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Couple seeks to fulfill bucket list for their terminally ill beagle, Little Joe

Rodgers Forge couple aims to create memories with Little Joe, who's 'like our child'

By Karen Arnett de Rodriguez

6:05 AM EDT, June 11, 2014

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Little Joe is 47 pounds of pure personality.

The 9-year-old beagle mix adopted two years ago by Kathryne and Essam Shomali, of Towson's Rodgers Forge neighborhood, and known now as "LJ," loves belly rubs, naps, watching the children in the fields play any sport with a ball, and tracking countless scents on long walks around the neighborhood.

But in mid-March, during LJ's annual checkup with the veterinarian, a lump was detected, removed and diagnosed. It was Adenocarcinoma, an aggressive type of gland cancer.

"I cried a lot," said Kathryne, about the diagnosis. "It was devastating. We've barely had any time with him." Essam added, "He's like our child."

But rather than spend LJ's remaining days grieving, the couple decided to find a way to make the most of their remaining time together and find experiences to create memories for all. So they came up with "LJ's Bucket List."

The term comes from the 2007 movie, "The Bucket List," in which two terminally ill men, played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, take a road trip to fulfill their wish lists of things they want to do before they "kick the bucket."

LJ's Bucket List includes what his owners, Kathryne and Essam, believe would bring LJ and them a little extra joy in LJ's final months.

The 15-item list includes some expected wants: No. 2-Ride in a fire truck/police car (as yet unfulfilled) to the unexpected, No. 7-Go on a blind date (which has already been fulfilled with a beautiful 10-year-old redhead — a Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever — named Jilly, of Wiltondale). (See sidebar for LJ's Bucket List items.)

Among other accomplishments: No. 4-Eat an ice cream cone, fulfilled when LJ consumed a Taharka Brothers vanilla cake cone from Uncle Wiggly's in late May and served by Eva Lopez; No. 5-Bring a donation to a shelter, when LJ and Kathryne delivered eight bags of bedding to Baltimore Outreach Services at Christ Lutheran Church in Baltimore in April; and No. 6-Bring a donation to an animal shelter was fulfilled on June 8 when LJ, Kathryne and Essam delivered a donation to Maryland SPCA in Baltimore.

On the blind date with Jilly, LJ enjoyed sharing treats and discovering new scents around the yard and garden. When Jilly's owner, Linda Prokopic was asked why she reached out to the Shomalis to play matchmaker, she said, "My heart went out to [their] little guy. I'm a huge dog lover and I felt Jilly would be a fantastic date. I have a big fenced in backyard so it seemed ideal."

And how did Prokopic think the date went? "It was like a walk only better."

But there are still plenty of aspirations: No. 1-Eat a Big Mac; No. 3-Have a candle-lit steak dinner in the park; No. 8-Go to a dog spa; No. 9-Ride in a motorcycle sidecar; No. 10-Meet a famous dog/police dog; No. 11-Have a birthday party with friends; No. 12-Get on the news and No. 13-Donate to the Beagle Freedom Project; and No. 14-Go for a swim.

"Our hope for LJ's Bucket List is to have fun," Kathryne said. "The whole point of it is to celebrate his life and the time he has left. However many things we get done and whatever we do, we just want him to have a blast.

"We also think that it will give LJ and us a chance to meet new people and enjoy new things together with our neighbors in Rodgers Forge. We also hope to inspire other people to enjoy life to the fullest," she said.

LJ recently underwent a second of six rounds of chemotherapy with veterinarian Dr. Anthony Calo, of Atlantic Veterinary Internal Medicine & Oncology, in Towson. Calo said this type of cancer "readily spreads" to lymph nodes, and that the prognosis varies. Most dogs with Adenocarcinoma live on average between one to one-and-a-half years after being diagnosed, but there are exceptions, Calo said. Some dogs may live six months while others can live another three to five years.

"Obviously we'd love the latter outcome, but I'm not trying to put any high hopes on it," Kathryne said.

Meanwhile, LJ's nurse, Michelle Frederick, an oncology veterinary technician, was delighted to hear about the bucket list.

"That is fantastic. When LJ is here he's very interested in treats, especially Vienna sausages," Frederick said.

"He's a sweet dog and very tolerant of all we have to do when providing him with his treatments," she said adding that LJ's next round of chemo was due to take place June 10. "It will be really nice to see him."

'Melted our hearts'

Kathryne recalled when she and Essam met LJ in July 2012, at an animal rescue farm in Dallas, Pa.

"When we took him for a walk he almost pranced around the farm — he was just full of happiness," Kathryne said. "Everyone we passed who worked there greeted him with a huge smile and a hug. When we got back to his kennel after his walk he looked at us and melted our hearts with his big hazel eyes.

"At that moment, we knew we couldn't leave without him," she said.

When they brought LJ to his new home on Dumbarton Road, he settled right in and made himself at home.

The Shomalis often wonder about LJ's curious ways. Not many dogs, for example, will put themselves to bed when they've had enough of the day.

"It doesn't happen at any specific time, but whenever he's ready, he gets up, goes upstairs and gets in his bed," Essam said. "We could be doing anything and he just gets up and walks away. Doesn't look at us, doesn't say good night — just gets up and goes." 

There are 15 items on LJ's Bucket List, but the list could grow. Several people have offered to assist with few items, such as No. 11-Have a birthday party with friends will be off-the-leash fabulous with a guest list including new friends Carmine, Mina, Shelly, Wyatt and a parakeet named Rocky, all new friends in Rodgers Forge. There's talk that the party be complete with a doggy biscuit bar and tennis ball station. There's also rumor that No. 2 –Riding in a fire truck — could soon be fulfilled.

"We are having a lot of fun, too," he said.

The neighborhood has been abuzz with the news about LJ and his bucket list.

Chelsea Howe said, LJ's story "almost made me cry. We recently lost our dog to cancer." She offered advice to the Shomalis: "Take advantage and enjoy every moment you have left."

Said Amy Petrica, "Sounds like he adopted a very loving and thoughtful family. Smart dog."

Neighbors want to help, but there is one item on LJ's Bucket List that only the Shomalis can help him accomplish. No. 15-Meet Baby Shomali.

Kathryne and Essam are expecting their first child in December and they hope LJ responds well enough to treatment to meet their baby.

"LJ is really enjoying working through his bucket list," Essam said.

Karen Arnett de Rodriguez is Rodgers Forge neighborhood columnist for the Towson Times.