By the end of our first day at CSU, several things had happened. Hank was examined by what seemed like 10 people (students, interns, residents, oncologists, surgeons, probably a custodian or two), his records reviewed, treatment recommendations discussed, prognosis relayed (this was the only time during the day that I cried) and then they asked the big question- “so do you want to do his first chemotherapy session today??”
Before my brain could say no for all the reasons I had previously thought of (I just got all the info and hadn’t had time to digest it, the cost, the possibility of him not feeling well, yada yada), my heart screamed “YES- AND IF YOU DON’T KILL THOSE CANCER CELLS I WILL AND IT WONT BE PRETTY” in the voice you would assume would have come from a zombie doctor with really bad hair, wearing a bloody lab coat and carrying a 5 foot syringe filled with green, steaming liquid. Yep, I said it. Chemo it was. Mostly because if it meant I could give Hank at least a year of happiness and wiggles, and selfishly, I could give myself a year to figure out how I would live without him, I would do anything. More importantly, they did a pretty good job convincing me that any side effects would be minimal and treatable. And thankfully, over my years as a vet I had accumulated a huge drawer full of random veterinary drugs- antibiotics and probiotics for diarrhea, anti-emetics for vomiting, anti-inflammatories for pain, sedatives for the times Hank acted like he had that day…..so I figured I was prepared.
And then…..the student and intern took Hank “to the back” for his treatment.
For anyone who has ever taken their pet to the vet before and they ask to take your pet “to the back” for whatever reason, it really is ultra secret veterinary code to mean one of the following :
- You are clutching your dog/cat so tightly against your chest or lap that I can barely place my stethoscope on them let alone actually do a complete physical exam without my having to get handsy with you (Have I mentioned how many clients’ boobs or junk I have inadvertently touched trying to do this?? Awkward.)
- Your pet is an asshole and I don’t feel like getting my face bitten off today so he/she needs to be muzzled so I can do an exam (But I dont judge- I get that dogs/cats seem to think that all vets are blood-sucking alien-type creatures that do nothing but inflict pain. I would try to bite me too.)
- We need to do things like draw blood, take x-rays, squeeze pus from something, stick our fingers up their butt…ya know, stuff the general population really doesn’t want to see happen to their animal and without fail, stuff we will mess up if you are watching
- So we have an opportunity to make fun of you. Well, only if warranted. For example….when a client tells me that the reason they didn’t spay their dog (who is now pregnant and needs a C-section) is because they heard that if you don’t let female dogs have at least one litter of puppies in their lifetime they will suffer from severe depression…and I have to try to keep a straight face and politely tell you that’s not correct when I am dying inside with laughter…..that’s like holding in a fart. Its not good for you. So…. I have to tell someone and it may as well be my staff “in the back” because only they will understand the hilarity of that comment. Sorry.
- So we have an opportunity to tell jokes about very morbid and awful things without offending anyone (especially in the ER…we have to do this…it keeps us sane given all the bad stuff we see)
Since I had all this inside information, I tried to get myself to believe that the “back” at CSU’s Animal Cancer Center was more like doggie heaven. Smart people walking around all in white, cushy pillows all over the floor, endless baskets of toys and treats, cages made of rawhide, horse poop-covered mats for dogs to roll on, ear scratching machines, no needles or pokey things…and chemotherapy would be administered by an elf-like creature with rosy cheeks and really white teeth through an edible meat straw, via osmosis. I was sure that’s what they were doing. At least that’s what I told myself because I was positive that when they were done with Hank, he would come back to me looking like he had lost 15 pounds, puking and pooping all over, and would never love me ever again for doing such an awful thing to him. However, 4 hours later when we went back to pick him up after my mom and I did what we do best- eat, talk and shop- he still made an ass out of himself in the waiting room upon discharge by just being his stupid/happy/wiggly self, he dragged me out of the building just as he had on the way in, he refused to let me help him up into the back of the car….and then….he slept the entire way home like he had had the best time of his life. WTF?
But…the next week was rough. Really rough. And I again started feeling as if I had made the wrong choice for Hank. He stopped eating and I became unhinged. So, I did what any pet owner whose dog goes a day without eating would do. I offered him whatever he wanted to eat (do you know how many thousands of clients I have told NOT to do this when their dog is having any GI upset?) because clearly he was going to die of starvation soon if I didn’t do something. So I gave him chicken, rice, 5 different kinds of canned food, some weird pureed “immune boosting food”, a chicken wing or two, some bread, mushroom supplements, hamburger meat, and lots and lots of fish oil. Which of course got him eating, but as you can imagine, after a few days this turned out badly for Hank……and then the diarrhea started. And not just any diarrhea…bloody diarrhea.
