On August 5, 2008, a friend directed me to a Craigslist post by a young couple pleading for someone to take their baby Chihuahua, born the night before with a facial deformity and unable to suckle. I couldn’t tell the severity of the defect from the photo, but it didn’t matter. They didn’t have the knowhow -– or the will — to care for her.
Time was ticking away and the baby wouldn’t last much longer without nourishment. I got these kids on the phone and drove as fast as I could to pick her up. She was wrapped in a little white washcloth, a tiny ball of fur squirming in the palm of my hand. I snuggled her in and made a mad dash for home.
It was obvious that she had a cleft to the lip and nostril. Unfortunately, she also had a cleft to both the soft and hard palate. The danger was that she would inhale fluid into her lungs, leading to pneumonia -– and maybe death. Her cleft lip made it impossible for her to garner the necessary suction to nurse.
At the vet the next morning, I was told that she had a slim chance of survival. The first of many surgical procedures took place the next day, when our 3.4-ounce girl was just 3 days old. I named her Emma, meaning “whole” or “complete” -– and we hoped that one day she would be!
Because I wasn’t able to be with her every moment, I drew off the idea of a baby monitor. I set up a webcam, watching her from my phone whenever I had to be away. Within hours of that first live stream, Baby Emma had become one to watch! Viewers from all over the world were watching her around the clock, even while she slept. Well-wishes began pouring in, with offers of support and an overwhelming show of love for this one tiny pup. Parents with cleft palate children were watching Emma’s story unfold, telling me how their children were relating to and falling in love with Baby Emma right along with the rest of us.
Fast forward nine months of tube feeding, five more surgeries, media coverage, and thousands of touched hearts later — Emma continues to amaze us. She has had six surgeries to date. Her soft palate was temporarily repaired early on, then grew closed on its own as she got older, but her hard palate cleft remains wide open. Her face is obviously deformed; she still has that lil’ crooked smile and tiny twisted nose, yet to me, that fancy face is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!
Emma has stayed small, weighing in at just 29 ounces, and is now almost totally hairless. We don’t know why she is, but we plan to get her tested for Cushing’s disease and autoimmune disorders. I’ve seen no problems associated with the hair loss — she’s just a lil’ naked baby. We keep her covered in style with fashions by our dear friend Linda Higgins.
Emma’s tiny skull is open in several areas — I’ve always said that we should have a “pawsome pink helmet” created for her. She lives the life of a delicate princess. She sleeps in a playpen, and we are very cautious with her in every aspect. She is a happy girl, and we are blessed to be a part of her world.
Emma requires major dental work due to the cleft and malformation of her adult teeth, but she continues to do well, thanks to all those who help make it possible for her to receive the ongoing medical treatment she needs.
Since Emma no longer requires round-the-clock intense care, I decided that it was time to reach out to another pup in need. On August 9, I brought home 2-year-old Chihuahua girls Stella and Claire via another Craigslist posting. They are likely puppy-mill rejects who were culled from the breeder’s program. They are terrified and stressed and have experienced no human interaction, play, life indoors — or, it seems, love. They appear in fairly good health, but will require full veterinary evaluations and routine treatments along with lots of TLC to prepare them for a family of their own.
The woman who posted the ad for Stella and Claire told me, “By the way, we have this 10-week-old with a bad heart.” How could I say no? My vet’s preliminary diagnosis is that baby Marilyn has patent ductus arteriosus (PDA) with a grade 6 heart murmur — she literally vibrates. This congenital condition requires immediate surgery, so we are working on getting her the urgent treatment that she needs to survive.
So that’s my rescue family, Emma, Stella, Claire, and Marilyn. I can’t imagine a day without them!
Elizabeth Hart is a photographer who lives in Fort Worth, Texas.
If you would like to donate, or just keep up with Elizabeth’s family of rescue babies, please visit Emma Cleft Palate Facebook page, the YouCaring fundraising site, and Auction for Emma & The Rescue Chis Facebook page.
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