JOPLIN, Mo. —
Daniel Leatherman is worried that Sugar is getting spoiled.
Sugar, his family’s 10-year-old cocker spaniel-chow mix, is a bit of a celebrity now.
“When I brought her home from the veterinary hospital, she was used to the fancy canned and wet dog foods, and all I had was Kibbles ’n Bits,” he said. “So she looked at me as if to say, ‘I don’t know if you know this it or not, but I’m famous.’”
Sugar actually belongs to Leatherman’s parents, Steve and Debbie Leatherman. The night of the May 22 tornado, the Leathermans, who both teach at Joplin High School, had just returned to their home in the Iron Gates neighborhood in western Joplin from the school’s graduation ceremonies when they saw the approaching storm.
“We have a storm room, and when we heard the thing coming, we ran down to the basement, and Sugar came with us,” Steve Leatherman said.
The couple stopped briefly in the basement to check the storm coverage on television and decided that they needed to get to the storm room immediately.
“Sugar must have sensed our panic because she bolted upstairs and probably crawled under a bed,” Steve Leatherman said. “My wife started to go after her, and I said, ‘We don’t have time.’”
After the storm passed, the Leathermans, with help from neighbors, crawled out of their storm room and found that their house had been destroyed.
“We had no idea where Sugar was,” Steve Leatherman said. “I was afraid I would have to spend the next few days digging through rubble hoping to find her so I could bury her.”
Daniel Leatherman, who is a student at the University of Missouri in Columbia, drove down Monday, May 23, to help his parents.
“Monday was not a good day,” Daniel Leatherman said. “There were a lot of tears that day. But when we heard that there was a possibility that Sugar was at the Humane Society, and then, on Tuesday, when we found her in the kennel with an IV on her and all gloomy, and then to see her perk up when she saw us, was a very happy emotion.”
The Leathermans were told that Sugar was found in a ditch, unable to move her back legs. The people at the Humane Society said Sugar needed more medical attention than they could provide. In fact, in the aftermath of the storm, they said Sugar needed more medical attention than could be provided in Joplin.
Daniel Leatherman, a biochemistry major at MU, knows the reputation of the university’s veterinary school. He said it took him less than 10 seconds to decide what to do.
“I’ll just run her up there (to MU) and take her to the vet hospital,” he said.
He said he called the MU Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital and spoke with a surgical technician.
“After I told her the situation, she said to ‘put her in the car, bring her up here and don’t worry about a thing, and we’ll take care of her,’” Daniel Leatherman said.
Radiographs and an MRI showed that Sugar suffered a traumatic disk rupture. The swelling of the disk was putting pressure on her spine, and that was causing her paralysis.
Doctors at the hospital performed surgery to relive the pressure on Sugar’s spine. Two days later, they started the dog on a physical therapy regimen. Daniel Leatherman said Sugar, who is staying with him in Columbia, now can stand and walk on her own, but she will need more therapy to regain full mobility.
“I know it’s hard to read emotions in a dog, but when I brought her home from the hospital, she just kind of laid around looking mopey with her head down,” Daniel Leatherman said. “It was like she was asking, ‘What happened to me?’ She was just down in the dumps.”
Now, he said, Sugar is back to her old self. She’s playful, vocal and getting stronger every day. In a way, he said, she is not unlike a lot of people who survived the tornado.
“At first, she had that look of shock like we all did,” he sad. “We didn’t know how to make sense of the whole thing. A lot of us were in the initial stages of shock and disbelief, but now we’re just putting one foot in front of the other.”
The university student, who has fielded calls from media outlets across the country, said the family feels a bit guilty telling the Sugar story when so many other people lost so much in the tornado.
“But if (Sugar’s story) puts a smile on somebody’s face, then, by God, it’s served its purpose,” he said.
There is one thing missing in the happy story of Sugar. The Leathermans have no idea who found Sugar and took her to the Humane Society. They would like to meet the good Samaritan who likely saved their dog’s life.
“I know this is just one story about a poor little animal,” said Daniel Leatherman. “But it’s really representational about what’s been going on in Joplin. Someone we didn’t know took the time and effort to see a dog on its last lifeline and reach out. Their actions kept our family intact.”