JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — If you talk to Kim Wilson, she’ll tell you that angels don’t just wear wings and long, white gowns.
Some of them — like a buff-colored Pekingese-Shih Tzu mix named Lucy — have fur and four legs.
Lucy shares a special bond with Wilson’s daughter, Faith, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma when she was 8 years old.
The rescue pup and her owner, Marie Cope, visit young patients at Niswonger Children’s Hospital twice a week — but they seem to gravitate to the cancer ward.
Cope, a retired registered nurse, rescued Lucy from the Washington County Animal Shelter in Johnson City several years ago and immediately knew she should be a therapy dog.
“I just knew that she was the right dog for the job,” she said. “Some dogs just have the temperament, and Lucy did.”
Cope added that after she retired she wanted to care for people in a way that would make them feel loved. And when she learned that she and Lucy could visit children, she was elated.
“Children are so innocent,” she said. “These young ones go through so much with such grace — they are my heroes — and if Lucy can bring some joy to their day, that’s all I want for them.”
Lucy was there to comfort Faith when she underwent chemotherapy.
Wilson’s tears flowed freely when she recounted the day she and her husband, Dustin, learned that their youngest child had cancer.
Faith had never been sick until one night before Christmas 2014. She told her mother her neck hurt, and by the next morning, it was swollen. She went to the doctor and then to the children’s hospital in Johnson City for a CT scan. A few days later, the family was on the way to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
“Cancer is never a diagnosis you expect to hear — especially for an 8-year-old,” Wilson said.
After three months in Memphis, the mother and daughter returned to their Kingsport, Tennessee, home. Shortly thereafter, Faith started chemotherapy treatments at Niswonger, which is where she met Lucy.
“They had a special bond from the first time they laid eyes on each other,” Cope said. “Lucy usually doesn’t like to be out of my sight, but with Faith it was different. The first time she met Faith she just let her hold her like a little baby. And Lucy was perfectly fine with that — which is unusual — that’s not something she normally likes.”
Wilson said Lucy seemed to sense what her child needed.
“Faith grabbed Lucy up the first time she saw her and didn’t put her down,” she explained as she watched her daughter gently stroke the dog’s neck. “She and Lucy quickly fell in love with each other.”
Faith agreed, saying that with Lucy there she no longer dreaded her weekly trips to the hospital.
“Some of the chemo hurts,” the youngster said as she cradled the pooch in her arms. “I get excited when I know that Lucy is going to be here for me — it helps me — she’s cuddly.”
She added that she has met a lot of therapy dogs since she learned she has cancer, but Lucy’s her favorite.
Wilson’s voice faltered as she fought back tears.
“For Marie to faithfully bring Lucy is amazing to me,” she said. “Lucy calmed Faith several times. Marie would stay as long as Faith wanted to hold her — and sometimes that was a long time. It’s been a hard two years, but through it all we’ve met some of the most amazing people, been show tremendous kindness, and now Lucy is like family. They’re family now — we’ll never forget them.”
Cope seemed overcome with emotion as she heard the words about her beloved dog.
“It’s a blessing that Lucy can help Faith,” she said. “We’re just a small part of helping her feel better. But we’re happy to be a part of her life.”
Amanda Ward, a child life specialist with the St. Jude affiliate in Johnson City who has worked with Faith throughout her treatment, said dogs aren’t allowed in the room while a child undergoes chemo.
“But before and after her treatments it was great to watch the two of them interact,” she explained. “Faith has a dog that can’t be with her while she’s here. When Lucy comes in, it gives Faith a massive break in her day — away from doctors, medicines — and she doesn’t have to think about any of that while she’s with sweet, little, warm and cuddly Lucy.”
Faith’s chemotherapy ended in December.
“I’m cancer-free,” she said with a huge grin. “But I have to come here every month to have bloodwork done.”
She added that she likes returning to the hospital for two important reasons.
“I like to see Lucy,” she said. “And I want everybody to know about Jesus. I can always count on Jesus when I’m nervous or scared. He’s always with me. Getting saved was the best decision of my life, and I want other people to be able to make that decision, too.”