Aaron Salkill, a Marietta, Georgia, resident and firefighter with the Cobb County Fire & Emergency Services, adopted a young Dalmatian pup named Ember, when she was just three months old, after her former owners abandoned her at a vet’s office.
But despite his efforts to tire her out, she had “more energy than a preschooler on Redbull,” even after interacting with countless children who lined up wherever they went to give her hugs and cuddles.
One afternoon when such a line formed, I had an epiphany. If Ember’s presence could bring about such a powerful response in healthy children, how much more of an impact would she have on children in a hospital? I knew I had to find out. The next day Ember and I started on our quest to become a certified therapy dog team.
After more than a year of training, Ember was certified through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.
She made her first official therapy visit two years ago, on Halloween night, to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. They waited in the lobby along with other therapy dogs and their handlers, and the room was soon filled with children, as well as nurses dressed in costume. Coincidentally, one of those nurses chose to cress up that night as Cruella Deville, from “101 Dalmatians.” So obviously they had to take a photo.
The children chastised the poor nurse over and over, telling her, “You better leave Ember alone!”
But one particular patient stood out: A young girl, her head completely bald, who was wheeled out of the elevator in a little red wagon because she was too weak to walk. Yet, when she laid eyes on Ember, she scrambled out of the wagon and dashed over to meet the wiggling furball.
After she had gone, her mother came up to me gently sobbing and began to thank me for bringing a smile back onto her daughter’s face. She went on the explain to me this was the first time her daughter had so much as walked in weeks. The chemo had drained her of all desire to move until the excitement of seeing a real Dalmatian had given her the energy to run.
That single thank you was one of the most rewarding moments in my whole life.
Aaron and Ember visited many other hospitals over the few years, bringing desperately needed smiles and laughter to all the children who came out to see them. Meanwhile, Ember continued her “day job” at an area day camp for children with autism, where they learned how to properly and safely interact with dogs.
Just as she’d gotten that little girl to jump to her feet, Ember’s mere presence caused one young boy there who was “almost totally non-verbal” to engage in conversation with Aaron. And thanks to Ember, Aaron met, fell in love with, and eventually married Lindsay, a registered nurse who works at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta!
For 5 years now, Ember has brought me peace, comfort, and joy. Recently however, it has become my role to provide her the same comfort she has always given to me. And now it is my duty to continue to spread her joy and carry on her legacy.
Ember started showing signs of slowing down this summer, and Aaron soon learned why: kidney failure. It came on suddenly and inexplicably, and veterinarians told him there was nothing they could do other than give her daily fluids to keep her comfortable in her remaining days.
Knowing that our time was short, we attempted to fill Ember’s last days with as much fun and love as we could. She went everywhere with me, and I refused to let her leave my side. We spent a few last days visiting kids at work, having multiple photo shoots with local fire departments, hiking to her favorite creek for a fun day in the water, and most of all, cuddling on the couch.
Until the very end, Ember was still lighting up faces. The very last time Ember walked into the vet’s office, I heard an all too familiar sound. There was a young girl there that could not take her eyes off of Ember. In my rather emotional state, I did not think to stop and let the girl pet Ember. Ember knew better. Even though she was a very sick pup, she still paused next to the girl long enough for a pat on the head. The girl smiled from ear to ear, and my heart warmed as I fought back my tears.
In her final moments, I held my little girl one last time and looked at her big brown eyes to tell her how much I loved her. At the very end, when she was looking back at me, I knew she was ready to go. She was beyond tired, but was still happy with her little wagging tail. I believe she was sent to me with a higher purpose, and I think she knew she had done her job and done it well.
Ember’s memory will live on in my heart, and in the hearts of the many others who loved her.
Thank you, Ember, for all the smiles and laughter you brought to those who needed it most. Share to show love to this sweet Dalmatian and all the other therapy dogs who are helping to brighten people’s lives.
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