Special healing for a four-legged tornado survivor
By Kevin Lambert
The devastation of the tornadoes that destroyed much of Joplin, will reverberate for generations to come. For Senior Veterinary Technician Stephanie Gilliam, who works at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Joplin’s pain and personality revealed itself in four-legged form: Sugar, a Cocker Spaniel who was paralyzed from the waist down.
Sugar, a beloved family member of high school teachers Debbie and Stephen Leatherman and their son, Daniel, was thrown by the tornado and ended up in a drainage ditch with no use of her back legs. Through Facebook and the Joplin Humane Society (JHS) she was eventually reunited with the Leathermans. Knowing Sugar needed immediate medical attention, the family contacted the University of Missouri Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital for help.
“When Sugar got to us she was paralyzed in her hind limbs, but she was still able to feel her feet,” says Gilliam. “This told us that with the right care, she would have a good prognosis. An MRI revealed a herniated intervertebral disc that was causing spinal cord compression.” Surgery was performed to remove the disc and physical rehabilitation followed. After two days, Gilliam, who is also a certified canine rehabilitation practitioner, started electrical stimulation on Sugar’s back legs to prevent muscle atrophy. Just a week later she began daily underwater treadmill therapy to gently ease her back into moving and walking. In a short time, Sugar had regained full use of her back legs.
Gilliam was ecstatic to see Sugar’s progress. “Dogs give us so much unconditional love—they deserve the best care possible,” she says. “I love it when I am able to help them recover from surgery or an illness and get them back to their families. There is no better feeling than seeing a dog run and play again after being injured.”
Passionate about what she does for a living, Gilliam brings a sense of enthusiasm and joy to all of her interactions with colleagues, veterinary students, and patients alike. “Canine physical rehabilitation is a subject that is fairly new to veterinary medicine,” she comments. “I love being able to introduce the students to a new field and show them how they can incorporate it into their work with animals. I like that I get to work in all the aspects of veterinary medicine—clinics, teaching, and participating in comparative neurology research projects. I love that I learn new things every day.”
One might think that when homes and human lives are lost and ripped apart, the fate of animals is considered a secondary concern among those affected. Gilliam doesn’t see it that way. “The Leathermans lost everything they had except each other. It meant so much to them to know that Sugar was being well-cared for and recovering,” she recalls. “I think it helped to keep them going during tough times.”
Today, Sugar is back with her family and thriving. Though Joplin will never be the same, people are steadily recovering with whatever sense of comfort they can gain from the tragedy they endured. For one family, a healthy dog and wagging tail is making all the difference.