The Golden Retriever Who Came for Christmas

There was only one thing her sick little girl wanted for Christmas, but how would they manage to fulfill her wish?

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Hailey said, 'If God can get Hunter for me, surely he can take care of me.'

Christmas Eve morning and my four-year-old daughter, Hailey, was in the hospital again, this time in a brand-new wing of Swedish Issaquah Medical Center. She was the only pediatric patient. The doctor was with Hailey, waiting to talk to my husband, Gary, and me, but I paused for a moment in the hallway, bracing myself. Whatever news the doctor had, I knew it wasn’t going to be good.

An artificial tree, festooned with lights and ornaments, stood in the corner. Carols played over the PA. The staff had tried to give the place a festive air, but it felt grim and sterile to me.

Hailey had battled chronic lung disease and epilepsy since birth. She’d spent much of her short life in the hospital. Even when she was home, she was mostly bedridden. A surgically inserted feeding tube kept her alive. Her lungs were so weak, she couldn’t risk going out in public and being exposed to germs. Her big brother, Logan, and sister, Harmony, were wonderful to her, but when they went off to school or to play with friends, Hailey was left on her own. She wanted to be my helper, but she didn’t even have the strength for simple chores like unloading the dishwasher.

What kind of lonely life is this for a child? I’d found myself wondering lately. Why wasn’t God helping Hailey get better so she could play with a friend, go for a walk, eat ice cream? I wasn’t asking for anything extravagant. I just wanted my little girl to enjoy the simple pleasures of childhood.

We’d all been looking forward to Christmas. Gary and I had scrimped for months and managed to save enough for our family to celebrate. Then Hailey caught some kind of respiratory virus. In the middle of the night on December 23, she had such trouble breathing that her lips turned blue. I called 911.

When the EMTs showed up at our apartment, Hailey whispered, “Mommy, why did you call them?” Her anguished expression told me that going back to the hospital was the last thing she wanted.

She’d been rushed to Swedish Issaquah. The diagnosis was acute pneumonia. Logan and Harmony insisted they didn’t mind spending the holiday in the hospital. “We’ll celebrate Christmas after Hailey comes home,” they said.

If she comes home, I thought. I turned away from the carols echoing in the empty hospital hallway and walked into my daughter’s room. Hailey lay in bed, her face as pale as the sheets, the sparkle in her eyes dimmed. I’d never seen her looking so frail and listless.

The doctor spoke in a low voice to Gary and me, telling us Hailey needed immediate surgery to move the feeding tube from her stomach to her small intestine because she was aspirating fluid into her lungs. “The standard procedure would be to put her to sleep,” he said. “But she’s so weak, we’re not sure she would be able to wake up.”

I clutched Gary’s hand. “So what should we do?” he asked.

“The best bet would be to keep her awake during the surgery and give her a local anesthetic.”

While the doctor explained the options to Hailey in language she could understand, I talked quietly with Gary. “Look at her,” I said. “The fight’s gone out of her. I think she’s losing her desire to live.”

“What do you think, Hailey?” the doctor asked her. “Can you stay awake for the surgery?”

Hailey looked at me. “Mommy, I don’t know if I can do it.”

I was afraid that what was really going through her mind was, I don’t know if I want to do it. I don’t know if I want to go on like this anymore.

“Why don’t you take some time to think about it?” the doctor said.

Hailey had been incredibly brave through all of her treatments over the years. Yet I hadn’t been able to keep her out of the hospital at Christmas. I felt as if I’d failed her. How could I encourage her to keep fighting? Suddenly it hit me. The perfect solution, the thing she wanted most.

I brought it up with Gary that evening when we went to the cafeteria to grab a bite. “What if we got her a dog?”

The one bright spot in Hailey’s previous hospitalizations had been the therapy dogs that volunteers brought in for the pediatric patients to play with.

“Mommy, did you see him?” she asked eagerly one afternoon when I visited after work. “You should feel how soft he is, just like a teddy bear!” Hailey couldn’t stop talking about the golden retriever who’d gone from room to room. “He’ll do whatever I say. When I throw the ball, he brings it back.”

On her weakest days, the nurses let the dog onto her bed. Simply having him lie next to her comforted her. And it was just goldens she responded to. When a friendly black Lab visited, Hailey couldn’t have cared less.

