Teen beats flesh-eating disease, wins best in show at Sonoma County fair

A teenager has won top honors for her prized lamb at the Sonoma County Fair, and overcame long odds to do it. 

Missy Pendleton, 17,  of Sebastopol has battled back from a life-threatening infection that struck as she prepared to show her sheep at the 2012 fair. 

"I believe you never say you can't, you always can," Pendleton told KTVU on Thursday, as she groomed Theodore, her 8 month old lamb, on opening day at the fairgrounds in Santa Rosa.  

Theodore stood on a metal stand just like the one that changed Missy's life when she was 12.

"As I get older it's just a part of my life, it's just me," she shrugged. 

Missy accidentally cut herself on a sheep stand at her family's farm.

It was a small cut above the knee, closed with stitches, but she developed pain, swelling, and fever. 

An astute doctor at the local hospital acted swiftly on a hunch and had her airlifted to Children's Hospital Oakland, where the diagnosis was made: flesh-eating bacteria.   

"A lot of people have forgotten all about it," mother Michelle Sawyer told KTVU, who will never forget the 45- day stay in the hospital, and early fears Missy would die.

"I can't put into words how proud I am of where she's come from to where she is," added father Tom Pendleton. 

"She really had to fight to do what she wanted to do, but she never said no, and I believe in my heart she never will say no."

Missy returned to raising and showing sheep as soon as she could, and has a bedroom full of ribbons to show for it. 

But this year, she made a clean sweep, with Theodore winning every competition, the best lamb by far amid dozens. 

"I knew he was pretty good," she smiled, humble but thrilled at achieving her longtime goal.  

"I push myself. I try not to think back on what happened, but when I do, I think about doctors telling me I can't, when I can."

Missy was warned she wouldn't walk normally, but her injury is imperceptible.

In the arena, though, she feels the effects. 

She had 14 surgeries on her right leg after infection destroyed tissue, muscle, and cartilage. 

And her knee, which braces her as she poses sheep in competition, is painful and arthritic bone on bone.     

"She has come out of the arena in tears sometimes, but she doesn't want attention, doesn't want anyone feeling sorry for her," observed her mother. 

Missy defied doctors' expectations by standing up after a week in the hospital, and powering through months of rehabilitation.

She even returned to her favorite sport, softball, and played on a traveling team until the rigors became too much for her leg. 

"It's been a big journey for all of us in the family," older sister Gianna Pendleton told KTVU, "and we had to take a big step back and realize how important family is to us."

By Friday evening, Missy had picked up yet another "Best of Class" victory, adding more ribbons and another fancy belt buckle to her haul.  

At 155 pounds, Theodore will likely fetch a high price when he is auctioned off this weekend. 

Missy has a year of high school remaining, and plans to become a paramedic, so she can save lives the way hers was saved.

"Things happen to people for a reason," she told KTVU, " to tell them something about themselves. It told me I'm strong and I can do what I set my mind to."