Our very own Dr. O’Donnell wrote today’s blog post. It is an inspiring true-life story that she was blessed to experience early in her career. The pup she cared for, Blue, taught and prepared her for the fast-paced, dramatic, but soul-fulfilling career she had ahead of her. Please read on as she remembers, Blue…
I was a young veterinarian at a busy daytime veterinary practice. We did good work and helped a lot of pets and their families through the ups and downs of their pets’ lives, and took care of a lot of patients with serious illnesses, helping their families decide on the right course of treatment, whether it was with us or at a specialty hospital. We did what we could as a daytime general practice, but there were times we needed to refer patients for 24-hour care. Sometimes although we recommended a pet be taken to the 24-hour care veterinary hospital in town, the pet’s family could not afford the cost – so we tried to manage with outpatient care.
A Seasonal Epidemic
One particular type of case we dealt with commonly was parvo. Parvovirus was and still is one of the saddest and most frustrating diseases we treat in veterinary medicine in Tucson. Parvo isn’t eradicated because so many dogs go unvaccinated each year. So every Spring and Fall here comes…“Parvo Season.” Parvo puppies arrive dehydrated with painful bellies, vomiting, and having some of the most disgusting diarrhea imaginable. Most of the time we can save them with fluids and medications. But, that all depends on the individual puppy and how he/she responds to treatment. Some do well after a couple of days of outpatient care, and some are hospitalized for 2 weeks and still don’t make it.
Blue was a Boxer puppy; no older than 8 weeks of age. He was white with black spots and big dopey feet and ears. No one can resist a baby Boxer, they are so sweet and adorable. He definitely did not have a chance to get all of his boosters done before parvo hit him. He was what I call “medium-level severity” – dehydrated and uncomfortable but still fighting. I talked to the family about treatment.
They were in love with Blue, of course, so they wanted to do what they could despite serious budgetary concerns. We decided on home treatment, as Blue’s mom had some medical experience and thought she could handle giving him fluids and injections. She was nervous but determined not to lose her baby boy. Dad was so worried. He was one of those puppy dads who didn’t want to admit (to himself or anyone else) that he loved this tiny little Boxer baby. But I had seen it enough times to know – they were devoted and would do anything they could to save him. We set them up with the fluids and injections of antibiotics and anti-vomiting medications and sent them home.
We checked on them over the next day or two, and things were going about as expected – Blue was not eating yet but his symptoms were under control and Blue was taking his treatments well.
Turning the Wrong Corner
Another couple of days passed and I received a phone call from Blue’s family. Blue was not doing well. He was more lethargic, still not eating, not absorbing his fluids, and his family was really worried. I had them bring him to me right away.
This was over 15 years ago and I will never forget seeing that poor little puppy laying on the exam room table. He looked like a pale yellow water balloon with a head, legs, and tail. Blue was so swollen with fluid that his body had nowhere else to put but in his skin and tissue. He was septic (meaning that he had a bacterial infection in his bloodstream) which had made him jaundiced. I knew the swelling was from low protein levels, which is common in parvo puppies. They lose protein through their compromised GI tracts and then can’t replace it because they aren’t eating.
The low protein in the body means that the puppies can’t keep fluid in their blood vessels and so it leaks into tissue all over the body. I hadn’t even started to examine Blue and I was already bracing myself and my heart to have to tell his family that we had reached the end of what his little body could take and euthanasia was going to be the kindest thing to do for him.
Parvo puppies get this look on their faces when they are so sick that they are basically waiting for death and relief. They stare far away into space and won’t make eye contact. These puppies seem to know that they are dying and stop fighting. Sometimes we can save those little guys but not usually.
A Little Fighter
I was expecting to see the “I Am a Dying Parvo Puppy” stare when I looked at Blue, which would confirm my feeling that we were at the end of the line for this poor, sweet little boy. He looked straight at me. He looked at me and I swear he told me, “Lady, you need to help me. I’m still here.” I can’t tell you more than that as to how I knew, but I knew that Blue was fighting and that I couldn’t give up on him. But how to explain this to his family?
I took a deep breath and told them, “I think he is still fighting. I think he still wants to be here.” They completely understood what I was saying. This tiny but mighty little creature had made it clear to his family and to me that we had to try to save him. He wanted to live.
We talked about what it would take to save Blue. I had to set aside the spiritual connection I had with him and figure out how to heal him. He needed hospitalization, intravenous antibiotics, and a plasma transfusion. His prognosis was grave. Meaning even if we did those treatments, there was only a slim chance Blue was going to make it. And then, of course, the cost of treatment has to be considered.
Blue’s family and I had a long talk – not too long because Blue’s will to live was only going to get him so far, he needed immediate treatment. They were desperate to save their boy. So they scraped together all the money that they had. It covered the cost of the plasma and the medications. I told them that if they can do that much, then I would do the rest. I would take Blue home with me and give him his treatments on my own.
A Hope and A Chance
Then, the race against the clock began. Blue needed a jugular catheter, as his limbs were too swollen to place a catheter in his leg. We didn’t have any jugular catheters, much less one small enough for a tiny puppy. So we did as we often do in veterinary medicine when we don’t have what we need to treat a patient of a particular size or species – we improvise.
We used a regular IV catheter that we would use in a limb and put it in his jugular vein, and secured the heck out of it, as it was our only chance to give Blue what he needed to save his life. We called the emergency hospital and asked to purchase a unit of canine plasma. Thankfully they agreed to sell us some. I gathered the plasma, antibiotics, and the other things Blue would need and loaded it all into my car. I put Blue in the back seat on a blanket and off we went.
A 25 minutes drive to my home felt like hours. As soon as Blue started the “I am about to die” puppy cry. (Cats have a similar cry, and you know exactly what it means. You need to do something immediately!) So there I was, in the driver’s seat begging Blue to hold on a little longer, telling him, we’re almost there, and not to die on me now.
He made it to my house, and we spent the night together, Blue and I. He got his treatments, was kept warm on a heating pad, and kept clean and cozy while I waited to see if the treatments worked. Medicine takes time… and patience.
Amazingly, he survived the night. The next day, I took him to work with me and we continued his treatment. He received more plasma, continued his antibiotics, dextrose to maintain his blood sugar, and all of the other things he needed. Finally, after the second plasma transfusion, Blue started to come around and started to look like he might live!
Honestly, I don’t remember the details for the next few days. All I can say is, Blue lived! I am sure that after a day or so his swelling went down and he started eating and acting like a puppy again. Then, after he was well, went home with his very grateful family.
A Happy Ending
After a couple of weeks, Blue came back for his normal puppy visits, vaccine boosters, heartworm preventative, and other normal puppy things. He was cute and silly and sweet like a Boxer puppy should be. You would never have known what he went through. Or, that he would be one of the patients who would eventually inspire me to write a story. Blue’s story is worth telling. He is one of a handful of patients who are the reason I believe in miracles…and medicine…and doing whatever it takes…and most of all, I believe in the spiritual connection that exists between people and their pets. If, we are open to experiencing it.
Parvo is a serious and deadly disease that is easily preventable with routine vaccinations. Puppies that are not fully vaccinated should not be taken to dog parks or walked in an area heavily trafficked by other dogs. Parvo is easily transmissible and can last in exposed areas for years.