Friday, July 30, 2010

Mini's final day... We say goodbye

We said our final goodbyes to our angel Mini yesterday afternoon, knowing all too well that while she's left us in body, she'll be with us forever in spirit.

But that doesn't make it any easier.

It was the most harrowing day of my life, and the culmination of what was easily the rockiest emotional roller coaster of a week I've ever endured. What makes this passage even harder to write is that the focus isn't on the joy and happiness that Mini brought so many people in her life, but it's about her final hours with us, what they entailed, and the unfortunate ease of the hard decision we made.

Yet, as sad as the outcome was, the circumstances couldn't have blessed us with a more beautiful and perfect afternoon.

That's just how twisted the past week has been.

On Thursday evening, July 22, Mini had emergency surgery on her spine that we were told would have a 50-percent chance of reversing hind leg paralysis suffered earlier that afternoon (details here). Heading into surgery, Mini was "deep pain negative" in her right hind leg (the worst stage of paralysis - you could cut off her toe and she wouldn't feel a thing). The fact that she still had pain sensory in her left hind leg, despite its paralysis, was perceived as a good indicator that regained mobility would be possible.

She seemed to be recovering rather quickly from the surgery and anesthesia, another good sign that her spirit and will were intact. We brought her home Saturday afternoon, July 24, feeling every bit as optimistic as we were nervous of what the days ahead would bring.

She ate Chinese food with us Saturday night (the chicken portion of chicken and broccoli), and was quite the cuddle monster on the couch, watching whatever disposable television was on as we studied a roomful of recovery aids, prepared for everything the coming weeks might bring... A playpen to limit her attempts to move and alleviate stress on her recovering spine, a tempurpedic cushion for the playpen - because she deserves nothing but the best to rest her weary body on - and as incontinence was a given, we had a bulk of wee wee pads, doggie diapers, canine baby wipes, and every cleaning supply imaginable for impending accidents.

Mini was visually happy to be home and surrounded by her people Saturday, and seemed more content soaking in the attention than sleeping. Sunday proved her day of rest, but an anxious day for us, as it provided my learning curve in exercising her bladder.

Monday was great - Mini was wagging her tail, smiling, and sitting up in her bed in my office, watching me intently as I juggled her care with my ongoing job search and incoming contract and freelance work. I talked to her throughout the day, and she listened, as has been the case every day for the past nine years. Given that I have worked from home all but one of those years, she and I have developed an obvious co-dependence, and that only intensified with the care I'd been administering to that point.

I'd take her outside every few hours to relieve her bladder, and she'd wag her tail - she always loved the sun just as much as I did. Every trip outside ended with physical therapy on her back legs. We had a routine, and it worked for us both. There was no need for diapers, no need need for cleaning aids, and when Rika came home from work and was greeted by Mini's smiling face and wagging tail, there was nothing but optimism.

Our hearts glowed with hope.

My only concern was that she hadn't eaten since Saturday night's chicken, and I called the hospital Tuesday morning to express my concerns. The doctor I spoke with was encouraged by Mini's spirit and the ease and speed at which I'd taken to her care, and said she truly didn't see her lack of an appetite as a reason for immediate concern. She recommended waiting until her first week of medication ran its course before letting panic set in. She also lowered Mini's morning dose of pain reliever, suggesting that by easing the medication we might relieve her stomach and boost her appetite.

Mini was less energetic Tuesday, but I attributed that to her lack of eating. She tried to sit up a few times, but to little avail, and her spirit weakened noticeably over the next 24 hours. I happened to receive a call from her regular veterinarian on Wednesday afternoon, who was checking in for the first time since the surgery. We talked at great length, and while she was encouraged by Monday's tail wagging, she couldn't hide her worry that Mini wasn't eating. She offered me a few suggestions of things to feed her over the next 24 hours - baby food, apple sauce, vanilla Ensure and light vanilla ice cream - and, Thursday being her day off, we agreed to touch base again on Friday morning to monitor our progress.

Mini ate half a jar of baby food that night, but we needed to hold her head up to help her lick the spoon. As I detailed here early Thursday morning, my escalating concern over Mini's weakened condition - both physically and mentally - led me back to the hospital late Wednesday night, where they expected to provide her with intravenous nutrients, monitor her overnight, touch base with me in the morning, and have me bring her home Thursday afternoon.

Unfortunately, Thursday morning's phone call changed everything.

