LA CROSSE — Dog lovers are a dedicated bunch.
With her family living busy lives and some members suffering from allergies, Emma Mertens, a 7-year-old dog lover from Hartland, is unable to have her own, instead getting her canine fix pet sitting for neighbors and petting pooches who pass by.
It was the joy Emma gets from a furry face and a wagging tail that led her to seek a little canine comfort after being diagnosed with an inoperable, diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma brain tumor in January, asking for nothing more than adorable dog photos.
Kind-hearted owners worldwide responded in force, sending Emma more than 200,000 photos, letters and well wishes on behalf of their portly Pomeranians, sweater clad Shih Tzus, lumbering labs and impossibly fluffy huskies — her favorite breed, along with German shepherds.
“She was pretty amazed, pretty surprised,” Emma’s father, Geoff, said in a phone interview from the family’s Waukesha County home. “We literally feel like the whole world is rallying around her.”
Emma was a happy, healthy little girl when she began experiencing flu-like symptoms and a headache during “a normal weekend playing out in the Wisconsin snow,” Geoff says.
Undergoing emergency surgery to reduce brain swelling, doctors discovered DIPG, an aggressive tumor that forms in the brainstem and is the leading cause of death from pediatric brain tumors.
Only 10 percent of those with the condition live for two years after diagnosis, with the median survival duration nine months, according to the Michael Mosier Defeat DIPG Foundation. Nationwide, between 200 to 400 children, typically between age 4 to 11, are diagnosed annually.
“(We felt) obviously devastation,” Geoff says of the reaction of himself, wife Tammy and their two older sons. “Our daughter’s life is cut short. This is a horrible, horrible diagnosis.”
Emma has found comfort in the outpouring of love from some of the 43 million dog owners in the United States, as well as those around the world. Emma has received so many missives, that the Mertens family switched first to a P.O. Box, then asking for messages via email when the postal load became too much. When the inbox reached max capacity (3,000 emails) within an hour, they began requesting submissions through the Team Emma Facebook page.
Clear across the state in La Crosse, the Coulee Region Humane Society staff jumped at the chance to fulfill Emma’s wish for some puppy love during a difficult time.
“All of us at CRHS can relate to Emma and her love of dogs. That’s why we do what we do,” said Taylor Bates, marketing and events coordinator for the Coulee Region Humane Society. “We see difficult situations and mistreatment of animals every day. It can often be discouraging and frustrating for us when we’re working hard to save these animals. But seeing Emma’s absolute love of dogs and positive attitude despite her diagnosis is really uplifting and encouraging.”
Bates and staff sent Emma 10 cards earlier this month featuring dogs who had health issues or remained at the shelter for an extended time before being adopted: Huskies Lady and Sheba were both dangerously overweight with severe dental issues, pitbulls Pria and Sunshine were overlooked due to their breed’s stigma and Maltese/poodle mix Honeycomb suffered in a puppy mill, but all have since found loving homes and are thriving.
“We wanted to show her that even when you’re down, there is still good in each day,” Bates said. “Our animals come to us because they’re orphaned, abandoned, sick or neglected. But even so, they still seem to maintain a positive outlook and hope for the best. ... Because we work with animals every day, we see first-hand the positive impact that animals can have on people’s lives. Whether people come in to adopt or just look at the animals, everyone seems excited and happy for interactions with our animals. We thought that this would be an easy way for us to do something for someone in need.”
Along with the pictures and GIFs of snuggly pugs and frolicking collies, Emma has received an abundance of stuffed versions, including a fleet of plush K9s. In fact, more than 30 human officers with their K-9 partners paid Emma a visit at her home in Hartland on March 9. The officers came from across southeastern Wisconsin.
West Allis Police Officer Rick Orlowski told WTMJ-TV that Emma’s eyes “were the size of saucers” when the officers pulled up. He says she couldn’t stop smiling.
Emma also has received video messages from the Milwaukee Brewers and an invitation to drop the puck at the Take your Dog to the Admirals Game in April. The Make A Wish Foundation has reached out, and on March 22 Emma served as “veterinarian for the day” at an animal clinic in Sussex in Waukesha County.
A GoFundMe campaign for Emma’s medical expenses surpassed its goal within a month, currently at over $129,000 in donations. In a GoFundMe update, Geoff wrote, “Tammy and I are very overwhelmed by the support to help us fight for Emma as long as possible. It is absolutely amazing that so many people have contributed. You will never know how much stress relief this effort has provided.”
Emma, currently undergoing radiation therapy, is “riding a really good wave right now,” Geoff said in mid-March, and attends half days of school at her request. The family is passionate about advocating for research and spreading awareness of DIPG. They encourage others to live kindly and fully, something they practice themselves.
“We make our time as a family really meaningful,” Geoff said. “Our day by day plan is to do whatever Emma wants. ... We don’t know how much time we’re going to have with her.”