On September 11, 14-year old Odie was taken to VCA Animal Hospital in Clackamas, Ore. after he could no longer fit his severely bloated belly through his doggy door.
After a three-hour stretch of waiting and speaking with the vet, I was told he needed to spend the night so they could determine if the fluid in his belly was blood or other fluid. Tests would determine what was causing the build up of fluid. The choices were likely heart disease or cancer. Neither was a good choice.
Before leaving, the hospital, I said goodbye to my boy who was locked in a cage alone. It broke my heart to leave him there. The vet called me fifteen minutes after I arrived home guilt-stricken over leaving him alone for the night to tell me he has congestive heart failure and a year to live – at best. She said they were starting him on oxygen treatments that would last 18 hours and also mentioned she wanted to keep him in the hospital for two nights.
That night I couldn’t sleep. My jaw ached from clenching it all night, so I took a muscle relaxer hoping it would help me drift off to sleep. It didn’t. When I finally fell asleep, I woke up with every little noise thinking said noise was Odie. When I realized it wasn’t – and that he wasn’t even there – I cried.
The next day I was determined that Odie would excel through his oxygen treatments and there would be no real need for him to stay in the hospital two nights. My pocket-book couldn’t afford the estimated 24-hour visit, let alone another 24 hours.
When the same hospital vet from the night before called me around 9 am that morning, she said they had weened him off the oxygen and that he was doing really well. She recommended having a cardiologist perform an echocardiogram ($500) in order to determine the extent of the heart disease so they could develop a medication treatment plan.
Later in the afternoon I got the results of the echocardiogram: severe tricuspid valve disease resulting in right-sided congestive heart failure. Add to that pulmonary hypertension (she explained it as high blood pressure in his lungs), which suggested an underlying respiratory disease. Due to his age and heart condition, she didn’t recommend a test to determine what was going on in his lungs. At this point she said he was back on oxygen and said she wasn’t sure I could bring him home that evening. I drove to the hospital for visiting hours that evening hoping I could just take him home.
I found Odie asleep in a large oxygen machine. When he saw me he immediately stood up and wagged his tail, putting his paw on my arm to tell me he was ready for me to remove him from his prison. For more than an hour I stood next to him petting him and trying to calm him down. When the vet asked me my preference, I immediately told her I wanted him to come home with me.
Another hour went by before the discharge paperwork and prescriptions were ready. We left more than two hours after I arrived, after having slapped $1,600 on some plastic. They gave me three filled prescriptions, a sample of Viagra and a prescription for it (too expensive to fill at the vet, apparently), and instructions to keep him calm or limit his activity.
I had no idea what to expect when I brought Odie home. He’s normally a nervous dog during a car ride. But never when he knows he’s going home. He didn’t shake or whimper at all on the ride home. Once out of the the car he tried to break into a run, but his leg was bandaged where the IV had been removed and he awkwardly tripped for a few steps before deciding it was best not to run.
Inside the house he began jumping up and down and all around, as he often does when he walks into the house (because he thinks he’s deserving of a treat). So of course the next thing he did was to excitedly bounce toward the treat area while I yelled at him for being so excited. Keeping him calm was not working well so far.
I decided I needed to test him out in the doggy door. I already decided I would need to widen the doggy door so he could continue using it. Instead I found that his bloated belly had shrunken. Except for a strange flap of skin hanging off one side of him, he had slimmed down to his normal self.
Tentatively Odie approached the doggy door, perhaps scarred from the last time he tried to get through, got stuck, and whimpered for me to help him. I walked outside knowing Odie would want to follow me out the door. He follows me everywhere. Sure enough he stuck his little head out the plastic flap of the doggy door looking for me. And that was as far as he would go.
Until I lured him out with a treat. Sure enough he boldly bolted through the doggy door the moment he knew what waited for him on the other side. After finishing his treat, he hesitated to go back indoors. When I didn’t open the door for him, he eventually got up the nerve to make his way through. Once he figured out he wouldn’t get stuck, he had no problems using his beloved doggy door again.
I wasn’t understanding any of this. He was the exact same dog he was BH (before hospital), except for that weird flap of skin. He had the same energy. The same love of food. Same thirst (the guy guzzles water). The same everything. The only thing that wasn’t the same was the death sentence they gave him: “Odie’s prognosis is guarded (euphemistic for not gonna last long). Some dogs respond well to the medications and can live for months. Other dogs progress rapidly.” The second vet told me a year was optimistic. It would most likely be a matter of months. This made me mad.
Almost two years ago Odie had neck surgery to remove a parathyroid tumor. Despite his age (13 years), he bounced back remarkably quickly the day my dad and I brought him home. In a drugged up stupor he tried to jump onto the couch not long after we brought him in the house post-surgery.
I couldn’t reconcile the physical appearance of my dog (normal) with his prognosis (death sentence). On top of that, he wasn’t displaying any other symptoms of heart failure: coughing, heavy breathing, pale gums, etc. So I decided to document whatever time I have left with him – be it months or years. He’s brought me infinite joy since we brought him home almost three years ago, and I want to share the remaining joy I have with you. Thus, the blog Prognosis: Guarded was born. I dedicate this blog to the best dog ever, Odie, and hope that you’ll follow along as he makes his way through the last weeks, months, years of his life. The guy has always been a fighter. I hope he has enough fight in him to allow me to tell his story, past and present.