Sunday, May 3, 2009


Most of my close friends know that two and a half months ago, tiny Gertie - a terrier mix who thought she was a housecat - chose to come home with me from the Dallas Animal Shelter. The whole day had been spent meeting dogs. And then, in this little enclosure, was this one dog. She looked up with big brown eyes, not barking, not jumping, as if to say, "I am way too much of a lady to do all that. But I like you." Once in a visiting room, she artfully dodged the biologicals left by other dogs and tried to crawl up in my lap. So when I say she chose to come here, I mean it - she picked us. The day I was supposed to go pick her up, I was told she had developed a little respiratory infection, and would need to stay another 10 days. When she finally did come home, it was as if she knew this was her place, we were her people. It took her two days to figure out the dog door. Monday - her first solo day - when we got home she made us follow her to the kitchen, where she proceeded to go out the dog door and come back in, as if she needed to show us that she could do it, and that we didn't need to worry about accidents anymore. On walks, she assumed every person out wanted to pet her. And why the hell not? She was - and I may be biased - the cutest friggin ragamuffin of a dog you've ever seen. At night, I'd put her in her bed, cover her with her blanket, and she'd curl up and go to sleep. In the morning, she demonstrated she was not a morning girl at all - you'd have to wake her, and then she'd stumble out of her bed. We thought the clumsiness she displayed was part of her charm. She hated the cold, so we bought her a sweater. She'd refuse to go outside without it if the temperature was below 60. She was a bit of a prima donna, our Gertie. But then, a few days ago, we noticed that it wasn't just her tail wagging, it was her legs, the entire back half of her body. At first we thought it was a quirk from having a new dog visit. She whined at night, and we attributed it to a little dustup the two had in the dark one night. And then Wednesday came. We got home, and she was shaking even worse than before. She whined as she fell asleep, and tossed and turned. A trip to the emergency vet offered us something treatable - an injury - or something far worse - distemper. Scared, but hopeful, we let the doctor give her something for pain, something for infection, and an anti-inflammatory, hoping it would work. "I don't ever want to go back to that place," I said. "It's depressing." We watched two families lose pets that night, as we waited. Another elderly woman brought in her seizure-having dog. All those injections worked briefly, but I ended up spending all of Thursday night up, holding her, soothing her, as she whined and shook. When she walked, she looked like Amy Poehler's character in the SNL "Appalachian ER" skit. We took her to our regular vet the next morning, hoping he'd run some tests. He looked at her briefly, walked out of the room, and came back to say, "I've got bad news. It's distemper." No blood work? No tests? "What do you suggest," I managed to gasp out during what would be the first ugly cry in public of the day. "I think the best choice is euthanasia," he said, and then walked out of the room again. The phenomenal vet tech who did her initial write up left with him, then hurried back in. "I think he could be wrong," she said. "I think you should get a second opinion." She gave us the name of Dr. Yvonne Hanks, in Plano. The earliest appointment was 4 p.m., and it seemed like time stood still. Gertie whined and shook, and looked at us with confused eyes, as if she couldn't figure out why her humans couldn't fix her. In the meantime, we decided that if this was going to be it, we'd give Gertie the best afternoon ever. She got steak, she got snuggles, and she got time out in the backyard in the sun. It was there that we discovered she had been chewing on one of the shrubs - could this be the cause of all of this? We looked it up, and found it was harmful if eaten. At that point, I almost hoped it was poisoning. It was something fixable, right? I sat on the couch, with Gertie next to me, looking up possible symptoms. "It can't be distemper," I said. "She's eating, she's going to the bathroom. She's not running a fever. She's not got a runny nose." So a clipping of the shrub was brought to Dr. Hanks as well. She agreed that Gert's symptoms could be from a neurotoxin and said a blood test would give us a better answer. High liver enzymes? Toxin. High white blood cell count? Virus. We waited, trying to calm Gertie, who by now had a catheter in her front leg, and was receiving a muscle relaxer and IV fluids. "I have not so good news," Dr. Hanks said. "It's viral." As I burst into the second ugly public cry of the day, she explained that a normal white blood cell count for a dog like Gertie is about 1500. Hers was 2100. The other reason I love Dr. Hanks? When I started bawling, I looked up as she gave me a hug. She had tears in her eyes, too. But Dr. Hanks didn't want to count Gertie out just yet. She asked us to leave her overnight, so she could re-hydrate her, and fix her wonky electrolytes. We came home, and I had another good ugly cry before downing two Benedryls and collapsing in a coma. The next morning, Dr. Hanks let us know she was doing some better, and they were going to try some phenobarbital for the shaking. By the time we came to visit Gertie that afternoon, Dr. Hanks was bubbling over with good news. Gertie was up and barking, eating and going to the bathroom, and making a general pest of herself. The phenobarb, apparently, made her shaking less pronounced. She was sleeping through the night. "She doesn't like her catheter, and keeps trying to pull it out," she said, laughing. "She's chewed through her IV lines." When we got to her, she was alert, walking around - almost as if to show us that she could do it. So we went home, excited. If Gertie did well again overnight, we'd get to take her home. We texted and e-mailed all the friends and family to let them know. Saturday morning, I bake a cake to take to Dr. Hanks' office, and then errand running. While out, we get a call that we can indeed take Gertie home. We rush over to Plano, where Dr. Hanks warned us that the weekend would be a good indicator of whether or not Gertie would pull through. She was doing well, Dr. Hanks said, "but it's still a delicate situation." Knowing that, we took Gertie home. For a while, all was well. She went outside and lurched around the backyard. She ate a can of food. She inhaled whatever treat she was given. But then, around 3 p.m., the whining began again. The shaking became more pronounced. One dose of phenobarb didn't touch it. I sat (crying, again) in a dark, quiet room with her, hoping maybe the lack of stimuli would help. A call to Dr. Hanks (seriously - what vet gives out her cell phone number?) authorized another dose of phenobarb. Gertie slept for about two hours. Then the whining and shaking began again. She was hot to the touch. She chewed things and wandered around. Her back legs didn't support her at all any more, and she dragged herself around by her front legs a few steps before collapsing. I have never seen anything - dog or human - try as hard as this dog to get better. I think she rallied Friday and Saturday morning, but ultimately, her tiny body just couldn't handle any more stress. Or maybe she knew this wasn't going to end well, and just wanted to come home for a few hours. I don't know. But as the fever grew higher, and the shaking and whining more pronounced, it was decided. She wasn't getting better, she was getting worse. She was in pain, probably suffering from incredible dementia....and it was time to say goodbye. And so that's how, this morning, we ended up back at that incredibly depressing emergency vet clinic, handing over our Gertie to be put out of her misery. I know there are going to be some people out there who think we should've tried a little more. There are others that will think it was cruel to try all weekend, and that we should've taken our now former regular vet's advice. But I think that Gertie got two months of love, attention, playing in the backyard, long walks and doggie ice cream that she wouldn't have gotten if we didn't meet her in the shelter two months ago. She touched so many people's lives in such a brief amount of time, and even now I find myself, sitting on the couch, missing her warm, furry body curled up next to my leg, content. So goodbye, Gertie. Thank you for choosing us, and for loving us back. I can't tell you how much I'll miss you.