Sometimes we can look back on our life and pinpoint a single moment, an event, a choice we took, or something randomly outside our control and know that was the moment our lives changed course.
My “sliding doors” moment happened on 28th September 2006 on the dusty steps of a Buddhist Temple courtyard in Sri Lanka but the series of events that led up to that moment started on July 7th, 2005 in London where I was then working with my husband Mark on the London Underground for one of its engineering contractors Metronet. I had joined London Underground in 1988 aged 16 as an apprentice and had a varied career from working in old-fashioned Signal Cabins, to state of the art Line Control Rooms.
By 2005 I was managing a busy 24/7 control centre deploying teams of engineers responding to anything from a broken signal to a train derailment, and I didn't see anything changing in my career plans.
July 7th 2005 started for me as the same as any other working day, by the time it was over my life like so many others had been changed forever.
In the aftermath of the deadly terrorist attack that killed 52 people and injured over 700, Mark and I worked as Engineering Coordinators, leading a small team of specialist engineers supporting the Police, we worked for long periods underground, often well into the early hours and what we saw had a profound impact on us both.
Returning to our day jobs just a week later was challenging, we both felt isolated, suffered nightmares and a range of confusing and conflicting emotions.
Just a few months later In March 2006, I was unexpectedly and with no dignity made redundant as part of a cost-cutting exercise by a new management team. I was just 34 years old, emotionally drained and bitter that in less than 12 months I had lost my well-paid career and was left struggling with post-traumatic stress.
With the support of my family, I decided I would travel overseas for a bit before trying to get another job. I had left school and started work soon after on the railway and my only trips overseas to date had been family holidays. I booked a ticket to Sri Lanka for 8 weeks, I wanted to travel alone as I needed time and space to work out what the hell I was going to do now, it seemed quite simply like the end of everything
It was actually the beginning......
On September 28th, 2006 I was sitting on the dusty steps of a rural Sri Lankan schoolroom in a Temple courtyard when I first noticed a tiny puppy careering towards me. This puny bundle of intense enthusiasm, who hadn’t quite figured out how to use its brakes, landed unceremoniously in my lap, yipping and staring at me expectantly.
The pup’s siblings were not far behind, and at first glance, I noticed that they were all flea-ridden, and their small bellies bloated with worms. Mark had sent me flea treatment for an old dog who lived outside at my quarters, I had some spare, and I reasoned I could go back get it, treat the puppies and still be in time for dinner.
20 minutes later I was trying to hold 4 wriggly puppies to apply flea treatment
When Wangessa Terro the Temples Monk walked over to me and looked at me with deep concern in his gaze. I had asked him for permission to treat the puppies, but I am not sure either of us had a full understanding of what was going on.
After watching me for what seemed like ages, he said simply “I have another dog that needs medicine, come come.”
He led me still clutching a tube of flea treatment to a shaded area behind the temple and gestured at a medium-size dog lying lifeless on the chalky grounds near the building. Riddled with mange and mites, the animal in front of me was severely emaciated and almost bald from numerous skin conditions. Thick, leathery skin was interspersed with gaping sores, and one leg was bent at an alarming angle.
Then the monk spoke again
“You can make her better, no?” he repeated looking at me – not like a request but with the certainty of an already-answered question - a definitive statement that seemed to be slowly reminding me of something I already knew
I looked down; this dog clearly needed a lot more than a dose of flea treatment. Slowly, she turned to look at me. Her amber eyes gazed deeply into mine, and it felt like she was looking into me rather than at me.
At that moment those eyes showed me all the suffering of her life and others like her, and although the words “I can’t” had been on the tip of my tongue, I found myself simply saying “yes”… With that one unexpected word uttered while standing alone in a (then) politically volatile foreign country in the grasp of a civil war, I had just committed to the single biggest project of my life.
I named her Mango
and though I didn’t know it at the time, she was the first Dogstar patient.
Tracking down a vet for her was no mean feat as there were no local practices and the nearest internet cafe was a 90-minute drive away. I finally contacted a university team who were treating elephants in a local village, and they agreed to come to help me.
The vets arrived at 8 pm with limited supplies they had purchased at a pharmacy on the way. A young monk found a sheet to lay on the steps as an examination area, and the vets tore strips off the end to make a makeshift muzzle. The vet was as gentle as he could be examining her but cleaning her wounds caused her great discomfort leaving me, the monk, and even the van driver sobbing with empathy for her. When they had done all they could they left me a prescription and instructions for her care and promised to visit her again the following week.
The very next day I woke up with the idea for Dogstar Foundation fully formed in my mind – the name, the logo and a clear concept for working with the local community and vets to ease the suffering of dogs like Mango in the Temple and the surrounding villages. Mark likes to remind me that I sent him a text message to advise him of my plans, I told him that for the princely sum of £45 a month I had hired a vet part-time and it wouldn't impact on our lives in any way.
I may have slightly underestimated the scale of the task I was undertaking at the time!
I don’t know if it was fate or just a coincidence that I caused the paths of the Wangessa Terro, Mango and me to cross that day in the Temple courtyard but once they did, they intertwined permanently, and Dogstar which grew past treating the dogs of one village has gone on to sterilise and vaccinate tens of thousands of animals, alleviating incredible pain and suffering as a result. Mango continued to live at the temple with Wangeesa Terro, the monk for years, after a short illness she passed away very peacefully, a much-loved dog. and she was buried under a mango tree. Wanessa Terro passed away a few months later, and I often think of them both, he was our biggest advocate and supporter, promoting our work to every visitor to his Temple and she was a dog who enjoyed her second chance at life.
Dogstar exists today because of our beautiful Mango and her Monk; they inspired both my husband Mark and I to change the course of our lives and take a path we had never even dreamed existed. I once asked Wangessa Terro why he had singled me out of all the many foreign visitors to the Temple, and he replied simply “Because I knew you would help. I had been waiting for you to arrive for a long time, and you came to Sri Lanka to help the dogs because they suffer so much at the hands of man.”
Yet again he was right. I simply could not see myself doing anything else with my life now.