It’s been a remarkable summer–and I’m not referring to the heat, although we’ve had plenty of that. Instead, here I want to recount our experiences with Carolina (Lina), our nine year-old golden retriever, and what she has taught me about living life to its fullest. The past seven weeks have been distressing in many ways, but also hopeful and inspirational in many more. She has been the source of many emotions, and also the teacher for some of life’s great lessons about courage in the face of adversity. This is the story of our summer of 2010.
During the week after May graduation, we took off for a sailing trip in the Chesapeake Bay with our two goldens, Lina and Georgia.
We crossed the Bay to Onancock and spent a couple of days before heading to Chrisfield, Maryland, crab capital of the world, enjoying great seafood and splendid weather. The dogs loved the trip– swimming, sailing, and chasing frisbees in the water whenever we anchored near a sandy beach. We returned home tired, but refreshed, after Memorial Day.
Two days later, Lina developed a little limp in her left leg. “Better take her to the vet,” I said, and my husband, who had not yet returned to work, took her in to be examined. “She may have a torn ACL” (ligament in her knee), he reported upon return. “We need to take her back for x-rays in the morning.” Thinking that surgery might be ahead, I took her in the next day to be anesthesized for the x-rays. To our delight, she did not have a torn ligament — but there was some deterioration due to arthritis. Well, we knew that already… all goldens seem to get arthritis and we had her on glucosamine chrondroitin for that, anyway. There didn’t seem to be much to do except let her rest a few days.
The next morning the limp had worsened– she could barely walk. Back to the vet’s. “Looks like she may have a back sprain –that’s where the pain now seems to be.” After a steriod injection and some prednisone to take at home, we returned, still feeling uneasy that such rapid changes were occurring in her condition. By the next day, Sunday, she was virtually paralyzed in her hind legs– she couldn’t move at all without a lot of pain. She was in great distress, emotional and physical. We were just as upset. “What was going on?” we asked ourselves. “Had she injured herself getting on and off the boat?” “But the limp didn’t show up until two days AFTER our return.” With each passing hour, she was rapidly becoming worse. Then she developed an intestinal upset that quickly became debilitating.
By noon, we were in Veterinary Emergency Care, where she had to be carried in on a stretcher. “I’m really concerned about Carolina,” said the vet after her examination. So were we. She explained three possibilites, and the needed diagnostics to figure out what was going on. Perhaps it was a ruptured disc, or a spinal tumor, or a third remote possibility, something called lymphosarcoma. I focused on the possible surgical interventions of repairing a ruptured disc or removing a tumor. We left her there in their care, returning home worried and distraught. Georgia sensed our dismay and felt the loss of her sister’s presence keenly.
Three days and many veterinary consultations and diagnostic tests later, they brought her back out on a stretcher for us to carry in our car to northern Virginia to see a veterinary neurologist. It seems this is a relatively rare veterinary speciality, and Richmond has no doctors with the equipment to do an MRI. Hours later, we were waiting for the specialist to give us her assessment of the results, hoping and praying that the MRI and spinal tap would reveal the cause of Lina’s paralysis. By now, she had no feeling whatsoever in her hind legs, her tail couldn’t move, and when we rubbed the back part of her body, she showed no reaction— it appeared that she had no feeling whatsoever.
As concerned as we were, it was still a shock when Dr. Deena Tiches of Bush Veterinary Neurological Center gave us the news. Lina had lymphosaracoma of the central nervous system–a cancer of the spinal cord and brain. It was pretty conclusive; we saw the MRI picture, and the faint shadow that permeated her entire spinal column. The prognosis was not good: this was stage 5 cancer. How could this be? Our dog appeared healthy and happy, playing in the warm waters of the Chesapeake Bay a little over a week ago.
Our choices were limited. We were not prepared to say goodbye to her that day–incomprehensible!–so we agreed to try chemotherapy. She would need to stay in northern Virginia for emergency care for another 4 or 5 days to see if the chemo showed signs of working for her– it might not. If, by then, she could get up and walk with the assistance of a handler with a supportive strap to hold up her hind end, we could bring her home to see how she would continue to fare with the chemo treatment. At best, Dr. Tiches had said, about 8 weeks was likely all she would have. It was a long, sad drive home.
Georgie was waiting at home, and we began to focus all our attention on her the next several days, trying to compensate for our pain and for hers, as well. The house was like a tomb…. so quiet! We had not realized what a life force Carolina was with her bouncy energy permeating every room in the house. We nicknamed Georgia “Stealth Dog” so quiet and light-footed was she by comparison. We hardly knew she was there.
We called each day. “How’s Carolina doing?” Finally, by day 4 came the joyful news, “She’s up and walking with assistance.” Assistance was the key word. When we came to get her to bring her home, we knew she would need a lot of care, but oh my! She is a 75-lb dog, and she needed a lot of help and patience just to do the most basic of outdoor doggie tasks. My husband did the heavy lifting, literally. Lina wasn’t big on the new giant-sized crate we purchased and placed in my downstairs study after moving all the furniture around. I moved a futon downstairs and we spent the first (restless) night there. The next night she stopped at the bottom of the stairs as we were helping her towards the room with the crate. She looked upwards to the bedroom. “You want to sleep upstairs as usual, don’t you?” my husband said to her. Donning a waist strap used for heavy lifting, he carried her up the 14 steps to the second floor. She was content, and so were we. We had all made it through our first full day.
