(C) 2011 by Metta Anderson — All Rights Reserved for Images and Text
Apricot is one of my three dogs. The others are Friday, a neutered male, and Fabiana, a neutered female. After having puppies in June 2008, Apricot was also neutered, supposedly to prevent future mammary or uterine cancer. No doubt a good idea at the time, the result has been the opposite. In January 2011, Apricot was diagnosed with bone cancer, in her skull down to her left jaw. And now, she’s dying.
I’m writing this because I hope to ease my own pain about losing her. I’m going crazy myself, and on top of the sadness, feel enormous outrage. All my dogs live comfortably. I walk them on leashes, they have a large terrace area to use as a bathroom when I’m not home (and the terrace is kept clean at all times), they get their shots every year along with basic check-ups, they have regular bathing and haircuts, and they listen to classical music all the time (Javeriana Stereo, 91.1 FM in Bogotá). On weekends they may be overexposed a little to opera, but so far, have not complained. They sleep on the furniture. Apricot and Friday sleep with me. All three were rescued from the street as puppies, so their breeding is unknown. Each is unique, but when we’re out together, they work as a team. They are almost a dog food advertiser’s dream.
And something of a veterinarian’s nightmare. They are not rude nor mean with vets, nor do they bite. In fact, I’m told they’re very well-behaved, and more so when I’m not around.
Losing Apricot is more than losing a dog or even a member of the team. She’s the alpha, partly for her size (50 lbs when healthy, compared to 25 lbs for Friday and 20 lbs for Fabiana), but mostly because she’s imposing, but in a queenly way. She’s sweet. She likes to greet visitors by standing up on her back legs and trying to embrace the newcomer, as well as kiss him or her. Most people freak out when she does that, even though she’s not lunging at them, so I don’t let her do that too often. When I come home, of course, we hug.
I think I should explain my anger a bit more clearly, though. The fact that she got cancer at all is strictly a question of bad luck. No one could have predicted it. No one can be blamed for it. But I am angry that a healthy 8 year old dog should have her life cut short like this. It should not have happened, but it did, and it makes me cry.
Apricot was diagnosed in January because I had noticed a weird deformation in the top of her head, on the left side, and it was also becoming obvious that her left eye was starting to protrude. Toward the end of 2010, she began to lag behind and tire easily when we went out for long walks, although I did not connect her problems on the walks with her physical problems. Anyway, when I sent the three dogs to the vet in January for baths and haircuts, I asked that the veterinarian examine her and, if necessary, do an X-ray. Also examine her teeth, as I thought she might have a cavity or an infection along her left jaw. That concern was prompted by the fact that she also developed a problem opening her mouth.
When the dogs came home, I received the X-ray and the vet’s note that the X-ray showed nothing, but that he recommended she be sent to another (and very well-respected) vet, who had access to scanning equipment.
I have to point out here that the Departments of Veterinary Medicine at the universities in Colombia, starting with the prestigious National University, in Bogotá, do not have any of this type of equipment. They also lack treatments and therapies. Their students form long lines at embassies in order to get student visas and finish their training in the US and Europe, which do offer specializations, labs, diagnostics and other equipment. The National University does have specialists on its staff, buteven they are handicapped by the situation.
Anyway, I was told that Apricot needed a scan, that this was e xpensive (which it is) and time-consuming to some extent. I live in downtown Bogotá and do not have a car. Apricot needs an ambulance or I have to hire a taxi for transportation. All these details were worked out in advance, and Apricot received the full three-dimensional scan. The results were printed out on a kind of 11″ x 14″ contact sheet (a set of them), plus being uploaded to a DVD. Even though the contact sheets were in black-and-white, they were extremely clear–the tumor was covering the left side of her skull like a cap, but missing the eye and its socket, travelling instead down to the left jaw.
The radiologist’s commentary was that she had a sarcoma and required surgery immediately. The well-known vet agreed, and the surgery was scheduled for 20 January 2011.
When Apricot came home, she looked incredibly elegant. Her head, neck and ears had been shaved down to the skin, thus defining her elegant bone structure, but leaving a ruff of hair around the base of her neck. Viewed from the right side, she only needed a slender diamond necklace to look like an haute couture model.
Viewed from the left, the scar was long but clean, from the top of her head and down near her ear, but stopping before it got to her jaw. The skin had been pulled up and back, re-shaping her left eye into something oblique, and quite exotic.
She was kept at the vet’s for almost five days, and I would call every day. I was told that she would be home the next day, but that she was doing well. Finally, the clinic said she was “unhappy”–difficult to deal with. I said she was depressed, and firmly said I wanted her home as soon as possible. Depression complicates recovery.
She came home the next day and raced up the stairs to the terrace like a grayhound. She stopped long enough to pee a good-sized replica of Lake Superior, making my partner and I wonder if she’d stopped urinating in protest, and for how many days. But then she bounced over to the water dish and almost drained it. Smiling and panting, with water dripping from her mouth, she turned to greet us.
