Once we started to get in the swing of the whole chemo thing (hmmm…..that rhymes….new song idea?), it became evident rather quickly that again, I had no idea what I was doing.
I was functioning on the idea up to this point that when it came to physical therapy and rehab for Hank post-amputation, that this would be easy for me. Not only was I a vet, but prior to veterinary school, I trained sport horses for Three Day Eventing (combined event of dressage, stadium jumping and cross country jumping). This whole sport revolves around the proper conditioning, training and strengthening of ones’ horse to compete in these three very different events. So I thought I could easily figure out how to do exercises and strengthening routines with Hank to keep him fit, because clearly dogs are just little horses. Typing that phrase makes me even more embarrassed that I thought this would give me a leg up in dealing with Hank’s recovery (no pun intended….actually, that’s funny, so yes, pun intended).
It started a few weeks into Hank’s chemo when after reading these awesome little books I found on this very site, “Three Legs and a Spare” and “Loving Life on Three Legs”, I started to understand the importance of maintaining Hank’s strength and health of his remaining three legs. I did the usual stuff I would recommend to clients- started joint supplements, increased the fish oils in his diet, started increasing his exercise sessions by 5-10 minutes per week, massaging his muscles and joints when we were done, blah blah blah. But a big thing that stuck with me after reading that book was understanding that walks do not build strength with post-op amputees. They only build endurance. So I guess I was going to have to do some research on some exercises to start doing with Hank that would help in strengthening. So, I did what every other veterinarian with loads of information available (I had tons of textbooks in my office, access to veterinary information websites, umpteen medical publications to browse through, colleagues with sport medicine knowledge, etc) at their fingertips would do….I Googled it.
Another very, very bad idea. Within about 1 minute and 16 seconds, I was so overwhelmed with information that I had no idea where I would even start. Enter emotional, insecure pet-parent and exit smooth, confident veterinarian. What to do? That’s easy…make someone else do it.
So the next day I called and made an appointment for Hank with our local veterinary rehab group (we are VERY lucky to have a kick ass rehabilitation group with two locations in the Denver area…here’s my blatant plug for them- CRCG) for a post-op consult. I again persuaded my mother to come with me for moral support on the day of his first appointment. In typical Hank fashion, he dragged me through the door and acted like an idiot.
The building was beautiful- really large and open, with non-slip flooring, underwater treadmills, rehab pools that looked like big hot tubs, lots of toys, cones, etc. We were put in an exam room with rubber floors, water bowls and a huge plush dog bed on the floor in the middle of the room (not too shabby). The next 45 minutes consisted of the usual stuff: history-taking, an exam and discussion of goals with the rehab veterinarian who saw us that day (we will call her “Sara”) all while Hank sniffed around the exam room, panted, whined, whacked us in our faces with his tail and refused to sit still. I talked about my need for help in coming up with a rehab plan for Hank (since I was inept at coming up with treatment plans unless something was bleeding, a bone sticking out from somewhere, he was coughing/vomiting/dying) and Sara talked about the things we would start with that day: massage techniques, stretching, some strengthening exercises, and then she said it…..”And then maybe we can get him in the rehab pool today for a quick swim.”
I am pretty sure the noise I made in response to this comment was a combination of a laugh, a “ppppffffhhhhhttt”, a snort and a gasp. Yea right….Hank? Swim? I then had to let Sara in on Hank’s swimming “ability”, but really, it was the complete lack thereof….
I remember in great detail the first time I tried to get Hank to swim, mostly because it is burned into my memory and not in a good way. I lived in Loveland when we got Hank and Loveland is known for all of its local reservoirs and lakes. Since Vizsla’s in general are considered hunting/birding dogs, I assumed that Hank was a good swimmer (my first mistake) and took him to Lone Tree reservoir one hot summer day to see for myself (my second mistake). There was a great little beach at this reservoir with a gentle grade leading into the clear water- perfect for dogs. I even bought one of those orange “dummies” thinking he could actually fetch in the water. When we got there, I could see two or three other dogs (mostly labs) playing in the water and once I let Hank off his leash about 100 feet from the water, he ran full speed toward the shore as if he was going to gracefully leap into the water and swim off into the sunset. I was pretty far behind him at this point, and all I saw was him try to stop as he reached the water line. He ended up sliding on the sand, attempted to sit down as a result, which stopped his momentum so fast that he went ass-over-tea-kettle into the shallow water. All I saw after that was some flailing of legs and ears, lots of splashing, and before I could reach him, he stood up and hauled ass back towards me with a look of terror on his face that I will never forget. I was thinking he would run to me, quickly forget what just happened and want to go back to the water to try again. Nope. He ran right past me, without so much as a glance in my direction, and ended up back at the car, shaking and completely panicked. He had made such a scene at the beach that few of the innocent bystanders came up to us at the car to ask if he was ok. I think I told most of them that he had suffered a brain injury as a puppy, was therefore “special” and not to worry. And this was only the beginning of Hank’s many embarrassing moments at the swim beach. Thanks dude.
