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And then the house and the sky fell quiet

3 Jan

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“Good morning, Zooey.”

For the past twelve years Zooey has slept in her crate next to our bed. Yesterday, like so many mornings before, I woke up, rolled over and said those three little words. In that moment, I didn’t know it would be the last time.

When I opened her crate door, I noticed right away something was wrong. Zooey was having trouble walking and the fluid had built up significantly outside her abdomen. As the cardiology vets had told us, they could drain the fluid from her abdomen a couple more times, but there was no way to remove the fluid that was building up in her skin outside her abdomen.

For weeks I’d been reading end-of-life articles and trying to find an answer to the question: When is the right time to let go? (Here’s one of the best articles I came across)

Now I knew we’d reached that time. Veronika and I talked it over, and made the incredibly painful decision to schedule Zooey’s euthanasia later in the afternoon. We made the call at 11AM and set up an appointment for 4PM.

Once the decision was made, the waiting became excruciating. Emotions and thoughts started rushing through my mind and I was constantly questioning whether or not we were doing the right thing.

We were also questioning where we should do this. With Jasper we settled on an at-home procedure, but for Zooey that just didn’t feel right. We decided returning to the University of Minnesota’s Small Animal Hospital made the most sense for us given that Zooey had become comfortable with the doctors and technicians there.

With everything in place, there was one last thing we wanted to do … take Zooey for a final walk in one of her favorite parks.

Around 3PM we drove to Battle Creek Regional Park. Dogs can run off-leash on wooded trails and across open fields in this park, so we’ve visited and hiked these paths countless times over the years.

When we arrived, the sun was shining, the sky was a brilliant blue and the park — covered in snow — was as beautiful as we’d ever seen it.

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But Zooey struggled to walk along trails she had once raced down. If we needed a final sign, this was it. Her time had come and there was nothing more we could do. After a short while we returned to the car and started to drive to the small animal hospital.

We arrived shortly thereafter and were taken to a private room with wood floors, comfortable chairs and soft blanket for Zooey to lay down on. We should pause here and say how thankful we were for all the people at the University of Minnesota’s Small Animal Hospital. Everyone from the front desk staff to the lead veterinarian treated us with the utmost care and respect — that day and throughout the entire past few months.

Once in the room, we were given time alone with Zooey to say final goodbyes. I can hardly describe how difficult this was. The one good thing is that Zooey was still being Zooey — sniffing around the room and sticking her nose in the garbage pail.

Once we gave the go ahead, one of the vet techs took her away for a few minutes to insert a small catheter into her leg. This helps assist with the process.

Zooey then returned and we were given more alone time. After awhile, we pushed the small buzzer on the wall and the lead veterinarian arrived.

When we were ready, she inserted the first solution into the catheter. This caused Zooey to fall asleep quickly. Then she inserted the second solution and Zooey’s heart stopped almost instantly. The whole thing seemed to happen in less than 30 seconds.

I was shocked by the suddenness of it. The doctor quickly stepped out of the room to give us privacy and Veronika and I were left with Zooey and tears streaming down our faces. I remember both us of saying how much we loved her and then I leaned over, and through the tears, whispered, “I’m so sorry Zooey. I did everything I could to save you.” Together we pet her soft fur and held her one last time.

After a few more moments, we asked for the vet technician to return. Together we lifted Zooey’s body up and then she took her away to be placed in a small casket for us to transport her to Pets Remembered Cremation.

Like so many times before, Veronika and I drove though the darkness with Zooey in the back of the car. Although this time she wasn’t bouncing around and staring out the window looking for another dog or passing squirrel to bark at. All I remember is silence.

—–

One of the hardest parts of losing a pet is coming home.

As soon as we stepped in the door, I was hit with a wave of emotion. Everywhere I look there’s something to remind me of Zooey — her water dish by the door, her blanket on the couch, her running gear and winter booties in the front closet.

