Animal House: Saving Sammy

Animal House: Saving Sammy

The first time I saved Sammy was in June 2017. She came to me as a foster.

Sammy had made news among rescuers in Jacksonville that summer when she was frantically dashing back and forth across Beach Boulevard, terrified during thunderstorms. She had been surviving in thick woods next to Sam’s Club. Mistakenly thought to be a large male, the stunning black and red German Shepherd was initially dubbed “Sam” by countless people trying to help.

Unfortunately, there were also the usual miserable humans throwing things and revving their vehicles at Sammy as she tried to eat food left for her in the parking lot. These incidents made her fear people and retreat into the woods if approached.

The Friends of Jacksonville Animals (FOJA) purchased a safe-trap large enough for Sammy. FOJA volunteers Carolyn Edwards, Jill Mero and Dawn Anderson placed it in the woods and monitored it around-the-clock. Finally, she could no longer resist the chicken bait, and Sammy walked inside to safety and her new life.

Julie Kerns Garmendia and Sammy.
Julie Kerns Garmendia and Sammy.

Sammy had several potential adopters eager to meet her the minute she was rescued. She, however, had other plans. After apparently deciding that she was adopting me, Sammy proceeded to behave horribly for every meet and greet; she was an Oscar-winning actress. It was too late, anyway. We had fallen in love

Saving Sammy: The Second Time

Sammy, now somewhere around 14 to 15 years old, tried to hide her body’s progressive weakening from me. She stopped running for the sheer joy of movement and retired from the daily, dead-serious policing of menacing squirrels. She was restless, unable to find a comfortable position. Her stiffness worsened; her movement slowed. Raising her large body up, lying down or negotiating steps required effort and sapped her energy. While her annual veterinarian exam resulted in no medications or specific diagnosis – other than advanced age – I knew our days were numbered. I considered each one a gift.

Traditionally awake, alert and watching everything, Sammy began to nap longer and more frequently. Food, once pure enjoyment, became an option often untouched despite my wracking my brain to provide a wildly tempting, creative menu. Her polite, small bites were for my benefit only.

My constant companion, whose preferred place in the world was beside me regardless of the activity, was simply tired. Often physically uncomfortable, she could no longer fake her daily routine. Yet she did it, heroically, for a while.

The one who had always been eager to see where we were going or scout for danger from intruders, began to do no more than lay in positions that allowed her to watch my every move – instead of accompanying me. I believe she sensed something was happening to her that she could not communicate. She would drape half of her body across my lap, her heavy, gorgeous head pushed against my hip within easy reach of my hand’s touch. It felt like she could not get close enough to me. We both hoped for more time that did not come.

Sammy suffered a stroke earlier this year that left her barely able to stand or walk. She remained alert, but confused and frightened. I could tell the pain and suffering was too much for my girl and I couldn’t let it continue. I called my veterinarian, Dr. Howard Acree, and his team at Cedar Hills Animal Hospital. They agreed, that based on Sammy’s condition, I should contact Dr. Katie Stender.

So, in 2023, I made the agonizing decision to save Sammy for a second time.

Meeting Dr. Katie Stender

Dr. Katie Stender and her cat, Skippy.
Dr. Katie Stender and her cat, Skippy.

Dr. Katie Stender, referred to as Dr. Katie, is a Florida native who completed her undergraduate and PhD in Veterinary Medical Sciences at University of Florida. Originally uncertain of her career choice, she become a veterinarian at a friend’s behest because of her love for animals. That insight put her on the path she considers her life’s calling: a hospice veterinarian. She provides in-home services for dogs, cats, and some small pets, including evaluation, consultation for hospice care, or if necessary, euthanasia services.

“From the first in-home hospice visits I did, I knew this was what I was meant to do. Life and death are sacred. I feel privileged to spend time with a family, helping them and their pet through this transition in the comfort of home,” Dr. Katie said.

Talking to Dr. Katie’s assistant, I was rocked by unbearable waves of heartache, emotion and memories. I do not know how I even spoke or how the assistant understood my tear-choked, whispered explanation of Sammy’s condition and Dr. Acree’s recommendations, but she did. Her empathetic help and advice got me through scheduling the home appointment, including the calm explanation of immediate care I could provide for Sammy until then. She had to patiently repeat herself several times while comforting me during the long silences when I was unable to speak at all. Despite extremely short notice, she found an opening for us.

Crossing the Rainbow Bridge

I stayed with Sammy, pouring my love onto her and talking to her about our seven years together. When Dr. Katie arrived, Sammy was in a favorite spot on the porch, surveying her huge backyard, where she was happiest. For the first time ever, she showed no reaction to a stranger, but stretched out beside me as if she were exhausted from a long run. She then let out such a long, deep breath like I had never heard from her. I thought she had passed. Although she did not lift her head, her eyes were open looking up at me with complete trust and such love.

As it was so many times in her life, I felt overwhelmed by Sammy’s extraordinary intelligence, sensitivity and awareness. I believe that she knew that this stranger softly and gently talking
to her – Dr. Katie – was somehow bringing relief.

The atmosphere was calm and peaceful. Sammy allowed Dr. Katie to examine her without moving. As I petted my beautiful girl, I could only be thankful beyond words for in-home euthanasia services from someone like Dr. Katie, who made it possible for Sammy’s passing to be as gentle as drifting to sleep in my arms. It is also impossible to describe how compassionately she cared for Sammy. She quietly informed me about the process each step of the way and comforted me before, during and after.

 “It’s not just the pet affected, but the entire family. I know the spectrum of emotions we go through when this time comes for a pet we love. It’s one of the hardest goodbyes,” said Dr. Katie.

Forever Saving Sammy

Dr. Katie Stender making a print of Sammy’s paw

Dr. Katie asked if I would like a lock of Sammy’s hair to keep in a special memory pouch and a permanent print of her paw. Those suggestions were surprises for which I remain deeply grateful. Both are cherished keepsakes, placed with Sammy’s photo.

As days go by, I catch myself still looking for Sammy or reaching down to pet her head and grab an ear. I deeply miss walking out of my bedroom in the morning to find her waiting and watching for me. I miss her companionship and the urgent way she searched for me if I moved out of her sight, until she knew that I was safely back in view.

Sammy preferred her bed or igloo on the porch outdoors, but sleeping on my clothing inside was the next-best thing. If nothing was within her reach, she would go straight into my closet and pull down whatever she wanted to curl up on. That is how I would find her, upon my clothes – washable or otherwise – happily snoring. I even miss that extra laundry and dry cleaning.

Although she is gone, I will always be thankful for the biggest foster-fail ever, the years we shared, and the joy Sammy brought me. Those are the memories I will forever save of Sammy.

By Julie Kerns Garmendia
Resident Community News

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