Dealing with a disease that looks like a train wreck between consonants and vowels, 7-year-old Mandy Willis found herself immersed in emotions some adults struggle to handle.
Two years ago, Ronnie and Natalie Willis saw anger in the face of their blond, blue-eyed daughter and fear in her heart as she continued her battle with neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow on nerve tissues. Doctors diagnosed her at the age of 1.
They recommended chemotherapy to help shrink and control the tumors in her brain. The treatments left her suffering from bad dreams in the middle of the night, and she refused to eat.
Doctors prescribed medicine to help maintain her weight and considered a feeding tube.
The Willis' "incredibly difficult, nearly impossible journey" was not off to a good start.
"She wasn't old enough to understand what she was angry about," Natalie said. "It's hard for someone that age because they don't have those coping skills that adults have."
Natalie, who once showed dogs and owns three golden retrievers, wanted to get Mandy a dog she could truly call her own. She shared her goal with friend Jane Meyers, who runs River's Edge Pet Resort in Thonotosassa where Natalie once worked.
Meyers considered various possibilities before calling Natalie with an idea about her prized standard poodle, a show dog named Electra. The decision didn't come easily.
"Jane called me one day crying and said, 'I know the right thing to do,' " Natalie said. "I said, 'The right thing?' She said, 'It's Electra. That's who needs to go with Mandy.' "
When they arrived at the kennel that evening, Meyers had groomed Electra with pretty pink bows and given her the "froufrou" look a little girl would adore. The dog stood next to Mandy, nudged the girl's hand with her nose and then positioned herself so Mandy's hand was on her head.
"It was an amazing thing," Natalie said. 'It was as if out of the gate, she knew. … this is my person."
Mandy renamed the dog Poodle, but the simplicity of the name belies the comfort she gave to Mandy. Poodle started sleeping next to Mandy on the bed, their heads side by side on pillows.
During the day, Poodle frolicked when Mandy wanted to play and chilled when Mandy needed to rest.
Mandy soon regained her appetite and began sleeping through the night.
The Lithia Springs Elementary student had to change protocols midway through her treatment and eventually went through 19 months of chemotherapy — every Wednesday at All Children's Hospital Specialty Care of Tampa — while maintaining her schoolwork.
Poodle was with her every step.
"I'm not one to get emotional about animals, but that dog certainly deserves a lot of credit for where Mandy is today," Ronnie said. "I've never seen a dog more in tune with (a) person.
"It's just really powerful."
When the American Kennel Club learned of Poodle's steadfast devotion, she received its Award of Canine Excellence in the Exemplary Companion category.
Natalie, Mandy and Poodle flew to Long Beach, Calif., in December to attend the club's 125th national championship. Wearing her hot pink service dog vest, Poodle gained entry onto the plane and had her own seat next to Mandy.
They fell asleep on top of each other. Naturally.
On Feb. 6, the Animal Planet channel will televise the American Kennel Club national championship. The Willises will thank the friends and supporters who have helped them through the ups and downs of this battle at a special watch party at the Home Theater Gallery, 3300 S Dale Mabry Highway.
There will be officials from the 1Voice Foundation, the Brandon Community Foundation, Brandon Rotary and Giving Hope Through Faith, a faith-based charity that provides aid to cancer patients. There will be faculty members from Lithia Springs Elementary, neighbors from the Lithia Ridge Homeowners Association and Zachary and Alannah, Mandy's older siblings who face their own challenges watching their sister's battle.
Of course, Poodle and Mandy will be there. With the tumors stabilized, Mandy has taken a break from the chemotherapy.
Now 9, her hair has started growing back. The dark circles around her eyes have faded, and her skin is flush with color.
"She's seen a lot more in nine years than some people see in 50," Natalie said. "But it means the world to me that she's still smiling and still laughing and still being silly and still Mandy."
In the end, she's still just a little girl who loves her dog.
That's all I'm saying.