Home Depot fulfills Sophie’s Christmas wish

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From left are Absecon Home Depot Manager Tom Splinter of Linwood, Jacqueline and Eugen Ess of Galloway, Jason Heitz of Mays Landing and Fritz Mazur of Egg Harbor City. From left are Absecon Home Depot Manager Tom Splinter of Linwood, Jacqueline and Eugen Ess of Galloway, Jason Heitz of Mays Landing and Fritz Mazur of Egg Harbor City.

ABSECON – Jacqueline and Eugen Ess of Galloway got a puppy to help fill Eugen’s time while he’s out of work.

They had no idea what they were getting themselves into.

They bought Sophie, a full-bred German shepherd who was born Sept. 18, from a breeder in Cape May and brought her into their Galloway home when she was four weeks old.

“Sophie has a medical issue where she needs to be fed like a baby,” Jacqueline Ess said.  “We have to hold her in our arms and feed her - holding her for about 25 to 30 minutes until the food goes down.”

Sophie suffers from mega esophagus and will likely have the problem for the rest of her life.

A properly functioning esophagus acts as a muscle and pushes food through it and into the stomach. With a mega esophagus, the esophagus remains enlarged and doesn’t force the food downward. It fails to enter the stomach and often stays in the esophagus to be regurgitated, enter the lungs through breathing or decay in the esophagus.

“If we didn't take her, she would have been put down,” Ess said. “The breeder sold her to us too young and we had no idea this is what was going to happen. But we fell in love with Sophie and want to give her a good life.”

“My husband and I went to Home Depot to figure out how to build a Bailey chair – a kind-of high chair where the dog would be eating in a vertical position and not need to be held,” Ess said. “We were talking to the workers and they seemed to care so much that they said that they wanted to build this high chair as a gift for Sophie.”

Their initial contact was Fritz Mazur of Egg Harbor City who worked for a veterinarian seven years ago and was familiar with the problem. He enlisted the help of his friend and fellow Absecon Home Depot department head, Jason Heitz of Mays Landing, who is more expert in woodworking.

The pair discussed the project with store manager Marita Parisi, who coincidentally is extremely fond of German shepherds.

“We would normally approve a project of this type,” another store manager, Tom Splinter of Linwood, said. “We like to give back to the community. Helping people with unique problems is one of the ways we can do that.”

They presented the chair to the Esses Friday, Dec. 7 at the Home Depot.

Eugene Ess put food in the dog’s bowl and Sophie ran right where she’s supposed to go and started eating.

Heitz said he went online to see a Bailey chair.

“I did some research,” Heitz said. “No one actually makes this; everyone makes it for themselves. I saw basically what I needed. I just had to make it adjustable.”

A wooden shelf with a hole cutout for a bowl will be able to rise as Sophie grows larger.

Heitz said it took about four hours to build over a period of a few weeks.

The breeder returned the money accepted for the puppy; actually sending it directly to Atlantic Animal Health Center on Jimmie Leeds Road.

The Esses credit Dr. Lori Nordt, Leah Whitesell and Kevin Tech at the center for the diagnosis and treatment that’s kept Sophie alive.

Eugen Ess, who expects to return to work soon as executive pastry chef at Trump Taj Mahal, said the ailment is fairly common among German shepherds.

“She’s fine, except she needs to eat vertically to be able to hold her food down,” he said. “I’m on disability so it’s not a problem now to feed her every two hours. I hold her and have to burp her like you would a baby.”

The Esses have two other animals at home, a cat named Tux and a 4-pound Yorkie named Mila.

At 11 weeks, Sophie weighed 11 pounds – half of the 22 pounds expected in a shepherd her age.

“Sophie will grow to 75-80 pounds,” Ess said. “She’ll catch up and reach the normal weight for a German shepherd.”

He praised the Home Depot people.

“It’s very nice for them to do this,” Ess said. “They didn’t know us.”

His wife said the situation brought her to tears.

“When we asked how much it would be, they said, ‘No,’ they would donate it,” said Jacqueline Ess, who works in customer relations for AtlantiCare. “I started to cry. All my life, I always give, and never had anyone ever offer to do something so special for me.”

The chair will save Sophie’s life, she said.

“I only could think of calling this a Christmas wish that came true,” she said. “This chair is going to be with Sophie the rest of her life.”

Ess said she sees a lot of irony in their tale, not the least of which are the ailments Sophie and her husband have.

“We got Sophie to keep Eugen company while he’s out of work and fighting vocal chord cancer,” she said. “It’s funny they both have esophagus problems.”

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