As a vet, “bloody diarrhea” is a presenting complaint I see on a daily basis. It usually involves a middle-aged, otherwise healthy dog that out of nowhere starts spewing the most foul-smelling bloody fluid out of their rear ends. This really freaks people out. I had a lady pass out in my exam room once when her dog pooped this awfulness all over her lap. But to me, no biggie. These patients usually just need some fluids, anti-emetics, antibiotics and a bland diet and after a day or two, they are back to pooping like normal. So of course when poor Hank developed this symptom, surprisingly, I wasn’t too worried. Until about 2 days after it started….
I can legitimately remember Hank waking me up in the middle of the night to go outside twice in his lifetime. So if this happens, it usually means its an emergency of epic proportions. Most of the time, if I’m in bed, he’s in bed no matter if its dinner time, breakfast time, morning/noon/night, or if its been 14 hours; he is truly the best dog possible to have for a person who works my ever-changing overnight work schedule and has flip-flopping sleep hours from week to week. And generally, because I am usually sleep deprived, I sleep well on my nights off. Very well. However, there are two things that will blast me out of bed from a deep sleep faster than you can say “upchuck.” One of which is the sound of my cat starting to puke. Ya know, that dry-heaving, insanely fast burping sound that gives you at least a 10 second head start to jump out of bed, grab said kitty and remove them from whatever carpeted surface they are clinging to and throw them onto a non-absorptive, non-staining surface (tile, wood floors, the sink, the bathtub…yes, I have thrown my cat mid-vomit to most of these places in the middle of the night so I didn’t have to spend the next 20 minutes cleaning cat puke off my carpet at 2am).
The other is the alarm I will call “Hank.” Hank has found a very creative way to wake me that fully exemplifies his ability to wiggle. I was sad that after his amp he would lose this ability and although its not quite the same at it was, he still has a little wiggleability. What he will do is line his body up along the long side of my bed and lean against it. And then the wiggling and tail wagging starts. He starts to wiggle with such force that it legitimately makes my entire bed shake and convulse similar to the feeling of being asleep on water bed and having someone jump on it while you are sleeping. Its not the most pleasurable way to be woken up, but its also not the worst I could imagine (i.e projectile cat vomiting).
So you can imagine that when Hank woke me up in the middle of the night when he had been having diarrhea all day, I flew out of bed, ran him down the stairs in my underwear and let him outside. But the longer I stood at our sliding glass door waiting for him, I started to wonder what was happening (we have a light that shines onto our deck, but it shines no light into the yard which becomes a black abyss at night). Was he having diarrhea? Was it still bloody? How much was he having? Was he vomiting? Had he pooped out his intestines? I needed to know these things. So I did what anyone else would do…I grabbed my cell phone, turned on the flashlight and ran out into the yard in nothing but my panties to investigate. When I came across Hank, he was squatting in the corner of the yard, but since I couldn’t tell what was happening from a distance, I went right up to him and shined my flashlight right onto his butt. Yep, I did this. He turned and briefly looked at me as if to say “Really?” and then went about his straining. And then I waited. While squatting there in my yard, half naked and next to my dog intently watching his butt as if something a lot more intriguing was going to come out of it than poop, it occurred to me that I have neighbors. Lots of them. With windows that point directly at our back yard. What an interesting picture this must be being witnessed through someones window…..Oops. At that time, my common sense took over and I turned off my flashlight and backed away very, very slowly. He eventually came back inside and we went back to bed, but I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell happened to my common sense through all of this.
Thankfully, his diarrhea did resolve and his appetite came back, but I would say it was about 2 weeks before his digestive tract was back to “normal.” And then it was already time for his next treatment. Ugh.
So I made the trip back to CSU, feeling the whole way like I wasn’t sure I was prepared to go through it, let alone deal with the aftermath and have to watch Hank lose his appetite and poop his guts out again. I hated that I was doing this to him and I contemplated stopping his treatments; I almost turned around. But yet again, despite my stress, worry, guilt, fear, etc. Hank dragged me through the door of the teaching hospital, embarrassed me again in the waiting room (and I think he was even worse this time), came bounding out of the cancer center 4 hours later like he had had the best time of his life for the second time, and we made the trip home.
In the car on the way home to Boulder, I remember glancing into my rear view mirror where I saw his smiling face as I had a million times before. He was happy and content just to be there with me and didn’t seem to know or care what had just happened. He wasn’t anticipating feeling ill, or depressed that he had cancer. And at that very moment, I felt a shift in my attitude and I remembered something. Hank doesn’t know he has cancer. He doesn’t even know the word. He just knows that he likes to play, sleep (a lot), cuddle, run, have his belly scratched, make weird noises, shove his face in crotches and be in the car with me. And he loves chicken wings and hamburger meat (even if it causes him to have diarrhea). And despite the setbacks, wasn’t this was our ultimate goal? For him to be happy, enjoy all the things he used to and to feel well the majority of the time?
It was. And as far as I was concerned, despite the late-night wake-ups, the poop and the occasional missed meal, this goal had been reached. We were back to hiking, playing, running, wiggling and get this…even swimming (more to come). And for every extra second of time that I get, I will be grateful.