As we traveled down into Tijuana a few Sundays ago, I knew I had another long day in front of me. We were coming to see Sr. Juanito, a very humble man near the age of 90 years old who rescues street dogs and attempts to help them with his meager resources. I expected the dogs I saw with mange, with parasites, and with various infections. What I did not expect was Leia.
Leia was an approximately 1-2 year old female dog. There is no specific breed I can attach to her other than “Mexican street mutt,” but she was about 30 pounds with black and tan markings. She had been lying in a dirty shed for 4 days after being hit by a car. Several of the volunteers with Sr. Juanito reported she had not eaten during that time, and she was extremely dehydrated. Her left hip was dislocated, and she couldn’t walk.
Usually this heralds a uterine infection, referred to as a pyometra. Pyometras are life-threatening if not fixed right away, and so I knew we had to do something right then if we were going to save this dog. We transported her to Dr. Veronika, who is one of our best surgeons, and we got her on intravenous fluids right away. As I observed Leia in the light, I began to realize she had pinpoint pupils and eyes that weren’t looking the same direction as each other (referred to as ‘strabismus’), and I began to piece together that she likely had a head injury.
Leia went to surgery, and strangely there was no evidence for a pyometra internally, although I suspect if we had not spayed her she would have developed one. Dr. Veronika also did a gastrotomy (entered the stomach) after feeling some hard objects inside. Thinking they were rocks, she removed them, only to be surprised to find potatoes.
By this point I was really kicking myself. Not only was it not ideal for this dehydrated, brain injured dog to be undergoing surgery, but having a gastrotomy can be a difficult recovery, and she already didn’t have a lot going for her. We were working in third world conditions with questionable sterility and anesthetics that weren’t the best for a brain-injured patient. I hadn’t come to Tijuana prepared to do surgery that day; I only thought I’d be surveying the situation at Juanito’s to figure out a plan to help.
After Leia’s surgery, we convened to discuss what we would do with her for recovery. I knew she needed to be maintained on IV fluids, but I had absolutely nowhere at my house to put her, and since I am not a veterinary practice owner, I had no clinic where I could put her either.
Nicole, who already has many rescue dogs of her own, finally relented and decided she would keep her in her garage. Bear in mind that Nicole is not a vet. She is not even a vet tech. She is an accountant, and we were asking her to nurse a dog and maintain her on IV fluids following a very serious surgery in less-than-ideal conditions.
The doctor in my brain kept telling me this dog should be euthanized. She couldn’t even walk, and we’d put her through abdominal surgery. I was having a difficult time imagining Nicole managing all the work it would take to help her recover, if she was going to recover. However, there was a small, quiet voice (i.e. the one I’m learning over the years to listen to) that told me I needed to give her a chance.
On our way back into San Diego, we stopped in Chula Vista, and I rummaged through our storage locker for supplies. I found several donated medications we would need and plenty of IV fluid bags to carry us through the next few days.
The one thing I did not take into consideration was Bill, Nicole’s boyfriend. You see, Bill is not working right now, so he has plenty of time to care for Leia. He is recovering himself, as he was just treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
I remember when Nicole first told me about his diagnosis. I was terrified for both of them as ALL carries a rather poor prognosis in adults. But, incredibly, Bill has fought – he has fought through chemotherapy, through having his bone marrow irradiated and killed off entirely, through receiving a bone marrow transplant and being maintained on immunosuppressants. Thus far, Bill has beaten all the odds. He made the decision that he wanted to live, and so he has.
As he watched Leia struggle over the subsequent days, he recognized the look in her eyes. It was very familiar to him.
“I can see the fight in her eyes. She doesn’t want to give up; she’s not ready to go. I hold her every night and try to give her the same energy that pulled me through.”
With the help of her medications, Leia had regained her appetite by late Monday evening, and with Bill’s help she was unsteadily walking by Wednesday night. On Thursday, we went to see a neurologist, who confirmed for us that Leia was suffering from a brain injury, but because of the progress she had already made due to Nicole and Bill’s efforts, he felt her prognosis was reasonably good for return to function. Now the only hurdle we had to face was her dislocated hip. The rest would just require time.
Radiographs confirmed for us that Leia had a dorsocranial luxation of her hip. That Friday, we went ahead and replaced her hip without surgery with the help of Dr. John Ashbaugh at Snug Pet Resort. There is only an approximately 50/50 chance this will work, but Leia has now been out of her sling for a few days, and her hip has remained in place. Her neurologic function continues to improve, and she is doing extremely well.
That Thursday, as Bill was helping me get Leia ready for her X-rays, he commented to me how he was going to have a very hard time giving her up once she was better. I looked into his eyes, and I knew.
“Bill, I think she is your dog. There is no reason why you have to give her up.”
Nicole and I had a discussion in the car ride back from Mexico on Sunday whether everything happens for a reason. I told her I’d seen so much suffering and unfair heartache in my profession that I have a difficult time subscribing to such a notion at times.
“There is always a reason. Maybe she’s here to teach you something,” said Nicole.
“No, if she’s going to teach anyone something, it’s going to be you since you’re taking her,” I said to her cheekily.
We were both wrong. She isn’t here to teach anyone anything; she is here to give Bill encouragement. As he watches her improve even over a matter of days, he sees his own struggle. Both of these souls have been engaged in a fight for their lives, and against all odds, they are both winning. They are two peas in a pod.
Perhaps everything does happen for a reason. In this case, I can only say it is very, very obvious what that reason was. These animals mirror back to us our own struggles, our own insecurities, and most of all, our own love. They remind us of what we strive to be, as well as what we are.
Leia is not out of the woods yet; her story is not over. However, she is a shining beacon of hope that tells us that even a little bit of effort and a lot of heart can carry us through even the most trying times in our lives. As I’ve watched her and Bill together, I have been truly touched by the meaning of the bond that has grown between them in just a few weeks’ time. It is incredible to witness, and I wish I could share it with everyone around me. Everyone should be so lucky as to experience such a friendship, and it is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
Update as of 4/25/2011: Leia is doing great! She is walking, playing, and living a great life now with her other rescue siblings. Her only known lasting affects of her injuries is that she has limited vision, but she gets around perfectly and has no problem playing with the other dogs. She likes consistency and she loves her special sofa where she can go to feel safe and secure whenever she gets frightened by anything. Leia loves to watch (listen to) sports with her daddy (Bill) in his man cave. She is also very skittish around cars which is totally understandable after what she has been through She is a wonderful gentile soul that loves all that life and her future has to offer..