With her walker covered in $40-worth of hot pink and rainbow-striped tape, "Disney Princess" stickers and lettering bearing her name, 9-year-old Malley Jo Ralph is determined to keep up with her family.
That's no easy job, as life moves pretty fast at Justin and Meagan Ralph's home near Farmington.
On a recent day, little brother Mosey, 6, was "hiding" under the temporary bed Malley Jo uses in the living room. Big sister Maggie was at the kitchen table, her hands covered in homemade slime into which she had dumped a copious amount of silver glitter. Little sister Mary Helen, 20 months, tried to squirm from their mother's arms to grab a Vienna sausage.
But amid the perpetual motion of the young family, it's Malley Jo who has the nickname "Speedy Gonzalez." With her walker gliding on two wheels and two pink tennis balls to keep it from scratching the floor, she navigates smoothly between the kitchen table and a living room recliner, where she throws her right leg over the arm to more easily manage her knee immobilizer.
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Malley Jo doesn't talk about her injuries and doesn't like it when people talk within ear shot about the dog attack June 27 that caused them.
When asked what's been happening, she rattles off, "The dog bite and all that, tons of people visiting, came back from the hospital, getting more guests while I was at home." Then she moves on, talking about her stuffed giraffe named Smelly, flamingoes and how her favorite color is light pink (not hot pink).
"Tell her what you want to be when you grow up," Mom prompts before Malley Jo has a sudden and unexpected shy moment.
"She wants to be a Disney Princess," Meagan says, but Malley Jo quickly corrects her.
"That was when I was 6," she says dismissively.
"Now, work at Disney," she says. "And live at Disney."
Malley Jo wears a top with the words "It's a Mermaid Thing," a pink skirt with the cartoon figure of Ariel from "The Little Mermaid" and purple glasses along with the immobilizer, covered from knee to ankle in messages and signatures. A fuzzy flamingo charm with hearts for feet hangs half way down it.
She frowns because she is sad she will miss church camp this week, then smiles when talking about the purse she wants to sew while home with her mother. It will have pockets made from her Pawpaw's jeans, her mother's old pink belt for a strap and a pink flamingo embroidered on top.
Poster board signs remain taped in the windows behind her. Maggie wrote, "You're the best sister anyone could ask for, Malley Jo," and "You're the bravest." Maggie and the kids' Mawmaw made the signs for a welcome home party when she was released from Baptist Health in Paducah on July 2. There were balloons, too, but those have already been popped.
Malley Jo isn't sure what the best part of being home is. It might be not having to help Dad in the chicken barn or clean her bedroom or pick up the living room.
Her mother has other ideas.
"I think the best part is we're all back together," Meagan says.
The Ralphs were supposed to be on a cruise starting July 1. The first thing Malley Jo asked after the dog bite, while waiting for the ambulance to come, was if they could still go. Maybe they'll take a trip in December instead, Meagan says. That would fit her schedule as a middle school teacher and that of Justin, who farms row crops and poultry.
She doesn't get to go swimming this summer, Malley Jo says, but she might get to do aqua therapy in August. That's when the orthopedic surgeon thinks the immobilizer may be able to come off, he told the family at her appointment this week. He doesn't think she'll have to have skin grafts but isn't for sure.
About the only time Malley Jo is still is when Meagan changes her bandages. Then she watches videos of YouTube stars like the LaBrant family or listens to music from Katy Perry or others. She gets to watch or listen to all she wants, then. It takes about 30 minutes.
Does her leg hurt?
"Sometimes," Malley Jo says. Her mother said she hasn't mentioned that before, just that it itches. They can't scratch it. Infection is too great a risk.
The only time Malley Jo has cried was when she got the first of the four shots to prevent potential rabies. Despite wearing a collar, the dog remains unclaimed, so his immunization record is unknown. The shots have to be given directly into Malley Jo's wound.
Otherwise, "not one tear has been shed out of her eye," Meagan says.
Malley Jo hops up, grasps the walker and zooms to the kitchen table, allowing the adults to whisper in the living room.
A stray dog had shown up in their back yard, and Meagan, knowing they were leaving soon on the cruise, gave it water and fed it some expired bologna she would have to throw out anyway.
"I felt sorry for it," she says. "I thought it looked skinny and starving."
Mary Helen would play with the dog through the door, putting her hand on the inside of the window glass. It would put its paw on the outside, mimicking her.
Meagan warned Mosey over and over not to go out. All the kids wanted a dog but "we have enough mouths to feed around here," Meagan says.
She ran out long enough to bring in some rugs she worried he might tear up.
"He never once bothered me," she said. "He never seemed aggressive at all."
The garage door was open. It's how friends and relatives usually come in and out. A friend was visiting with a couple of kids, and it was time for dinner. Malley Jo and another child ran to the garage to get a frozen pizza out of the deep freeze.
"I never thought about the dog coming in my garage."
As the girls ran out, "that dog busted through that door. He jumped up on her with his front paws up on her chest."
Meagan thought he had pinned Malley Jo down. Then she saw his teeth in her thigh. She yelled to call 911.
"I punched him somehow," Meagan says. "I think I might have clocked him in the jaw."
She's still not sure how she managed to turn the door knob with the dog in a choke hold and throw him in the garage. She grabbed a dish rag and propped up Malley Jo's leg. There were three punctures and a 2-inch gash. She could see bone.
"I felt like it was hours," Meagan says of how long it took the ambulance to arrive. "I'm sure it was minutes."
By the time animal control officers came to get the dog, the Ralphs were already at the hospital. Emergency room staff wrapped up the injuries. The surgeon told Meagan and Justin he had seen pictures of Malley Jo's wounds and should be done in 45 minutes. He called after 3½ hours to apologize.
Surgery wrapped up half an hour later. Meagan remembers the word he used to describe Malley Jo's four quad muscles.
Physical therapists came in the next day. Nobody had to tell Malley Jo she needed to get up and walk. Nobody could slow her down. They called them "Malley Jo's parades," and she led them whenever she had visitors.
"She wanted to walk all the way out into the hall and into the waiting area," Meagan says. "She got it into her head, 'If I don't walk, I'm not going to get better.'"
The family developed rules. One is what to focus on, and what not to. "We don't focus on the 'should haves,' 'could haves,' 'what ifs' or 'why us,'" Meagan says. "We focus on healing."
The family wants to thank all those who prayed, visited, brought food or sent cards or the money Malley Jo used to buy all that tape to bling out her walker.
Gratitude is serious business in the Ralph house these days, and a lot of it is for God above.
Meagan rocks Mary Helen, for whom Maggie has just brought a sippy cup of milk. Mosey is yelling from the bathroom. Malley Jo uses scissors, cutting out the pockets for the purse she is sewing. Life moves fast, and the Ralphs are grateful for each one of those little, busy lives.
"We know it could have been 10 times worse," Meagan says. "We count our blessings every day that our girl is here. She has two legs, and they both work. We're confident she'll make a 100% recovery, no doubt in my mind. We're going to jump all the hurdles in the meantime and praise the Lord along the way."