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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.