After a fatal disease took both of their best friends, Margaret Whyel and Walter Piroth came together to form a nonprofit organization to combat the illness that claimed their lives.
“She had the most beautiful eyes, and you could tell something was wrong because her eyes just weren’t right,” Whyel said. “I couldn’t even talk when they told me the diagnosis.”
It’s not uncommon for people who have watched loved ones pass away to volunteer their time to ensure that others don’t have to suffer the same fate. Whyel and Piroth’s late companions just happened to be of the four-legged, furry variety.
Whyel, of Brownsville, and Piroth, of Houston, met on the dog show circuit as members of the Three Rivers Shetland Sheepdog Club of Western Pennsylvania. When the same disease took both of their pets within a year of each other, the two started a fund, Lyndi’s Legacy, to fight the autoimmune disease called immune mediated hemolytic anemia. The illness causes the immune system to attack the dog’s red blood cells, which carry oxygen to organs and tissues.
Although diagnosis of the disease is relatively uncommon, Whyel said veterinarians believe many pets die before they get a chance to identify it. It affects all breeds of dog and strikes very quickly.
“A lot of dogs get sick on Saturday, and on Monday if they haven’t seen a vet, their dog dies before they take them in. We know that’s happening a lot.”
Many owners mistake early symptoms for a common cold.
“He was acting strange,” Piroth said of his dog, Ozzy. “I took him for a walk and he collapsed. He had a real strange look on his face like, ‘What’s going on?’”
After visiting several veterinarians, a doctor was able to identify IMHA. But as Piroth found out as Ozzy (spelled “oZZy” when he entered competitions) succumbed to the disease, animal health officials have very little resources when it comes to fighting IMHA.
“The treatment is really helter-skelter,” Piroth said. “Our goal is to raise money to do something to make it more effective.”
None of the treatments either of the owners tried worked. Blood transfusions and medications only prolonged the inevitable. After weeks of expensive treatments, they had to put their dogs down to stop their suffering.
“He had good days, he had bad days. But I wasn’t going to let him go indefinitely,” Piroth said. “We decided one afternoon it was too hard for both of us to go on.”
“There’s no quality of life once you get so bad,” Whyel said.
The two created a fund overseen by the nonprofit Animal Care Fund specifically aimed at researching IMHA. The Animal Care Fund is the nonprofit branch of the Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center. In addition to helping people in need afford medical treatment for their pets, organizers create funds with the shared goal of furthering research on animal sickness.
The pair raised $3,300 in slightly over a year. They make themselves visible at many Three Rivers Shetland events and have a presence on Facebook, where people who have had pets affected by IMHA share their stories and words of encouragement.
The group will hold its second annual Lyndi’s Legacy Walk at Cedar Park in Westmoreland County at 10 a.m. July 14. Dogs from all over the area will be walking the trail together. Participants will hold a ceremonial balloon release to honor victims, raffles will be held and vendors will offer a variety of items in exchange for donations. For more information, an email can be sent to email@example.com.
Piroth said it was the least he could do for his late friend, Ozzy.
“He rescued me, I didn’t rescue him,” Piroth said. “He took me places I never thought I’d go. And I’m still not done because I’m still doing this.”
Whyel had similar sentiments regarding her Lyndi. She said the organization not only stands as a tribute to Lyndi’s memory, but a beacon of hope for anyone who has had a pet go through the disease.
“After she died, I was a mess,” Whyel said. “I was looking the tallest bridge. But as mad as I am at God for allowing this, I think he had a purpose.
“And if we help save one dog, then it will be worth it.”