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Connecticut couple establish research fund to recognize the care their cat received

In the kitchen, Willy Hale is always underfoot, waiting for an errant morsel to drop. The black American shorthair cat has polydactyl paws wide enough to pick up almost anything that hits the floor.

Retired doctors Zoey and Mahlon Hale smile at their cat’s antics. “He’s a grand cat,” Zoey says. For 14 years, Willy has lounged and lazed, a part of their lives, occasionally scampering through the yard of their Connecticut home on warm afternoons. When he comes back inside, he always “kisses” his 5-year-old feline sister Cleo hello.

Two years ago, Willy’s charmed life was threatened when the Hales found a growth on his chest. Their local veterinarian removed it. But the tumor grew back, and a biopsy showed cancer. The Hales were devastated. Their veterinarian recommended the Hales see an oncologist.

“Of course we came to Cummings School at Tufts,” Zoey says. “Everyone knows about the Foster Hospital, because it’s the best in the area.”

Veterinary surgeon John Berg diagnosed Willy with fibrosarcoma, a cancer of the connective tissue. The large mass needed to be removed as soon as possible.

“Fibrosarcoma is the kind of cancer that usually isn’t located next to any vital organs, and so generally it won’t be fatal,” Berg says. “But even cancers like this on the surface of the body, if left untreated, can grow beyond what we can remove surgically. That’s life-threatening.”

Fortunately, Willy was treated at an early stage. More than a year later, there is no sign of a recurrence, and he’s back to waiting patiently by the fridge for his daily bite of turkey. “The odds are very strong that he will be fine,” Berg says.

The Hales are thrilled with the prognosis, not to mention the care Willy received. “We loved Cummings,” Zoey says.

“We loved seeing all the other patients,” Mahlon adds, “but most importantly, we appreciated how timely and thorough Dr. Berg and the staff were and how they constantly kept us in the loop. Because of all this wonderful care, we are very grateful.”

To say thank you, the Hales have given Cummings School $100,000 to establish the Willy Hale Fund, which will support research by faculty, hospital clinicians and students. The extra help is important, Berg notes. “The federal government doesn’t provide much research funding for dog and cat diseases, so we’re very reliant on support like this. Every dollar invested in research helps us teach residents and interns-in-training and, in the end, can potentially help every animal.”

As health-care professionals themselves (Zoey is an infectious disease specialist, and Mahlon is a psychiatrist), the Hales understand the need to invest in the future of the profession. But this gift is also deeply personal. Every student who receives Willy Hale research funding will also get a photograph of the fund’s namesake, the cat named Willy, born on Leap Day, with many more years ahead, thanks to the Cummings School.