she left them, but months have passed and now they’re grownups. Heather has changed too.

With the help of St. Jude, she has battled cancer and won. She may look weak, but she’s actually strong. Her mom believes her friends at St. Jude have made all the difference.

 

Heather has turned 12 since this interview took place. She continues doing well, and her scans show no evidence of disease.

 

May 2009

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