Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Reunion

I first met Buddy on August 31, 2010, when Billy and Buddy picked me up at the airport in Atlanta.  I had flown in to celebrate Billy's graduation from flight school at Ft. Rucker, AL, and Billy (always a giver) had driven four hours one way to pick me up.

At the time, believe it or not, I was not much of a dog lover.  I didn't necessarily dislike them, per se; I just never really sought dogs out.  But it didn't take long for Buddy to capture my heart.  He's just that lovable.  As we spent four hours together in the car, I saw Buddy's enthusiasm for life, his excitement at getting to see new things, and his love for Billy.  This picture came from that drive with Billy and Buddy.

Before we got to Billy's house, Buddy started resting his head on my shoulder as well.

As we spent the next few days together, I soon realized that Buddy was quite a special dog.  He's smart and fun.  He's very obedient.  And he sticks by your side.  One afternoon, I asked Billy if I could take Buddy for a walk.  He agreed, and we prepared to head out the door.  As Buddy and I were about to leave, Aaron (Billy's room mate) chimed in, "One of the best things about Buddy is that he sticks pretty close.  You can walk without a leash, and he'll stay right with you."  He was right.  Buddy is smart, fun, and very loyal--the perfect dog for Billy.

After Billy graduated from flight school at Ft. Rucker on September 2, he planned to take 30 days of leave from the army, and then head to his next duty station in Hawaii.  Because Hawaii has no record of rabies, there are strict requirements for pets.  Buddy had to have a rabies vaccine, and then wait 120 days before he could join Billy in Hawaii.  As Billy finished up flight school and packed up his house, he arranged to have a friend watch Buddy until November, when Buddy would finally be allowed to go to Hawaii.  So, a few days after his flight school graduation, Billy and I drove to the airport in Atlanta to send Buddy to a friend.  It was the last time Billy saw Buddy before he entered the hospital--and dogs are not allowed on the oncology ward at Walter Reed.

Billy and I talked about Buddy many times during his stay at Walter Reed.  One day, I brought up the idea of bringing Buddy for a visit.  Billy quickly said no.  "Seriously?" he sort of asked.  "It's too much work.  Don't even try it."  He gave me a stern sort of look, letting me know he was serious.  He said it as if he knew how stubborn I can be.  :-)  "Alright," I conceded.  "Don't worry.  I won't try."  And I didn't.  If Billy didn't want us to get Buddy to DC, I wouldn't pursue it.

December arrived, and Billy's health declined.  We contemplated bringing Buddy to DC anyway, even though Billy had said no.  So many friends and family had been asking, "What about Buddy?  Is there any way we could bring Buddy to see Billy?"  I wanted to try, but it seemed impossible.  Dogs weren't allowed in the hospital, and Billy never seemed to want to try to go outside.  It took a lot of work just to walk around the ward on the 7th floor.  Outside seemed so far away.

One day, as I debated what to do, I watched Billy open a gift--a very special gift--from his childhood.  When I saw Billy's reaction to the gift, my internal debate was over.  We had to try to get Buddy to DC.

Over the next two weeks, there were lots of ups and downs.  One of Billy's nurses asked us what we wanted to do for Billy.  "Anything you ask," he said, "if it's in our power, we'll do it."  I asked about Buddy, and he said it wouldn't be an issue; we'd get the dog in the hospital.  But when I asked his oncologist about bringing Buddy, her face fell.  She knew how special it would be for Billy, but she also knew that only therapy dogs were allowed at Walter Reed.  I was bummed.  It wasn't going to work after all.

That afternoon, however, I got a phone call.  "'Chelle!" my mom said, excitedly, "I just met a lady you need to call about Buddy," and she proceeded to tell me the story of a miracle.  Just a few hours after we found out it wasn't going to work to bring Buddy to DC, my mom met Molly, the woman who was in charge of service animals at the hospital.  Molly had Tanker with her, and she wanted Billy to be able to see him.  As nice as a visit like that would have been, my mom relayed her disappointment that Billy wouldn't be able to see his dog.  As she and Molly talked about the situation, Molly started to get excited.  After all, she was in charge of the animals, and she had relationships with people in high places.  My mom wanted me to call Molly to see if we could work something out.

There were all kinds of impossibilities.  Where would we keep Buddy once he got to DC?  He was in Arizona, and his kennel was huge--so big that it only fit on certain flights.  Would it work for Sam to get him to the vet for a health certificate, and then get him on a flight?  Once we got him to DC, how would we get Billy outside so he could see Buddy?  Buddy was still a puppy (21 months old); he's rambunctious and playful.  Would it be dangerous for him to be near Billy?  There were so many questions--but still, Molly was determined to make a reunion happen.

So we went to work.  She worked miracles at Walter Reed, and I worked with Sam (Buddy's caretaker) and Wish for Our Heroes to coordinate Buddy's travel plans.

And in the middle of all of that, we had some pretty tough conversations with Billy's doctors.  They started talking in terms of "days" instead of "weeks."  So my mom decided we should tell Billy what we were up to.

We stood on either side of his bed.  "Should we tell him now?" she asked.  "I think so," I said.  Billy looked at each of us, slightly puzzled.  "Well," my mom began, "we're working on bringing one of your best buds to DC, all the way from Arizona."  Her voice caught for a second, and she continued.  "'Chelle has been working with Sam and some other people, and we're going to fly Buddy to DC to see you."  Billy smiled, and I knew it was okay.  He had sternly told me no before, but this time, his reaction was different.  He was excited to see Buddy.

