Our Girl Gretchen

My name is Stephanie. My family and I own a special yellow Labrador cross named Gretchen. She was a Humane Society puppy who captured our hearts 10 years ago. We've never had a dog with such a unique personality, loving traits and incredible intuition. Her inner joy and a remarkable sixth sense make her a true "people dog." Her story begins quite innocently, but shows how a terrible diagnosis can still have a happy ending.
In December of 1998, all seemed well. My husband Dale always took Gretchen bird hunting in the northern areas of Minnesota, about two hours from where we live. She has never had any real formal training, yet she puts forth so much effort that she is a joy to hunt with. When she's out in the woods, she hunts very hard and often has injured herself, although not seriously. A few years back she sliced her front leg open in a South Dakota cornfield while hunting pheasants. That was the worst of her injuries. With that in mind, I didn't think too much about her coming home one Sunday with a slight limp on her left fore. Dale didn't notice it, but I'm more perceptive and could see that she was favoring the leg. The next day she seemed better, although tired. 
After a week, though, the limp persisted, sometimes causing her enough pain to where she wouldn't stand on it. I became worried and brought her to the vet. Since there appeared to be no broken bones and she often miraculously became "better" when at the clinic, I went home as puzzled as before. The limp continued, and by the end of January, I had taken her to the vet's office on three different occasions. He had mentioned that X-rays might be warranted, but I had no idea why he wanted to take them when we knew she didn't have any broken bones. We both figured she'd pulled a
tendon and a strict low-exercise routine would be in order.
February came and Gretchen suddenly took a turn for the worse. She wasn't interested in playing frisbee and she was in horrible pain, refusing to eat or go outside. She laid around, and had a pained expression on her face all the time. What bothered me most was the obvious atrophy of her left shoulder area. Always stoic, upon palpation, she would only give me a slight signal that her shoulder hurt, but not her lower leg. I returned to the vet with her and he put her on heavy doses of  painkillers and other medication. It didn't help. In fact, her moaning was keeping me awake that night and I returned the meds the next day, looking for other solutions. He told me we could try Rimadyl, a newer arthritis drug, to see if that had any effect on
her pain. Eager to find something that would work, I agreed. 

Two days later, she was running around and acting nearly normal. The effect was miraculous to say the least. We kept her on a heavy dose of the drug, and she didn't
limp as much, but it was still obvious that she had something wrong. The muscle atrophy was getting worse, and upon scrutiny, I could see that her gait had changed so that the left fore was hardly touching the ground when she trotted along. In April, after two months of being on the drug, she became so painful that it was time to do something more drastic. I had X-rays taken of her left shoulder and they were sent to the University of Minnesota Veterinary Hospital for examination. The next morning, I was horrified to hear the results from my vet. He faxed me the sheet and although it was written in technical terms, it wasn't hard to figure out that Gretchen probably had cancer of the bone. I was devastated.

We were given a referral immediately to the U of M for another series of X-rays. Their equipment is higher-powered and they took several different views. The news was bad. In fact, it was essentially a death sentence. It was their opinion that it indeed was osteosarcoma, and that it originated in her shoulder joint. The tumor appeared to be located over three-fourths of her scapula, with long tendrils of the tumor snaking along the entire length of the bone.

I really wasn't prepared for this news. I especially wasn't prepared to hear the treatment either. The oncologist said that we basically had two choices. One was to do nothing and to have her euthanized immediately because of her severe pain. The second was to amputate her left front leg (for pain control) and start chemotherapy right away. Dale was crushed with agony over the thought of amputation. I sat there and sobbed because our beloved dog certainly didn't deserve this and above all, didn't deserve to have her leg removed. Dale, in typical fashion, wanted to leave. He doesn't like dealing
with painful situations, and all he wanted to do was get out of the facility with his dog. I, on the other hand, wanted to know the grim details of amputation; what it meant for her, how much the cost of the treatment would be, and the statistical outcome.

