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Misty Elsworth vividly recalls a dream she had six years ago. At the time she was 24 and divorced with a son, Dalton, then 2. In her nighttime reverie, though, Misty also had a daughter and a golden retriever named Jewels. She was married to the man she was then dating, Skip Elsworth, a 34-year-old firefighter. Finally, in the dream, she and Skip had built a house in Long Beach, Mississippi, their hometown and a small coastal city about 70 miles northeast of New Orleans.
Over the next few years, each of the elements of the dream came true: Misty and Skip married in 2002 and had a daughter, Ashlyn, in 2003. They finished building a home for their family that same year. Just the dog was missing from the picture.
Then in the spring of 2004 a client at the dental office where Misty worked as an assistant told her of a litter of golden retriever pups for sale. Misty snapped one up and, recalling her dream, named her Jewels.
From the beginning the couple considered Jewels not only a pet but also a member of the family. "She gets presents at Christmastime," says Misty. "Something bad happening to her is like something happening to my kids. I couldn't ask for a better dog."
Whenever Skip went on duty, he felt comforted knowing that the dog was with his wife and children. "Having Jewels there meant one less worry while I was gone," he says.
Then came the night of August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina uprooted trees and turned houses into driftwood in Long Beach. Misty and Skip, like many of their neighbors, did not evacuate but instead fortified their house, determined to ride out the storm. While the wind howled, they played games to distract the children. Jewels, normally easygoing, spun in circles as she sensed the danger. "I was terrified," admits Misty.
The next morning revealed that though much of the town was devastated, the Elsworths' house, which is a mile from the beach, was barely damaged. Skip picked up a chain saw and began to cut his way through fallen trees to clear the main road so he could join the recovery crews.
A month after Katrina, Skip was still on disaster duty, and the Elsworths had taken in a firefighter colleague of Skip's, Ryan Jenkins, his wife, Rhonda, and their two children, Jett, 8, and Madison, 6. The Jenkins family, who had lost everything in the storm, parked their FEMA trailer on the Elsworths' lot.
One sweltering evening Misty and Rhonda began clearing the many fallen branches that littered the property as a result of the storm. Little ones Ashlyn and Madison helped their mothers while Dalton and Jett played cops and robbers. Jewels tossed around her own stick. Suddenly Jewels bolted across the yard, knocking the girls away from a small shrub. "She ran into them at full speed," says Misty, who was shocked that the dog was misbehaving.
After slamming into the kids, Jewels dove headlong into the shrub. "She got out of the plant and took off, shaking her head," Misty recalls. The little girls were crying, Jewels was running in circles, and Misty was chastising her.
Then the dog dropped what Misty thought at first glance was a stick. Misty looked again: There, in upright striking position, was a baby copperhead, about 14 inches long, with its distinctive banded, camouflage-like markings. As Rhonda tried to move the children away without startling the poisonous snake, Misty yelled for Skip's uncle Paul Malley, who raced over from the adjoining property, where he lived.
"He got a shovel and killed the snake," reports Ashlyn, breathlessly recounting the experience. "Jewels saved me and Madi." Adds Dalton, "Jewels is cool."
At that moment, however, Jewels was anything but cool. She was staggering, and her lips and neck were beginning to swell. Misty realized Jewels had been bitten and loaded her up for a trip to the vet. The facility was normally a 30-minute drive away. "I got there in about 10," says Misty, who describes speeding along roads lined with piles of hurricane debris. When she arrived, she wept as she kissed Jewels and turned her over to the veterinarians.
The prognosis was not good, Misty recalls. Jewels' heart rate was dropping. She was quickly given anti-venom serum and put on an antihistamine intravenous drip. Misty remembers the vet saying, "We'll call you if anything happens. Plan on picking her up in the morning unless you hear from us."
Skip, who would be getting off work in the morning, promised to fetch Jewels. Misty was awake the entire night, thinking, "Please, phone, don't ring."
It didn't, and the next morning at around 8, Skip pulled into the driveway. "It was like a movie," says Misty. "I said, 'Dad's home!' The kids ran outside, and there comes Jewels flying out of the truck." The dog's legs were bandaged because of the IVs, but she jumped up at the children, licked them, then ran laps around the yard before flopping down in the house to rest.
After a month on antibiotics, Jewels was back to normal and more protective of the children than ever. When the kids play in the yard, Misty and Skip watch, amused and relieved, as Jewels prowls around the plants. They're sure she's checking for snakes.
Jewels recently added to her laurels when she became the first four-legged winner of the South Mississippi Hero Award, given out by the local ABC affiliate, WLOX-TV. Misty wells up whenever she replays a video of the newscast. "When people see her, they say, 'That's Misty's dog.' Jewels and I have the bond I dreamed about."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2007.