October 10, 2010
Alec’s story is a love story. I met him in the kennels of The Seeing Eye in 2002. He was a lonely, anxious shepherd in training to be a guide dog. Although many guide doges love the work, some are just not cut out for it and are better off as family companions. Alec was the latter. He was too high strung and had a suspicion of strangers that is common among German shepherds, but is not a good trait for a guide dog.
I didn’t want another dog. I already had two big dogs living with me, and I was a grad student on a shoestring budget who moved often. But something happened when I met Alec. We bonded almost instantly and our connection grew over the time that I worked there, until one day I realized if Alec were ever rejected from the program I would have to take him home.
Over that time, there was a further shift: I went from passively realizing I would take him if he were rejected (in the vernacular of the guide dog school) to actively hoping he would be rejected, such was our bond — a frustrated bond because he was not mine and I could only visit him in his kennel on work breaks and after my shift.
It would be a year before he was finally released from the program and put up for adoption. Although by then I had left that job and moved to a different state, Alec never left my mind. I believed with all my heart we belonged together and my most fervent wish was to give him a happy life, to make up for the lack of affection and steady companionship he had during his first two years. His first year was spent with a neglectful family and his second was spent in the barren and chaotic kennels of the guide dog school.
When I heard Alec was rejected from the program my heart leaped. I called immediately to express my interest in adopting him — despite now being separated by 5 states and 800 miles. The message on my answering machine saying Alec was mine was one of the happiest moments of my life.
Alec and I spent five wonderful, happy years together before he suddenly became paralyzed at age seven due to acute inter-vertebral disc disease. Despite two spinal surgeries and 12 days in intensive care (my final bill when he got out of the veterinary hospital was $16,000…but I had credit cards and he was alive, which was all that mattered), Alec remained paralyzed without even the ability to urinate on his own.
I had to learn to express his bladder, which was incredibly difficult for both of us. His size complicated matters. All the nursing duties involved with caring for an incontinent, paraplegic, 70 lb. German shepherd were daunting and I was terrified when he was finally discharged from the hospital (where trained vet techs had been caring for him 24/7).
Could I take care of him all by myself? One particularly insensitive veterinary neurologist expressed naked incredulity that I was planning to care for him “all alone,” which frightened me even more (what else was I supposed to do? It was just us). And on top of it all, we were now homeless. Because my house in San Francisco had stairs, we could not go home. With most of my friends and family 3,000 miles away on the east coast, we had nowhere to go.
Luckily, I work for an animal protection non-profit, Animal Legal Defense Fund, whose organizational culture is very supportive of the human-animal bond and whose policies reflect the notion that companion animals are true family members. I was allowed to move into a vacant first floor office at ALDF headquarters while Alec recovered from surgery.
Despite the continual stress and intermittent panic that characterized those scary first few weeks, I tried to maintain a positive attitude. When I felt overwhelmed and could not hold it together — when I tried and tried but could not find his bladder to express, when my wrists were so sore I thought they were going to break from pressing on his abdomen, and when I had to struggle to keep him on his side for this necessary indignity (if I didn’t get all the urine out, he would quickly develop an infection) — I would leave the room to quietly sob in the hallway so Alec wouldn’t see me break down.
During this time, I monitored him closely for depression, but I was amazed at Alec’s resilience and cheerful demeanor in the face of these new challenges. It is true that dogs adapt to disability in a way that only those who live in neither the past nor future can. It was then, shortly after we moved my office, that I started my original blog, Alec’s Story.
We lived in my office for seven weeks while Alec recuperated from his two major spinal surgeries and I learned to care for my big paralyzed dog. I slept on an air mattress, ate microwave dinners, and developed a new routine that involved gentle physical therapy (mainly light massage and passive range of motion at this point), rotating Alec’s position so he would not get pressure sores, bladder expression every 4-6 hours, and constantly cleaning soiled beds (and Alec himself, with a waterless shampoo).
Before moving into our office, I had raided the local thrift store for pillows, blankets, and sheets, which we went through at break neck speeds. My friends and co-workers hauled garbage bags full of laundry (piles of soiled sheets, towels, and blankets) home every other night for me so Alec would have clean bedding. They donated boxes of wee wee pads and other necessary supplies, the cost of which quickly added up. I left Alec’s side only to dash to the bathroom, and occasionally take “showers” standing over the industrial sink in the supply closet.
