As Michael Gaither lay in his bed with a breathing mask strapped around his face, Honey nudged his limp hand.
The house was quiet aside from the hissing of air from Gaither’s oxygen tank and the worried whines from Honey, his 8-year-old service dog.
The 72-year-old U.S. Army veteran and the German shepherd have lived together since 2011. They’ve been best friends for seven years.
“She’s a part of me,” Gaither said. “I don’t know what life would be like without her.”
Now, both are terminally ill — Gaither with multiple sclerosis, and Honey with a fungal infection and spinal cord disease.
When veterinarians found Honey’s diseases in January 2017, they said she wouldn’t live to see her 100th treatment. But on Jan. 26 of this year, black and tan Honey celebrated her 100th procedure at the UF Small Animal Hospital surrounded by family, friends and bone-shaped treats.
Gaither lives in Chiefland, Florida, with his 75-year-old wife, Kaye Gaither. Gaither’s bedroom is occupied by a hospital bed and various medical instruments, but memorabilia of Gaither’s time as an able-bodied young soldier line the walls.
He has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder since he sustained injuries in the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination riots in Atlanta. He regularly experiences violent flashbacks.
Every day is a struggle — a life that would be impossible without Honey, he said.
Honey was assigned to Gaither by the Malcom Randall Veterans Affairs Medical Center as part of a national study. She now wears a camouflage service jacket fashioned from an old Air Force uniform once worn by Gaither’s daughter in Afghanistan. The study ended in August 2012 due to allegations of miscare, according to a 2016 article by The Associated Press. Honey’s and Gaither’s treatments have been funded by the VA.
Before Honey, Gaither would throw punches while having night terrors, his wife said.
“But now, Honey just comes over and puts her wet nose against his side,” she said. “She just calms him down.”
During the day, Honey helps Gaither maintain a routine. She fetches his socks, picks up items and keeps him safe.
Just three months ago, Honey saved Gaither’s life while Kaye tried to fix a lawn mower. Fumes from the mower were engulfing Gaither in his scooter chair. Kaye said she didn’t notice until Honey tried to push his scooter out of the way.
Honey has won five awards for her service, including four bronze medals from the American Kennel Club for canine excellence between 2011 and 2015 and a medal from U.S. War Dogs in 2015.
In 2013, Gaither and Honey founded an educational program called Kids For K9s. The duo went to various school assemblies in Levy County, educating children on proper service animal treatment, he said.
But as Honey teaches children and assists Gaither, she suffers from her own medical conditions. Her fungal infection took her left eye, and her spinal-cord disease may take her hind legs. Lately, she’s been collapsing, unable to support her own weight.
Even in Gaither’s condition, he brings Honey to the UF Small Animal Hospital twice a week for treatments.
“She’s part of the family,” he said. “That’s why I’m bringing her over here twice a week. To do for her what she’s done for me.”
When Honey received her 100th treatment, a tribute was held to honor her bravery. A handful of close friends and supporters came, including fellow therapy dog, Sola, and Sgt. Lauree’ Allen of the Levy County Sheriff's Office.
The U.S. War Dogs president Barbara Snow brought a cake saying “Congratulations 100 visits” and “Happy Birthday Honey the Wonderdog.”
As the visitors ate and Gaither looked on from his chair, Honey played with Sola, carefree.
Kaye watched over as well, eyes welling up with tears.
“I say they’ll recover a lot,” she said. “And I keep hoping its a self-fulfilling prophecy. The reality is that neither one of them is going to make it much longer.”
Michael Gaither, a U.S. Army veteran suffering from multiple sclerosis, lays in bed with his service dog, Honey, by his side. Both are fighting terminal illnesses and need constant medical treatments.