Siofra is the first dog that’s truly belonged to me. I adopted her when she was about a year old from Save the Animals Foundation (STAF), where I volunteered as a dog caretaker and adoption counselor.
She came to STAF in late 2002, an overly serious three-month old puppy, her face too big for her skull and her front legs skinned from elbow to wrist. She’d been found at a car wash and it was evident she’d been on her own for awhile, even for her short life. Her coat was matted and her skin scabbed. She’d been living on garbage, struggling to survive, abandoned. Yet, she did survive – despite the traumatic injuries to her legs.
I remember the first night I met her. I came in for my volunteer shift to take care of the dogs, and another volunteer intercepted me. She told me I had to come to the vet room and see this puppy because she seemed like the kind of dog I’d love.
Boy, was that volunteer right on the money.
Siofra sat there in her kennel, her face wrinkles drooping forward, making her look comically serious. Her legs were bandaged in colorful wraps; she could bend her wrists to walk, so she shuffled her stiff front legs wherever she wanted to go. I was a goner.
From that night, I became one of Siofra’s “volunteers.” Now, all of the volunteers at STAF would work with her, but I came in on nights that I wasn’t supposed to be there just to see her. I changed and redressed her wounded legs. I took her on vet runs and played with her. I took her to puppy training and took her on walks. In short, we really bonded.
When her legs healed up, her hair fell out. It turned out she also had demodectic mange. Her skin became scaly and scabbed.
In short, she looked terrible. But she was still bright, alert, affectionate, and sweet. And she always greeted me the same way – ears plastered back, mouth open in a doggy grin, tail wagging.
And smart. Did I mention she was smart?
As she got a little older, I took her through more training and she snapped up any command given to her with ease. She was constantly trying to puzzle things out and would figure out most games and tricks I tried on her within a handful of minutes. At this time, I was working at a dog daycare, so I’d take her with me on occasion. She loved it.
Then the day came. I was working adoptions one Sunday and a family came in looking for a young dog, smart, energetic, playful. I knew I couldn’t adopt a dog at that time, so as much as I hated to do it, I brought them Siofra. Who collapsed in their room, rolled over for a belly rub, and in short order, won their hearts, despite her horribly scarred legs and mangy appearance. They asked me more questions about her, then told me they were interested in her. I said, “OK, let me check on something,” then left the room almost in tears. They wanted MY GIRL.
I collected myself, found the adoption leader, told her I was putting Siofra on hold, then went back in the room with the family and told them that I was so, so sorry, but Siofra was spoken for. I didn’t know it when I brought her in, but she was on hold and I’d bring them some other dogs to see.
A few months later, I brought her home. Rua and I got together not long after Siofra first hobbled into my heart, a serious-faced, red-headed street urchin. Once Rua moved to Ohio, he went with me to her trainings and her vet appointments, and he was there to witness me scrawl my name on the adoption contract when she officially became my dog.
That was in August 2003. Since that day, she’s brought us nothing but goofy, full throated joy. She’s not a perfect dog, she’s territorial and neurotic and loud. But she’s also curious and clever and affectionate and hilarious. She fits us. She makes our family. And, until two weeks ago, she’d been healthy and happy. Then, suddenly, she wasn’t and our world – my world – went dark and terrifying. Because she is my girl. My baby girl. My first dog. My heart. And I almost lost her.
Well, it’s been longer than 36 hours. More like 11 days. But who’s counting?
Oh, yeah. I am.
So, a week ago Monday (October 3rd, if you’re into exact dates), our dog, Siofra (SHEE-fra), threw up. Which, you know, whatever. Dogs puke. It goes with the territory. We decided to keep an eye on her, but other than that, not worry about it too much.
Then she threw up her breakfast Tuesday morning. Again, not such a big deal. She’s a dog, she probably got into something in the yard or at my parents’ house. Or maybe she picked up a stomach bug. We decided to restrict her food for 24 hours, only give her ice in her water bowl, and wait for her system to reboot, so to speak.