And everything you’ve known for all those years changes, too. It’s habit to not leave food or tissues on the counter because Zooey will snap them up. Or to close doors so she doesn’t rummage around in a garbage can or chew on a sock. To lay out her “dog blanket” on our bed in the morning. She’s no longer there to let outside or take for a walk. And she doesn’t come running when I open the cereal box late at night. In an instance, everything changes and life is thrown upside down.

All day the lyrics from the song “Landslide” have been running through my head:

And can I sail through the changing ocean tides
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
Oh oh I don’t know, oh I don’t know
Well, I’ve been afraid of changing
‘Cause I’ve built my life around you

I don’t know where we go from here. I don’t know what comes next. For the first time in fifteen years, we’re waking up without a dog in the house.

I keep thinking Zooey is still sleeping in her crate and will come running into the kitchen at any moment.

But for now, there’s only silence where there was up until recently so much activity.

Zooey came into our lives as a rescue dog with a blue blanket and not much more. She was our much beloved “trouble dog” with an abundance of positive energy and personality. Yesterday, on a gorgeous sunny day, after all these years, she was cremated with her same raggedy blue blanket wrapped around her. As we ponder how to deal with the days ahead, we take comfort in thinking somehow we came full circle.

Goodbye, dear Zooey. We’ll never forget you.

(Zooey, June 11, 2003 to January 2, 2016)

Is there a good day to say goodbye?

29 Oct

October 29, 2015 — Wow, the last post below was from 2011. Amazing how the years pass.

For a long time now this site has sat idle. I’ve thought about taking it down, but for some reason I just let it float out across the Web. Now I know why. The story wasn’t over.

In 2010 this started out as a blog about Jasper and his cancer diagnosis. But there were always two Vizslas in our lives. There was Zooey, too.

Now over 12-years old, she is still with us, but not for much longer.

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You see, back in mid-September Zooey was diagnosed with a rare heart-based cancer tumor. We first noticed she was having trouble breathing, so we took her in to see our regular veterinarian at Como Park Animal Hospital. They did a few tests and a chest scan and immediately sent us over the University of Minnesota Small Animal Hospital. That’s when my heart dropped and I was transported back to 2009-10 and the ordeal we endured with Jasper’s cancer.

My wife and I know we’ve had a great life together with Zooey, but she’s always been so healthy. We thought she’d live at least another couple years, so needless to say this has been a huge shock.

The tumor itself isn’t causing Zooey pain, but what happens is it causes fluid to build up in her abdomen and press on the outside of her lungs which restricts breathing. Each time this has happened — four times now — we’ve taken her in and had the fluid pumped out. And the amount of fluid is amazing — sometimes up to 3/4 of a gallon! It’s a pretty straightforward procedure and each time when she’s done, Zooey charges out of the hospital. Afterwards she has a few good days and then a slow decline until we’re back for another procedure.

The unfortunate part is the time between chest pumps is decreasing, meaning that the end is drawing near.

With Jasper, it was easier (never “easy”) knowing it was time. He almost stopping eating completely and wouldn’t get up any more. It was clear that he was ready to say goodbye.

With Zooey I think it will be a much harder decision. Like I said, after each vet visit she slows down a little but still likes going for hikes, exploring the beach along the Mississippi River and chewing her nylabones. But she’s getting more and more tired. And food, well, that’s becoming an almost-daily challenge.

All of this is leading to a decision no pet parent wants to make: Is it time?

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During situations like this, weird thoughts cross your mind. While walking her back to the car from the vet today I was thinking, “Will it be better to say goodbye on the weekend and have quiet time to grieve a little or on a weekday after a beautiful weekend?” Strange.

Just typing those words causes tears in my eyes. I’m not ready to lose another best friend. My hiking buddy. My TV-watching companion. I can’t imagine looking in the rear view mirror and not seeing her happily panting away while we head out on our next adventure.

When Jasper passed away, we were devastated, but we came home to Zooey. Now the house will feel so painfully empty. For the first time in over 14 years we won’t be sharing our home with another creature.

I think that’s when it’s really going to hit me.

For now, I’m going to go pet Zooey while I can and hold on to the moment just a little longer.