It began, "I wish I had better news...", and my heart shattered as the surgeon proceeded to explain Mini's condition. I wanted to cry, but I knew I couldn't - I needed to be strong, because I needed to call my wife with the news, and then one of our best friends, who I rescued Mini with nine years ago. I needed to be strong for them, just like the three of us needed to be strong for Mini - and make the hard decision that she couldn't make on her own.

The surgeon explained how shocked he was by Mini's condition when he saw her that morning, and how there was no way that a lack of eating could take such a devastating toll on her body, especially considering how well she was doing as recently as Monday afternoon.

He went on to explain, in great detail, how a number of indicators, on their own, might not be cause for great concern, but together they led to a catastrophic conclusion.

He started with the fact that there was no disc material to be found in Mini's spine during the operation, and that she lost deep pain sensation in her second leg post-operation. On their own those weren't great signs, but they also weren't dire. But when you couple them with the devastating turn her body took between Tuesday and Wednesday, to the point where she felt like a boneless bag of sand when I brought her to the hospital early Thursday morning, the signs all pointed to a horrific disease...


The word sounds bad, because it is bad. Very bad. Where most canine back problems start and end with a single disc, and can be controlled and/or repaired if treated quickly, in the extremely rare cases of myelomalacia (the doctor said he sees one, maybe two cases a year), the disc proves to be the launching pad for an irreversible, untreatable, and fatal condition.

In Mini's case, a concussive disc began the chain of events Thursday, when her hind legs were paralyzed. From there, myelomalacia began its corrosive path through her back, destroying her spine as it spread. While we didn't know it at the time, its ravaging effects began to show Tuesday, and rapidly led to Wednesday's weakened state. The further through the spine the disease spread, the worse Mini would get, until she ultimately died of respiratory failure.

Based on the speed at which she was deteriorating, the doctor urged us to get to the hospital as soon as we could, as it would likely be the last chance we would have to see her. He presented me with two viable options - euthanasia, and waiting 24 hours, just in case there was an unexpected change of condition. On the positive side (if there could be one), he did assure me that, since the condition literally destroys the spine and kills the nerves, Mini was feeling no pain, and if we chose to wait, she would not be suffering.

He said that if it was his dog, he'd probably wait the 24 hours - which is what I told him we'd likely decide. I got off the phone with the doctor and immediately called Rika and Erika.

Talk about horrific phone calls.

Little more than an hour later, we were all at the hospital, where we were put in a room with Mini, who was carried to us bundled in a blanket and in a small sherpa bed.

While her body didn't seem significantly different than when I brought her to the hospital 12 hours earlier, her spirit seemed drained and her eyes were haunting, a third eyelid forming within each. The scientific term for those inner eyelids is nictitating membrane, and in dogs it is a sign of failing health.

Mini was receptive to our presence, but that offered us little consolation. It was unspoken at the time, but within seconds of seeing her, we all knew what needed to be done.

Holding Mini's head in my hand, petting her, and looking as deep into her soul as my tear-filled eyes would allow, I said what everyone was thinking - I didn't want Mini dying alone in a hospital in the middle of the night, and I wanted to hold her as she left us, letting her leave this world surrounded by the same love that she brought to it.

Rika and Erika agreed, as did the doctor, who assured us that given the love in the room and the peace we so visibly brought Mini, it would be the greatest gift we could ever give her. He also assured us that the process is painless, and we could be with her throughout. He had a scheduled surgery, and said he'd leave us alone with her until he returned, at which point we could make our decision.

The moment he left the room, we all agreed to one of the easiest decisions we hoped we'd never have to make.

We spent the next 90 minutes alone with our baby. There were a lot of tears, but it was absolutely beautiful, and as perfect as such a sad situation could be. I cried more in that room than I've ever cried in my life, but there was never even a split second where any of us doubted that we were doing the right thing.

We took turns holding Mini in our arms, and there was hardly a moment that I stopped cradling her head, petting her face, and getting lost in her adoring gaze. Rika and Erika did the same. We kissed her so many times, I can still taste and feel her fur. And I never stopped talking to her, telling her that she didn't have to fight anymore, and she didn't have to be afraid. I told her to look to the light and find my grandfather, who would be waiting for her with a bowl of meatballs. And I told her about all of the other people she'd meet in heaven that would be part of her new family.

And I told her that anytime she wanted, she could sleep in our beds and sit on our couches, because in our hearts, those are places that she is always going to be. In the midst of all that talking, Mini touched my hand with her paw - like she often did at night, sleeping in our bed - and as I always did, I took hold of it...

I didn't let go until five minutes after the doctor - his eyes red and swollen just like ours - lifted his stethoscope from her tiny chest and said those words that we will never forget...

She's gone.

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