Sure she was lethargic and listless and breathing a bit weird. But she was sick. Her gums were a healthy pink, her eyes clear and bright, and the whites of her eyes sparkling white.
Wednesday evening, we give her some boiled chicken and rice, which she ate. She wasn’t overly enthusiastic about it, but she ate. Thursday morning, she was a little more hesitant to eat, but she ate. And there was no more vomiting. There was a little coming out the other end, if you know what I mean (and I know that you do), but she kept her food down. I was happy with that.
Then, Thursday night, she stopped eating. She only ate about a third of her boiled chicken and rice, then just refused to eat. She walked away from her bowl, plopped on the floor, and closed her eyes. The dog who would eat anything, any time, anywhere, stopped eating. Siofra, the dog we had to keep our dinner plates away from, stopped eating.
This was scary.
Plus, she was still breathing a bit heavy, but nothing terribly alarming. She wasn’t panting, just breathing heavily. But she was more listless than before. And seemed weak.
Alarm bells starting sounding all over inside my head.
My dog is sick. Really sick.
We had a vet appointment scheduled for her for Saturday, but suddenly, standing there in my dining room on Thursday night, Saturday was too far away. I texted my vet, who immediately called me back (we have an awesome vet) and said she’d fit her in Friday afternoon if I could get her there. I wasn’t sure how I’d do it, but I said I’d be there with her.
Friday morning, Siofra refused to eat anything. Anything at all. My heart sank.
I headed to work, already knowing I’d spend my day doing little more than staring at my computer screen pretending to work and trying not to cry. I was so, so worried.
And I tried to be logical and pragmatic. I tried so hard to convince myself that it was something that wasn’t entirely serious, but explicable and we’d know and deal with it.
But, I was alone in my office, deep inside my head, and the fear of losing my dog crammed everything else out of my head.
Friday morning and early afternoon crawled by. My boss, my wonderfully understanding boss, said I could leave early to take Siofra to the vet. (I’m at a new job, I don’t have time off yet, so this was a big deal.) I rush home, half convinced, half nervous that Siofra won’t be there to greet me at the door. That she’ll be too sick to move. (In case I haven’t mentioned it yet, I have an overactive imagination. Sometimes it’s overactive in awful directions.) When I open the door, Siofra’s there, looking worn and exhausted, but wagging her tail, telling me she’s glad I’m home before going to lay back down. I’m so happy to see her, I almost cry. My husband (Rua) meets me, and we bundle her into the car and drive to see the vet.
On the way, I’m imagining terrible things. Oh, who am I kidding? I’d been imagining terrible things all day. That there would be a mass or her liver would be too big or … or … the list just kept growing. Siofra’s calm in the car on the way out there, she usually is. She’s nervous in cars, but deals. When we get to the vet, I’m so nervous, I can barely smile. I just want to know what is wrong with my dog.
Our vet looks her over, pushing deep into her abdomen, drawing blood, checking her temperature, her gums, her everything. The exam is so thorough, that I’m on edge, hoping it will be a direct diagnosis. Of course, it isn’t. Siofra’s temperature is a bit high, but not alarmingly so. Her heartbeat sounds good, if a bit fast. But that’s normal, as Siofra’s a nervous wreck at the vet normally. Her belly isn’t painful and the vet finds no lumps or bumps or other undesirable things. We leave with antibiotics and Raglan (to help her stomach move things through) and go home to await blood test results. We have another vet appointment for our other dog the next day, so we know we’ll talk to the vet again.
Except, she calls us early that morning and asks if we can bring Siofra in for another blood test that morning. Before 10am, actually.
It’s 9:17 when I get the voice mail. And our vet is 45 minutes away. We get there at 10:03.
