Close to Death

19 Nov

November 18, 2013 — At 2:30am my brain is being stirred by noises in my bedroom. Slowly I realize that my husband is talking to our dog Sierra, “Are you ok, are you ok Sweet Pea (our nickname for her). And Sierra is drinking water. And drinking more water. Blurry eyed, I get out of bed to see what’s wrong. My husband explains that she’s been restless, like she’s not able to get comfortable and that she’s been drinking a lot of water. She seems depressed (low energy). We try to get her to go outside incase she also needs to expel the water, but she’s not at all enthusiastic about the idea, preferring to just lay down. So we ditch that idea and decide to see how she does going up the stairs from our bedroom to our living room (our house is kind of backwards in that respect).

When she gets to the stairs she gives us a look like, “Really, do I have to. I really don’t feel like it.” But, with coxing, she slowly complies. Once upstairs she lays right down. She’s definitely out of sorts. I touch her furry tummy and press my fingers along the length of her underside checking to see if she responds. And, while we see no sign she’s in pain, my husband, John, and I know something’s not right. We discuss whether or not to take her to the 24 hour vet hospital or wait until “morning” and take her to our local vet. It’s now 3:30am and we decide it’s best to take her sooner than later. (Sierra is a 10-year-old German Shepherd that has always seemed young for her age. So young, that we have to remind ourselves sometimes how old she really is.)

Since I’m coming down with my own illness (sinus/head cold) we decide my husband will take Sierra to the hospital and call me if it’s something serious and I need to go too. I don’t think either of us really thought it would be something really serious. Certainly not anything that would turn out to be life threatening. So, when the call came from my husband I wasn’t prepared. “You need to come now,” he said. “The doctor says Sierra needs emergency surgery. There’s blood filling up her abdomen.” My thoughts began to race. It seemed like they had just left, how could the doctor know so quickly? What kind of test(s) did they do to determine surgery was needed? Something, some organ, was bleeding. What about the rest of the organs? We had just lost our other dog (Hedy) to cancer in January. She was 13. Also a shepherd. With Hedy the same hospital had done an ultrasound and was able to tell us that surgery wasn’t an option because cancer had spread to all of her organs. What about the rest of Sierra’s organs? What if her situation was the same? Why put her through surgery if that was the case?

The “answers:” Sierra is in very critical condition and ultrasound testing wasn’t recommended because (1) immediate action needed to be taken and at that time in the morning the ultra sound specialist wasn’t available and (2) all the blood in her body would probably alter the findings anyway. Two-thirds of the time when dogs present this type of symptom, it’s cancer. With surgery and no chemo the prognosis is 0 – 3 months, with chemo 3 – 6 months. Actual cause and prognosis however would not be known until after surgery and biopsy results. The decision we had to make: agree to surgery or euthanize her.

The estimate for the surgery and aftercare: somewhere between $5,000 and $9,000 dollars.

With our other shepherd, Hedy, it seemed like we were taking her to the vet very other month for some ailment or another. Besides her regular check ups, Sierra never went to the vet. Now, it seemed like she’d be catching up to Hedy’s medical bills in one fell swoop.

There were a number of factors that made us choose surgery: Sierra had a 30% chance it would NOT be cancer, she had been healthy her whole life, and we were not prepared to loose her. Not so suddenly. And, so, we signed the necessary papers and surgeons were summoned (thank God for credit cards). We were told to go home, that the surgery would probably happen around 6:30am and would probably last about an hour and a half. And that someone would call us if there were complications during surgery, or if it was evident when they opened her up that surgery wouldn’t save her.

We were allowed to go back to ICU and be with Sierra for a few minutes. They had her belly wrapped (pressure to control the bleeding), an IV attached and they were giving her oxygen. We gave her reassuring hugs and kisses and left in tears, hoping for the best. Praying we’d have to chance to see her again, alive.

Side note: the doctor told us that had we waited until morning to bring her in she wouldn’t have made it.

Once home, we talked about how strong she was, how she’d be fine. We stopped ourselves from talking of cancer, agreeing to focus instead on her making it through the surgery.

Sierra (on the left) with John and Miss Hedy.

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