Friday, March 23, 2012

A Dog's Life -- Lessons on Strength and Hope

Yesterday I rescued a dog. And then less than two hours later I had to make the incredibly hard decision to put the dog to sleep. His back was broken. There was little they could do without really, really expensive surgeries and even then it was a gamble...

I stopped by Food Lion on the way home. I needed groceries. Filled up the cart with butternut squash, baby spinach, green peppers, red cabbage, a few avocados, bananas. We were completely out of fresh veggies at home. I picked up a few steaks as well. I thought I'd make pan-grilled steaks and baked sweet potatoes. Packed up the car $160 later (don't you love how real food costs so much more?)...

Got in the car, turned on the country radio station and headed west on Hwy 264. The day was pretty. It had been rainy earlier in the week leaving wet, muddy puddles throughout eastern north carolina. I'd driven this route so often, it was muscle memory. The leaves on trees and fresh grass had become bright spring green. I always notice the seasons on this long drive home. I counted the exits as I always do, 20 miles until home, 15 miles until home... and then I saw him.

A small black dog, sitting in the median of the 4 lane highway. He looked fine, but it made no sense to me. I didn't understand why he was sitting there. I knew I would have to take the next exit to turn around and get him. I wondered what my husband would think when I told him we had ANOTHER rescued animal in the back yard.

It took about 8 minutes to get back to the place on the road I remembered the dog being. In front of me a red blazer also pulled over. A young girl on a cell phone got out of her car in tears. Long, straight, blond-brown hair, with shiny gold earrings. Tear-stained green eyes with noticeably long eyelashes. A stylish gold top and shorts. To be honest, someone I wouldn't have pictured stopping for a dog (how often we judge without knowing it). She was on the phone with her brother trying to ask what to do.

When she got off the phone, I asked her calmly to call 911. Tell them the exit we were at and that there was an injured dog. She called. The incident had already been reported. We tried to get closer to the dog, but he was afraid. His hind legs were obviously broken or hurt. He couldn't move them. As we walked closer to the dog, he mustered up as much energy as he could and started dragging himself with his lifeless hind legs across the highway. A very BUSY highway. How the poor dog didn't get hit again or cause an accident I'll never know. We heard him yelping in pain across the road and the poor girl nearly broke down. We didn't know what to do. We waited for the police for about 10-15 minutes. We knew that time was not on the dog's side. How long do we wait?

Finally, I told the girl I would drive to the next exit and turn around so we could get back on the same side of the road as the dog. The young girl followed me. She again called her brother to help, but he kept telling her there was nothing we could do. It seemed like forever to get to the next exit. We pulled over and I didn't see the dog. I was afraid he had crawled off into the woods and we'd never find him.

The young girl finally saw the poor dog. He was lying on his back in a muddy, wet, weed-filled ditch. I didn't know how to get to him. I had been in a few situations like this before with injured animals. That seems to happen when you're an animal lover. I was afraid the dog would bite or hurt us in the process of trying to help him. But, the young girl was adamant that we couldn't leave him. I told her that if I could get him in my car, we would take him to the Emergency Vets in a nearby town. But how in the world would we get him in the car.

We tried calling my husband, who like me, just wasn't sure what to do. I didn't think we could do it without help. I finally told him I'd call him back when I figured out what to do. Flustered, I asked the young girl if she had a blanket in her car. She said she had a towel and went and got it. We took the towel down to the muddy ditch and tried to figure out how to get it underneath the dog. After getting my footing on the mucky weeds, I was eventually able to get around the dog. The girl followed me and got on the other side. We carefully, slowly moved the poor muddy, wet dog onto the towel. He was breathing. His wide brown eyes seemed to be saying "I don't know what to do, just help me." He had a small cut on his right eyebrow. When the young girl saw the cut she just started crying again. I told her not to worry about the cut. The cut would heal. We needed to worry about his leg. The dog never made a sound as we lifted him onto the blanket and eventually carried him up the hill into the back seat of my car. I knew that wasn't a good sign. He should have been in agonizing pain.

