By Cobb County Fire Engineer Aaron Salkill
In December of 2013 I made a decision that, unbeknownst to me, would alter the course of my life. I had been casually looking to adopt a dog for a few months. One day a very close friend of mine asked me if I would be interested in a Dalmatian puppy. I nearly jumped out of my shoes with excitement. I had been working as a firefighter for a little more than a year, but the idea of actually finding a Dalmatian puppy had seemed farfetched to say the least. I knew I had to meet her, so I raced to my car and went to the vet’s office where she had been abandoned by her previous owners. No one was able to tell me why, but for some unfathomable reason they had left this perfect beautiful 3-month-old Dalmatian puppy. It was love at first sight. I named her Ember.
The next year was interesting to say the least. Ember was WILD, and I was a clueless dog owner. I had no idea how to train a dog, and it was evident in her behavior. She was super sweet and loving and playful, but she had more energy than a preschooler on Redbull. The only way I knew to keep her from going crazy was to wear her out as often as possible. This meant countless walks, hikes, fetches, tug of wars, and afternoons at the dog park. All of this time spent out in public led me to make another wonderful decision. Each time we would go out I would constantly hear squeals of joy, ‘The fire dog!,’ ‘Pongo!,’ ‘It’s Marshal,’ ‘Look mommy its Sparky.’ There were even times that the playground in front of the dog park would be empty, and a line of children would form to come get a glimpse (and maybe even a pet) of this beautiful little Dalmatian.
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. We spent countless hours practicing and training. I spent more than a year perfecting our craft and getting Ember in as many different situations as I could. When I finally felt we were ready, we took the certification test for the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Ember easily passed with flying colors. I was beyond proud of what we had accomplished together, but I also knew that our real goal still lay ahead of us.
“Our eyes met. They were her begging eyes. Eyes that said, ‘Help me Mama.’’
On Halloween night 2016, we made our very first official therapy visit. We were invited down to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta with a few other therapy dog teams to spend the evening with children that wouldn’t have the opportunity to go trick or treating. We settled in downstairs in the lobby and were told that the families had been informed to bring their children downstairs for the surprise. We were joined by several nurses that had dressed up to give out trinkets to the children. What really caught my eye about this was that one of them was dressed up as Cruella Deville, from 101 Dalmatians. I could not help but to laugh at the coincidence. Soon after, the children began to come in from the elevators. It was magical to see how much their faces lit up when they first laid eyes on the dogs.
However, that night there was one moment that was truly special. I watched a young girl of 7 or 8 get wheeled out of the elevator in a little red wagon. She was very thin, and obviously very ill. Her lack of hair told a story that no child should be a part of. Yet, in the next moment, all of that was forgotten. She saw Ember and let out the most joyous exclamation, “A DALMATIAN!” She climbed out of her wagon and came running to Ember and embraced her. She sat with us for several minutes before she finally left to go join the number of others that were telling Cruella to leave poor Ember alone. 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.
Over the next two years, Ember and I made many more visits to hospitals including CHOA Egleston, CHOA Scottish Rite, and Northside Hospital Cherokee. Ember’s regular day to day job was to be the fire safety dog at the Cobb County Safety Village. There we taught children about how to safely interact with dogs. She was always the highlight of any field trip to the Safety Village. Cobb County’s Camp Puzzle was one of my favorite yearly visits. Camp Puzzle is a day camp that is put on each year for children on the autism spectrum. The first year Ember and I attended; we were walking along when a young boy approached us. He simply said ‘Hello,’ and asked if Ember knew any tricks. After displaying a few of Ember’s many tricks, the boy asked me if he could make Ember sit and wave hello. I handed him a treat, and Ember became putty in his hands. She performed the simple commands the boy made, and was graciously rewarded with a treat and a giggle of delight. He then walked off for more fun just as nonchalantly as he had approached. Yet again, I was approached by an emotional mother. She asked me where she could get a service dog for her son, and explained that he was almost totally non-verbal. After I explained to her that Ember’s certification was different than a medical service dog, the gravity of what had just occurred began to sink in. Ember had worked her magic in a way that only she could and I hadn’t even realized it.
As many lives as Ember has touched, no one has been more impacted than me. She has been with me through the good times and the bad. When I had no one else, I could always rest easy knowing my sweet girl would be waiting excitedly for me with all the snuggles I could handle. Ember even helped give me a family of my own. On our very first visit to Northside Hospital, Ember caught the eyes of every single person in the building. Those eyes included the eyes of some of the nurses that set me up on a blind date with their beautiful friend. That blind date would turn out to be with the woman that has become my wife. This speckled little fur ball has been everything to me.
As many lives as Ember has touched, no one has been more impacted than me. She has been with me through good times and the bad. When I had no one else, I could always rest easy knowing my sweet girl would be waiting excitedly for me with all the snuggles I could handle. Ember even helped give me a family of my own. On our very first visit to Northside Hospital, Ember caught the eyes of every single person in the building. Those eyes included the eyes of some of the nurses that set me up on a blind date with their beautiful friend. That blind date would turn out to be with the woman that has become my wife. This speckled little fur ball has been everything to me.
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.
In late summer of 2018, Ember became very sick. We knew her teeth were becoming a problem, and we concluded they must be the issue. We took her into the vet and, they believed her teeth had become infected. It was decided that some of them needed to be removed. The pre-op blood work revealed that her teeth were not the real issue. For some reason the vet could not fully explain, her kidneys had begun to fail. They immediately started her on IV fluids and antibiotics to see if it was an acute issue or something more chronic. A few days later, we received our answer. Her blood work was even worse, and to stabilize her she would need to be hospitalized. In the end, we were told there was nothing that could be done long term, and that daily fluid would keep her comfortable in the time she had remaining.
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.
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