This time last year, Alec was one month out of surgery and had just returned for his first recheck exam with the neurologist. Based on his persistent lack of deep pain sensation, she told me (as any neurologist would have) that he “had a poor prognosis for return to normal function.” In other words, chances were slim that Alec would ever walk again.
At this point, we had moved into a vacant office on the first floor of ALDF headquarters in Sonoma County, Calif. Because Alec had come out of surgery for a herniated disc paralyzed, I could not take him home to our house in San Francisco, which had become inaccessible due to the stairs. We had nowhere to go. That’s how we ended up living in my office. I was sleeping on an air mattress next to Ali’s bed, eating microwave dinners, showering in the sink, and relying on my friends to take garbage bags full of laundry home every couple of days for me (Alec could not control his bladder or bowels and we went through towels, blankets, and sheets at mind boggling speeds). It seemed I did not leave his side for weeks, except to scurry to the bathroom.
I don’t think I registered the stress because there was no room for it. If you have ever been in a similarly stressful situation you will know what I mean. I proceeded hour by hour, minute by minute, doing the best I could with very little information, none of it especially good or encouraging. Alec had been hospitalized for two weeks, and I was terrified to bring him home and have the team of vet techs and doctors who were on hand 24/7 at the emergency facility shrink pathetically to just me, who had no idea what she was doing. Alec could not urinate by himself and I had to manually express his bladder several times a day (if done incorrectly, he would quickly develop an infection). I was shown how to do this at the vet hospital a few times and it was clearly difficult even for the professionals. This daunting task was made more difficult by his size. Although bladder expression is much easier when a dog is standing, Alec could not stand up and I was not strong enough to hold him up (at the vet hospital it took three vet techs to accomplish this task – once he was discharged there was only me) so I had to do it with him lying on his side, which is much harder. We went through box after box of piddle pads and diapers, because in between expressing his bladder, he would constantly dribble/leak and soil his bed. His bowels worked without my help but he had no control over them, so he would begin to poop and then try to get away from it but could only drag himself through it, smooshing it into his fur and his bed. I cleaned him and his bed up many times each day.
These first several weeks were difficult for both of us. But there were bright spots: my good fortune to work at an animal protection organization that allowed Ali and me to move into my office temporarily, a group of generous friends who supplied me with meals, laundry service, moral support, and donations of needed supplies, and an amazing local veterinarian who made “house calls” to my office to check on us every few days to make sure I was emptying Alec’s bladder completely and that he had not developed an infection. Oh, and the brightest spot of all – that Ali did not die, which I certainly thought he was going to during the harrowing days between his first and second surgeries (first surgery: 2/9/08; second surgery: 2/13/08). At this point, he was going downhill and nobody could figure out why. As his condition deteriorated, the neurologist speculated the spinal bruising might be moving up his spine (a fatal condition called “ascending myelomalacia”), which would have eventually paralyzed his vital organs, including his lungs. This was the first time she used the word “terminal” and I will never forget that feeling of falling.
As it turned out, the exact same disc that had been operated on mere days before had shattered again, for no apparent reason. Neither this neurologist nor anyone I have talked to since has heard of this happening before. It is a mystery, an apparently rare occurrence. This is why he had the second surgery. The neurologist told me she could operate again but warned me that it might not make any difference at all. and he could come out no better than before the surgery. It was a gamble. But we were out of options at that point so I said, yes, do it… do anything you can.
So Alec did not die and that was the best gift of all. But he was paralyzed. My playful, goofy, beloved shepherd who only a week before was running in the park playing his favorite game, “stick,” could no longer move his hind legs. However, I was told he could use a mobility cart (doggie wheelchair) to get around, even if he never walked again, and I was eager to do whatever it took to help Alec get his life back. Of course, I still hoped he would regain the ability to walk, but that hope became increasingly dim as the days passed and he still did not recover deep pain sensation, which brings us back to that first re-check in March 2008: my hope dissipated further when he was given that poor prognosis.
There is a lot more I could tell, both about those scary/crazy/stressful early days, and about how Alec began to slowly but steadily improve. I am going to skip over everything that has happened in the last year because much of our rehabilitation journey has been chronicled in this blog. I wanted to write this one-year anniversary post to emphasize how far Alec has come in the last 12 months. Because all you really need to know is that in early Feb. 2008 a disc suddenly shattered in Alec’s spine and he became paraplegic. He could not walk, could not control his bladder or bowels, and was expected to be paralyzed for the rest of his life. But he is walking now. Yes, walking…first with a lurch, now with a limp. Last month, he walked around the block without his wheels for the first time and we haven’t looked back. I am gradually increasing his time outside of his cart and he is doing great.
Let me just say it one more time, because it feels so damn good to write this: ALEC IS WALKING. Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe, just like it is hard for me to remember how I groped my way through those first few days and weeks without the panic swallowing me. Alec has defied all expectations. He is amazing. And hey, I am not going to sing my own praises here, but I did not give up on him either, which was also important. I gave him every chance and he took it, from one milestone to the next. Some people have wondered what his attitude was like when he came out of surgery paralyzed. I want to write more about this issue in another post, but I will tell you, Alec means the world to me, and I watched him closely for signs of depression. While there were of course changes and adjustments, Alec always had a good attitude. Honestly, his resilience and irrepressible spirit astonished me. His great attitude continues to this day, and has helped with his physical therapy and everything else we have been through on this road to recovery. Which by the way is not over…but I am happy to report that perhaps the biggest milestone of all has been reached. One year later, my boy is walking again.