Manatee County Animal Shelter lends a hand in woman's brave fight with breast cancer

vmannix@bradenton.comJanuary 26, 2014 


Buddy was on Elaine Waters' lap, showing her the kind of love only a 2-year-old black lab mix can give.

The large plastic protective cone around the pooch's neck was a minor obstacle.

"This is what it's all about, right there," said an amused Len Waters as his wife received an affectionate, wet facial.

It was hard to tell who was more grateful:

Buddy, a rescue dog, at finding a loving home.

Or Elaine Waters, who's battling stage 4 breast cancer.

"Not that I dwell on what I have all the time, but he puts a smile on your face," the 60-year-old grandmother said. "You get a big slobbery kiss, it takes your mind off things."

Which is why Buddy came into their lives.

"It's like he was sent from God," her husband said.

A longtime family friend had a hand in it, too.

Susan Kulbersh and her daughter, Dana, a cancer survivor, had spotted Buddy with a Manatee County Animal Shelter volunteer at Bradenton's downtown Farmers Market two Saturdays ago.

While fussing over the friendly dog, Kulbersh thought of the Waters.

Their three kids are out of the house now -- Jenni is finishing dental school at the University of Florida, Amy is in med school at the University of Miami and David, a new dad, is working in Orlando.

Nor did the couple have any pets.

"I thought, this is exactly what they need -- a therapy dog," Kulbersh said. "It's been trying, challenging for them and I knew they needed a distraction."

Her timing was fortuitous.

Elaine Waters has been fighting the good fight for so long.

A doting mother, devoted wife for 30 years and now retired after 25 as a Bradenton allergist/immunologist, she has battled breast cancer off and on since she was 44.

"I fought it hard back then, did everything I needed to do, thought it was done and went back to my practice," said the McKeesport, Pa., native. "Then 12 years later it was back."

Since then Waters and her husband have made the weekly trek to the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa for chemo treatment.

It's a grind, but necessary and one she meets with an unflagging spirit.

"I've been fortunate," Waters said. "I'm still here, I've had every chemo known to man, I tolerate it well -- and I don't know how many times my hair has come and gone."

The long vacations they used to take are now day trips.

With Waters' condition, her oncologist wants her close to home.

Enter Kulbersh. And Buddy.

The Waters are fond of dogs, especially black labs, but it had been a few years since they had one.

Not anymore.

"When I rang the doorbell and Elaine saw the dog she said, 'What have you done?'" Kulbersh said, laughing.

They knew what was up.

"Susan brought him over and conveniently had some errands to run for a few hours," Elaine Waters said. "And that was all the time he needed to wiggle his way into our hearts."

A stray who'd spent almost 90 days at Manatee County Animal Services downtown adoption office, Buddy was about to get a home.

"It was meant to be," said Len Waters, a Natick, Mass., native and residential contractor. "We're battling this dreaded disease, we love dogs, he brings us joy and we can give him the best home he could ask for."

But first Buddy needed some medical attention before they could officially adopt him.

He had entropion, a condition where the eyelid folds inward and the eyelashes rub against the cornea, causing a gunky discharge.

So Cheryl Thompson, an animal care specialist with Manatee County Animal Services' downtown adoption center, contacted Animal Network Inc., which paid for the procedure to correct it.

"If there's a medical condition, we will find a way to rectify it," Thompson said. "It's case by case and depends on funding or whether grants are available. If not, we reach out to rescue organizations to see if they will help us."

Buddy's stitches are scheduled to come out Tuesday. He'll lose the clumsy cone, too.

The Waters are as happy for him, too.

"I haven't seen them smile like that in a long time," Kulbersh said. "They're like little kids with a new toy."

The couple has plans for Buddy.

"Now that we're slowing down, we'll do this -- take him for a long walk on the causeway and, God willing, go swimming and do all those nice doggie things," Len Waters said.

There is something else his wife is determined to do. Her goal is to see Jenni graduate from dental school in May.

"And maybe he'll come, too," Elaine Waters said, peering into the pooch's big brown eyes. "OK, Buddy?"

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix

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