First of all, the cost was above and beyond what we really could afford--in the range of $4000-$5000 with amputation and chemotherapy included. We are not rich, but we both have steady jobs. Carboplatin is the chemo drug of choice, as it is nearly non-toxic to the kidneys like cisplatin was a few years ago. The drug is a platinum derivitive and has a price tag that was very high. I was assured that most dogs do quite well when they receive chemo, and they do not lose their hair, and most don't get very sick. Gretchen's size was also within the ideal range for amputation. A really heavy large animal has difficulty maintaining their balance on only one front leg. Gretchen's weight was 60 pounds, and the doctor was quite positive that she would learn to compensate. Plus, she was in reasonably good condition considering her disability. I remembered asking if they had any recent amputees in the hospital, but after checking, she said they didn't. I wanted to see how an animal does after amputation. Meanwhile, Dale was nearly frantic and insisted on leaving immediately. I told the doctor I would call her the next day with our decision.
By that evening, I had made up my mind. After checking some web sites and seeing actual pictures of dogs with amputated limbs, I felt that Gretchen could handle the surgery. I was willing to deal with her recovery and do
what it took to get her well. The money was secondary. I had a savings account that I rarely touch except in emergencies and I was willing to spend that money for Gretchen's care. I also was able to take on freelance work for extra cash. Dale felt we should put her down, as she'd had nine really good years and it would be a disservice to maim her. He also felt that the money was a very real issue since our daughter Cassie's college tuition
would be due in a few years. On top of that, he was afraid of losing his faithful hunting partner. Cassie came out of her bedroom after listening to us cry and carry on. She's 16 and has her own ideas about things. Still teary-eyed, she flatly stated that if she had to keep a job during college in order to help pay for tuition, then it would be worth it to try to save Gretchen's life. It didn't end there. That evening, Dale and I were downstairs, continuing with the discussion as to what to do. There were more tears and we just couldn't agree. Gretchen managed to hobble down the flight of stairs (something she hadn't done for over a month) and she sat in front of us, staring quietly at each of us sitting on the couch. It was as if she had to prove to us that she still had fight left in her. I think it was destiny. At that moment, I said that the decision was made. I was going to schedule the surgery and that was that. I didn't even care about the money.  I'm not very emotionally attached to money anyway. Somehow I knew it would work out. Dale was upset, and told me "Fine! You win!" I told him it wasn't a winning situation, but I still needed his support.

The next morning I called the oncologist and told her that I wanted to get Gretchen scheduled as soon as possible. She was in terrible pain and I couldn't stand watching her suffer. She was scheduled for surgery the following day. That evening I allowed her to sleep on our bed for the first time. She snuggled next to me that night and I hardly slept. Getting up the next morning was agony. I didn't want to drop her off at the University
because she was so miserable. I knew that she wasn't going to understand why she was there. The waiting room was empty since it was very early. One of the residents came out to get Gretchen and answer any other questions I had. She was scheduled for amputation in the early afternoon, and the surgeon would call me right away once he was finished. Gretchen knew something was up, and she leaped into my lap--something she's never done. The resident gave me a few extra moments to compose myself and talk to Gretchen. I walked part of the way back to the exam rooms, then quickly turned and practically ran out of there.

Needless to say, it was a horrible day at work. I finally left an hour early since I hadn't yet heard from the surgeon. I waited impatiently by the phone and finally out of desperation, called to find out how she was. As it turned out, she hadn't been operated on until three that afternoon, and the surgeon was still working on her. He eventually called me an hour later and told me she was doing as well as could be expected. He said the tumor had consumed her entire scapula and was the size of a small grapefruit. He also
mentioned that it was highly vascular and the cells were multiplying rapidly under the
microscope. The other oncologists agreed that it was surely osteosarcoma, and not another type of cancer. The surgeon also told me that because of the high incidence of bleeding, there was a good chance that at least a few cells would have been left behind, although he was sure he had removed the entire tumor. I was not allowed to see her that night and I slept fitfully.