Questions I Stopped Asking

5 Sep

I’m sitting down to type tonight while U2 plays on the stereo in the background.

“Hold me now, oh hold me now
Till this hour has gone around
And I’m gone on the rising tide…”

Just about a year ago, Veronika and I were traveling through the desert Southwest on our way to see U2 in Las Vegas. During the first five days of the trip I was a bundle of nerves as we anxiously waited for the results from Jasper’s first needle biopsy.

Outside the entrance to the Grand Canyon, we received a call from our vet. “Inconclusive.” I remember thinking, “Well, that’s better than ‘conclusive’.” On we drove… Veronika, me and my worries.

Grand Canyon
Photo: Calm on the outside. Stormy on the inside.

You see, I’ve always been a worrier. I mean a hardcore, teeth-grinding, stomach-churning kind of worrier. So, I was surprised – shocked actually – to realize that there were things I recently stopped fretting over. Questions I’ve stopped asking. Such as…

Question 1: Why did this happen to our dog?

This was one of the first questions I kept asking myself. Probably asked this question over a thousand times. After a while acceptance starts to creep in, and then you switch to survival mode. Thankfully Jasper has been up for the fight. For a shy and reserved dog, he is stronger than I could have imagined. We’ll keep going as long as he wants.

Question 2: Was it something we did?

The food we fed him? The city where we live? The water he drank? This one can really drive a person crazy because there’s just no way of knowing. Could be genetics or the environment or a combination or something else. That’s the bitch about cancer. A lot of times you just don’t know what causes it. There’s nothing I can do to change that.

Question 3: How much time does he have left?

One of the vets gave him one to six months to live. That was two and half months ago. We asked another one of our vets the same question two weeks ago. He responded, “Could be weeks or months. It’s hard to know because there are so many variables.”

The last three weeks have been great, though. If it wasn’t for the tumor on his side, you’d think he was a normal dog. Playing, swimming in the river and jumping on the bed.

I’m learning to live in the moment more and more each day. This morning I took J out to swim in the St. Croix River. The temperature was perfect. The setting was perfect. The moment was perfect. I remember thinking to myself, “There’s no place I’d rather be than right here right now.” A second later, I looked up and saw a bald eagle land on a tree branch thirty feet above us. Was it a sign? I don’t know, but it made the moment even more special.

Question 4: Why doesn’t Jasper get to live to be an old dog?

I don’t know why, but I always hoped Jasper would live to be at least 10 years old. He just turned 9. I don’t know what’s so special about 10. I must have read somewhere that the Vizsla’s average lifespan is ten to twelve.

Now when I catch this thought creeping into my head, I’m reminded of one of my best friends. His beloved black lab passed away at the age of three. I’m sure he would’ve given the world for six more years together.

Question 5: How much have we spent on Jasper’s care?

I made the mistake of asking the cashier at the University of Minnesota Small Animal Hospital this question the other day, and the answer was double what I expected.

That’s when I realized it really didn’t matter because we would have spent double that to help J.

It made me sad, though, knowing there are families and individuals out there who can’t afford cancer treatment for their pets. Just breaks my heart, but I’m starting to form a plan in my head to help others in the future. More on that later.

To end on a positive note, this has been a great weekend with the dogs. Hiking off-leash in Battle Creek Park with both dogs on Friday, going for a run with Zooey on Saturday and taking Jasper out to swim in the St. Croix River today. I wish every weekend could be this great, but right now I’m not thinking about the future or the past. I’m just sitting here listening to my favorite band – and the sound of two snoring dogs – with a smile on my face. Perfect.

The Good, the Bad and the Unknown

22 Aug

First, let’s start with the good. Actually, the really good.

Jasper had a wonderful week! If it wasn’t for the lump on his side, you wouldn’t even know that he was sick. He was jumping on the bed, running to the door with a tennis ball in his mouth each time I got home and playing and swimming in the river with no sign of pain. What a change from last week! I can’t tell you how great this makes me feel.

Other than tweaking his pain meds, we really didn’t change anything else this past week.

