Emma Rae was a little dog with big, soulful eyes.
Her black-and-white photo looks out onto the waiting room of the NC State Veterinary Hospital oncology service along with other portraits of dogs and cats who have been patients. The display is entitled, “The Petco Foundation Portraits of Courage”
Emma Rae’s big eyes only hint at her larger-than-life spirit, says her owners, Kelly and Charlie Warner of Roanoke, Va.
“Even for a wiener dog, Emma had an unusually outgoing and brilliant personality. She was a little dog, but a very big deal to us, and she enriched our lives on a daily basis,” the Warners wrote in a statement.
That meant being a big part of their lives in good times and in bad. It turns out that Emma was a fighter, too. And with the help of a dedicated medical team, her story was far from over with the initial diagnosis.
In 2015 Emma was diagnosed by veterinarians at Virginia Tech University with a small adenocarcinoma, a nasal tumor. She was referred to NC State for radiation therapy, where she underwent 19 treatments.
After a period of full remission the tumor returned, and Emma returned to NC State in September 2016, this time for three stereotactic — highly targeted — radiation treatments. This time the tumor was stabilized and well-controlled until August 2018, when it began to progress again. She passed away a few months later.
“When you hear the diagnosis, at first you think it’s over,” Charlie Warner says. “Then, in 30 days they’re doing fine. They can take so much more than we can; they’re stoic. I’ve learned a lot from her.”
Mike Nolan, associate professor of radiation oncology and biology, remembers Emma well. “She lived a long life, and she lived well,” he says. “She had a caring family, and we all developed a very special relationship with both Emma Rae and the Warners.”
Now, the Warners have honored Emma’s medical team with an extraordinary gesture — six Coats of Excellence for Emma’s medical team.
The Coat of Excellence program provides clients to express special appreciation for the efforts of a faculty clinician, resident, intern, veterinary technician or support staff member who has touched their lives and that of their animal companion.
With a special, tax-deductible donation of $10,000, clients help the NC State Hospital provide advanced medical care while at the same time honoring a person or group with white coats embroidered with that person’s name and the name of the pet cared for.
Most of the time, these presentations go to a single recipient. But the Warners chose to recognize not one, not two, but six members of the hospital team that worked to prolong the time with their beloved Emma Rae.
“There are no words to sufficiently express our gratitude to the radiation oncology team for the extra 3 ½-plus years we got to spend with our beloved Emma Rae,” the Warners wrote.
Three of the honorees are veterinarians: Nolan; Tracy Gieger, associate clinical professor of radiation oncology, and Hiroto Yoshikawa, assistant professor of radiation oncology. Three are registered veterinary technicians: Tammy Hawkes, radiation therapist; Kristen Price, medical support technician; and Beth Piojda, anesthesia technician. The three vet techs received surgical scrubs with their names embroidered on them.
Additionally, the Warners gave jackets emblazoned with “Team Emma Rae” to the hospital’s entire radiation oncology service team.
“We are forever indebted to everyone on Emma’s team, particularly Dr.’s Nolan, Gieger and Yoshikawa, not just for their expert care, but also for the compassion and empathy with which they delivered it,” the Warners wrote.
While the team responsible for patient care has the most direct impact on clinical outcomes, Emma Rae’s story doesn’t end there. The Warners were also appreciative for this hospital’s support staff.
“We would like to acknowledge the support we felt from your front desk staff,” they wrote. “As soon as we arrived, we were made to feel at ease by people like Pamela Ballentine, Leslie Lucia and Ryan Hutchinson. We very much appreciated their compassion, responsiveness and professionalism. And especially all the hugs we got from Pam!”
The gratitude goes both ways. Nolan says that Charlie Warner is not the only one who learned from Emma.
“I learned a lot from Emma Rae,” Nolan says, “and reflect on her case quite often. What I learned from her helps me to be a better teacher and a better doctor. It also inspires some of the research we conduct in my laboratory. I wish she’d never gotten that terrible diagnosis, but I’m grateful for having been able to participate in her care.”
~Steve Volstad/NC State Veterinary Medicine