That whole week, we talked about the upcoming visit with Buddy.  Molly kept up with me on the phone or email, working out last-minute details.  Boy, is she a miracle-worker!  She got the approval of the commander of the hospital for Buddy to see Billy.  She also arranged for a place for Buddy to stay--just a few minutes' walk from the hospital.  Wish for Our Heroes paid for Buddy's flight, and Sam and I arranged everything with the vet and the airlines to get Buddy to DC.  He'd be flying in on Christmas Eve, and we had the reunion planned for Christmas Day.

On Christmas Eve afternoon, we headed out to the hospital.  Two of my brothers--Chris and Bobby--came along to capture the event on film.  Blair--Bobby's wife--came along to help with Buddy.  And CPT Hoffman--a man we came to trust as an advocate and friend--came along in case we'd need anything...even though it was his day off.  We thought you'd watching the adventure...

The Reunion Part 1
Operation: Buddy Extraction

As we were driving back to Walter Reed from the airport, Buddy riding next to me in the backseat of Billy's Jeep, my mom called.  "Where are you?" she asked.  I told her.  "Well," she said, "CSM DelValle (very highly ranked at Walter Reed) came by this morning, and he wanted to know how things were going with Billy's dog.  I told him that things are all set up for Billy to see Buddy tomorrow.  When I told him that, he said, 'Wait.  The dog's going to be here tonight?!?  You make sure Billy gets to see Buddy tonight!  There's no reason he should have to wait until tomorrow to see him.'"  As soon as I got off the phone, I called Molly to see if we could set something up for that night.  Thankfully, Molly was flexible and excited, and the last-minute change was no problem.

The one difficulty was Ward 71.  Because of the nature of cancer and chemotherapy, patients' immune systems can be easily compromised--and having dogs around is NOT a good idea.  Ward 71 is the inpatient cancer ward at Walter Reed, so there was NO WAY to bring Buddy to Billy's room.  Not to be defeated, CPT Rahman (the new nurse in charge of Ward 71) arranged for us to use a room in another ward.  So the nurses in Ward 71 and Ward 75 worked together to make it all happen.

Blair and I met Molly outside the hospital, and we took Buddy to the room on Ward 75.  Chris and Bobby were at the ready with their cameras.  And everyone else worked to get Billy ready to travel from Ward 71 to Ward 75.

For some reason, the doctors wanted to run another test, and then Billy could travel to the other ward.  "Why do we have to do that now?" Billy asked.  "Why can't I just go see Buddy now?" he wanted to know.  He was really excited.

Soon, Billy was ready, and the entourage started down the hall.  They passed the nurses' station, and headed toward the exit.  "You should have seen their faces as we were marching by," my mom said.  "You could tell they were REALLY excited that this finally worked.  It was one of those things that you wanted to hope for, but you didn't know if it could really happen--and all of a sudden it was happening."

We knew the reunion would be something to remember, so Bobby and Chris captured it on film for you to see.

The Reunion Part 2

Christmas Eve was the last day Billy was alert enough to interact with Buddy.  He was a gift that came just in time.

The Best of Friends

Special Moments

Tonight, as we remembered the reunion together, my mom admitted, "I remember thinking, 'All this over a dog!'"  (She has never been much of a dog person.)  "And now I know," she continued, "Buddy isn't just some dog.  He's really special.  I'm so glad Billy got to see Buddy on Christmas Eve..."  And then she trailed off.  It's special to remember, but it's also hard.  We all miss Billy a lot.

We've been working on plans for a memorial and a funeral.  Billy loved DC, and his favorite time of year was when the cherry trees were in bloom.

One of Billy's Pictures of DC

Cherry Blossoms

His funeral will be at the end of March--during cherry blossom season--and he'll be buried in Arlington.  We have a few more details to arrange, and then we'll publish the date of the funeral.  In the meantime, we've scheduled a memorial service in Durango, CO.  It will be at Durango High School on Saturday, February 26, from 3:00-5:30pm.

Memorial or funeral contributions can be sent to
Vectra Bank
FOR William (Billy) McCotter Bohren
1101 E. 2nd Ave.
Durango, CO  81301

Thank you to everyone has helped us on this journey.  Thank you for your cards, hugs, and prayers.


  1. Seeing those precious moments - wow, what a treasure. Buddy really was a gift that came just in time.

  2. You do not cease to amaze me! Amazing what Type A people can pull off. :) Thanks for sharing.

  3. Michelle,
    You and your family will always be in our prayers. Those were some amazing videos!! They brought tears to my eyes. I have always been a dog lover, i've never been without a dog with me, and they are truly mans best friend. You can't ask for more of a companion. Buddy reminds me of my dog, she constantly lays her head on my lap, and if i'm laying down on my chest. May God Bless!!!!!!

  4. Thank you for the gift that you have given US in allowing us to share these videos. Jason, the girls and I will see you in D.C. in March. We will join you in celebrating Will's life and the beauty of the season that he loved so much.

    With great love,

  5. I am still in awe of your strength in sharing this. I had to pull myself together just from reading what you wrote and watching the second video.

    I am so very glad that Billy was able to see Buddy and that you all were able to spend one more Christmas together as a family. Please give your mom an extra hug.

  6. Dear Michelle,

    What a wonderful gift you have to be able to share your family's story with such grace. You make us feel like we were all right there with you-and in prayer we are. Continued prayers as you grieve and rejoice in Will's life. And much continued joy with Buddy, who appears to be extraordinary!

  7. What a sweet memory :') Mindy

  8. Thanks for sharing such an emotional story! I'm sorry for your loss.

  9. I cried so much. Best friends reunited. It was so great of the hospital and Molly to help you pull this off, it sounds like Buddy made it just in time. Thank you so much for sharing that story.

  10. All I can saw is WOW!!! Thanks so much for sharing the videos. And whoever produced them had great music to accompany. I wish I could be there in Feb, Michelle. You will be in my prayers and in my heart. Hugs xoxo Jeanette


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