He even felt strong enough for another 3+ mile hike in Afton State Park on Saturday. Like I said, it’s been a good few days.

J and T chillin'
Photo: J and Todd chilling out on the couch after a day of hiking

The other nice thing that happened is that we got our first look at the photos we recently took with the extremely talented Sarah of Sarah Beth Photography fame. Her photos are truly magical.

I’m sure when I’m old and grey and enjoying my last days on this planet, one of the photos she took will be sitting by my bedside. Thank you, Sarah!

Now for the bad.

We had another heart-to-heart with the veterinary oncologist this past week. We’re almost certain that Jasper’s latest – and likely last – chemo drug isn’t slowing the tumor’s growth. At this point I’m starting to think that this is some sort of super-mutant cancer. We’ve tried everything we could to slow it down, but to no avail.

During the visit, our vet said something that really stuck with me. He said, “Dogs have mastered the art of living in the moment. They aren’t waiting for the next birthday or Christmas. They only care about what they’re doing right now… and how they feel at that moment.”

This was part of his response to our question about how we’ll know when it’s time to say good-bye.

So, where does that leave us?

For starters, we’ve begun to accept the situation. All we can do now is manage the cancer with pain meds. J is on pretty low dose medication at the moment and he had a great week, so at least we have that on our side. I feel strangely positive tonight given the gravity of our situation. I’m sure all that could change in the coming days and weeks, though.

Veronika and I have also started making plans for the end. We have the name of a vet who does at-home euthanasia. We have the number for a place that handles pet cremation. We’re getting things lined up now because we both know that when the time comes to let go we just won’t be thinking straight.

Which brings me to the unknown.

We still don’t know for certain how this will play out or how much time we have left.

Today was a beautiful day, though, and J had a joyous time running and swimming in the Mississippi River dog park. I’m happy and thankful for that tonight.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring, but while he’s still here I’m going to walk over and give him a good-night hug.

Sweet dreams, buddy.

You Shine Like a Burning Star

12 Aug

Another day, another round of national press for our little superstar doggy Jasper.

The good folks at Petopia asked me to write a guest blog a couple weeks back. The entry I prepared for them – “The Calm Before the Storm” – is now available online. In it I write about J’s diagnosis, his never-ending love of water and waiting for what’s next. Hope you enjoy the entry.

Jasper is back at the U of M vet today for his bi-weekly update. He’s been a little more tired and stiff than usual this week, so I’m anxious to get the vet report later today.

In the meantime, I’ve been dreaming of snow, but I’ll save that for my next entry.

How long does hope last?

17 Jun

How long does hope last? The question has been on my mind all day.

We often say we’re hopeful that we’ll get the job, hopeful that we’ll do well on the test, or hopeful that tomorrow will be better. But is there a point when we give up hope and accept our situation for what it is? I’ve been thinking about this a lot today.

The last couple weeks have been a roller coaster. A week ago Tuesday, while Veronika was traveling, I was startled awake at 4:30AM by Jasper crashing off the end of the bed and nearly falling into the wall. His whole body was shaking and he could hardly stand up. At first I thought perhaps I had had a bad dream and startled him.

I rushed him outside where he continued to shake and wobble as I thought, “OK, this is serious… but stay calm, grab some clothes and get to the ER ASAP.”

After the second car race to the ER in a month (thank goodness the hospital is so close), he was taken into intensive care and I was left to wait. Once he was stabilized, the docs sent me home and said they’d call when the specialists arrived for work.

Found out later in the day that he likely had a blood clot in his brain. My first thought was, “Damn! Don’t know how much of this I can take.” By evening, he was back to normal and we haven’t had any issues since.

Stormy skies over Minneapolis
Photo: The unsettled sky outside tonight – perfect for this entry

Today was yet another follow up visit with the veterinary oncologist, Dr. Husbands, and his team. I like this particular doc because he seems to genuinely love Jasper as much as we do. Well, almost.

