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After 40-foot fall, cat rescuer’s next challenge is to try and walk again

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POSTED October 6, 2012 1:28 a.m.

LATHROP – All that Karen Duke knew was that there was a cat perched high in a tree and it showed no signs of coming down.

She didn’t know that she’d end up teetering 40 feet off the ground. She didn’t know that the tree was virtually dead and the branches that she was hoping would support her 70-plus year old body were brittle and weak.

So when she reached out to grab the cat – an animal that she later learned spent two or three days perched on a branch and eventually came down on its own – one of those braches snapped and sent her tumbling to the hard ground below.

The fall nearly killed her.

She ended up breaking four ribs, her pelvis, her femur and other bones in addition to a punctured lung, and spent more than a month at UC Davis Medical Center healing and rehabbing from her disastrous injuries.

Doctors told her that she was a miracle case – that people her age would rarely survive a fall like that and the injuries that come with it.

But Duke – the spry, fun-loving and compassionate animal-lover known throughout Lathrop for her love of the soft, intelligent and friendly animals – wasn’t about to give up.

“They all told me that I almost didn’t make it, and I didn’t expect to hear that,” Duke said. “I was in good shape at the time – I felt like a 40-year-old and I could get around like one too.

“That’s something that’s not going to happen anymore. These legs just aren’t going to allow it.”

As the president and founder of Happy Pet Owners, helping animals, and cats in particular, is a passion for Duke. Her normal routine consisted of hitting upwards of  26 feeding sites where feral cats could come get food – allowing her to trap those that aren’t spayed or neutered and take care of them to help cut down on the ballooning pet population.

The mishap has dramatically changed her life and her day-to-day routine.

Doctors told her that there’s a chance that she’ll never walk again – she has pins in her femur and her pelvis to reinforce the bones that were badly damaged during the fall.

She has to use braces to add extra support when she does get up on two feet, and a walker is standard fair if she does want to make a trek through the house of her sister – her current caretaker while she goes through physical therapy sessions and readjusts to a completely new lifestyle.

A wheelchair serves as her default source of transportation.

Even though the scenario might be frustrating and difficult at times, Duke said the outpouring of support from the community has helped keep her spirits up and put a smile on her face while in situations that get her down.

“The amount of people that came out to offer their support was unbelievable,” she said. “I heard from people that I hadn’t heard from in years. There were people whose cats that I helped spayed years ago that came out to wish me well in my recovery.”

Duke’s friend Melanie Parker has stepped up in her absence and organized, the best she could, the feeding of the cats and maintaining the other activities of the group – something that could be overwhelming at times.

But with a love for Duke and what she does for the community, Parker said she had no problem tackling the job and helping out a lady that she respects and admires.

“I was glad that I was able to step in and help, but I’ll never be able to fill that woman’s shoes,” Parker said. “She has always been my mentor, my spiritual guide and my friend – she’s taken me in to her family when I had none. That’s a woman that I admire.

“She has such determination. One of the things that I’ve noticed over the last four months – we were worried that she’d go into depression because she was going to be homebound when she got out of the hospital. But mentally she stayed strong and she worked and faced everything. That’s Karen.”

Anybody wishing to help support the Happy Pet Owners can mail a donation to P.O. Box 586, Lathrop, CA, 95330.

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