Siofra’s electrolytes have come back all funky – her sodium is low, her potassium is high. Normally, those electrolytes being out of whack wouldn’t be unusual because she’s been sick, but they should have been out of whack in the same direction, not like that. Because of this, and her lack of appetite, listlessness, vomiting, etc., the vet suspects it’s Addison’s disease. In fact, it seems pretty textbook. Yes, Addison’s is relatively rare, but hey. Siofra is injected with a medication to help balance out her electrolytes, given another blood test to test for Addison’s (and ACTH test, if you want to look it up), and we’re sent home with prednisone to give to her.
All of us are convinced it’s Addison’s. Saturday she still doesn’t want to eat, but that’s OK. It’s a symptom of the disease we’re sure she has. We give her the prednisone and take a deep breath. Sunday comes, and SIOFRA EATS BREAKFAST. I almost cry of happiness.
Surely it’s because she’s responding to the meds and it confirms she has Addison’s. She eats her dinner on Sunday night and seems perkier than she’s been all week.
Monday comes and she eats, though less enthusiastically than Sunday. Monday morning our vet calls and tells us it’s not Addison’s. Definitively not Addison’s. So, it’s likely a bad stomach bug, keep an eye on her, and see how she does.
Monday evening, she eats, but not much. The listless returns. As does the heavy, rapid breathing. Apparently, the prednisone gave her a temporary steroid high, but it’s wearing off now. Tuesday morning, Rua tells me Siofra only ate half of her breakfast, but we both kind of think it’s because she’s been sick and it’s normal for her to be a little off.
I come home from work Tuesday night, and she eats, only after me cajoling her, about a third of her food. My stomach sinks six feet below my feet. Rua’s out of town until Thursday evening. And Siofra, my poor Siofra, seems to be regressing. Tuesday night, she’s listless and wan, breathing heavily, not responding to me. I’m so worried, I can’t think. I distract myself with bad TV, all the while, catching myself watching her, waiting for something, anything to happen. I talk to my vet Tuesday night and she tells me to bring Siofra in for x-rays on Wednesday. As long as I can get there by 5:00pm, she’ll fit me in.
I get to her office by 4:00pm. Siofra is more listless than ever. She couldn’t make it into the car on her own. She feels bony, like her muscles mass has disappeared overnight.
What has happened to my dog?
Four x-rays later, my vet shows me my dog’s insides. There aren’t any visible tumors or obstructions. Siofra’s heart, however, is enlarged. And her liver’s a little big. And it looks like there might be fluid in her chest. The vet tells me I need to take her to an internist to get an ultrasound, which will tell us more than an x-ray does. After all, x-rays are rather limited when it comes to soft tissue. But there’s no doubt her heart is enlarged and there’s fluid there. So, she gets a dose of lasix to help flush the fluid from her chest and our vet makes us an appointment with an internist at MedVet for 1:00pm the next day.
I don’t want to spend the night by myself. I’m sick with worry, I’m exhausted, I’m afraid for my dog. My girl. My world. I take our dogs and myself to my parents’ house and spend the night there. Siofra seems OK. Well, same as before, but no worse. Breathing heavily, but not panting. Listless, but responsive. Pink gums. Bright eyes. She eats a little that evening and I allow myself a little hope.
Thursday morning dawns and Siofra greets me, slowly, like she has to concentrate on each movement of her joints. Her face is sunken. She stands long enough to go outside and pee, then comes back in and collapses. I tell myself to not overreact. She’s seeing a specialist in a few hours. It will be OK.
I shower and breakfast. As I’m brushing my teeth, I hear Siofra moving, it sounds heavy and ponderous. I peek out of the bathroom, and she’s laying in the hallway, staring at me, pleading. She’s no longer just breathing heavily, she’s panting. Gasping. I spit out my toothpaste and rush, stumble, kneel by her. She’s sprawled out on her side, and doesn’t even lift her head or wag her tail when I reach her. She just gasps. I check her gums.
Her gums are lavender, trending to blue. But her lips. Her lips are ice cold. They’re so cold it throws me. Because living tissue should never be that cold. Never.
My dog is suffocating.