I ws given her medications and instructions and the bill for all this. The surgical vet was strongly recommending chemotherapy and radiation therapy at the same time, starting immediately, without a biopsy and without waiting for the pathology report. He believed it was enough to say, “In my experience. . .”
Well, it is not enough to say that. I refused to start any therapy until after the pathology report came back. I also explained to him where I live and the complications of transportation. I forgot to mention I live in a triplex apartment–Apricot would not be returning to a luxury condo with elevators and doormen (like many of his patients, who live in the north part of Bogotá) nor to a single-family dwelling with two live-in maids (also like a lot of his patients). It”s just me, a big apartment, and my partner. And NO CAR!!! Under the circumstances, I thought that chemotherapy would be the best option–it seemed to present milder side effects–and the surgeon’s parting remark was, “It’s up to you, madame. . .”
The surgeon wrote up the protocols for the chemotherapy and passed them on to the original vet. I never saw them nor the pathology report til last Thursday. By then, Apricot had such a bad reaction to the third session of chemotherapy that she almost died. I cancelled more sessions and made an appointment with the National University’s Small Animal Clinic.
The UN (Universidad Nacional–called the UN in Colombia) has a vet who specializes in cancer in animals. He examined the dog. The first thing he said was that chemotherapy was not the recommended therapy for bone cancer in the skull. It almost never works. While a combo of radiation and chemo right off the bat would have been the recommended route, he did not understand why I was not informed of side effects of either therapy. He knew the surgeon, in part because the guy is one of the very few vets licensed and specialized in oncological surgery and treatment in the country, and was surprised that that man had accepted my choice of chemotherapy without protest. (Later, it turned out that the surgeon felt he was a “contract player” in all this, and that the vet who requested the surgery would give me all the details later. It occurred to no one at all, and certainly not to me, that the originating vet had no experience in dealing with a cancer patient, nor with the disease nor much of anything else related to cancer therapies. I hope the reader can follow this.)
After three consultations at the UN, the cancer specialist sat down with me last Wednesday and said the following: 1. Apricot’s left eye is viable (she can see out of it), but that the eyelid is paralyzed; the animal ophthalmologist prescribed artificial tears, and they have helped.
2. The eye is viable, but she would lose it if she had more surgery. The surgery would try to remove all the cancer tissue remaining in her head, but would be agressive, extensive and invasive. It would not cure her, either.
3. Radiation therapy was a better option for what she has, but it will not cure her and the side effects are worse than for chemo.
4. It would be a good idea to consider euthanasia “before she gets worse.!
Okay, here’s what happened after that chat.
She’s getting worse, and quickly. She bleeds from her nose, she won’t eat too much (but she does eat something) and she has sneezing spasms that make my apartment look like a scene from C.S.I., any episode. Her breathing is bad. Her breath smells of blood.
I was absolutely numb until Friday morning, when I woke up with the realization that I was being very politely asked to donate my dog to science, under a “fresh is best” idea.
I understand this last bit pretty well. I grew up pretty much on the campus of Michigan State University, which has a very high class veterinary medicine department. Animal Planet ran two seasons of a diary of vet med students filmed at MSU’s animal clinic. University clinics do a lot of research. The National University’s animal clinics (miniscule compared to Michigan State’s) do the same. The difference is that MSU gets the money and the equipment to train students and professionals from all over the world, while the UN is surviving on handouts. Apricot has a common-enough cancer, but in an unusual place. Objectively, she’s an encyclopedia for a specialist and his students.
But she is still my dog, and she is currently still breathing. She lives with two other dogs. At the time she had puppies, I was in bad shape emotionally and financially. But taking care of those puppies and watching them and watching her, and then watching the relationship between Friday (father of the puppies), Apricot and the puppies themselves was the break I needed in order to re-think my life in ways I had not wanted to before. Often, in the late afternoon, I would sit at the top of the stairs to the terrace, enjoying the sun and surrounded by the dogs. It was so peaceful that I wanted to spend the rest of my life like that.
The other result of that experience was that I decided to start writing again. So Apricot, when she gave life to the puppies, also helped me get back to the life I had wanted since I was a girl–to be a writer. My dog did something my mother tried her best (and her damnedest) to get me to do–reorganize my life. I owe her a lot of respect, as well as love.
When I’m not being rational about this, I also feel that the veterinarians took my healthy dog and returned a sick, dying and broken animal to me, and then asked for money in return.
You people are lucky I don’t sue you.
So, at the end now, I will add two more photos. One is of Friday and Apricot at the top of the stairs, sitting together. The other is Apricot playing with Friday on my bed one morning. They liked to do that, and that’s how I want to remember her.
(C) Images and text 2011 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved