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Mark John and Dr. Cheryl Haugo give back in spite of difficult circumstances
Mark John Haugos's life changed forever on May 14, 1990. On his way to work, a semi truck ran a red light and struck his motorcycle, causing a severe brain injury.
He lapsed into a coma, and doctors told his wife, veterinarian Cheryl Haugo, that he might never wake up. She refused to believe it.
“I told them, ‘You don't know him,'” Cheryl said.
Mark John, 51, spent a year and four days hospitalized, first in Tucson and then in Phoenix.
“It was a tough time for us, me going back and forth to Tucson and Phoenix as often as possible and trying to take care of our farm and my new veterinary clinic,” recalled Cheryl, also 51.
“But we made it through and he came home May 18, 1991.”
The rehabilitation center initially told her “MJ” might have to be institutionalized. “They told me he could never be alone. I told them, ‘We'll see.'”
She arranged day care for him and home health nurses and transportation allowed her to keep him at home while he continued to improve.
“They told me he would never be able to do anything on his own. But now he can now do many things on his own, but with extra time,” she said.
At first he needed help getting dressed, showering, putting on shoes, buttoning up his pants, brushing his teeth. Now he does all these things by himself.
The first time he turned on a light switch took him 35 to 40 minutes. “One of the hardest things for me is not to help him. If I do, he can't get better,” Cheryl said.
When Mark John first went home he moved around in a wheelchair so they had to modify their home, widening the doorways, lowering windows and adjusting the kitchen and bathroom. On the outside they built a sidewalk so he could get around in the wheelchair.
Doctors also told Cheryl her husband would never be able to walk, but he eventually started using a walker, then a hemi walker and now a cane.
He has difficulty talking but he's able to communicate by articulating slowly.
However, one of the most traumatic aspects of his injury for both of them was that Mark John did not initially remember Cheryl.
“He didn't know who I was. He recognized some relatives before he recognized me,” she said. “He did not know me and this was hard, but in time he improved and regained most of his memory except one year or so on each end of his accident.”
“So MJ could have a wedding he could remember at the time,” they renewed their vows in November 1991.
Their love story began in college, when Cheryl and Mark John, both natives of Minnesota, attended College of Idaho in Caldwell, Idaho.
“I saw him across a field. Something inside me said, ‘That man is a special man,'” Cheryl said.
Since they both spent a lot of time in the science department – she was studying zoology and he biology – they often ran into each other and became good friends.
They started dating, fell in love and decided to get married when Cheryl graduated in 1982. Then they were separated for two years while Cheryl went to veterinary school at Washington State University and Mark John finished college in Idaho.
Once during the separation he tried to hike 300 miles to see her. He made it halfway before his borrowed backpack became too uncomfortable and he got a ride the rest of the way.
By this time, Cheryl's family lived in Tucson. She went to grad school with a Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) grant with the promise to return to rural Arizona after graduation.
They eventually landed in Yuma, where the heat was no problem, once even removing the AC out of their car so it would run better.
In 1989, Cheryl founded Desert Veterinary Clinic. With the help of friends, they remodeled an old home and turned it into the first version of the clinic.
She was doing what she loved. She had wanted to be a veterinarian all her life and help not just dogs and cats but also injured wildlife.
In the meantime, Mark John got a job with the Bureau of Land Management as a wildlands firefighter. During the off season he worked as a biology technician doing what he loved, working outdoors with animals and plants.
Mark John was on the fast track to being a biologist when the life-changing accident occurred.
“It was not long after that when MJ was hurt. I was able to keep working while commuting back and forth by hiring ‘relief doctors' to fill in for me while I was away from my practice, and with the fantastic support of my local Yuma veterinarians who fielded emergency calls for me in my absence as well. The community here really helped us while MJ was away and after he returned,” Cheryl said.
In the mid-'90s they bought the property the current clinic rests upon and designed and built a new clinic. Then about six years ago, they expanded to the current 9,000-square-foot clinic.
Cheryl began to consult with the Humane Society of Yuma in the early 2000s and became a founding member of the Yuma County Animal Abuse task Force as well as serving as a consultant for the city on a committee addressing the feral cat issue.
Shawn Smith, HSOY executive director, nominated Cheryl for the American Veterinary Medical Association's Animal Welfare Award.
“Dr. Haugo's efforts have been instrumental in allowing the Humane Society of Yuma to accomplish our goals. Her philosophy and approach to animal welfare has been ‘all animals matter,' ” Smith wrote in his nomination letter.
“Dr. Haugos's membership on this task force not only illustrates her commitment to animal welfare, but also serves to educate those legal authorities on animal welfare issues, which helps bring about justice for those victims who cannot speak on their own behalf. Her presence on this committee has proved to be invaluable in prosecuting numerous animal cruelty cases,” Smith added.
Mark John has also stepped up and chosen to give back to his community in spite of his situation. He has volunteered for the Salvation Army, public library, BLM office, Yuma Lutheran School and his church's Vacation Bible School.
“The children just love him,” Cheryl noted.
He regularly works out at the YMCA and hopes to one day walk without a cane and even regain the ability to run and ski.
“He doesn't accept limitations,” Cheryl said. “He is stubborn and persistent and more than anything, he maintains his sense of humor and ability to look past the frustrations and difficulties he faces every day.”
He has been honored as one of Yuma's “Community Heroes” and carried the Olympic torch.
Together they founded a brain injury support group. “TV and media don't portray what it's really like. It's shocking, it's really hard. So education is the biggest and most important thing,” Cheryl said.
It's no surprise that College of Idaho president Marv Henberg recently presented the Haugos with the President's Medallion at baccalaureate and commencement ceremonies. The medallion is awarded to individuals “who have made a significant contributions to the cultural, economic, scientific and or social advancement of Idaho and its people (and) ... who have provided exceptional service to our community, region or nation.”
“We didn't understand why us. We're not that special,” Cheryl said.
But the award program pointed out Cheryl's community involvement and noted Mark John's “willingness to give back to the community and be as involved as he is in spite of his disabilities ... (He) inspires others through his positive attitude and willingness to serve others, overcoming difficult obstacles that life has placed in his path. He is a shining example of overcoming the odds and living life to the fullest.”
Cheryl said they will both continue to “give back” because “we feel it's important, given our gifts. We're very grateful, very blessed.”
They hope to one day turn their clinic into a 24-hour facility and “provide the emergency services this community needs.” But until then, beginning in mid-July, the clinic will offer extended hours and emergency services until midnight. And Dr. Haugo is working on becoming a board specialty.
“There is no board specialty in Yuma now,” she explained.
They are also taking fostering classes and hope to one day take in foster kids. In the meantime, they share their home with two Great Danes and a menagerie of farm animals, including several goats.