FORTVILLE — With soft, floppy ears and a festive handkerchief, Laney is a quiet presence at Ben Thompson’s side.
The 6-year-old black Labrador retriever is a constant reminder for Thompson that the community — his friends, his teachers and coaches — takes care of its own.
In March, the 18-year-old Mt. Vernon High School senior began having excruciating pain in his right shoulder. After months of pain and uncertainty, Thompson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in July; a tumor was lodged in his shoulder. As Thompson prepared to undergo six sessions of chemotherapy, those who loved him began to began to wonder how they could help.
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And along came Laney, a therapy dog sitting in a shelter, in need of a home.
Thompson’s mother, Lori Thompson, had told a group of friends her son had always wanted a dog, that a faithful companion might help as he powered through his cancer treatments. Senior Tori Whyde and a group of about five others began working with staff at Greenfield-Hancock Animal Management to find a suitable canine companion.
And in Laney, they found a lovable pup with a proven track record for lifting the spirits of those in need.
Laney had spent about a year at Greenfield-Hancock Animal Management before the Mt. Vernon students decided she was the ideal choice. And when Thompson’s mother heard the shelter dog’s backstory, she was sold.
“Once I actually saw Laney, I checked off on the whole thing,” Lori Thompson said. “She was a therapy dog who went to nursing homes; she was a perfect fit.”
Throughout Thompson’s senior year, students and teachers have showed their support in myriad ways, from wearing green shirts and bracelets emblazoned with “Stay Strong, Ben,” to raising money through friendly student contests.
And when his friends surprised him with Laney, it was the perfect touch.
“People did so many things, I can’t count them all,” Thompson said. “That really touched me, to see my friends do that.”
Laney initially came to the no-kill shelter as a stray and spent time in two foster families but didn’t find a permanent home until Whyde and her friends came in looking for dogs, said Amanda Dehoney, Greenfield-Hancock Animal Management director.
Animal management staff, knowing her mellow nature, had been taking Laney to a local nursing home, where she served as a kind of therapy animal for the seniors there.
“She’s very calm,” Dehoney said. “She’s not a jumper. We thought she’d do well, because she’s a very gentle dog.”
Whyde was among the group that brought Laney to Thompson’s doorstep late last month. Thompson was pleased with what he thought was a temporary visit from a furry friend — asking whose dog it was.
“When we told him it was his, he couldn’t believe it,” she said.
During the next few weeks, Laney found her place in the Thompson’s home and by her new master’s side. She was there as he recovered from chemotherapy treatments that left him tired and weak, emotionally drained. And she was there when the good news came — Thompson’s cancer, the family learned early this month, is in remission.
Thompson looks back on the last few months with gratitude. There’s been heartbreak, yes — he still hasn’t regained the strength he once had in shoulder — but the ups and downs have been lessened by the incredible support system that has surrounded him.
“I didn’t feel like I needed all this,” he said. “I’ve had a big setback, but I don’t feel like I should be showered with gifts.”
Next fall, Thompson will head to Ivy Tech Community College to study criminal justice. He hopes after attaining his associate’s degree to transfer to a four-year university.
He has a strong respect for first-responders, he said.
“They’re so professional, and they have so much courage,” he said.
Courage has been important to Ben Thompson this past year. He’s needed plenty, plus the support of family, friends, his church and the team of doctors and counselors at Central Indiana Cancer Center, to get through the chemotherapy.
Now he counts Laney among those supporters; she has effortlessly become part of the family, even getting along with Callie, the family cat.
The cancer left him changed, he said — stronger.
“I feel like I’m much more able to handle what life throws at me,” he said. “Now, my hair’s growing back, I’ve got energy, and I’m ready to go out and continue where I left off.”