In a daze, I stand up, walk to the kitchen. I tell my dad that Siofra’s worse, much worse. He tells me she was up all night. He could hear her pant, pace, plop. Pant, pace, plop. Pant, pace, plop. I tell him that he has to keep an eye on her today. That I have to go to work. I have no time to take off and can’t afford a day without pay. That I will be home in a few hours to take her to her appointment, but that I need to know if she gets worse.
I’m still not thinking clearly. I’m on some kind of autopilot.
I get into the spare room, my room, and my mind snaps back into place. This is my dog. I don’t care about work or anything else. I throw on clothes, whatever’s around. I text my boss what happened, and I ask my dad to drive me and Siofra to the emergency vet. There’s no way I’m letting her go without a fight. There’s no way I’m letting her go while Rua’s not here to tell her good-bye.
Then I make the hardest call I’ve had to make and call Rua and tell him he needs to come home. Now. That Siofra is bad and may not live and he needs to come home so he can tell her good-bye.
All I hear is him sob once. Twice. Then his breathing and his voice steadies, and he says he’s on his way.
I get to Siofra to put on her harness and lead. She’s laying on her side, panting, limp as a rag. I whisper in her ear that it’s OK if she needs to go. I don’t want to lose her, but I love her and I understand if she needs to go. The door is open, she can leave. It’s OK. I understand. I love you, I’ll always love you. You’re my sunshine super girl. And you are free to go. I’ll miss you, but you are free and I understand, I’ll always understand.
Her ear twitches, her tail thumps.
My dad and I get Siofra up and get her to walk to the car. I lift her into the back and we leave. Siofra spends the car ride panting and wheezing. I spend the car ride alternating between tears and thanking my dad for being there for me, for taking me and my dog to the emergency vet. I text my regular vet what has happened, she calls me back immediately to confirm the details, then tells me she’ll call the emergency vet to prep them and let them know we’re coming.
We get there, and I lift Siofra out of the car. She used to weigh more, she feels light as a feather to me. But the world is wrong, nothing feels right to me. Everything’s the wrong color, the wrong intensity, the wrong texture.
My dog is dying.
I may never see her again.
At the front desk, they had me a sheaf of papers to fill out and whisk her away. They place me and my dad in a room, where I try to fill in Siofra’s medical history with a shaking hand. I can’t read for the tears in my eyes. A vet tech or receptionist comes in, says “Oh honey, you’re so worried about your girl.” and hugs me. I sob.
My dog is dying.
The internist comes in and tells me I was right to bring her in. That they will help her. They’ve got her in an oxygen tent to help her breathe, then they’ll drain the fluid from her chest. They’ll do an ultrasound to see if they can find what’s wrong. They could find nothing, it’s called idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy. In plain English, it’s the “We don’t know what the hell caused her heart to swell and drown in fluid” disease. It could be cancer. It could recur. It could never recur. They just don’t know, but they’ll let us know.
Do I want them to revive her if she goes into cardiac arrest?
Who is ever prepared to answer that question about their dog?
I say all I expect, all I want, is for them to stabilize her long enough for Rua to get there. I want them to do what they can to save her, but my expectations, my bare hope is just that she lasts long enough for us both to be able to tell her good-bye.
Her gums were blue. Her lips were cold as death.
My dog is dying.
I wait and wait. Rua finally arrives and we collapse onto one another, sobbing and comforting each other at the same time. We’re both pale, our faces swollen and bruised from the weight of our tears. We wait. Someone brings us water and hot chocolate. We wait.
Finally, the vet tech comes in and tells us Siofra made it through the cardiac drain fine and is coming out of her sedation. They’re going to do an ultrasound of her chest and belly, but that may be awhile yet, so we should go home. They will call. Then she turns to leave, then turns back. “Would you like to see her before you go?”
Yes. Oh, god, yes.