Alec had his own sleeping area but one night dragged himself over to my air mattress, and after that we slept together side by side on the tiny twin-sized mattress. He took up most of the little bed, but but I didn’t dare try to move him and risk hurting his back, so I ended up halfway on the floor each night. I did not mind.
After six weeks when deep pain sensation had still had not returned, Alec was given a poor prognosis for return to normal function: in other words, he would never walk again. So I ordered a doggie wheelchair for him and set about learning everything I could about taking care of a disabled dog. As long as Alec could have a good quality of life using his mobility cart (which I was satisfied he could after doing my research), I would do everything in my power to ensure his happiness, including rearranging my life to accommodate his special needs.
I was glad to do it. I never wanted anything in this world more than to give Alec a happy life. My only fear was I might not be able to care for him (I started having back problems myself during this time from the physical strain; what would happen if my back went out?). But we made it work, with the help of some generous friends and a compassionate local vet who made “house” calls to my office to check on Alec every couple days to make sure I was emptying his bladder sufficiently. It was still hard, but I was getting better at it.
That first year was an amazing journey. Alec apparently had not gotten the memo about his slim chances of walking, and he proved the neurologists wrong. I did regular physical therapy with him and he began to improve, slowly but steadily. His bladder function returned first. Bladder expression was easily the most challenging thing for both of us, so after that everything else was just proverbial icing on the cake. One day I walked into my office and I swore I saw the tip of his tail wag, just for a second, the way it used to. I thought I would never see him wag his tail again and I rejoiced at this small movement.
I bought him a life vest and started taking him to the river for hydrotherapy, and in the water his back legs began to move a little. We also did sessions in an underwater treadmill and other forms of physical therapy, such as weight bearing and supported standing. Because of his size, the mobility cart aided greatly with these exercises.
Alec adjusted wonderfully to the cart itself and enjoyed being able to go on walks again. So they didn’t drag, his back legs were placed in little suspenders that held his paws off the ground. On walks we started to notice his back legs moved slightly in the stirrups; just a little at first, but gradually they were moving more and more.
Five months after he became paralyzed, Alec stood up on his own…very briefly the first time (he swayed like a drunken sailor for about six seconds and then fell over), but gradually he began to stand for longer periods of time, until he began taking one or two baby steps.
Then, almost exactly a year later and against all odds, Alec began walking again. I remember that first walk around the block without his wheels vividly: another memorable entry in the “happiest days of my life” file. From there I gradually extended his time outside the cart until he used it for the very last time in June 2009.
Alec still had special needs and a lingering disability. His right hind leg did not work perfectly; he had a residual limp, which gave him an abnormal gait, and he had to wear a special shoe to protect his paw on hard surfaces. And because he would always be at risk of re-injuring his back, I had to restrict his activity on land. He was not allowed to run, jump, play rough with other dogs, or go up and down stairs. I could not safely board him in a regular kennel.
Life was more complicated (although nothing like before!) but I didn’t care. Alec still had a full life. Even though he could not run around on land anymore, I tried my best to make it up to him with regular swimming, where he could engage in his favorite activity (fetch!) in the relative safety of water.
Alec loved to swim and I was grateful for this because swimming became an important physical and psychological outlet. I searched high and low for accessible swimming spots for my special needs shepherd (we swam in rivers and indoor pools, and continued our weekly hydrotherapy sessions in the underwater treadmill) and I sought out flat, grassy places where he could walk safely without his shoe.
We continued with the physical therapy, not knowing when he would hit a “wall” in terms of improvement, and a year after he used his wheelchair for the last time it seemed Alec might have finally reached a plateau. That was fine, amazing in fact. So what if he walked with a limp? He was WALKING!
Life seemed to calm down for us. We had moved to Portland from the SF Bay Area six months after Alec became paralyzed because there were more housing options that would accommodate his special needs. We moved into a first floor apartment with carpeting so he would not slip in a relatively flat neighborhood close to some parks. We were settling into what I thought would be nice, dull period after the intense challenges and transitions we had just weathered. After all that, I figured both of us deserved a break. I had found some great swimming spots for Alec in and around Portland. I took him to new parks for long walks every weekend. I happily devoted myself to making sure Alec’s quality of life would remain as high as it had been before. I changed my routine and life to spend more time with him.
