MACON — Ruth Payton, 82, did her part to fulfill a long-held dream on Sunday. The bald eagle she was releasing, however, was less than cooperative.
Payton pulled the string attached to a kennel door, to reintroduce Watson, a mature bald eagle, into the wild. Whether due to the large crowd that had gathered to witness the event or lingering effects of the 60 mile-plus car ride north from the MU Veterinary Teaching Hospital to Macon, Watson stayed put.
Among friends, family and numerous curious onlookers, Payton, who has been diagnosed with terminal hemolytic anemia, was given the opportunity to see a bald eagle up close Sunday afternoon by Hospice Compassus and the Raptor Rehabilitation Project at the MU Veterinary Clinic.
The project recruits MU student volunteers to work with trained doctors in nursing birds of prey back to health and returning them to the wild.
Payton said she has wanted to see a bald eagle up close for a long time.
"It's a national bird, and I just wanted to see one," Payton said.
Her daughter Becky Sevits said her mother has always been patriotic, and that was a major reason for her wanting to see an eagle up close.
"Parades make her cry; seeing a soldier in uniform makes her cry," Sevits said.
In addition to hemolytic anemia, which causes the destruction of red blood cells, Payton also suffers from leukemia and partial blindness that only affords her peripheral vision, granddaughter Sierra Sevits said.
"That's why she wanted to see an eagle up close, because the pictures don't really do the eagles justice," she said. "But she will sit there with her little magnifier, looking at these eagles."
To qualify for hospice care, a patient usually must have a prognosis of six months or fewer to live. Randi Petre, a licensed social worker at Hospice Compassus, said that before receiving hospice care, Payton was receiving blood transfusions at a rate of up to once every two weeks that would leave her weak, ill and pale.
Payton told one of her hospice nurses about her desire to see an eagle, Petre said. The Hospice Compassus team is asked to keep an ear out for the wishes of patients with terminal illnesses.
From there, the hospice’s Dream Team, a group formed roughly a year ago that focuses on fulfilling these wishes, took over. Past wishes have included helping a patient host a family Christmas and making it possible for a patient to attend a Missouri football game, Petre said.
During an Internet search, Petre came across an article written by Tracey Berry, director of external relations at the MU College of Veterinary Medicine, who told Petre about the Raptor Rehabilitation Project.
Petre said the efforts of the school and project to make Payton’s dream come true have been nothing short of amazing.
"They were all so gracious, enthusiastic and wanted to help," Petre said. "Right from the get-go, they said if they couldn’t make this happen, they were going to find someone that could."
Petre, who has been working with Payton for about the last six months, said the family was shocked and speechless Wednesday when told of the plan to release Watson with Payton in attendance.
"Ruth put her hand over her mouth and got really tearful," Petre said.
Watson, named for the sidekick in the BBC Television series "Sherlock," was brought to the MU Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital on Dec. 5. Elizabeth Groth, president of the project and a third-year veterinary student, said Watson exhibited signs of blood toxicity upon being admitted.
Those symptoms include the inability to stand, and if the bird can stand, there are signs of ataxia, or lack of muscle coordination, Groth said. Over the past month, Watson has received multiple treatments to remove lead from her blood.
The project treated 85 birds of prey in 2011, Groth said, including four bald eagles.
On Sunday, a crowd of onlookers that included both relatives of Payton and others from the Macon area gathered close to the back of a white Jeep as workers unloaded a large kennel with Watson inside.
When Payton pulled the string, Watson seemed to want to just stand in the kennel. After a few tense moments and some coaxing, Watson took a step out and immediately took flight to the east over Long Branch Lake.
Those with cameras followed the flight of the eagle against the gray January sky. Payton remained surrounded by family, including grandson Matthew Sevits.
Sevits has a tattoo of his grandmother's name across his lower neck, surrounded by two roses. He said he had it done before visiting his grandmother in the hospital a couple of years ago. Since then, the family, including Payton, have gotten matching tattoos of four-leaf clovers on the big toes of their right feet.
"She's just, all-around, an awesome woman," Matthew Sevits said.
Though Payton said she wished she'd gotten a better look at Watson before she flew away, she was grateful for having her wish fulfilled.
Sierra Sevits said the release gave her grandmother a chance she hasn't had while raising a family.
"She never got to do anything like this," Sevits said. "She's been so busy raising kids that she's never got to do anything special, for her."