More than half a century has passed since my oldest brother drowned trying to save our cousin. I was just 9 years old, but I remember that time like it was yesterday — not just my mother’s gut-wrenching wails when she heard the news but the pitiful whimpering of his dog Tippie as he lay at the side of my brother’s casket.
I was reminded of both this week when I spotted a photograph of George H.W. Bush’s service dog Sully resting, hopefully, by the late president’s coffin.
The Labrador, named after airline pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who landed a passenger jet on the Hudson River in 2009, was assigned to the 41st president in June, just months after former first lady Barbara Bush died.
The elder President Bush had a form of Parkinson’s disease that caused, among other things, slow movements and difficulty balancing, and toward the end of his life, he frequently needed a wheelchair to get around. Sully, trained by America’s VetDogs, which places service dogs and guide dogs with first responders, active-duty service members and veterans, helped with that.
One news report said he could open doors, pick up items and summon help if needed.
Tippie, a German shepherd, had been my brother’s trusted friend for as long as I can remember. When you saw one of them, you knew the other wasn’t far behind.
After my brother’s death, Tippie was never the same. What he couldn’t say, we soon saw in changes to his physical body and in his slowing gait. Where he once pranced, he moved like a tired old man. His dark brown coat started to shed. The light left his eyes.
I imagine the same thing happened to my dog Snuggles when I left her with friends in the fall of 1990 to move from Sacramento to Fort Worth, Texas, where I’d taken my third newspaper job. Her stay back in California was to be only temporary, just until we could get settled in a new place.
Then less than a month later, out of the blue, our friends called to say Snuggles, a wedding gift from my husband, had passed. She hadn’t been ill. Her vet surmised she simply grieved herself to death. I thought I might die, too.
Unlike Snuggles, Tippie didn’t just lie down one day and die. My grandmother made the hard decision to put him to sleep. Well, that’s what she called it.
Seeing the photo of Sully and remembering these tragedies in my own life, I was as saddened for the retriever as I was for Bush’s children and grandchildren over the loss of their dad, our president.
But it wasn’t just that. I was remembering, too, recent research by Dr. Toni Miles and Dr. William H. Frishman that suggests emotional stress can raise the level of the body’s stress hormones, blood pressure and heart rate, which can lead to death.
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“Losing a loved one is a terrible loss, and emotional heartache can cause physical problems, too,” said Frishman, a cardiologist, professor and chairman of the department of medicine at New York Medical College, and author of “Triumph Over Tragedy.”
One day after the death of her daughter Carrie Fisher in December 2016, Debbie Reynolds, the beloved star of “Singin’ in the Rain,” suffered a medical emergency and died. Just hours after her son’s funeral in late October 2017, Sheryl Stiles, the mother of a Las Vegas police officer killed during the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, suffered a heart attack and two days later died. And eight months after his beloved Barbara passed, Bush did, too.
Both Miles, a University of Georgia professor who recently concluded an eight-year-long study of the health effects of grief on surviving family and friends, and Frishman say people can die of a broken heart. I suspect dogs can, too.
After Bush’s funeral ceremonies are over, news reports indicated Sully would be joining the dog program at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he will help wounded veterans and service members during their recovery.
I hope that’s true. I hope, despite the president’s passing, Sully will be OK.