It took us a while, but we eventually were able to maneuver the dog into my back seat. The dog seemed thankful, even grateful for the help. He didn't seem scared and he was very quiet. I told the girl to follow me to the Emergency Vet. Once I got onto the road, heart pounding, I called Michael again. I asked him to call the Emergency Vet and tell them we were on the way with a very injured dog. For a while the dog was settled on the back seat. I thought he'd be okay. He was looking out of the back windows, which I thought was a good sign. Surely if he was more interested in what was going on around him than in his legs, that must have meant internally he was okay, right?

Eventually, he tried to get off the seat. Because he couldn't control his back legs he fell into the floorboard of the car. He flopped around a bit. But I thought that meant he was probably stronger than he seemed. Several times he put his head up on the back seat to try and look out the windows again. At one point he put his head up onto the armrest in the middle of the car and I could pet him. His big brown eyes just looked at me, as if he knew we were trying to help him.

30 minutes later we arrived at the Emergency Vet. The young girl went inside and told them what was going on and a few minutes later they came out to get him with a rolling cart. The primary veterinarian looked at the dog and I could tell she was very concerned. The dog had ended up once again on his back in the floorboard of the car. His right arm was very stiff and wouldn't bend. They were able to pull the dog from the car and place him on the rolling cart. They buckled him down onto the cart and started rolling him in. As in the car, he didn't want to lie down. He wanted to look up and around him. He tried to get up with his one good front leg. We gently coaxed him back down and petted him on the way into the facility.

The vet told us immediately things didn't look good for the poor dog. He wasn't responding to touch on either his legs or his tail and he should have been howling in pain. She was afraid his back was probably broken. We followed as they wheeled the dog back to be x-rayed and examined. We were led to a small examination room as the dog went to the back. The technician gave us a form to fill out and the young girl just looked at me and said, "I don't know what they want me to do. I don't have any money." I gently took the pen from her and told her not to worry. We would take care of it. I filled out the form, which seemed pointless and we called the dog Buddy, since on the ride there, I just kept telling him, "It will be okay buddy."

She turned again to her phone. I finally asked her what her name was. Megan. "It's nice to meet you Megan. I'm Carrie." She held a small smile. We chatted a little about where we lived. It turned out she was a freshman student at the University I work at. She was headed home for the weekend. She'd had a bad week. A lot of tests. A lot of pressure. And she had been looking to adopt a puppy this very week. She had talked with her parents about it and they had three other dogs. She was already looking at breeders to find a puppy. And then this happened. And she was heart-broken. She wanted to take that dog home. Her dad told her that if the dog was okay, they could foster it until they knew it could live with them permanently or find a good home.

A few minutes later my husband came in. He sat with us. Not sure what to do. But just being there was enough. I was trying to keep things light, keep a positive attitude, for Megan. For Buddy. For me.

Then the vet came back in. "It's not good." She carried in a large laptop with a clear image of the x-ray. The backbone was clearly broken. The dog would be paralyzed for life. Surgery was possible, but not plausible. Not only would it be nearly $10,000 or more... it was only a hope. It may not work. The dog would still probably be paralyzed and he probably wouldn't survive the surgery. The best option would be to put the dog to sleep. She asked if we wanted to be present with the dog. Immediately I said no. No, I didn't want to see that. But Megan looked at me with soft eyes and I asked, 'Do you think we should be with him?" With tears streaming down her cheeks she said, "Yes, but I don't want to be alone." So we went and found the technician and asked for them to bring the dog in with us. I was so hesitant to be with the dog when he died. I didn't want to be there. This was the hard part. I don't like the hard parts.

I had held it together the whole time. Keeping a light sense of humor. Taking charge of the situation, making all the adult decisions. Trying to keep Megan calm. As long as I could avoid the emotions it was okay. But then I realized, Megan was right. I didn't want this dog to be alone. I needed to face this. I needed to be with this dog, and with Megan, as he died.

