To say Mary Ann King was looking forward to her special visitor’s arrival at the Melville Hospice Home Friday (June 5) would be an understatement.
The senior said she slept surprisingly well the night before, woke early in anticipation of the 2 p.m. affair and was good to go – including decked out in full riding gear – hours before Violet set hoof in the South Surrey facility’s courtyard.
And though the Arabian mare was a tad delayed, when the face-to-muzzle moment finally arrived, the joy it created for King and those fortunate enough to witness the occasion was almost tangible.
“Aw, this is incredible, brings tears to my eyes,” said Diane Giesbrecht, a friend of King’s since the pair met by chance in hospital in late March.
“I feel very privileged to be part of this.”
For King, whose memory is jam-packed from her days as a dressage rider and the countless hours she spent with her own two horses – “it was a labour of love,” she said – the visit was more than an opportunity to once again feel the equestrian closeness that is so much a part of her being, however.
She hopes the attention it catches will also raise awareness of the condition – AL amyloidosis – that led her to the newly opened 15-bed hospice, and possibly help others who find themselves with the same diagnosis.
“Not only is it wonderful to have the horse here, I wanted to bring attention to the disease I have,” she said. “It’s been around, but nobody’s known about it because it’s been so rare.”
Caused by a bone-marrow disorder, AL amyloidosis creates abnormal proteins that deposit in and around tissues, nerves and organs. In King’s case, it targeted her heart and kidneys, leading to severe heart dysfunction and end-stage kidney failure.
The 67-year-old’s journey with AL amyloidosis began two years ago.
“Working my two horses, all of a sudden I was getting exhausted. And that’s how it started,” she said. “I remember saying to the doctor, I don’t know what’s wrong, but something isn’t right.”
A bone-marrow biopsy provided the answer, and two rounds of chemotherapy followed – but King doesn’t think those helped. After a fall at home in March landed her in hospital, “everything that I knew is gone,” she said.
Treatment can reduce symptoms, and since being at the hospice, medications have helped reduce dizziness and seizures that King had been experiencing due to low blood pressure, and enabled her to build her strength.
“She literally couldn’t even prop herself up,” nurse practitioner Brenda Eraut said.
Still, “the doctor said it’s terminal for me,” King said.
King encouraged anyone who feels that something isn’t right with their own bodies to not just ignore the feeling.
“Get it checked out, no matter what,” she said. “If it saves your life…”
King doesn’t know how much time she has left but said she plans to stick around “as long as God wants me.”
Friday, she made the most of her time with Violet, nuzzling the gentle giant, leading her around the courtyard and feeding her baby carrots.
“What a good girl, what a good girl,” King cooed.
Wishing she could go for a ride, King playfully – but with definite sincerity – promised Eraut she wouldn’t sue if they made the dream a reality.
Eraut couldn’t grant the request, of course, but she teared up when she spoke to Peace Arch News about how meaningful the day was to all involved.
All of the patients at the hospice are “like family” to those who are there to help them through those final months, days and hours, she said, and it was “so beautiful” to see the impact that the visit organized by King’s care team had.
“When she started talking about her horse, she just lit up,” Eraut said, of conversations she’s shared with King since her arrival at the Peace Arch Hospice Society-supported facility a month ago. “To have this whole team bring this gift to her, it’s just such a joy.
“It takes a village to die well. This is our village.”