It’s time to get serious. Amusing stories about the antics of a gigantic, goofy dog are one thing. But our story, Dexter’s story, is much more than that. His life was amusing, yes. But it was also hard. Being Dexter was hard work. First, there is the constant pain. I have knock knees and my hips have hurt most of my life. Dexter’s plight was much more serious. Structurally, he was just a mess. A lovely mess, but a mess just the same. So we can imagine how much pain he probably tolerated.
Then there was the anxiety. It’s dismissive to describe him as a “nervous shitter.” It’s funny to recount the amount of dog poop I ended up cleaning up in the Dog Truck. But the reason behind it was hard to swallow. He was excited about every adventure, but scared to death. Difficult to watch and not be affected. I fell into the nervous mother role quickly, always hoping I’d find something that would unlock the happy dog within him (besides the unlocked, unattended refrigerator, which did in fact make him VERY happy).
It was a long road. We never really knew what to expect, but we always felt on edge. After the trauma of the first few surgeries, we had to start having “the talk” each time something new cropped up. I am adamant that we have a deep responsibility to our pets. I signed up to care for another life. Human or not, that responsibility is binding and abiding. I know there are lots of reasons people put their pets down, but very few of them register as valid in my eyes. If you CAN do something, by all means DO IT.
But…. But. If that means re-traumatizing the animal over and over, putting them in a lonely lockdown for months at a time….. well, it’s less clear that “doing something” is the right path. It wasn’t a financial decision for us. We were blessed with very good incomes and no kids living with us, and had enough disposable income to pay for a procedure either at the time or in short order. Today the story would be different for us, and so I absolutely understand that it is as much a financial decision as anything else.
Still, in my book I was bound to do everything in my power to make my boy better. But when the time came, we had to know that the benefits of the solution would outweigh the pain and emotional distress he was about to endure. Dogs live in the moment, they told us. Dogs live in the moment? If that’s the case, why was every trip in the car akin to certain torment? No, I don’t totally believe that. At the same time, Dexter’s nature and daily mood were always wonderful. So he definitely forgave us for the experience.
Each procedure drove him a little deeper into anxiety, I felt. Is that even true?
You may wonder at this point, how many procedures are we talking about? Well, here’s a quick rundown of the major items:
As we’ve already discussed, Dexter got his first set of hips before he was a year old.
With the first hip replacement, he also had the bone in one leg adjusted (meaning, broken and twisted) so that it faced front. Hey, at least ONE foot pointed forward.
About two years later, his right hip broke. It needed a total replacement.
Surgery count = 3 (3+ including the leg adjustment)
Then the other hip broke. Part of the issue was with the size of the hip vs. the size of the dog. Because he kept growing after the first surgeries, the hardware was too small. When the second hip broke, we grew very suspicious. While it can happen, it was extremely rare for one hip to fail, much less two. Dr. Lozier spent a good chunk of time analyzing the x-rays, and determined that it was a manufacturing flaw in the hip hardware. He went to bat with the manufacturer to come up with a brand new way of doing things, which I could not possibly explain. Dr. L came to the rescue and the surgery was performed free of charge. Good news for us, and the veterinary orthopedic surgeons of the world gained something new from our boy’s journey.
Then came his knee. I can still remember this moment. I was sitting in my office working (exactly as I am right now) and I heard a gawd-awful yelp from the back yard. When I found Dexter, he was on three legs and would not walk at all. This posed a huge problem. They don’t have ambulances for dogs, as it happens, and there was no way I could pick him up on my own. So I called Brian (who had just left from the daily walk) and he was kind enough to come over and take us to the vet. It’s good that the vet is only 9 blocks away. That has served us well on more than one occasion, with more than one animal.
The vet that saw Dexter was clearly not Team Dexter. Our regular doc, Dr. Katy Felton, is patient, kind, and she cared about Dexter. She knew and understood the entire story, and she knew that all three of us had a tough time with the surgeries. She knew that we did not want surgery if at all possible.
This emergency doctor did not know this. She saw a dog with a simple, routine problem. She just strode out matter-of-factly and said, “Well, the knee is blown and we’ll need to schedule surgery. You can expect that the other knee will go too eventually. He just wasn’t built properly.” She hadn’t read his file, didn’t know we’d already been through four very difficult surgeries and recoveries, and didn’t think it was any big deal to fix a knee.
For us, though, it was a punch in the gut. After his fourth hip surgery, Hubby and I sat down for a sober chat (though possibly not sober ourselves) about Dexter’s future, which soon became known as the aforementioned “talk.”
Imagine how difficult all of these surgeries were for Dex. Perhaps a photo or two will help:
It is gruesome, and descriptions of the procedures generally left me unnerved. Grinding bones, drilling holes, hammering the hardware in. I’d regularly get light-headed and see stars when we were talking with the surgeon. As hard as it was for us, it was clearly worse for Dexter. So we had to think very hard about whether we’d put this poor boy through more. After the first four hip surgeries, we made the painful decision that we would say no to any further surgery. Best for him and all that.
So when the knee blew just a few short months later, I knew what was in store. The decision had been made months before. No surgery. So what do we do now? This is where Team Dexter was always so helpful. A decision like euthanasia seems so clear when you are not in the moment. But then when tragedy strikes, things get all jumbled about. Am I saying good-bye because it’s hard for ME, or hard for him? Is surgery the only option?
We stuck to our resolve, and I made the gut-wrenching appointment for a home-visit euthanasia. It was one of the hardest phone calls I have ever made. We were devastated. I’d like to say that we planned to be one of those families like you see on I Heart Dogs or Upworthy or whatever. We’d spend a few days with Dexter’s bucket list (hamburgers, pizza, an open freezer) and spoil him mightily until the fateful day. But no, my plan was to just sit hanging on to his neck like a toddler, in tears all day every day, trying to capture every last ounce of life, every single moment for the memory bank.
Thank God it didn’t come to that. Appointment in hand, we were talked down by members of Team Dexter. Hubby and I didn’t talk about it much at first. We both sat with our grief, dreading the day, too sad to say the words to each other. But at the last minute, on a tearful phone call with Dr. Felton (seriously, this woman rocks!), we heard about some other options. I very quietly told Hubby that I didn’t think we should go through with it. He agreed. I remember flying across the room and launching myself into his arms with relief.
We still had the problem of what to do, though. We opted to try a little bit of physical therapy to see if we could relieve some of the pain. That plus some fancy drug treatment might just pull him through. He would probably lose the use of the leg, but he would have less pain. That would be good. Dogs go on about life with three legs all the time.
After four months of this, it became clear that in the time we’d fumphfer’d about with all of these stupid options, he could have had the surgery and been healed. So, with new resolve and fortitude, off to surgery we went again. We’d been told that dogs recover quickly from this fairly simple surgery, and they were right! While we still had to spend three months in the recovery room, he clearly felt better immediately. I regret that whole situation to this day. We left him in so much unnecessary pain. But I remind myself (just as I did when I cared for my mother) that I was ALWAYS doing the very best I could at any moment.
Surgery Count = 5
But we were not done yet. A year later, another hip broke. This was no manufacturers defect. This was worse – a rare, aggressive infection in the bone. This mystery infection had eroded the bone enough that the hip was loose, causing extraordinary pain – probably more pain than any of the other hip issues. This led to another replacement of part of the hip hardware. Plus, the infection was very hard to treat and he had to be on mega-doses of antibiotics to try to get rid of it. Otherwise, he would have died. It was so much more complex than the previous surgeries. Now we really knew that we had come to the end of the road. This simply HAD to be our last surgery.
And it was.
Surgery Count = 6