It was bitterly cold with vicious winds and temperatures 40 below freezing. If we ran too fast our lungs would burst but if we ran too slow our bodies would freeze… and yet back in Nome the children were dying because of a Diptheria outbreak and they needed the life-saving serum we were carrying for them. Finally, we met up with Balto’s team after a gruelling 350 miles and handed the serum over to be transported the last 53 miles to save the children of Nome.
Nome is a small town on the north eastern coast of Alaska. It is very isolated with the nearest town called Nenana 600 miles away. Back in the 1920’s a man called Leonhard Seppala lived in Nome with his team of husky sled dogs. He loved to take part in sled dog races, but he also transported supplies all over the region as there were no roads or railway lines in this part of Alaska. One day one of his dogs had a litter of puppies and he called one of them Togo. As Togo grew up Leonhard decided he would not be a good sled dog because he was to small and too naughty. So, Leonhard gave him away to a lady as a pet.
Togo, however, was having none of this and broke out of the yard and ran all the way back to his home. Leonhard was surprised to see him but decided if he could find his way back home, he could stay after all. One day when Togo was about 8 months old Leonhard harnessed his sled dog team and left to transport supplies. Togo so badly wanted to go with that he broke out of his home again and ran off trying to catch up with the team. A few hours later, Leonhard stopped his team to have a rest. Then a snowstorm happened, and the team lost the trail. Suddenly, while Leonhard was trying to find his way back onto the trail the team alerted him that something was nearby – a fox maybe? Or a reindeer?
The next minute Togo appeared out of nowhere! Finally, he found his team and Leonhard was again surprised to see him. Leonhard didn’t want to lose him, so he was put into a harness and attached onto the gang line at the back of the team. Because Togo was smaller than the others Leonhard did not think Togo would be able to keep up, but to his surprise Togo did. So, he stopped and moved Togo to the middle of the team and then ran again. Togo continued to pull his weight, running as hard and fast as the others if not more so. Finally, Leonhard decided to put Togo in the front of the sled dog team. And to Leonhard’s great surprise – this small naughty stubborn little husky led the team back onto the trail again!!!
And that is how Togo – the dog Leonhard had no faith in – became a Lead Dog! And a very famous one at that – Leonhard and his sled dog team won all the races and became known for being the fastest team around!
One day in January 1925 something bad happened in Nome – a young boy died from a terrible disease called Diphtheria. It was highly contagious as more and more children were getting sick! They needed a special serum to cure the children. But the nearest town – Nenana – was 600 miles away. A journey that would normally take the Post Man a month to travel. So, they went to Leonhard and asked him to help because he had the fastest team.
Leonhard and Togo led the team to fetch the Serum from relay teams sent out from Nenana to meet them and bring it back to Nome. They travelled over 350 miles in the worst weather imaginable – by far the longest distance of any of the sleddog teams that formed part of the relay to try and save the children of Nome. They had to travel hard and fast because time was against them. But when the storms got bad, and the temperatures dropped to minus 40 degrees Celsius they had to be careful. If they ran too fast their lungs would burst because of the freezing temperatures. If they ran too slow their bodies would freeze. It was an extremely scary time for Leonhard and Togo. But they protected the dogs as much as possible with Togo encouraging and pushing the team to keep going.
Finally, when they couldn’t run any more, they were met by another team led by a Dog called Balto. Balto’s team took the serum from Leonhard and Togo and ran the last 53 miles into Nome and they managed the save the children from the Diphtheria outbreak.
This true story went down in history and became known as the Serum Run.
So why is this story special?
Even though Leonhard had no faith in this naughty little sleddog, Togo followed his heart and believed in himself. He knew what he wanted and proved to Leonhard that he could do it. It didn’t matter that he was different to the other sled dogs. He shows us that no matter what we think of ourselves – or what others think of us – we can do anything we set our hearts to do.
I was recently invited to be the guest speaker at a School Final Assembly. I decided to share the inspirational true story of Togo and the Serum Run along with my own story of the Sled Dogs in my life.
In 2009 I started an NPO called Husky Rescue KZN and I still run it today. I rescue and rehome unwanted Siberian Huskies – snow dogs just like Togo. In 2011 I decided I was going to help these unwanted huskies by giving them a purpose. And so, I established the first official Dryland Sledding Club for KZN. And we were going to be the first KZN club to participate in the South African National Dryland Sledding event that year. And just like Togo led his sleddog team, I led my club and we blazed a new trail all the way from KZN!
At the point where we were about to start training with our huskies for the 2011 National, I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. I was rather numb initially, thinking I would wake up and discover this all to be a nightmare. But very quickly with the help of the doctors poking screwdriver like needles into my body I realised this was not a bad dream after all. Suddenly I found myself facing a big decision – giving up my dream of taking the first dryland sledding team from KZN to the National Event – or allowing the journey I was about to embark on with Breast Cancer take over my life and kill my dream. It did not take me long to decide. I told the doctors – much to their chagrin – the order of how things would unfold and promptly continued with our training program.
I was as determined as Togo to follow my heart and reach my dream – against all odds. I started with Chemo first rather than surgery (which would have stopped all training dead in its tracks) and never missed a single training session. When the time came, we travelled to a town called Colesburg in the Northern Cape with 12 dogs, participated in all the events, and as a club came home with two gold medals, one silver, one bronze and a Red Lantern.
And I am proud to say the Silver Medal was mine!!
While sharing the story of Togo with the learners at the School Assembly and then sharing my own story – I suddenly realised this was my Serum Run!! The selddogs saved the children of Nome, while my Sleddogs saved me by helping me to stay fit and healthy despite the chemo, and positive by remaining focussed and determined to reach my goal.
We speak of the unconditional love of animals. Its not just their unconditional love that inspires us. They have a scientifically proven physiological effect on our bodies by helping to reduce stress hormone levels while stimulating the release of happy hormones. Yes, they inspire us, but they help heal us too.
After achieving my goal, I then had to face surgery. A situation that I was trying to avoid but ultimately had to face when they discovered more than one lesion in my breast. For many reasons this was a daunting journey that I had to find my way through. But my sleddogs were still there with me every step of the way. The initial operation was almost 6 hours – with loads of central nervous system drugs administered. To the point that I stopped breathing several times. I spent the morning in theatre and the afternoon in recovery because I could not breath on my own. Eventually I was returned to the ward 10 hours after I was wheeled into theatre. Still not entirely stable. During that first night as I was struggling to find my way out of the Valley of the Shadow of Death – Jordy came and sat on my bed next to me comforting me and keeping me going. Yes, while I remember nothing else of that first day and night except getting to the ward and asking my dad for water before passing out again – I clearly remember my big beautiful black Jordy with his stunning blue eyes sitting on the bed next to me.
Yes, my huskies rescued me – along with much prayer and faith.
Always follow your heart because you heart will never let you down.
I followed my heart – achieved a dream and survived breast cancer.