I spent the next few years trying to get him to forget this experience, and although over time, he would start to get in the water just up to his paws, then up to his knees, then up to his chest, it was always touch and go. There were a few setbacks along the way- one in particular when he was in the water up to his elbows, acting all confident and bad ass, when out of nowhere, he completely elevated himself out of the water (I still question the laws of physics and gravity after witnessing this maneuver), did some type of acrobatic flip in the air (think Flipper) and flew out of the water dragging a huge mass of seaweed behind him that had somehow gotten tangled up in one of his paws. He again tore up the beach and back to the car where I found him trying to climb under my passenger side tire in an attempt to get away from the sea monster that was trying to devour him. It was months before I could get him back in the water after that debacle and anytime ANYTHING brushed up against a leg/paw below the water, he would channel Flipper yet again, unnaturally levitate from the waters surface, about face and then disappear in the direction of the get-away vehicle.
We started back at square one after that, and then the day came that Hank actually “swam.” I put that in quotations because although he was in the water, without his feet touching the bottom and moving to some degree, the motion of his legs and body that was being produced was nothing at all that resembled swimming. It actually looked more like drowning. The day it happened, it was a packed day at the swim beach and several dogs were in the water going after balls, dummies, sticks and some were just swimming around in circles. I could see Hank inching deeper and deeper into the water trying to desperately get to those dogs that were obviously having the time of their lives. The moment he got deep enough to no longer be able to touch the bottom, he immediately tried to keep himself upright and as vertical in the water as possible. As you can imagine, in doing so, his front feet were more on the surface of the water and when he attempted to “paddle”, he would splash the surface of the water with such force that he would splash himself in the face with a huge amount of water. This lasted all of 10 or 15 seconds before he promptly turned around and headed back to the shore . Words cannot do justice to how completely hilarious this was and I am pretty sure I laughed so hard and for so long that I peed a little. And this was how it was from then on out- meaning we would go to the beach and he would stand in the water for a while, run around, eventually try to swim, end up almost drowning himself and then we would leave. Not too long ago, I came across a video on the internet of a dog with the same disabilities as Hank when it came to trying to swim….it looked something like this:
So when Sara said the dreadful word “swim”, these memories flashed through my head and all I could think of was although I’d be willing to see how he does, I would need to prepare myself for yet again another embarrassing Hank moment. Either that or he would drown, but at least I was among veterinarians (because I would obviously have no idea what to do. Remember, my own dog sick= complete brain dump of all veterinary knowledge). I tried not to stress about it while Hank was getting rubbed, stretched and strengthened, but when we were done, Sara led us from the exam room to show us the rehab pools they had available.
Sara wanted to try Hank in the Infinity pool first (a rectangular pool that generates its own current) which had I known it was 80 degrees, I would have brought my bathing suit. Thankfully they put him in a doggy life vest and there was a hoist over the pool to help him get in and out and to provide some support while he figured out the current. So he was clipped into the hoist, and up he went with a look on his face that I only think can be characterized as “priceless”. He grabbed at the sides of the pool with his one front paw as they lifted him up and over the sides of the pool and once his feet hit the water, he immediately tried to perform his famous vertical paddling technique. But….silver lining time… this was not as easy for him with only one front leg and he was somewhat forced to paddle below the water with his leg because of the current.
And there it was….Hank actually started to swim. For real. With only one front leg. And he wasn’t trying to drown himself either. Who knew?! I was beside myself and almost wanted to cry with joy watching him as hopes of future summer afternoons at the dog swim beach started to creep into my mind. But…again, the look on his face did not quite match my enthusiasm. It was more of a combination of complete terror, worry, yet an intense focus that I have never seen him express…I tried to comfort him but he would’nt even look at me. It was hysterical.
And so I will end this post with a video (click link) and photo I took of Hank in the pool when he finally started to swim. I find it poignant not only because I have never seen him with this particular horrified expression on his face, but also because I am sure this is how I looked at the moment I realized Hank had cancer, the first day we went to CSU, after his first chemo treatment, etc. During all of these moments I was terrified, yet this was Hank’s first expression of fear since the day he was diagnosed. It made me think of one of my favorite quotes…
“The secret to happiness is freedom…and the secret to freedom is courage.”
Until next time…