JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A week before Christmas, Anissa Cottongim was hospitalized in Jacksonville's Mayo Clinic. The rare form of cancer the 51-year-old Ocala woman had been battling for a year had worsened.
"I was really emotional," said Cottongim, who is a horse farmer and breeder. "Not in a good place."
But on Dec. 18, she was treated to an excursion outside in the sunshine. And she was stunned to see a horse grazing on the Mayo campus. A closer look revealed it was not just any horse, but her horse, a 14-year-old German Trakehner stallion named Tatendrang.
Her beloved Tate had come to visit.
Cottongim's mood immediately lifted. She cried happy tears.
"It was a complete surprise. I had no idea," she said, getting teary again at the memory. "It was amazing."
The visit was a coordinated effort that began with Cottongim's mother, who she said saw her daughter's mood and decided "'We're bringing her horse.' He always cheers me up."
Tate was in Eufaula, Ala, where for part of the year he lives and trains in the Olympic equestrian sport of "eventing." So getting him to Mayo required the coordination of his trainers in Alabama, Cottongim's family and friends and Mayo staff.
"We understood the patient's suffering and seeing their horse meant a great deal to both the patient and her family," said Mayo nurse Madison Nipper. "As nurses, our hearts just couldn't say no. We are extremely happy that we were able to put a smile on their faces."
Other animals have visited Mayo in Jacksonville, but Tate was the first horse, according to hospital spokeswoman Tia Ford.
Cottongim was diagnosed in December 2019 with leiomyosarcoma, a rare cancer that affects the smooth muscle tissue of the body, according to Mayo. She underwent several chemotherapies, but by March the cancer had spread with several inoperable tumors in her abdomen.
She was in pain and the tumors caused fluid buildup in her body. During her December visit to Mayo, doctors drained almost 6 liters of fluid from her abdomen, according to Mayo.
"All I could think about was how bad I felt. I was not doing well physically or emotionally," she said.
Then there was Tate, right in front of her.
Her friend and inspiration
She was present for his birth and they have had a close relationship ever since. At their reunion, he seemed to sense she needed him.
"He was happy. He is a very intelligent horse and we have a really strong bond," she said. "He knows when people are down. He's a good boy."
Tate inspired her to keep fighting.
"Seeing him made me care about getting out of the hospital … and try and regain strength," she said. "When he was a baby I would spend about 30 minutes with him kissing his nose and just petting him every single night. While most horses do bond with their owners, it has always been a bit deeper with me and Tate."
Cottongrim was discharged from Mayo in time for Christmas and is now home in Ocala, She said she hopes to see Tate again in early 2021 when he returns to North Florida. For now, she will cherish the photos and memories of the Christmas 2020 visit.
"Tate gives everything to his humans and for me that love and bond lifts me up," she said.