Years ago I began a friendship as a result of a story in The Post and Courier. A young boy named Erik Simao in Summerville was homebound because of brain cancer and planned to get a puppy when his doctor gave the OK.
Seeing that he was a dog lover, I contacted his family through his homebound teacher and began a long series of visits with my cancer survivor pet therapy dog, Rafter, which developed into a wonderful friendship, bound by love yet resulting from the demon we know as cancer.
Erik was diagnosed with brain cancer when he was 8 years old. Rafter was diagnosed with bone cancer at 2 years of age. For years, they were on the same check up schedule: MRI's or X-rays every three months. For several months, I took Rafter to visit Erik at his home.
They played games together. Erik would hide and I would send Rafter to find him. Erik would hide a stuffed toy, then tell Rafter to go find it. Erik helped me teach Rafter new tricks as well as practice his old ones.
Erik and Rafter were the inspiration for my founding the K-9 Care Unit for Kids, made up of Therapy Dogs Incorporated members, and our logo is Rafter and Erik sitting side by side. We would see Erik at various events around the Lowcountry. The K-9 Care Unit specialized in visiting children at the Walk for Autism, holiday parades at MUSC Children's Hospital, a respite for special needs kids, school visits where we taught responsible dog ownership, to name a few.
Sometimes one of our therapy teams would come across Erik on one of his many hospital visits at MUSC. He would proudly tell them that he was the "boy on your shirt."
When Erik finished his round of chemo, I helped him find the right puppy, one that would snuggle and keep him company, and be his own private therapy dog. He had fallen in love with a Cavalier King Charles spaniel in our therapy group, so I searched for the specific color and sex he wanted: a black and tan boy.
He ended up with a pup whom he named Sir Muttley. Muttley stayed by Erik's side for years, a perfect therapy dog through all his ups and downs until recently when his epilepsy got out of control and Erik lost his best buddy.
Over the years, Erik and Rafter shared many good times. They were featured on all three networks at one time or another, as well in the newspaper and local regional papers.
In 2005, I began a fundraiser for canine cancer research known as the Trot for the Cure. Erik and his parents came and volunteered. Erik's perky personality made everyone who met him feel welcomed.
In 2006, Rafter "wrote" a book about his life as a therapy dog and dedicated it to Erik, who made appearances at several book signings. All profits went to the canine cancer research program at the University of Georgia where Rafter's cancer was diagnosed and treated.
Sadly, I lost Rafter when his cancer returned in 2008 but have remained close to Erik and his family. As Erik grew older, he was busy with various teenage activities so I didn't see him as much. We would meet occasionally for dinner and catch up.
Several years ago, Erik's cancer returned, and he has had more ups and downs than any person should experience. Since he was 8, his circle of friends have been the Camp Happy Days and Courageous Kids families, those who understand the unimaginable worry of wondering every day if the cancer would return.
Now, he is fighting that battle for his life again as he tackles it head on with the same perkiness and spark that I saw in him as a little boy. Where does he get his courage?
I know that I am one of many, many friends and acquaintances who takes strength from being around Erik and sharing time with him. He laughs and jokes as if battling a brain tumor is no big deal. He looks forward to doing the things he enjoys: being with his family, rooting for Clemson and sharing time with friends.
I am so in awe of him. He has taught me so much about caring, giving and living.
I believe that Erik will win this battle. I believe in Erik, and I hope that after reading this, you will, too.
Jane Hirsch is a seventh generation Charlestonian who returned in 1999 and became involved with pet therapy dogs. She raises funds and awareness of canine cancer research and testing dogs for therapy work. She is the president of the national organization Therapy Dogs Incorporated.