Everyone needs a little help from a friend when a health crisis strikes. When an ailing girl met a tiny calf, they formed a sweet bond that would help the young patient get through the tough times to come.
At 11, Mazie Bunn has had more doctors’ appointments than some people will have in a lifetime. She’s been plagued by mystery symptoms, a frightening diagnosis and ongoing health issues.
Her constant motivation to get better is Blonnie, an unusual pet that keeps her active and makes her feel loved.
“Blonnie has been Mazie’s backbone. They say God puts people and things into your life for a reason and that was our reason,” Emily Watkins-Bunn, Mazie’s mom, told TODAY.
The family lives on a farm in Zebulon, North Carolina, but had no animals until Blonnie entered the picture in 2015.
By then, Mazie had endured frustrating symptoms since she was a baby, including hearing loss and ear problems that required multiple surgeries. When she was in preschool, she’d start throwing up or cry that her head hurt. Doctors blamed everything from ear infections to food allergies, but the problems continued. Regular MRIs showed nothing suspicious.
“All these trips that we made to the ER, a lot of times we were blown off — ‘Oh, it’s just a really bad headache,’” Watkins-Bunn remembers being told. “She would tell me her head hurt so bad that her brain would hurt.”
Mazie was right. An MRI with contrast finally revealed what was wrong in the fall of 2015. Mazie had a Chiari malformation: a condition that causes the cerebellum — the part of the brain that controls balance — to be pushed down into the spinal canal.
Headaches are the “hallmark sign” of a Chiari malformation, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke noted. Mazie also often dragged her feet and complained that her hands and feet were asleep, other classic symptoms. The ear problems were likely caused by the condition, too.
“Her brain was hanging out of the hole in the back of the skull,” Watkins-Bunn said. “[Her neurosurgeon] said ,‘Your child probably doesn’t know what it’s like not to be in pain.’”
Mazie would need brain surgery, but when doctors at Duke University Hospital told her it would take place within days, she asked for a delay. The state fair was coming up and she wanted to show animals. Could the surgery wait?
Fascinated by 'Oreo cows'
Earlier that year, Mazie was encouraged to try 4H. Since her own family didn’t keep animals, they’d drive the girl to a nearby farm full of “Oreo cows,” as Mazie would call them. The Belted Galloway cattle have a signature black-white-black pattern on their bodies.
That’s where Mazie was paired up with Blonnie, a tiny “Oreo” calf that was separated from its mom too soon by mistake, stunting its growth. It wasn’t much bigger than a dog at that point.
“She was like the little outcast cow and she was the one that nobody would pick. I think Mazie always felt like the outcast, too, and she thought everybody deserved a chance,” Watkins-Bunn said. “The two of them ended up being like two peas in a pod.”
The family believes Blonnie sensed when Mazie wasn’t feeling well and was protective of the little girl. Mazie insisted on displaying Blonnie in shows, not caring the calf wouldn’t win any prizes because of her small size.
Cheered up by FaceTime with Blonnie
With doctors allowing a brief delay so that Mazie could attend the state fair, the brain surgery took place in October 2015. It took nine hours for surgeons to remove a quarter size piece of Mazie’s skull to create more space for her cerebellum and relieve pressure on the spinal cord. They also removed the top two vertebrae that had been crushed by her brain.
Recovering in the pediatric intensive care unit afterwards, Mazie’s head and face were extremely swollen and she felt miserable. She didn’t want visitors, but she lit up when she was given the opportunity to FaceTime with Blonnie.
When Mazie was finally out of the hospital and reunited with Blonnie in person that December, it was like being greeted by a puppy, Watkins-Bunn said: “That little cow was so excited — she mooed and mooed. She knew her person was back.”
Blonnie’s owner surprised Mazie by gifting her the calf, so the family built a barn on their farm and now owns four other cows.
Mazie's hearing has improved since the surgery. So have her headaches, but they are still managed with daily medication.
She has had more health challenges, including being diagnosed with epilepsy and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a disorder that affects connective tissues. Mazie's mobility varies from day to day, so the family has gotten her a wheelchair for extra support when she needs it. Doctors have encouraged Mazie to keep showing cows as a way to stay active to keep her body strong.
That’s where Blonnie is still helping Mazie. Now weighing close to 1,000 pounds, she still knows when the girl is having a bad day. Mazie walks to the barn every day to see her friend — a powerful motivation to keep moving despite her health challenges. The special bond makes her work harder, her mom said.
“Had Blonnie not been in Mazie’s life, I think she would have probably gone into a shell. I think she would not have made progress,” she noted. “It’s almost like it was meant to be… they needed each other.”