During Family’s Challenging Year, Always Thankful for Kenya

Thanksgiving 2011 was unforgettable for Annalee Thomasson. 

That’s when her family adopted a Labrador-mix puppy they named Kenya from a rescue shelter in their hometown of Wilmington. 

Kenya’s mother was no longer with the litter of puppies, and Thomasson believes that’s why the little dog bonded so deeply with her human companions.

“She wanted to be with us and she was too little to keep up with us, so we had to carry her everywhere at first,” she says. “She was glued to my side. She’s 60 pounds now, but she still thinks she still acts like a puppy. She’s spunky.”

The Thomassons are a tightly knit group: Annalee, her husband, NC State University alumnus Marshall, their three children and two dogs. They have another rescue named Tally, an 8-year-old collie-pit bull mix. It’s that family bond that got them all through a trying time. 

One day in early July, while snuggling with Kenya, the Thomassons noticed lumps on her shoulder. A groomer pointed out more of them and wondered if they were swollen lymph nodes. They took Kenya’s primary care veterinarian performed a biopsy and referred Kenya to the NC State Veterinary Hospital, where the diagnosis was confirmed. Kenya had lymphoma.

“We come from a medically fragile family,” says Thomasson. “My husband is a cancer patient, and I’ve seen what chemotherapy is like. Kenya is 9 years old, and I didn’t want to hurt her any more.” The family was assured by NC State clinicians that Kenya could tolerate the treatment well and that her quality of life would not be compromised Thomasson agreed to go forward. 

Still, it wasn’t an easy decision. In addition to Marshall Thomasson’s ongoing cancer treatment, the family’s 4-year-old daughter was treated earlier in the year for a rare bleeding disorder. Already facing daunting medical costs, now they were faced with the prospect of 15 weeks of chemotherapy for Kenya and frequent trips between Wilmington and Raleigh.

Medical oncology intern Clarissa Freemyer (left) (Medical Oncology Intern) and veterinary technician Michelle Thompson perform a physical exam on Kenya Thomasson. Photo by John Joyner/NC State Veterinary Medicine.

One of the clinicians working on Kenya’s case was Clarissa Freemyer, an intern with the hospital’s medical oncology service. Thomasson confided in Freemyer about how much the family cares about Kenya, but about the stresses of existing medical expenses that were already stretching their finances to the limit. 

“Dr. Freemyer told me about what help was available,” Thomasson says. “She was so helpful and gracious. She even helped us with the application.”

Thomasson applied for assistance through a generous grant investment from the Petco Foundation and Blue Buffalo Cancer Treatment Fund to NC State, helping clients defray the cost of cancer treatment for animal companions. 

“When I tell you how grateful I am, I can’t even begin to explain it,” Thomasson says. “If there’s a more grateful person somewhere, I’d like to meet them. [Kenya] means so much to all of us; we never want to lose her. But my husband was especially up for the fight, not wanting to lose our dog on top of everything else he’s facing.” 

Kenya received her last chemotherapy treatment at the end of November, says Thomasson, and she continues to do well. She says hospital clinicians and staff treated Kenya like one of their own children.

“They love Kenya as much as we do,” says Thomasson.

~Steve Volstad/NC State Veterinary Medicine