JOPLIN, Mo. —
There was a time not that long ago when Tara Prosser thought she had put Lilly’s story behind her.
“After a year and a half, two years, I kept telling her, ‘It’s time to do something else great and amazing,’” said Prosser, the owner and handler for Lilly, a search-and-rescue dog with the Newton County Rescue and Recovery Team.
But thanks to an upcoming children’s book and a newspaper series that will spotlight the efforts of the nearly 6-year-old Weimaraner after the May 22, 2011, tornado, Lilly’s story is poised to reach an even larger audience.
Prosser and her husband, Jeff — the operations manager for the Newton County ambulance service — found Lilly at Petland during an adoption event. It was love at first sight, but Prosser said she almost missed her chance to bring her home.
“We didn’t get her right away,” she said. “We went home to think about it. We went back the next day to get her and found out that she had been taken to Springfield. They called their store there and found out they still had her and shipped her back to us.”
After a few weeks, the Prossers said they noticed how intelligent Lilly was and started her in obedience classes. Both members of the rescue and recovery team, they thought that it would be a good idea to train her as a rescue dog.
The team assists in ground searches, diving searches and does volunteer work around the area.
“We discovered that search-and-rescue training is hard to come by in this area,” Prosser said. “We basically did it all on our own. I reached out to other people to get pointers, and I read everything I could on the Internet about K-9 search and rescue.”
The training included using samples of blood, bone and teeth for Lilly to sniff out, with the distance becoming longer each time.
“She had a nose for it,” Prosser said.
By the time she was 3 years old, Lilly was assisting the team with searches for missing people, drowning victims and evidence.
In April 2011, Lilly got sick.
“About a month before the tornado, she almost died,” Prosser said. “Her lymph nodes in her neck were swollen. One morning I woke up and she was stumbling. She couldn’t make it down the hallway without hitting the wall.”
After a trip to their local veterinarian, the Prossers took Lilly to the veterinary hospital at Oklahoma State University. There, they learned that their dog’s platelet count had dropped to nearly zero and that she was bleeding internally.
Jeff Prosser said that Lilly’s left eye hemorrhaged and filled with blood.
“They said the chances of her regaining her sight were grim,” he said. “They wanted to take it out and find out what was wrong with her, but they were afraid she’d bleed too much.”
After a week, Lilly stabilized and came back home, although without a diagnosis. It wasn’t long before she began to seem like herself again.
The weekend of the tornado, the Prossers took her to a search-and-rescue training event in Arkansas. On their way home that Sunday, they learned that the tornado had touched down in Joplin.
“The next morning, we met up with the rescue team and worked for the next 14 days,” Tara Prosser said.
The team spent the first day going through large buildings on Range Line, including Wal-Mart and Aldi. Later, Lilly would be put to work double- and triple-checking buildings because there were still people unaccounted for.
“We ended up on the roof of St. John’s, which was pretty significant for me because I’m afraid of heights,” Prosser said. “The group of firemen that we were with were from the Kansas City area. They surrounded her and I, one on either side of us and several in front and back as we headed up the stairwells. On the roof, they made a circle around us and let us work.”
Having once worked as an EMT, Prosser said she can usually “flip a switch” and mentally prepare herself for what’s ahead, but the aftermath of the tornado was more difficult.
“Lilly would come home and run around like nothing happened,” she said. “At one point I just sat in the middle of the yard and cried.”
Lilly was eventually diagnosed with Addison’s disease, which affects her adrenal system. She began receiving treatment for it and was soon back to her regular search-and-rescue efforts when called upon.
‘Lessons to be learned’
After the tornado, Prosser said Lilly received some degree of notoriety because of her illness and rescue efforts.
“But I thought we had kind of put that chapter to bed,” Prosser said.
Last winter, St. Louis writer Carolyn Mueller was asked by her publisher at Reedy Press to consider writing a children’s book about Lilly.
A keeper at the St. Louis Zoo, Mueller had previously published “Bubbles the Dwarf Zebu,” a story about a cow’s journey from India to the United States. The subject matter of Lilly’s story seemed like a natural fit, she said.
“I have a real love for animals, and Lilly’s story appealed to me,” Mueller said. “I came to Joplin in February and spent the day with Tara and Lilly. From that interview, the children’s book was formed.
“Obviously, it’s difficult subject matter to turn into a children’s book. The goal is to help kids deal with loss and tragedy, and know that bad things can happen in life, but everything can be OK.”
The book, she said, is expected to be published in February.
But Lilly’s story about her tornado rescue efforts won’t stop between the pages of Mueller’s book.
The Missouri Press Association is working with the writer to adapt it into a newspaper series for the annual Reading Across Missouri project.
Dawn Kitchell, education services director for the Missouri Press Association and Foundation, said that Lilly’s story is being adapted into an eight-part series that will be published in newspapers around the state and spotlighted in the classroom.
“One of the things we look for with Reading Across Missouri is to tie in history,” Kitchell said. “The Joplin tornado is part of our history now. Lilly’s story combines a couple of great elements. There’s a dog, an event that children in our communities are familiar with and lessons to be learned from the story.
“There will be a companion guide for teachers to use the story to its fullest potential.”
Prosser said she was surprised in the resurgence of interest in Lilly’s story, two years after the tornado.
“I’m extremely emotional when it comes to her,” she said. “Knowing that there will be a book to memorialize what she did, I think it’s great.
“There will never be another Lilly. I’m glad her story will be known to lots of kids.”