Fortunately, the tumor has stayed pretty much the same size, maybe even shrinking just a little. The next thing we’re going to try is a somewhat experimental drug – can’t remember the name right now – that will essentially try to keep the tumor from growing any new blood vessels and expanding. That’s the hope at least.

Best case scenario is that it halts the growth and may actually shrink the tumor. Second best is that it’s simply inhibits growth. Third possible outcome is that nothing happens. In that case, the doc gives J one to six months to live. Hearing those words – “one to six months to live” – is like a kick to the gut.

So, this is where “hope” comes into play. We were hopeful that surgery would get rid of the cancer. Nope. We were hopeful that chemo would take care of it. Nope. We were hopeful that radiation would work. Seems to have slowed the tumor. A little. Now we’re left to hope that an experimental drug that wasn’t developed for this type of cancer will give us a little more time with our dear Jasper.

And so I’m back where I started. Wondering where does hope end? And perhaps, where does reality set in? I guess all I can do is try to enjoy each day and each moment now.

G’day, Dr. Claire (Part 2)

7 Jun

Having tried surgery and chemo without success, radiation was our next – and likely last – option. It’s really starting to sink in that Jasper has a terminal disease. I’m also beginning to realize that this will likely be our last summer together. I’ll comment more on that thought in a future post, though.

J began twenty-two weekdays straight of radiation in mid-April 2010. Each morning he had to be in to the hospital before 8AM and I was able to pick him up in the late afternoon.

Around the fifth day I started to notice something. The same group of us were there in the lobby each morning with our dogs. Silently going through the same experience but never really reaching out to one other beyond the cursory “Good morning.” Strange in hindsight because it probably would have been nice to chat with someone who truly knew what it’s like to be in this situation.

Jasper relaxing before going to the vetJasper was doing so well throughout the experience, that by week three we asked the vets if he could continue getting zapped beyond the 22 scheduled visits. “Nope, that’s the maximum for a dog with his condition.”

Thrown into the mix, there was also the new low-protein dog food and loss of appetite to deal with. By the end of radiation Jasper had lost nearly a quarter of his total body weight, but he soldiered on.

When he was discharged on day 22, I actually felt a bit sad. Throughout the radiation treatment I had the comfort of knowing that we were doing something to try to save him. Now that we were at the end, it started to sink in that there really wasn’t anything else we could do other than wait and hope the radiation stopped or slowed the tumor growth.

On the last day, the doctors and nurses gave us a beautiful card with words of encouragement for J.

“Congratulations, Jasper! You are such a brave guy! Have a great summer.”

“So happy for you! Love you, Jasper.”

“Congratulations! You are the sweetest guy and I will miss you.”

They also gave Jasper a new squeaky toy that Zooey (our other Vizsla) has been eyeing like a hawk checking out the latest road kill.

A few days after his last blast, we started to notice the hair loss. Slowly at first until fur started coming off in clumps. His side looked awful, but I took it as a positive. “Perhaps it’s a sign that the radiation is having an impact.”

Two weeks after the final treatment we were back to meet with good ol’ Dr. Claire, the veterinary oncologist from Australia.

“G’day. How are you doing, Jasp?”

There’s something strangely comforting about discussing a deadly disease with someone who has an Aussie accent. Plus her nickname for Jasper made me smile.

Following the initial exam, we got down to some serious Q&A.

Q: Did the radiation work?

A: The tumor has only grown slightly, so that’s a positive. The best result is to shrink the tumor, but slowing the growth is the next best outcome.

Q: I guess I need to mentally start preparing for the end of his life. Does he have three weeks or three months or something else to go?

A: Definitely more than three weeks. Beyond that it depends on a number of factors.

Q: Such as?

A: Have we slowed the tumor growth? Will it metastasize into the lungs?

So where we once had a ray of hope, now we just have a bit of light coming through the window shades. Have to stay positive and really try to live in the moment, though.

Next appointment: One month from now.

*Note: Apologies for the choppy entry today. Sometimes the emotion of the situation gets to me and it’s tough to be poetic. More upbeat entries coming in the weeks ahead. Promise.