After almost losing him (there were life-threatening complications after his spinal surgeries, which is why he was in ICU for so many days), I cherished anew every day with my best friend, this special being who felt like my soul mate. I knew how lucky we were. Every morning I woke up and gave thanks for him and prayed we would be together for many years to come. I felt so fortunate, so inspired, so blessed…and so ready for our lives to settle down again. I treasured every day with Alec because I knew exactly what I had. I had always felt we belonged together and I did not mind facing adversity, as long as we were together. That was all that mattered, and I could not have been more grateful for his amazing recovery.
We were already close, but the experience we shared after Alec became paralyzed strengthened our bond. We were a true team. I became hyper-vigilant about his health, nutrition, and medical care. I wanted to make extra sure he would be with me for years to come. Alec inspired me in so many ways. Through our blog I realized we were able to give hope to others in similar situations. Not every dog in Alec’s situation will walk again, but at the same time it is important not to give up too soon. I learned there is much that is not known about neurological injuries, and that physical therapy, time, and love can do wonderful things. In our case it did. I was really scared but trying to maintain hope when I started my original blog, Alec’s Story. I had no idea it would have a happy ending.
It didn’t. Not long after he began walking again, Alec was diagnosed with a malignant, aggressive cancer called hemangiosarcoma. He had barely been out of his wheelchair a year. He was only 9 years old. I thought he was in perfect health. I was wrong. I did everything I could. Nothing worked…not chemotherapy, not holistic treatments, not prayer, not faith, not hope. I took Alec to an oncologist who specialized in hemangiosarcoma. She was using a new chemo protocol with which she had seen survival times of 2-3 months to a year. I hoped he would beat the odds again, that our story would continue. Maybe our experience with cancer could also help others, I reasoned, as I tried to find an explanation for why we were being put through this. But Alec barely made it to two months. Why? After all he had been through, why?
I remember my first thought: “Not this.” I wrote it down and put it under my pillow while I waited to bring him home from the emergency hospital after his first bleeding episode, where they performed surgery to remove his spleen, which had a huge mass attached to it. I prayed and practiced positive visualization (what else could I do?) while waiting for the biopsy results, even though they told me it was probably cancer.
But the biopsy results came back benign. After being terrified for days waiting for the results, when I heard the veterinarian say the amazing, beautiful, wonderful words, “It’s good news,” I fell on the floor weeping with immeasurable gratitude, joy, and relief. Alec had beaten the odds again…or so I thought.
I walked around in a wonderful state of near-constant happiness from April into May 2010. Again, how fortunate we were! I didn’t think it was possible for me to cherish Alec more or be more grateful than I already was, but I have never felt gratitude of the magnitude I did during those six weeks. I thought it was life-changing. How could I ever be sad again when Alec was spared? It was like the most beautiful dream…but it turned into a nightmare. I cannot think about those six weeks now without the deepest bitterness and sorrow.
Alec wasn’t spared. The “reprieve” lasted a month and a half. Then the cancer came back. The biopsy results were wrong. When he had a second bleed and another surgery, this time to remove part of his liver, they told me it was cancer. I had lost 1.5 months treatment time with a cancer that moved so quickly some dogs were dead before their guardians even knew anything was wrong. I will never know if that lost time would have made a difference. Probably it would have. Or maybe in the end it wouldn’t have mattered. I know it doesn’t matter now, because he is gone.
I can’t talk about those final months right now. I am still too devastated. I can’t even go through his pictures yet. When Alec was dying I told him again and again that our bond could not be broken. I told him we were too deeply connected for death to separate us. I told him we would see each other again. I told him after he left his body we would still be together, except that he would be in spirit. I told him our relationship would change but not dissolve. I am not a religious person, but I believed this at the time because I had to. I would not have survived losing him otherwise. And I had to be strong for him and this was the only way I could. But at the same time, I felt with every fiber of my being that it was true. Again, maybe I had no choice. Our self-preservation instincts are strong.
I don’t know if there is life after death. But I do know there is love after death, and that is what we survivors are left with. Am I hanging onto him? Damn right. He was the love of my life. I am taking him with me. I believe there is a way we can do this in a healthy and life-affirming way. I just have to figure that out. Two months after his death, I know I have only just begun.
The original blog, Alec’s Story, can be found here. Thanks for stopping by.