Summit County’s 2nd annual Bark for Life event to benefit the American Cancer Society
When Todd Johnson walks into Swedish Medical Center in Denver for his chemotherapy treatment, he isn’t alone. Following close on his heels is Buddy, Johnson’s dog and inseparable companion.
“He’s become very popular with the nurses and the patients there. I think if I didn’t bring Buddy, they’d probably turn me away,” Johnson said with a laugh.
In recognition of what Buddy has done for him throughout his illness, as well as what countless other dogs have done for other patients, Johnson has organized Summit’s second annual Bark for Life event.
Bark for Life is a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, a nationwide organization dedicated to taking on cancer of all types by way of research, education, advocacy and service. Bark for Life brings anyone affected by cancer together, and welcomes their dogs as well, from official therapy dogs to dog cancer survivors to dogs that help take their owners’ minds off of the realities of their illness, even if only for a short while. The first Bark for Life event was held in 2007 and now has spread into hundreds of individual events across the country.
Summit’s first Bark for Life took place last year at the Frisco Adventure Park. Around 20 dogs attended and the event raised $4,500. This year, Johnson and the other organizers hope to draw even more.
“It seems like everybody has been affected (by cancer) one way or another, and people here know someone that had a dog during this, or has their own dog, and it’s an opportunity for them to acknowledge that,” Johnson said.
Cancer has been a long journey for Johnson. In 2008, the former Red, White and Blue firefighter was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor. Since then, he’s gone through a variety of treatments, including chemotherapy, radiation and brain surgery.
In the midst of it all, Johnson decided to get a dog. In 2010, he adopted Buddy — a friendly, wiggly, gray lap-sized dog — from the Summit County Animal Shelter.
“We found each other,” he said.
Since then, Buddy has been by his side at home, in public and in the hospital. In addition to comforting Johnson, Buddy has become adept at interacting with other patients.
When he goes for his chemotherapy treatments, Johnson gets hooked up with a portable IV drip, then he walks Buddy around the treatment area. Johnson chats with other patients while they pet Buddy and sometimes even let him up on their laps.
“It’s a positive spin on an otherwise not-so-fun thing for me to do,” Johnson said.
Not only does Buddy get to spread some of his love around, but Johnson has found it’s a great way to get to know other people, many of whom are going through a similar experience.
“Buddy’s been a great companion during it all,” he said. “I feel better for having him there.”
Buddy has also made the rounds in Summit County, visiting kids at the Easter Seals camp, people at the Timberline Adult Day Services, the BOEC and the local group for adults with traumatic brain injuries.
Buddy has been with Johnson through the bad — and now also the good. In April of 2014, Johnson received bad news. The cancer was getting worse, spreading through his brain. His doctor put him on a different regimen of chemotherapy drugs. Just four months later, the doctor had a completely different diagnosis.
“For the first time, the cancer stopped growing, and was ‘dormant,’” Johnson said. “So that is awesome. … (I) had a total reversal, like a 180, worst to first.”
The news gives him even more to celebrate at this year’s Bark for Life event.
Nancy Peterson met Johnson last year, when they shared a Colorado Mountain Express van together from the airport. Buddy was on Johnson’s lap and once again served as an icebreaker for meeting new people. During the conversation, Johnson mentioned his plan for putting together the first Bark for Life event.
“He said, ‘Oh we’re starting an event here in Summit and we’re having a meeting in a couple nights, and would you like to come?’ So I said sure,” Peterson recalled.
She joined the organizing team, and enjoyed it so much that she is back this year to do it all again.
“It’s just a unique way to get everybody together and their dogs, and it’s a fun little course in the Nordic Center that we’ve created,” she said. “It’s just a really fun event. Everybody has such a good time.”
Bark for Life in Summit consists of a non-competitive walk that follows a mile-long course from the Frisco Day Lodge. Anyone is welcome, and all dogs that are vaccinated and leashed may attend.
In addition to the walk, there will be a silent auction and a raffle, which include items donated by local businesses.
“Everyone is super generous, because they can identify with what we’re trying to do,” Johnson said.
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