She’d been asking for a dog for a while now. A golden retriever. I wanted so badly to give her the dog of her dreams, but properly bred goldens typically cost upwards of $1,000. Way beyond our budget. We were living paycheck to paycheck. And we lived in an apartment with no yard—not the kind of place for a big, active dog. We’d had to tell Hailey no.

“We really can’t afford it,” Gary reminded me. Besides the initial cost, there would be food and vet bills. He wanted Hailey to be healthy and happy as much as I did. But he was practical.

“I’ll take on extra work,” I said. I already worked full-time taking care of a child with disabilities, an ideal job because I could watch Hailey at the same time. I didn’t know how I’d find hours in the day for more work, but if it would get her through the surgery, I was willing to try. “She needs something that will make her want to live.”

“Then we’ll find a way,” Gary said.

We went back to Hailey’s room. “We have a surprise for you,” I said. “We’re getting you a very special Christmas present—a puppy.”

Her eyes lit up. “My teddy bear dog?” she squealed.

“That’s right,” Gary said. “But you’ve got to get through your surgery first before we can get the dog.”

On Christmas morning, Hailey made an announcement. “I’m doing this surgery without going to sleep,” she said. “I don’t want to risk not waking up and getting my puppy!” She told the nurses, the doctors and anyone who would listen about her Christmas present.

I sat with her in the operating room so she wouldn’t be scared while the surgical team fixed her feeding tube. I needn’t have worried. Hailey kept talking the whole time about her dog: what she would name it, how much she would love it. At one point, the anesthesiologist had to tell her to slow down and take a breath.

The surgery went smoothly, and three days later Hailey came home. But the journey to get her dog was only just beginning. I picked up odd jobs. I walked dogs, cleaned houses, worked for an on-call nanny agency at night while Gary watched the kids.

We set a jar on the kitchen table and put every spare dollar toward our “dog fund.” Logan and Harmony donated their Christmas and birthday money. Every Sunday night, we would empty the jar and count the money so we could see our progress.

It took eight months, but by the following August we finally had enough money saved. We found a golden retriever breeder and made plans to pick a puppy from his next litter. New worries sprang up in my mind: What if the dog was too rough for Hailey? What if we couldn’t train it or it had too much energy for her to keep up with? What if they didn’t bond?

We met the breeder in the parking lot of a grocery store on a Saturday morning. It was a chaotic scene, with other families clamoring to play with the 15 adorable puppies waiting for homes.

“Do you see one that you like, Hailey?” I asked.

“That one!” she said, pointing to the only puppy sitting quietly on the side, not ramped up with excitement like the others around him.

“Are you sure?” I asked. Didn’t she want a more playful pup?

“Yes, that’s the one,” she said with utter confidence. “I know. I think he’s lonely, don’t you?”

That’s how Hunter came into our lives. He became Hailey’s motivation, her reason to get out of bed, to keep fighting. She’d never had the stamina to play outside. But soon she was taking him on walks. The first time was just to our mailbox. Gary went with her, and they would add a block or so with every walk until Hailey could walk for 20 minutes without losing her breath. They played fetch and tug, and Hailey’s muscles grew stronger.

She took over the responsibility of feeding Hunter. She’d been dependent on the feeding tube, but seeing his delight in eating made her take an interest in food again. By December, she was eating small portions.

Most important, Hunter was her best friend, her constant companion. Hailey still spent much of the day resting in bed. But she wasn’t alone anymore. Hunter lay right next to her.

One day, Hailey overheard me sharing my biggest worry with Gary, that she would never be able to lead a normal life.

That night, as I was helping her get ready for bed, Hailey said, “Mom, one thing you don’t know is that I’d been praying for my teddy bear dog for a very long time. If God can get Hunter for me, surely God can take care of me!”

Hailey was right. We had Hunter trained to alert to her seizures, and her health and confidence grew. At age 9, she was eating so well, the doctors removed her feeding tube. She’s been going to school since second grade.

Our lives have grown as well. Hailey now has three younger siblings. We’ve moved into a home of our own and breed and raise golden retrievers through our small business, Legacy Champion Goldens. Our next dream is launching a center to train service dogs for other families. Like Hailey, I have faith that God will help us get there.

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