She brings her in and it’s both comforting and horrible. Siofra’s face is still sunken, she’s still disengaged. She greets us, but doesn’t seem interested in being with us. She’s panting, her eyes don’t meet ours. She’s our dog, but not, she feels like she’s been removed. I can’t stand it, it breaks my heart too much. She’s stressed and sick and not Siofra. We tell her we love her over and over, we pet her and kiss her, and scratch her back. She paces and pants and acknowledges us, but it’s cursory, compulsory. We’re humans who are here in this strange place, and she’ll let us pet her, but she’s too stressed to engage with us.
It kills me.
We call the tech back in, she needs rest, she needs to recuperate, call as soon as you can, and we leave, uncertain of what we’ll hear or if we’ll see our dog, our girl ever again.
I’m so worn out from the morning, that driving back to my parents’, I pass out in the car. The weight of the day closes my eyes, flips the off switch to my body, and I slip into sleep. Once we get to my parents, I eat a snack and crawl into bed, welcoming unconsciousness and the oblivion it brings. When I wake up two hours later, there’s a minute where everything is OK. Then the thought bubbles up, my dog is dying, and the weight of worry and sadness bears down on me.
Two hours later, the internist finally calls. Siofra is doing well. The ultrasound showed no abnormalities or cause of her congestive heart failure. They’d like to keep her overnight, though, to monitor her and see how she does. Absolutely that’s OK. And I breathe, I think, for the first time that day.
Siofra passes the night without incident, and the next morning, I get a call from a new internist, the one working today, who tells me that, while the initial ultrasounds were clean, and Siofra looks and is acting like a healthy dog, she’s worried that her heart rate is high. And she’d like to to get a cardiologist to do an echocardiogram to make sure there’s nothing wrong with her heart.
I’m fine with that.
I text my boss to let her know what’s going on, and she tells me to take my time and let her know how it’s going. Rua and I then begin the waiting game. When they finally call to tell me she’s ready to come, I’m ready to fly there under the power of my own joy.
My dog went from dying to “you can come pick her up anytime.” All in 36 hours.
The internist meets with us before returning Siofra to us. Her echocardiogram was “unremarkable.” Her blood work and test on the fluid pulled from around her heart and chest showed no infection, no nothing. The only remarkable thing was that some of the mesothelial cells in the fluid they pulled were abnormal. This could indicate mesothelioma, but the fact that they didn’t find any growths or thickenings in her chest, the fact that her heart looked healthy, and the fact that the fluid build-up could have just irritated and malformed the cells, it’s not likely it’s cancer. It could be, of course, but it’s not likely.
At this point, I don’t care. I just want my dog.
The internist asks if we have any questions and tells us we need to bring Siofra back in a week for a recheck. We also need to limit her activity and exertion for awhile and keep a close eye on her. If she shows any symptoms, we need to bring her back immediately. We nod and say OK and file it away, but we’re just waiting to see our dog. She’s alive. She almost died. We thought we’d have to tell her good-bye and she’s alive and coming home and WHERE IS OUR DOG ALREADY?!
Then they bring her in. She makes a beeline for me, ears plastered back, tail wagging. She’s happy to see me. Then she goes to Rua, greets him, then plops between us, asking for a belly rub.
Our dog is back. This is wholly unlike how she was when we saw her yesterday. That pacing, panting, disconnected creature. She actually greets us, asks to be petted, wags and responds and leans on us.
Our dog is back.
We get her into the car and get her home. She’s exhausted, but bright. She’s exhausted, but engaged. And all night we stare at her, almost not believing she’s home. And well.
Of course, we’re not out of the woods yet. We have to keep a close eye on her, but at least we now know the signs to look for. It’s hard to not jump every time she sighs or breathes heavily. We have to remember she’s still recuperating, regardless of how energetic she acts. And we have to remember that this nightmare could occur again at any time. It may never occur again. We don’t know. That’s the hardest part for me now, this not knowing. Not knowing if tomorrow or next week or next month, I’ll find my dog once again, gums blue, lips cold, breathing raspy and fast. I don’t want to think about it, but it’s hard to not think about it.
But you know what? I think I’ll go and rub her belly instead.