The next morning I called around 10, and asked about her. The resident went to check with Gretchen's attendant and came back with good news. She was up and around, barking a little and had eaten some breakfast. We could come and get her! I couldn't get ready quickly enough. We left immediately and got to the University in record time. Dale was dreading seeing her...I was just relieved that the surgery was over. Another resident brought her out as soon as we paid the bill. I could hear her coming for a few seconds--a sloppy slow walk down the tiled hallway. Gretchen was tightly wrapped around her whole torso, and she was having a lot of trouble keeping her paws from sliding on the floor. She was exhausted from the ordeal, but was so happy to see us. I cautiously walked her outside and allowed her to urinate. The resident showed me how to lift her up into the car. I remember a woman running up to us in the parking lot and asking what happened. I practically snapped the word "cancer!" at her, before lifting Gretchen into the back seat. I didn't want anyone to see my disfigured dog, nor did I want them asking rude questions. I just wanted to protect her and her spirit.

I spent the weekend watching her closely and caring for her. Dale was non-committal, but did pet her and talk to her. On the other hand, Cassie and I nurtured her and tended to her when she had to go outside. We placed rugs all over the smooth floors in the house so she wouldn't slip. However, by Monday, I was starting to realize something was wrong. Gretchen was severely depressed over the loss of her limb. She couldn't figure out why she'd fall on a few steps or why it was so difficult to move around. She didn't care about eating, playing or chewing on rawhides--one of her favorite pastimes. I figured I was just pushing her too hard and that she was probably in great pain, although she never whimpered even once. I know I hurt her on occasion when I had to lift her, but she never complained. I think she knew I was rooting for her recovery.

Four days after surgery, Gretchen received her first chemo treatment. It was rather uneventful, and they allowed me to pick her up only an hour after receiving the drug. Lucky for me, I work very close to the University and I could quickly run over there and drop her off or pick her up. I was also extremely fortunate in another way. My boss allowed me to bring her to work with me every day. He knew I would be worrying all day and my productivity would go down if I couldn't concentrate. The easiest way around that would be to bring the dog to work and I could feel more comfortable. I am a graphic designer and my office was out of the way of the normal flow of clients, so she wasn't really a problem. Gretchen was ecstatic to ride into the city every day. It became routine--as I got ready to leave, she'd hobble over to the door and wait for me to leave. At work, she was pampered by the other employees and got plenty of treats and petting. My clients were all sympathetic and hopeful for her recovery. On the way home, we'd always stop at a park, a lake, or a wild area and she would run around a bit. Her stamina was reduced and she could only take maybe 50 steps before resting, but it didn't matter. She looked forward to every day and those stops afterward. To see her recovering little by little always brought a smile to my face.

Once, during that first week, I stopped by her favorite park. She leaped out of the car and ran about 20 steps. When she turned to me, I noticed with alarm that she was bleeding profusely from her incision. Her stitches were still intact, but the blood was coming out so fast that I couldn't stop the spurting, even with pressure. Frantic, I phoned my home to see if anyone was there, but no one was around. I then called the University and asked to speak to a doctor. By this time, the blanket in my car was soaked with
blood and I was panicking. However, the surgeon assured me that it was most likely
a pocket of serous fluid and that it would continue to leak out until the pocket was empty. After an hour of draining, the bloody fluid suddenly stopped flowing. Weak with relief, I loaded her back into the car, but I was a little perturbed that no one had ever mentioned the possibility of this happening.

Two weeks after surgery, our family left the country for a 12-day trip to Europe. We had saved for two years and had pre-paid nearly everything. Originally, I was not going to go through with it, but my brother Eric and his wife Mary assured me that they would take good care of Gretchen while she recovered, and they'd also take our Chihuahua, Heidi. Convinced that she was in good hands, but still worried, we left for our much-planned-for trip. My main concern was that the chemo would affect her while we were gone, and she'd have to be hospitalized. However, everything went well, with the exception of one day where Gretchen did not eat or drink for nearly 18 hours. Eric and Mary brought her to the University and had her thoroughly checked. Gretchen decided at that time that it would be better to eat and drink rather than spend the night there, so they released her once she cooperated. Meanwhile, her blood tests looked good. All went well the rest of the time we were away, and homecoming was a sweet event.

