Aspen Princess: Knowing when the time is right
October 23, 2014
"If Ryan wants to see George again, he probably shouldn't go hunting," the vet said. "We may have to make some decisions."
Our German shepherd George is 10 years old. He weighs around 100 pounds and is 4 feet long and almost 3 feet tall, if you count his massive ears. His eyes are close-set in a way that gives him a dignified if not judgmental expression, with a long snout that lends him an air of authority.
I'm pretty sure I've seen him roll his eyes at me more than a few times, as if to say, "Oh, for crying out loud. If I could only explain this to you." I imagine his voice would sound like Tim Gunn on "Project Runway" or like an old blue-blood silver fox with cotton balls stuffed in his cheeks who talks through a clenched jaw.
He is highly intelligent and well-trained to a fault. He will never walk in front of you. He'll glue his nose to your calf and follow just behind you as if it's his sole purpose in life. On hikes, you have to tell him it's all right to trot ahead by pushing his rump and saying, "Go, go!" with serious conviction. But more often than not, he'll just circle right back behind you again, his big wet nose brushing against your skin.
There also is no need for that annoying tone people use when talking to their animals or to scream, "Come," and "Get over here," hysterically, as people are prone to do with their ill-behaved pets who then totally ignore them. Not with George. You can tell him "stop" or "right" or "left" in a conversational tone, and he will do as he is told.
George is my stepdog. While it was love at first sight with Ryan, I can't say the same for George. There was nothing cute or cuddly about this dog. He seemed to slink toward me with his head hung low as if he were the one to determine whether I would be accepted. He was definitely a man's dog. That, combined with Ryan's broad-chested build, gnarly tattoos and disconcerting facial hair, completed a picture of overall sex appeal that was definitely working in Ryan's favor.
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Needless to say, it didn't take long before I fell in love with George, too. It wasn't long before he became very protective of me, stopping me more than once in lion country by blocking me with his whole body, whining and forcing me to turn around. It wasn't long before he would talk to me when I walked through the door, whining and carrying on and pressing his whole body against me, demanding my attention. It wasn't long before he'd sit on my feet, making no mistake about who was my guardian and protector.
That's why it was especially devastating when George fell ill last week.
I took one look at him when we returned from a week in Mexico and knew he was very, very sick. He spent two days at the vet getting IV fluids, antibiotics and several lab tests. He developed a life-threatening fever, a large, gnarly-looking growth near his rear and an open wound on his front leg. He lost six pounds and panted heavily, long strands of drool coming from his mouth. It seemed pretty clear to me that he was dying.
The vet told us these were classic symptoms of lymphoma. He said we'd need to make some decisions fast — that this was life-threatening and George could die within a few days without chemotherapy.
"Of course you should do the chemo," my dad said. He happened to be visiting and came with us to the vet's office. "Just to see if he responds and to buy you some time."
Depending on the course of treatment, George would need one session of chemo a week for up to 16 weeks. The treatment would require an IV right into the vein for 45 minutes. He might need a second round at some point. Response to treatment is dependent on how sick and old the dog is when the treatment begins. I found many blogs from pet owners going through the process and reporting on their dog's progress. Many had success with remission but the financial, emotional and physical stress on both the dogs and their owners was undeniable.
"George is such a dignified dog," I told Ryan. "Are you sure this is something that would be good for him?"
"If it was you or me, would you even question the cost?" Ryan asked.
"I'm not talking about the money. I'm talking about the price for hope."
After going through two rounds of IVF, we had plenty of experience with buying hope — and that was hardly a matter of life and death. Still, it was enough to make me wish this medical technology didn't exist. "Nature is as nature does," I told people after I'd had my miscarriage. Is nature something we should interfere with to such an extreme?
Also, how do dogs get cancer?
The test results came back negative for lymphoma. The vet was baffled. "This is definitely the strangest case I've ever seen," he said.
Then George got better. His fever broke. He perked up a little. He started eating and drinking water again. I took him to the river. He wasn't at 100 percent, but he pranced into the water and retrieved a stick and then settled into the muddy banks to tear it to shreds. He seemed at least a little bit like himself again, clearly retreating from death's door.
In the end, Ryan and I agreed that we are for quality of life over quantity. We suspect George's health is more likely to deteriorate at this point than get better. But when it's time to love him the most and do what's best for him, we know we will.
The Aspen Princess is mourning the end of fall. Email your love to alisonmargo@ gmail.com.