Four days a week, lonely, recovering animals in Fort Collins’ Animal Haven Veterinary Clinic find comfort under her careful watch.
Fluid-fed cats and surgery-saddened dogs find more than just medical attention at the clinic; they find a friend and guardian to oversee their recovery.
She, however, will probably never recover. Tamy Rife, the keeper of the sick and saddened animals at Animal Haven, is sick too.
But, she is too strong to let that stand in her way. She, after all, does have a life to live.
“Tamy is an extraordinary person,” said Scott Simmer, Animal Haven’s head veterinary technician. “The amount of stuff she continues to do and the heart that she shows is an inspiration.”
Tamy Rife, a 17-year-old student at Fort Collins’ Rocky Mountain High School, is suffering from a rare form of Peripheral Neuropathy. Since its detection in her second year of life, the disease has progressed and left Tamy’s frail, 48-pound body confined to a wheelchair. A chronic form of neuropathy, the disease is an extremely painful affliction impacting Tamy’s peripheral nervous system.
“The doctors have told us that it is destroying and damaging her nerves,” said Tamy’s mother, Teresa. “She is constantly in extreme pain and must be on a lot of painkillers.”
Peripheral Neuropathy, relating to the motor and sensory neurons, and not directly affecting the brain and spinal cord (the central nervous system), can take many forms and is generally a temporary ailment. Such common afflictions as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome are forms of neuropathy.
The disease, with many possible causes from viral infections to alcohol and toxins, adversely affects nerves usually in the outer extremities. A person with neuropathy could begin to have symptoms such as tingling or ‘electric’ feeling in the feet and then advance into feeling extreme pain, burning or sensitivity. However, in most cases, the pain is only temporary.
Tamy’s case is different. The pain has remained and her nervous system is under constant attack. Her neuropathy is doing to her nerves much the same thing that Muscular Dystrophy does to its victim’s muscles, wasting them away.
The disease’s progression has left Tamy unable to support herself without a wheelchair, nearly unable to speak and with a life expectancy of only a few more years.
But that doesn’t mean she can’t smile.
“We never try to dwell on the misfortunes,” said Tamy’s parents who fully understand the imminently fatal potential of their daughter’s affliction.
Anyone around her certainly cannot deny the severity of the problem, but at the same time, Tamy is too busy making the most of things around her to feel sorry for herself and to let others feel sorry for her.
“It is remarkable how much she does and is confident that she is capable of,” said Head Veterinary Technician Scott Simmer.
After attending school, Tamy goes to work at Animal Haven. Her work is facilitated by an assistant, Patricia Frisbee, a Job Coach for Supported Youths Employment Services, a group of people who work specifically with challenged youth to aid their transition from school to the work world.
However, assistance is rarely needed in Tamy’s case. Over the course of her first few months work at the clinic, she has become a well-liked compliment to the veterinarian staff. Her typical day usually involves comforting animals before, during and after surgeries.
Here is where she shows her expertise.
“The animals love Tamy and clients love to see her interacting with them,” Simmer said. “Recently, we had a dog come out of surgery and not want to eat at all. Tamy was the only person who could get it to eat.”
Besides comforting the animals, Tamy also helps in many basic procedures such as intravenously feeding animals fluids, grooming and aiding in temperature taking.
At almost no point during the day is Tamy’s lap without a furry companion waiting for attention.
Her charismatic interaction with the staff and their ‘patients’ is always lighthearted. Even at times where her condition limits her, when a skittish animal escapes her feeble grasp, Tamy’s only expression is never one of desperation, but a shrug and a smile. And, despite being barely able to talk and hear, despite needing to communicate with her fellow employees by reading a dry-erase board and speaking laboriously in little more than a whisper, Tamy remains social.
“She is a wonder to work with and never ceases to amaze us,” Simmer said.
Though she may never recover from her illness, Tamy has overcome and been able to smile in the face of adversity. She, who has been given so little to work with and knows her challenges exactly, is taking advantage of life for life’s sake and, in turn, teaching those around her an invaluable lesson.
She words it best herself in her own poetry:
I am strong because God is always with me in my heart.
I may get older and always look like a child because I don’t grow like other people do. But I am strong because God is always with me in my heart.
I may be skinny and never get any fatter no matter how I try to eat more, it doesn’t work. But I am strong because God is always with me in my heart.
I may be sick and never find a cure to get better because none of my doctors can seem to help me. But I am strong because God is always with me in my heart.
I may be in lots of pain and go through so many surgeries. But I am strong because God is always with me in my heart.
I may do and say terrible things that I never mean. But I am strong because God is always with me in my heart.
I may never get to do what other people can do. But I am strong because God is always with me in my heart.
I may be scared of things but I am brave. I am strong because God is always with me in my heart.
And for God always being with me and in my heart I am thankful for him helping me make it this far. Because God is always with me in my heart.
-Tamy Rife August 4, 2002