For Sparky With Love

     If you read last week’s blog, you know our family only had a few days to decide whether, and how, to treat Sparky, our 11 year old Norwich Terrier who’d suddenly been diagnosed with advanced lymphoma.  After a frenzy of research and deliberation, Henry and I supported our son’s decision to try the less expensive chemo ($6000 single agent treatment instead of $12,000 for multi-agent protocols). Henry and I agreed to pay half, and Max would cover the rest of treatment out of his graduation money.

     On Friday, Sparky had his first treatment. He came home with prescriptions for EIGHT AND A HALF pills a day. He was supposed to take two white pills (steroids) in the morning, 2 ½ pink pills to prevent vomiting and diarrhea, and one beige pill for nausea.  But Sparky vomited up the pills before they could help him.  I tried feeding him the pills, one by one, inside tiny meatballs and individual blobs of peanut butter.  About half of them stayed down.  The steroids caused him to pee in the house; Sparky had accidents in the hall and the elevator.  Even more ominous and worrisome, Dr. Britton, the  veterinary oncologist, warned us to be careful not to make contact with our pet’s bodily fluids. Sparky was leaking toxins. 

     In between coaxing Sparky to eat and cleaning up his accidents, I couldn’t help thinking that  chemo might have been a mistake.  Both our regular vet and the dog oncologist had told us that dogs  didn’t suffer side effects from chemo the way people do.  Was that all a big lie?  Why did Sparky need so many pills to treat the side effects that dogs (supposedly) don’t experience?              
     On Monday, Sparky began to shake and tremble violently. He stopped eating and drank only a little.  I tried to call Dr. Britton, but she only worked Tuesday to Friday.  The on-call doctor told me that Sparky was probably having a reaction to the chemo. (Duh!)  Three days later was “prime time” for dogs to have a reaction to the particular medicine administered to our Sparky.  Hopefully, the vet said, he would improve the next day.

     Instead Sparky got worse.  His breathing grew more labored; he wouldn’t eat, drink or walk. Max carried him to the vet.  Although Sparky’s lymph nodes were much less swollen, his lungs had again filled with fluid; he was dehydrated and running a fever.  He’d also lost a pound and a half in a week, about 10% of his body weight.  I couldn’t believe our beloved dog could deteriorate so quickly— in three short days— after rallying for a week on steroids and an initial shot of chemo. 

     I had tears in my eyes.  Was this really it? “What can we do for him?” I asked.

     The vet sighed.  “Take another X-ray and drain the fluid from his lungs.  We can also give him sub-cutaneous fluids to rehydrate him and lower his fever.”
     “But the last time you drained his lungs, they filled up again in a just three days.  Will that keep on happening? We can’t drain Sparky’s lungs twice a week.” Looking from Sparky to the vet, I couldn’t help wondering who benefited more from these medical procedures. The last vet bill had been over $800.

      “What if he doesn’t improve?” Max asked as a tear spilled down his cheek.
      “Then we need to discuss euthanasia . . . .”

      That e-word hung in the air for a moment before I called Henry to discuss whether we should save Sparky one more time (for another $1000). 

     “Do I need to come to the vet’s office now to say goodbye?” Henry asked.

     ”You’ll be taking him home,” the vet told me and I told Henry, but I didn’t feel reassured.
     We decided to give treatment one last try, to see if Sparky could rally. Max and I went to Starbucks while the vet and technicians worked on Sparky.  This time I was crying, and Max looked numb.  I knew the dog was suffering, but I saw that my son wasn’t ready to let go.  It was important that Max never look back and feel that we didn’t try our best.  I found myself on slippery ground, guilty and heartbroken, feeling Sparky’s pain— yet allowing my son and husband to convince me that maybe, just maybe, the vet could work some magic and our tough little terrier could pull through.

     When my son and I returned to the office, the vet pinned up the x rays. She showed us where the fluid was building up, and told us she had once again drained close to 8 ounces.  Our sweet Sparky had been “rehydrated,” and his paws soaked in alcohol to reduce his fever.  He had also been given an appetite stimulant and an antibiotic. I felt encouraged until the technician brought Sparky into the room, and then I burst into tears. Sparky’s breathing sounded like a death rattle.  I paid the bill and went home with more pills.  It was 7 PM, and Manhattan Vets was closing.

     Sparky never ate another bite of food, drank another sip of water, or swallowed another pill. He died seven hours later in my son’s arms.  A few hours earlier, I had encouraged Sarah to “kiss Sparky goodnight” before she went to sleep.  Sarah wasn’t nearly as attached to Sparky as the rest of our family, but she loved him simply for being a family member, and I wanted her to have closure and say goodbye.  Before we went to bed, Henry and I also kissed and stroked Sparky in Max’s lap, but by then our poor dog had become too weak even to lick Max’s face. 
     Around 2AM, our son woke us sobbing.

     “Sparky’s dead.  I can’t believe he’s gone.” Max’s voice was an excruciating mix of sadness and disbelief— despite an eight hour vigil, cradling his ailing dog, stroking his fur, his own tears falling onto Sparky’s limp, furry body as he slipped away.

     No matter what the doctors said or did, no matter which treatment we chose, Sparky had the final word.  I can only hope that when he drew his last labored breath and closed his dark, soulful eyes that he knew how much we loved him every minute of his eleven years.

 

               

               

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