The Gift of Feeling Normal

Sandy Kirk is an oncology nurse and a pediatric clinical research manager who understands hospitals.

She says that when someone goes to the hospital with a loved one — whether human or animal — they also go from normal to abnormal life.

 “And that becomes your new normal as long as you’re there,” she says. 

Waiting, worrying and wondering in an unfamiliar environment, sometimes at odd hours and for long periods of time, is stressful and unsettling.

That’s how it was for Kirk, who lives in Wilmington, when her 12-year-old mixed breed dog, Maggie, came to the NC State Veterinary Hospital with a medical emergency in June. 

It was an experience that stirred her to action. She donated a lovely bench to place in a peaceful outdoor area near the hospital’s critical care waiting room as a refuge for weary pet owners. 

“I wanted to give someone who was going through what I was going through five minutes of normal, just sitting quietly,” Kirk says. Donating a bench where someone could be alone surrounded by natural beauty seemed like the perfect answer.

Kirk delivered the bench herself on a bright August morning. Appreciative NC State staff members thanked her and eagerly picked out where to put it. For a moment everyone stood and admired the newest addition to the hospital grounds as if it were the perfect finishing touch. 

Kirk said how Maggie had shown no prior symptoms when she suddenly collapsed at home. She rushed her to an emergency veterinary clinic in Wilmington where it was determined that she was bleeding internally from a hemangiosarcoma, a cancer affecting the blood vessel walls of her spleen.

Kirk was told that she had two options for Maggie: emergency surgery or euthanasia. Although it was 1 a.m., Kirk says she immediately decided to take Maggie to NC State for emergency surgery. 

The decision was not a reflection on the Wilmington clinic. It was because of a recent prior experience at NC State that Kirk had with one of her other dogs, Ginger, a white German shepherd mix. 

bench with plaque

“I wanted to give someone who was going through what I was going through five minutes of normal, just sitting quietly,” Kirk says.

In March, Ginger was treated for a soft tissue sarcoma, a cancerous tumor, on her leg. The tumor was surgically removed by Kirk’s veterinarian, but to ensure that any remaining cancer cells would be eliminated, Ginger underwent a course of radiation treatment at NC State. Kirk was deeply impressed by the quality of compassionate care that both she and Ginger received from Mike Nolan, associate professor of oncology and biology, and James Elliott, a radiation oncology resident. Ginger continues to do well at home.

“Both Doctor [MIke] Nolan and Doctor [James] Elliott were amazing,” she says. Kirk also reports that client services representative Ryan Hutchinson gave her frequent updates on Ginger’s condition by phone. Not only was the radiation treatment effective, but the communication from the entire medical team was thorough and thoughtful. 

“They are like family here,” she says.

That’s why Kirk decided to bring the gravely ill Maggie to NC State. 

While Kirk prepared for a trip that would likely require an extended stay away from home, Maggie seemed to stabilize somewhat. She called NC State emergency room personnel when they were nearing the city, and she says they were ready and waiting when she and Maggie arrived around 8:30 a.m.

The operation was successful and the hemorrhaging controlled, but Maggie’s condition remained critical. After a couple of days, she recovered enough to go home and rallied briefly, but three weeks later the end came. “Maggie held on for me,” Kirk says. “Neither one of us was ready to let go right away.”

The quality of care both of her dogs received at NC State is another reason Kirk wanted to give back. At veterinary hospitals, the patients can’t talk, so communication has to be with the owners. The process creates a more personal bond, she believes. “Everyone here helps you find that feeling of ‘normal,’” Kirk says.

That sense of connection is reflected in the inscription on a brass plaque Kirk put on the back of the bench:

“In grateful appreciation for your time, talent, and caring of all animals. Sandy, Ginger and Maggie Kirk. Wilmington, NC — 2019.”

~Steve Volstad/NC State Veterinary Medicine