Routines were quickly adjusted. Lina was taking a ton of meds—anticonvulsants to prevent seizures (this cancer, after all, could affect her brain).
She needed these and all the other meds every 12 hours. My alarm now went off at 6 am, and I stumbled into the kitchen each morning to prepare her food laced with pills of various kinds. There were so many that I worried I might not get them all, in the right dosage, in my sleepy stupor. I made a chart to check them off one by one, at 6 am and 6 pm by the clock. Every three weeks she was going to need chemo treatments, and weekly local vet visits for bloodwork and exams. It was a four-hour round trip, with a 2 hour exam in between for her trips to the neurology center.
It was amazing to watch this dog and see how she adjusted to her disability. Here she was, having lost her ability to walk, yet her spirits were good — she did not mope or complain. She was grateful for every gesture of care, and seemed happy to be alive and with us, appreciative of every God-given day. She no longer had any pain, and she accommodated our awkward attempts to provide help with grace. I have wondered how I would handle a similar circumstance if I should be suddenly stricken. How would I deal with the lost of my legs? If I could no longer walk and do the things I loved most? I began to notice disabilities among people everywhere I went, in the grocery store or in other outings. People who had been largely invisible to me before became people to admire for their strength and courage.
The neurologist coordinated with our local vet; we got regular updates on the results of blood work and liver tests. When the chemo started affecting her liver negatively, we added liver protectants to the mix, and switched her chemo from oral (pills) to injections, four of which needed to be given over a 2 day period every 12 hours. We took her back to northern Virginia for the first of these; they showed me how to give her the other three while armed with protectant gloves. The worst day I’ve ever had in my life was when the needle came unscrewed from the syringe and drops of deadly chemo liquid spilled onto my kitchen floor– not once, but twice did I botch this by pulling the cap off the syringe the wrong way. With gloves, I cleaned up and mopped the floor four times with straight Clorox. I had to go get more chemo from our Emergency Vet Center; I took it to my local vet in a panic and got help with the second injection. The third and fourth I somehow managed to do on my own, but our timing was now off so I needed to stay up to 1 am to give her the third shot. The alarm still went off at 6 am the next day. Somehow, we made it through, though the “chemo day” was as close as I’ve come to a meltdown.
We devised a way to get her back downstairs in the mornings. It’s one thing to carry 75 pounds upstairs, and another to attempt to walk down holding a dog in front of you when you can’t see your feet or the steps! Out came the orange futon, again—one we had slept on in Japan thirty years ago.
We called it the “Magic Carpet” and told Lina she was going for a ride. It was a foam cushion, divided into three parts. By folding it, we could put it on the floor in the upstairs foyer, and slide Lina out from her bed on a comforter to reach the futon. We then positioned it over the stairwell, with my husband at the bottom end. I guided the top section and Lina rode her carpet in the middle section. Every morning thereafter, the Magic Carpet took off … a bumpy, but successful ride down the steps! That routine worked for weeks, until Lina, growing stronger every day, was able to walk down the steps herself with a little help.
Yes, the chemo was working, and working fast. We could see little improvements every day. Feeling began to come back to her back end— we could pet her and she was appreciative. Her tail began to wag, and she could hop a few steps to go where she wanted to go. Her courage was amazing. She never gave up trying to do that which she had lost. Slowly, she began to require less support from us with the hind-end strap to enable her walking; she could take a few steps on her own. Then, one day while I was working on a paper at my computer, I turned around to see that she had gotten up on all fours on her own, and had walked to the water bowl–a first! I grabbed my digital camera and made a movie of it to show the vet.
Two weeks ago we took Lina and Georgie back to our marina at the Rappahannock River. We knew she couldn’t get on the boat (too much of a leap from pier to deck), but she was able to get into the dinghy from the shore.
We motored to a little sandy beach area nearby that had a flat bottom in fairly shallow water. Lina was in heaven! Back in the water with her frisbee. We probably spent an hour there as she walked back and forth. She discovered that she could travel more easily in water than on land. Her sister was catching frisbees and swimming farther out. Lina decided she wanted in on the fun, and began swimming again, too. This was a day we never thought we would see again, but by the grace of God it was here.
Carolina has always been a special dog, a trained therapy dog. She was a little too energetic for the nursing homes, but for a while we participated in the Read-to-Rover program at the local libraries as members of Caring Canines. It seems she is now providing therapy, once again, to all of us who, while helping her recover, have benefited from this amazing canine’s presence and will to live. She’s an example worth emulating.
We’re approaching another big neurology visit in a couple of days and expecting the 4 chemo-injections-over-two-days again, since her liver is probably not well enough yet to tolerate the pills (if ever). Let’s hope I’ve finally gotten the hang of managing those syringes. She has made such remarkable progress that we are amazed. She now walks on her own, though a bit wobbly, and can take short (very short) morning walks around the block. It is nothing short of a miracle. We cannot help but be hopeful that maybe, just maybe, she might beat this cancer. That part, we know, is out of our hands.
Early on, we spoke with her vet about quality of life, saying that as long as she still had a good quality of life, we wanted to keep her alive. All we know now, for sure, is that OUR quality of life this summer has been enhanced immeasurably by how she has handled her illness and her recovery. Hers seems pretty good right now, too. I am grateful for every day this summer with her, and appreciate the lessons of life she has taught me – how to be patient and more tolerant of others, how to accept personal and physical limitations without complaining, and how to make the most of every day. She has always been a special dog, and never more inspirational than in the summer of 2010.