By Lisa Milella
After I was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease six months ago I decided to spend the time I had left helping the world’s most endangered species around the globe, from India to the rainforests of Borneo.
My bucket list also included sledging with huskies under the Northern Lights in Norway, canoeing up the Amazon and helping rescued dancing bears, a leopard cub and a tiger with toothache in India.
When I was told I had a terminal illness I felt as though someone had sucked all the air out of me. It doesn’t sink in at first as you never imagine that something like this will ever happen to you. At first I felt: “Why me?” I’d contributed to society and there are so many people who waste their lives and I remember spending one night veering between feeling numb and crying.
But I’ve come to terms with facing death and I resolved to make sure I didn’t waste a minute. I wanted to give some of the world’s most endangered animals a life free from pain and suffering before it was too late for me to help them. I want to do as much as possible with the time I have left.
I have wanted to be a vet since I was five years old and grew up with a menagerie of dogs, cats, pigeons, chickens and rabbits. After completing my training a chance phone call in January 2005 changed my life.
A voice on the end of the phone said: “Hello my name is Paul Cassar, I’m a dentist and I’m a trustee of International Animal Rescue and we’ve got a large number of rescued dancing bears in India whose teeth have been smashed out by their former handlers. I’m looking for advice as I’m going to repair their teeth.”
When I saw images of the bears suffering I immediately said: “I’d like to come and help.”
After getting all the necessary equipment shipped, we flew to Agra, India in November 2005, initially to treat the 10 most desperate cases.
The visit was a huge success. Since then, Paul and I have gone on to operate on more than 100 former dancing bears, removing tumours, extracting smashed and rotten teeth as well as treating abscesses. I’ve travelled the world treating more than 50 slow lorises in Java that have had their teeth brutally clipped by poachers, two tigers in India with abscesses and lions, tigers, a jaguar and even a wallaby with toothache.
But then in August last year my world fell apart.
The doctor told me I had Motor Neurone Disease. He said it’s usually a disease that affects older men over 60. He explained that the average life expectancy is two to five years, but there is a 10 per cent chance of surviving 10 years.
I spent that first night lying wide awake in bed, numb, wondering what the future held and what sort of future it would be. The tears came when I had to think about what was going to happen to my three pets: a one-eyed, three legged Siamese cat I rescued called Clive, Hugo an Abyssinian cat and a little rescue mongrel called Emily. I worried about what was going to happen to them, not to me.
The day after my diagnosis, I closed my veterinary practice in Byfleet. I’d worked so hard to build it up, but my body is not mine any more – I’ve become unable to open my front door with one hand, and I can’t cut certain foods on my dinner plate.
So I formed in my mind, what you might call a bucket list ambition. I’ve never wasted any time in my life and I certainly wasn’t going to waste any time now. Number ten on my list was my 100 x £100 campaign for International Animal Rescue. I made an appeal for 100 people to raise £100 to support the wonderful work IAR does to help suffering animals. When my story appeared in a Sunday paper, the response was overwhelming and I had exceeded my target within a week.
Many of my former colleagues and clients have been incredibly generous in supporting the appeal and the total now stands at more than £13,500. I hope people will continue to support it: there is so much animal suffering in the world and the more money I can raise, the more animals I can help.
I know I’m deteriorating. But there is still a little bit of denial in all of this. I still want to do my bit to help the animals before it’s too late.
I hope that people read my story and want to do something positive with their lives too – whether it’s making cakes at a fete, or raising money by doing a sponsored run.”I’m never going to get better and today is as strong as I’m ever going to be. So you’ve really got to make the most of now and not worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow.
Part of my coping mechanism is that I’ve been given a disease where I’ve been granted some time to do the things I want to do. That’s been better than my life being stripped away in a split second. So just go out there and make the most of your life because you’re never going to have that time again. And please, first of all, support my appeal and make a difference to the lives of suffering animals around the world: https://www.justgiving.com/Lisa-Milella-100/