Buddy was wheeled back into the examination room and we spent a few minutes with him. Petting him. Telling him we were sorry we couldn't do more. That there were people who cared about him. He was already groggy from pain medication and not feeling anything. The vet said he was a small lab mix that was probably around a year old. I'm not sure if this made it harder or easier to let him go.

The vet then came in with the medication to stop Buddy's heart. She gently pushed the medication into the IV as we continued to pet him. And I wasn't afraid. I wasn't scared. Generally, I hate death. I've never learned how to deal with it. Not with people. Not with pets. I generally ignore it. It's frightening to me. Before this moment, I had never once volunteered to pet an animal that was dead or dying.

But I had to pet Buddy. I didn't want him to be alone. I didn't want to be alone. Megan pet him too. Tears rolling down both of our cheeks, my husband standing silently behind us. We signed a form to allow the facility to cremate Buddy and bury his remains. In hindsight, I kind of wish we had buried Buddy ourselves. Under the pecan tree in the back yard. So we could remember him... but at the moment, it was easier to let the vets care for his body. Megan wanted to help pay for the small cremation fee, and I should have let her help pay, so she could feel that she did something... but in that moment I didn't want her to worry about it. She still needed to drive another 45 minutes home. She had concerned parents who needed to see her. We hugged. I gave her my business card and asked her if she would find me on facebook.

We got in our cars. Michael and I led Megan back to the highway and then we headed home. Feel the feelings. Feel the feelings. Let it hurt. It's okay to hurt. Do not shove this away. Feel it. It's okay to love a dog you've only known for two hours. It's okay to cry. So I cried. and cried. and cried. and cried. I cried for Megan, for her big green eyes and her wide-open 18 year old heart. She reminded me of my young cousin Elizabeth. They are about the same age and have the same frame, hair color, and complexion. This was just as much my Elizabeth as it was Megan and my heart hurt for her. I prayed for her on the way home. I prayed for Buddy, who would never get to live a full life here on earth. I prayed that God made heaven a big enough place for all of our animals too.

And for a while, I didn't understand. I didn't understand why we were both at the same place at the same time saving a dog, who would have to be put to sleep just an hour later. It just didn't make sense. Life often doesn't. As I was riding home, so engulfed in my thoughts I didn't even notice when I passed my husband's truck on the way home. I wanted a shower. I wanted to get my muddy, wet socks off. Remove my mud-splattered pants and soak in the hot relief of the shower. And then it dawned on me.

Yes, we helped Buddy. He wouldn't suffer anymore. He wouldn't lay in a ditch for days on end and eventually die of starvation or thirst. And that was comforting. But really... it was Megan who needed me.  And I needed Megan. It was Megan who pushed me to do all of these things I didn't think I could do. From wading into a muddy ditch and not worrying about my clothes or shoes or my bad back, or facing a dog who could have bitten us or hurt us, and finally facing the hard emotions of death. Being with Buddy as he died. Megan made me face my fears. Partially because I wanted to protect her, to help her... but also because I needed to do it. I finally understood that death isn't always scary. It can be peaceful, comforting, and a relief from pain. It is sad, but not scary.


I haven't heard from Megan yet. But I have thought about her all day. I hope she is okay. I pray that she arrived home safe and sound. I hope her parents hugged her tight. I hope she knows how brave she is. I don't think I could have faced a situation like that when I was 18. I wish I could thank her for bringing out the best in me. For needing me to face the hard emotions that she was willing to feel, to deal with, because she knew it was the right thing to do. Even if it was hard.

I learned that from now on I'll always keep a few towels in the back of the car, maybe a pair of gloves and an old pair of shoes -- just in case. I learned that you can do a whole lot more than you think you can, especially during times of intense stress or fear. That sometimes you just have to act like you know what you're doing and stop worrying about how it will turn out. That other people can dig deep and bring out the best parts of yourself. I learned that death isn't always scary, sometimes it's a peaceful and loving experience. It's okay to feel and express being hurt, it's okay to let yourself feel the pain of disappointment. And that as hard as this life is, you should never, ever stop hoping for the best.

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