By Sean Kirst
Sarah Ross guessed it was leukemia long before the doctors confirmed it. Five years ago, she had been feeling lousy in a way she had never experienced before. When a blood test came back with some indicators pointing to the disease, Ross stalled for a while before doing a follow-up.
In her heart, she said, she already knew what was happening. Ross, who had worked for years as a veterinarian’s technician, would eventually need a bone marrow transplant at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. She has spent the last few years in recovery, receiving treatment for some related complications.
A few days ago, lost in thought after an appointment at Roswell, she was headed toward a lobby exit when any worries or fatigue vanished from her mind. Her stride accelerated as she made a sharp pivot, and she asked her mother, Frances Ross, to wait for just one minute.
Ross had spotted Bella, which meant the dog was doing her job—even before Ross, of Tonawanda, realized just how much they have in common.
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Bella is a Weimaraner, a memorable breed whose striking appearance has led to the nickname of “gray ghost.” About three years ago, the dog moved in with Sue and Shane Currey of Tonawanda after their dog, Sophie, another Weimaraner, died at 11. Bella came to them from a breeder near Erie, Pa. – he called the dog Bertha, a name the Curreys decided to change – and made her available for adoption.
She is perfect, it turns out, for the role she plays at Roswell.
In the lobby, Ross made a beeline to the dog, who wore a bright red bandana. She asked Currey if it was OK to say hello, then dropped onto her knees, where a few moments of stroking the velvet fur of the dog’s long ears quickly shifted into a full embrace.
Ross loves animals. She explained how she often distracts herself during appointments at Roswell by thinking of her rabbits, Quake and Thunder, and she offered a gentle gasp when she heard Bella’s story.
The dog is also a cancer survivor.
Sue Currey, an executive assistant at Roswell, had seen the difference therapy dogs can make for patients. Sue dreamed someday of bringing in her own dog for those duties. Bella went through a sequence of training sessions, tests and community interactions to become one of roughly a dozen dogs who provide that service at Roswell, which Bella did even before the Curreys knew about her illness.
Bella, it turns out, had a form of cancer that required the surgical removal over the summer of six malignant tumors. Sue, for a while, feared for Bella’s life. But the dog recovered quickly from surgery, and she was back to her rounds at Roswell by this fall.
Ross, her forehead pressed against Bella’s soft fur, was not surprised at the tale.
“Dogs and kids,” she said. “They put no limitations on themselves.”
dr Philip McCarthy, director of Roswell’s blood and marrow transplant program, said the demeanor of each dog is critically important. Any scratch or bite from a restless or anxious animal could lead to infections for patients with fragile immune systems, he said.
The answer is to carefully search for dogs of serene and soulful demeanor, such as Bella.
Once you find them, McCarthy said, they “emanate good feelings and unconditional love.”
[Related: Sean Kirst: Cancer survivor rides for Roswell – and for the doctor who saved him]
“The effect these dogs have is amazing,” said Barb Lenahan, who certifies the animals as part of Therapy Dogs International. As for Sue Currey, asked why she brings Bella to Roswell on every other Monday, she thought about it and simply touched her fingers to her heart.
From the lobby, she and Bella followed Jim Hickey, a Roswell volunteer, through the hospital corridors, where the dog touched off lightning transformations. Doctors, nurses, patients, weary relatives: They crouched down, tired faces instantly softening. They spoke in familiar, quiet tones to Bella, whose curious eyes did a long study of each of them.
[Related: Murphy, the therapy dog, spreads joy at Oishei Children’s Hospital, Roswell Park]
The point made by Ross about childhood resilience was evident in a reception area for the pediatric clinic. When Bella entered the room, Owen Chase of South Buffalo, a 5-year-old in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pajamas, was tugging around a rolling IV, followed by his mother, Colleen.
She and her husband, Michael, learned of Owen’s leukemia more than 11 months ago, just before Christmas, and the child is now receiving “infusions of chemo,” Colleen said. He is doing well, and Colleen said the couple is buoyed each day by an avalanche of love and support.
“A lot of families,” she said, “go through a lot worse.”
Owen and Bella stood eye to eye, and the little boy – whose dog at home, Gemma, often sleeps on his bed – dropped his hand delicately onto the dog’s neck. After a moment or two of communion, Bella turned to walk directly into a nose-to-nose encounter with 1-year-old Donato Morgante.
Not long ago, Jacquie and Joe Morgante of Clarence learned their child had a grapefruit-sized growth on his kidney, the result of a rare childhood cancer known as Wilms tumor. That sent him into surgery, and then chemotherapy.
“He’s been really good with all of it,” said Jacquie, who talked it over with Joe and stayed home with their son on Thanksgiving, because his system remains too vulnerable for a big family crowd.
When the toddler saw Bella, there was instantly no Roswell, no chemo, no waiting room. It was only Donato and this dog with ears as soft as Hush Puppies.
“Fantastic,” Jacquie said. “It just relieves all the stress.”
The response was the same for Krista Gabler, a Florida resident and native of West Seneca who has spent two months in Buffalo while her mother, Sandy Mussehl, receives radiation treatment for cancer of the tongue. Gabler had just stepped through the door of a waiting room, fatigue in her expression, when she noticed Bella approaching in the corridor.
Instantly, Gabler dropped down, bowed her head and placed it alongside the dog’s.
“I needed something uplifting today,” she said.
Brendon Edwards shared in that communion. At 14, he is a freshman at Frewsburg High School in Chautauqua County, a teen who loves football and has played on youth teams since he was in grade school. His favorite Buffalo Bill, he said, is Dawson Knox, an interesting choice: Brendon picked a rookie, not one of the big names on that ascending squad, a guy whose lunchbucket contributions are filling a hole.
Bella wandered straight to Brendon, who had thrown himself deep into the soft cushions of a couch. The kid began petting the dog and scratching her neck, and boy and dog stayed that way for a long time while the adults talked around them.
His aunt, Brandy Davies, said she figured it was just a bug when Brendon had some stomach problems this autumn. She took him to a doctor. It was colon cancer, and it had already started to spread. Brendon is now in chemotherapy at Roswell, where his love for football is a kind of gleaming template, with his goal of playing again a central theme as he receives each treatment.
The teenager has always loved dogs, Brandy said, and Bella clearly sensed this was a guy who understood. At Roswell, the dog flipped onto her back and allowed him to scratch her stomach, revealing the scars from her own cancer surgery.
Asked for his dream in life, Brendon replied, “Beating this.”
The proof that it can happen heard him speak, and wagged her tail.
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at [email protected] or read more of his work in this archive.
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