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University of Missouri News Bureau
Sugar, a cocker spaniel/chow chow mix, was found in a drainage ditch after the Joplin tornado struck. Her back legs were paralyzed, but after donated surgery and therapy, she is improving every day.
TODAY contributor
updated 6/28/2011 3:11:06 PM ET 2011-06-28T19:11:06

For those not directly affected, memories of the tornado that devastated Joplin, Mo., in May may be fading — but for those still picking up the pieces, the massive damage remains all too real. Still, there are bright spots amid the chaos, and few are more inspiring than the story of a dog named Sugar.

Steven and Debbie Leatherman, Sugar’s owners, brought the 10-year-old cocker spaniel/chow chow mix down to their basement with them when they heard the first news of the impending tornado on Sunday, May 22. But when they saw on television that it was headed straight for them, the couple decided to play it safe and headed for a concrete-walled storm shelter within the basement.

Sugar, however, had other ideas — picking up on her owners’ fear, she took off for her own favorite safe spot, under a bed upstairs. Debbie attempted to follow the dog, but her husband pulled her back to safety.

Less than a minute later, they heard their house being torn apart by the storm.

Dog gone
After it passed, the Leathermans, assisted by their son Daniel, who had driven home from the University of Missouri to help, combed through the debris, fearful that they would find Sugar’s body, hoping to find her safe. The dog was nowhere to be found.

Daniel’s aunt in Kansas, along with a veterinary technician friend, began a search via social network sites. On the night of Monday, May 23, the first glimmer of hope appeared when a volunteer at the Joplin Humane Society sent her a picture by cell phone. It was Sugar.

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The following morning, Daniel and his parents went to the Humane Society to identify the dog. That was when they learned that Sugar, having lost the use of her hind legs, had been trapped in a drainage ditch when a good Samaritan rescued her — otherwise, she would’ve drowned where she lay. Sugar needed radiographs and, likely, surgery, which, in the midst of the emergency, the Humane Society simply didn’t have the resources to provide.

As a student at University of Missouri, Daniel knew they had a top-notch veterinary program and thought they might be able to help. “I was planning to make the three-and-a-half hour drive back to Columbia, anyway, because I’d literally driven down with just the clothes on my back to help my parents,” he told TODAY.com. “I called to make sure they could help, and they said to bring her right in.”

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Despite the fact that the Leathermans’ home had been ripped down to the foundation, with only the concrete wall to the garage and the foundation remaining identifiable, the family decided they’d do what they could for their beloved pet. So when Fred Wininger, an assistant professor of neurology and neurosurgery in the College of Veterinary Medicine, determined that Sugar still retained pain sensation in her hind legs and could regain function in them if she underwent surgery quickly enough, they sprang into action.

Picking up the pieces
The surgery was a success, but it wasn’t until two weeks later, on June 6, that Sugar’s legs showed signs of movement. The dog, who Daniel described as “feisty as a puppy, but just a big old cuddlebug now that she’s older” underwent a week of daily electrical stimulation to prevent muscle atrophy, plus underwater treadmill therapy.

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And the Leathermans were in for more good news: The Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital and College of Veterinary Medicine paid for Sugar’s treatment and therapy. Orscheln Farm and Home also helped out by donating food and toys to help with Sugar’s care.

University of Missouri News Bureau
Daniel Leatherman is seeing to Sugar’s recovery at the University of Missouri while his parents rebuild their home and their lives in Joplin.

For a family left with no possessions by the tornado, the donations meant everything. Today the Leathermans are picking up the pieces: Steven and Debbie plan to rebuild a home on the foundation that withstood the storm, and Daniel is back in Columbia, rehabilitating Sugar, beginning a new research job, and finishing his undergraduate work in biochemistry.

And Sugar is hard at work too. She has a brace that enables Daniel to help her walk outside for potty breaks, and he fills the bathtub up to allow her to move with some buoyancy.

“She’s improving every day,” Daniel said of the dog who, according to him, loves apples and hot — not cold — popcorn. “If I get up to go to the kitchen, she’ll follow me until her bottom just sort of falls. She seems to know to push herself, but also knows her limits.”

Daniel finds it hard to be away from his parents as they work on rebuilding their home and their lives, but he realizes it’s a huge relief to them to have him handling Sugar’s rehabilitation. “This has given us a bright spot in some traumatic and depressing times, and it’s given people around us a reason to smile,” he told TODAY.com.

And as for Sugar, each day that the damaged little dog positions herself a bit better or bears a little more weight, the Leathermans have another reason to smile. “It gives you perspective,” Daniel said. “After this, I don’t have much to complain about.”

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