As It Happens

This Texas woman with dementia went missing. Her dog helped save her

When Sherry Noppe went missing, her son Justin Noppe and his siblings were worried. Their mother had recently been diagnosed with dementia. But now she's home safe — thanks in no small part to the family dog.

'It was a roller coaster of emotions,' says Sherry Noppe's son, grateful for all the support they received

Sherry Noppe, pictured, was found after three days in George Bush park, thanks in part to her dog's barking. (Harris County Precinct 5)

When Sherry Noppe went missing, her son Justin Noppe and his siblings were worried. Their mother had recently been diagnosed with dementia. But now she's home safe — thanks in no small part to the family dog.

Sherry Noppe went for a spa day with her husband on Tuesday. Later in the afternoon, she went for a walk with her black Labrador, Max, around George Bush Park, a 3,600-hectare park in Katy, Texas. 

When she still hadn't come home several hours later, her family became concerned. They contacted the local police and began a search that evening.

"The first night, it was just really my family and a couple of family friends," Justin Noppe told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. "The first night we stayed up until 3 a.m. driving through that park, actually having to break locks to get down trails just to go search for her.

"We should have had more people out there helping us at that time."

But the community quickly mobilized. Noppe says "thousands and thousands" of people searched for his mother the following nights. This included "the entire community of Katy," people from nearby Houston and the rescue organizations Texas EquuSearch and Alpha Search and Rescue.

Noppe describes the whole ordeal as "heartbreaking." 

"It was a roller coaster of emotions not knowing possibly where she could be. I'm a Christ believer and I'd like to think I'm very strong in my faith," Noppe said. "But, you know, you question everything at those moments."

To everyone's relief, however, rescuers found her on Friday — just in time for Mother's Day. 

"I was amazed at how strong she was," family friend Michael England, who participated in the search efforts, told KHOU. "She wasn't severely disoriented and out of it but definitely lost.… She didn't know what to do."

It took co-ordination and dedication from the rescue teams. The search helicopter found a heat signal, and alerted the volunteers on the ground. Once they arrived, they heard a dog barking.

It was Max. He had stayed with her the entire time. 

"He stayed by her side for three days with no leash and no collar," Noppe said. "Just stayed by her and protected her for the whole time."

On Twitter, Harris County Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap credited the rescue to "group of tireless volunteers and deputies," and of course, Max. 

A special bond

Noppe says his mother and Max share a particularly close relationship.

Max belonged to Justin's brother, Andrew, who raised him since he was a puppy. When Andrew died two and a half years ago, his parents took Max in.

"[My mother] took my brother's loss very, very difficult, and really leaned on Max and just has this relationship with Max," he said.

In a press conference the day his mother was found, Justin Noppe said Max is the last thing his family has of Andrew. 

"If we were to lose our mother and that dog," he said, leaving the sentence unfinished.

"To get them both back is the silver lining," he continued, while his two sisters, Courtney and Jessica, tearfully agreed.

Watch: The Noppe family gives a press conference after finding their mother

Noppe says his mother is now home safe, and spent Wednesday at home with her husband. But the family is now even more mindful of her dementia and how it has affected her life.

"My mother's a very strong woman. She used to do everything for me. We have a family business — she used to do all the accounting, everything here," Noppe said.

It has also been challenging for their family to watch her lose much of the independence and control she's had over her life.

"It's scary, it's sad. [I] just really want to hold on to my mother as long as you can and keep her as coherent and, you know, alive with us as she can be," he said. 

The Noppes are working on safeguards to keep their mother safe in the future. For now, the Noppe family is happy to be reunited, and grateful for all the support they've received.

"Our mother would not be here if it were not for this whole community," Courtney Noppe said at the press conference. "From the bottom of our hearts, thank you all."

Written and produced by Aloysius Wong.

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