Sunday, December 25, 2011

Lady and Me

Lady's story, Part 2 of 3. Part 1 is here.

On a Saturday this past September, the three of us all set out for a walk. Holding the leash, I started briskly, encouraging Lady to run, but before a couple dozen paces I realized her heart was not in it; she was barely keeping up with me, instead of the usual reverse. I slowed to a walk. Carol caught up with us and I remarked with surprise on the beagle's unusual restraint. I mused that Lady must finally be feeling her years - fifteen of them by now, and Carol agreed sadly. It turns out it had been a few weeks since she had last wanted to run.

At some point, past the halfway mark, and on the return trip, I noticed what appeared to be something odd on the side of Lady's neck. Carol removed the collar and we took a closer look. Something dry, fleshy and pink was protruding a full centimeter from the fur, but seemed to be part of Lady herself. I had no idea what it could be (in retrospect, it should have been fairly obvious, but who willingly summons such an explanation to mind?), but I thought that we should call a veterinarian without delay. She didn't seem to be in pain, so she didn't need to be rushed to emergency care, but we should probably call, get some information, and make an appointment. Carol called Allen and he agreed; a vet was contacted, and Lady was to come in Sunday, the following day. Lady's body was scanned and her blood sampled and whisked off to the lab for testing. On Monday, the tests came back: it was definitively cancer. On Tuesday, she had surgery and the tumor was excised.

Apparently, the scan had not revealed any other tumors, but Carol related that the vets had told her Lady might require chemotherapy in addition to surgery. Despite it not being my decision in any way, I said I thought that didn't sound like a good idea. Chemotherapy is an unpleasant experience, I opined, and a dog is not able to have the process or the reasons for it explained for them. I reasoned that Lady had lived long past the median life expectancy for beagles, and probably only had a year or two left even if she beat the cancer, so it didn't seem rational to make her suffer only to get a little extra time, whereas if she were, say, two years old, the tradeoff would have been worth it.

Most of this turned out to be officious, mansplaining blather. Chemotherapy was indeed recommended: five treatments over a few months. But, it turns out, animals receive a much lower dose than humans do. It is much less strenuous, and their hair does not fall out. She was out of the animal hospital within a couple days, and soon started her chemo regimen and resumed her walks with Carol. The vets said that Lady was "responding well" to the treatment.

Yet her running days appeared to be over. The new Lady was still enthusiastic about walking, digging, and sniffing, but she was more subdued. The vet said that she could be expected to live up to another year and a half. Somehow I didn't really think about how the distribution of probabilities was likely to look given such a low maximum life expectancy. Again, who likes to think about such things? (Randall Munroe is one statistics geek who has had to. Stephen Jay Gould was another.)

I went to an evening concert this past Monday, not far away in Altadena. I turned my phone on to check my messages at intermission, and received an unusual kind of message from my girlfriend. We had not had any recent discussion of Lady's condition, but the message abruptly and curtly stated:

 Taking doggie to the vet now. 1412 Huntington dr. Meet me there.

Carol rarely asks me for anything outright, and almost never simply issues a command. I am used to an elaborate dance around a subject before she asks for anything, and even then indirectly. For her to be so direct, and without any precursors, was a sign that this was an unusual circumstance and I should comply without question. I said my good-byes and sped to the emergency clinic. Lady could not walk; she refused to go anywhere, and she was being kept overnight to be diagnosed by a vet in the morning. On Tuesday, tests were done, and on Wednesday, the verdict was returned she had damaged the radial nerve in her right front leg.

Carol brought Lady back to her parent's on Wednesday night; apparently the job of diagnosing and delivering instructions on aftercare had been done, without anyone bothering to give an estimate on the chance of recovery, or the cause of the nerve damage. If it was trauma, it would be good to know that she could then recover, and advice on how to prevent any more injuries would have been helpful. If it was a degenerative nerve condition, then she'd never recover and euthanasia should be at least discussed. The relative merits of for-profit health care of any kind are worth considering here - I can only surmise that no one took initiative to discuss these things with the responsible party, because no one was being paid to, and it was easier not to.

Because Lady was still unable to walk, Carol made plans to move her in with us. Although she would have to sleep in the yard, neither of us minded that - our backyard is enclosed with a brick wall that an old dog cannot jump, and naturally we cared more about the Lady's recuperation than some torn up grass, if she even had the strength to dig. Staff at the clinic had said that a pet of her age and in her condition should be fed several times a day instead of once in the morning; I agreed to take on these duties.

Her cage was old and damaged, and we needed a lot of supplies for her recovery, so she was returned to Carol's parents' house for one more night; we would shop for supplies and a new cage the following day and transport her. She was not eating, perhaps due to nausea, so we were to administer an antacid. She was being kept close to the house now, in her transport cage for the night, with blankets draped over the top for the cold, and soft blankets and toys inside as well. As I opened the cage and called her name, she turned her head to me, but did not move. Even given her deterioration in the fall, this was a startling change from the dog I had known. Her fur was matted and dirty. I pulled her out and held her in my arms; she struggled a bit as Carol pried her jaws open, but relented after I tilted her head back and put the pill in her mouth, and she resignedly chewed and swallowed her medicine. Oh well, if you must. Not much I can do about it, is there? Despite this rather unpleasant treatment at my hands, after I replaced her in her cage, Lady looked at me and thumped her tail against the floor several times, and I felt a little less guilty as I replaced the sheet on top of the cage. It was the last time anyone saw her alive.

Carol's shopping list:
Sheets, Blankets
Pill Pockets
Pill Poppers
Protective Booties?
Dog Bath Shampoo

In the morning, we ate breakfast and returned to Carol's parents' house, hoping to get her to eat. As I approached the cage, I called out "Lady, the Tramp is here!" I did worry that she might be gone. I was whistling in the dark, a bit, as if my lame joke could make things better. I leaned down to pull back the sheet and opened the door to the cage. At the same moment that I reached for her, Carol burst out "Oh, no! Look, her leg!" Lady was not moving and did not react to us. I reached out and touched her belly; it was rigid, and I knew the worst. Her leg was pushed out the side of the cage, unmoving - surely if she had been alive it would have caused great discomfort to her and she would have tried to adjust her position. I give all these details because I could not bring myself to check her pulse or her breath.

I turned to Carol and shook my head slowly, stricken. At first her reaction was mild. "She could just go, like that, in her cage?" she said in disbelief. "Her belly is rigid," I said. Before long it fully sank in and Carol was wailing. "Lady, wake up! Lady, wake up!" she kept repeating, as we both cried and I held her.

Part 3 of 3: Carol and me

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