Cancer is a disease that touches almost everyone, whether it's a relative, co-worker, or neighbor who's been diagnosed. During these times, hearing survival stories can make all the difference. WNPR's Lucy Nalpathanchil found a Connecticut woman who shares hope through a unique program.
I arrived at Hope Douglas' log cabin home in Clinton on a sunny, weekday morning. Before she leads me on a tour of her property, we take a moment to stand on the porch to check out the view.
Among the tall trees and forest floor stands a circle of a dozen or so small buildings that serve as aviaries.
Douglas describes an encounter years ago that led her to becoming a wildlife rehabilitator.
"I looked into the eyes of a blind red-tailed hawk that was in captivity in Florida. I was seven feet away from this magnificent bird and something magic happened."
After that trip, she decided to quit her job and began to study under a federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
While there, she learned how to care for injured raptors like hawks, eagles, and owls.
"Well, let's go in and see this bald eagle."
She bought the Clinton property in 1992 and now her organization, Wind Over Wings is home to fifteen raptors.
From Teddy, a little Saw-Whet owl who stands about eight inches tall to a Golden Eagle named Skywalker who was rescued in Nebraska.
None of the birds at Wind Over Wings can be released back into the wild because of injuries that impair their ability to hunt.
Douglas and a host of volunteers not only take care of the birds but they've trained them to be comfortable with people. This allows Wind Over Wings to bring them into the community and teach individuals, both young and old, about the raptors.
She shares an anecdote from a program she did in Mystic a few years back.
"And when I came home the phone was ringing. It was a lady that said I was seated in the audience and I'm in stage 4 of cancer. And I've about had it with chemotherapy. I'm about done, I'm tired of this whole thing. But then I heard about the bald eagle."
At the Mystic event, Douglas introduced the audience to an eagle that survived life threatening injuries when it fell eighty feet from its nest. The eagle was rescued and treated at Tufts University.
"And they put him through all kinds of medical tests that he didn't want to go through. All kinds of x-rays, and blood tests, and lead tests, and cold laser treatments and managed to survive. And this woman said, 'He didn't give up so I'm not going to give up either.' And she decided to go the rest of the way with chemo."
Soon after hearing from this woman, Douglas found out she had breast cancer. After the diagnosis, she thought about how her work with the birds could also help other cancer patients.
"They are particularly engaging just to observe and to be around. So it was fun to be around them as a healing process. And it also for me it adds normalcy to my life because it something I really do enjoy."
Now in remission, Douglas has created the program, Soaring with Hope, for cancer patients and their families.
Her program was part of a full day of activities organized by the Connecticut chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Golden eagle, Skywalker was a big hit with the audience.
They awe at his beauty, dark brown feathers with golden streaks near his neck and head.
He stands tall, perched on a trainer's glove as educator, Pat Davidson, tells the audience his story. Skywalker's right wing was amputated after he was shot out of the sky.
"So these birds go through an awful lot of medical treatment and doctors' offices when they first come to us. But they get through that and then they begin to start a new life. Like Skywalker, he can never fly, of course, because he has one wing. That was eight years ago and look at him! He is just marvelous."
After the program ends, the children and parents crowd around Douglas and the other educators who answer their questions. Robert Malave of Stratford stands next to his six year old son as he talks about the parallels he's drawn between his life and the stories he's heard today.
"That's kind of what happened to us. Our kids are healthy and having fun and everything is alright and all of a sudden they get diagnosed with having leukemia. And then through all the treatment and through all the love, you get to see the progress. And at the end, how they're going to be cured and be able to survive."
Soaring with Hope is a program that's a different kind of animal therapy than say, petting a dog or cat.
But Phil Arkow, an instructor of Animal-Assisted therapy, says these encounters with birds of prey can have the same therapeutic effect.
"And we bring those animals into our lives, whether its pets, whether it's visiting zoos and birdwatching or driving through the countryside. We still have an innate affinity for animals. They bring a sense of peace and calming and a sense of regularity that everything is going to be okay."
Hope Douglas describes this feeling as balancing and a tie in with nature for a world that's often too busy to take notice.