My theory on her recovery was starting to take shape. Gretchen figured out quickly that if she got my attention by woofing or whining, she got something in return. I would literally drop everything to either play with her, or give her a massage, or just talk to her. She became incredibly spoiled and I loved doing it! When she finally picked up her frisbee and brought it to me, I nearly cried with joy. Frisbee had been her favorite game, and she had not really attempted to run after it again. I started by tossing it a few feet right at her. I kept adding to the distance by stepping back a bit, then tossing it. When her chemo treatments ended nine weeks later, her endurance improved, and she was able to run a little without expending as much energy. 

Soon she was back to her usual self, "talking" to us and bouncing around asking for attention. We took her everywhere with us and some people were really shocked at her appearance. She became a regular mascot at Cassie's softball games, drawing crowds of people to stare at her. Gradually I got used to the looks, and I didn't care that they stared. At least she didn't feel isolated by her disability.

By this time, Dale was coming around to the fact that we might not lose her immediately. Instead of shunning her, he was now paying more attention to her and was playing with her whenever she asked. He started talking of the upcoming hunting season and actually thought that she might be a willing partner again. Why not? She only had three legs, but that didn't stop her enthusiasm. He'd just have to plan a few extra rest stops. She was already proving herself by chasing the squirrels out of the bird feeders every morning. She became nimble at their dodging tactics, and even though her gait was a bit clumsy, she actually got lucky enough to catch one. Of course, we told her what a good girl she was and she proudly carried the squirrel around for an hour until rigor mortis set in and we had to take it away from her!

Dale took her bird hunting every weekend for two months. I was a bit apprehensive, but my fears were not warranted. She was every bit the hunting dog she'd always been and Dale was thrilled with her enthusiasm. He'd try to make her rest, but she would have nothing of it, instead hopping along and flushing grouse for him. She was in her glory and my heart melted with love as he would call me with stories about her finding a wounded bird or making a difficult flush. Sure, she was tired after a few miles of running through the woods, but looking at her now, it's hard to believe that she was once so close to death. I knew deep down that she wasn't a quitter and that this was the right decision for all of us.

Still, the surgeon's words ring in my head every now and then. After one checkup early on, he told me that Gretchen will die from this disease. If there's one silver lining, it's that her cancer was so vicious and was multiplying so rapidly. Chemotherapy tends to work better against more aggressive cancers. I try not to think of his words and each morning I look at my dog with thanks that she'll be here for at least one more day. She owes her life to me. I owe my life to her. She's made me a better person overall--more accepting, more patient, more hopeful. I'd like to think that she's actually beaten the cancer, but I know that may not be the case. But for now, seven months after surgery and diagnosis, she's alive and very much a part of our family. For that, I have medical science and lots of love and friendship to thank.

  UPDATE - - THE FINAL DAYS: On April 22, 2001, just two days shy of her two-year remission mark, Gretchen suddenly developed an alarming weakness in her hind legs. We rushed her into the emergency room at the U of M, where they took x-rays and did a full neurological exam. The x-rays did not reveal the spread of cancer, nor did they indicate any spinal abnormalities. Still, without further diagnostic testing, the doctors could not rule out any of these potential problems. Since treatment would be the same in any case, she was put on a substantial dose of prednisone twice daily to help reduce any inflammation. Over the next five days, her condition remained stable, although not greatly improved. Still, she was able to move around reasonably well, and with us carrying her outside so as to avoid stairs, she could maintain daily functions. When the prednisone was tapered off on the sixth day, she declined drastically and had to be put back on the higher dose. She initially bounced back a bit, but soon her condition started to worsen, and on May 7, she lost most of her motor function entirely. Though her personality still shined, and her tail continued to wag, she was starting to suffer other pains. She would yelp when we lifted her, and she could no longer eliminate while standing. No longer able to watch her suffer, on May 10, 2001, Gretchen was humanely euthanized at home while lying in the loving arms of her family. 

We are grateful for the two happy, healthy additional years we had with her, and her spirit will always continue to shine and inspire those who face the same dreadful disease she did. The void in our lives is immense, but we cannot forget what an incredibly special dog she was and for that, we are eternally grateful.

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