This is my Thanksgiving story…
I don’t know whether she began her life with a given name. Her shelter name was Madeline and by the time I’d met her, she had already cheated death twice. It was September of 2015. After having said goodbye to Rocky, our last dog of fourteen years, that past April, we’d finally decided that we were ready to bring a new four-legged family member into the fold. I began perusing the adoption listings on petfinder.com, occasionally sharing individual listings with the family to get their opinions on this or that prospect. After a few weeks, Madeline appeared in this listing (still there, with original photos) by Wags 2 Wishes Animal Rescue.
I shared her listing with the family and continued to share others, but I kept circling back to this one. The reason why was anything but obvious. Madeline was described as a lab mix and we weren’t necessarily looking for a large breed, although we had owned labs before. She was also a she, which wasn’t a deal breaker in itself, but we had always gone with male dogs in the past. Finally, she was being kept at a foster home until medically cleared, which meant she had health issues of some sort. There was certainly no shortage of healthy male dogs of smaller breeds, so why did I keep returning to this dog’s listing for another look?
Perhaps something deep inside told me this was the one, that this was to be our dog. After consulting with my wife, I messaged Wags 2 Wishes and inquired about arranging a visit to meet Madeline, who was being fostered somewhere up near the Illinois/Wisconsin border. They replied with an invitation to come see her at the shelter, right in Plainfield, as she had been cleared medically and was there. Thing was, we wouldn’t be able to get there before the weekend. What if somebody else came and took her? That very thought was driving me nuts. but we didn’t really have any alternatives and as Karen was quick to point out, if it was meant to be, she’d still be there.
She was there, and she seemed very happy to see Karen and me. If this pup was sickly, she was keeping it well-hidden. Madeline seemed to have the energy and curiosity of any healthy puppy, but as I said, she’d already cheated death twice by the time we first met. Madeline had been rescued from a kill shelter somewhere in Tennessee. What Karen and I hadn’t known is that this pup was listed to be put down the day she was rescued. Then while at her foster home, she became extremely ill. Turns out she had contracted a severe case of parvovirus and was not expected to survive. But she did survive and with a great deal of tender, loving care from her foster family, Madeline was nursed back to health. And so she was there to meet us that day—and after spending some time together at the shelter, she came home with us.
Later that day we dropped her shelter name and gave our pup her forever name, Leia. In the weeks and months that followed, Leia’s size and strength increased substantially. One day Karen thanked me for getting her the horse she’d always wanted. After much debate, we decided that her lineage is most likely a mix of Labrador Retriever and German Shepherd. She also began to show quite a mischievous streak. Leia—or the black princess, as I sometimes call her—proved herself to be a capable runner, digger and chewer, like none I had ever seen before. She tore all the landscape timbers from the ground and made kindling of them. She dug holes in the same rocky soil that blunted my best shovel and spade.She broke off fence planks on two sides of the yard so that she and the neighbor dogs can converse more easily. Last spring, in an effort to expend some of that energy, Leia and I began walking a few miles each day, which turned out to be good for me, too.
In so many ways, Leia has been unlike any other dog I’ve had. But as has been the case with every single canine companion of mine, we grew very close. When I come home, she eagerly greets me. Karen says she knows the sound of my motorcycle, apart from all the others in our area, and when I return from a ride, she can tell that it’s me heading into our subdivision. She is decidedly not a lap dog, yet she chooses to be near me. When I move around within our home, she follows. I can’t tell you how many times I have come out of the bathroom to find her curled up outside the door.
November 10, 2016 began as any other day for me. I woke up, said good morning to Leia, got ready for work, and then the two of us went downstairs. A few minutes later, I was on my way to work. Nothing had seemed different in any way, shape or form. But within minutes after I had arrived at work, my wife called to tell me Leia had collapsed and that she and our daughter were in the process of rushing her to the emergency vet. My head swam trying to process what I had just been told. I had a full day of work ahead of me and absolutely no desire to deal with any of it, but I knew that if I didn’t busy myself right then and there, I’d go mad. So I worked and waited.
We didn’t learn much that first day, only that Leia was in big trouble. She had no strength at all, couldn’t even stand up. Her blood counts had gone berserk and she was not clotting. Attempts to take simple blood draw caused a large hematoma on her neck. They had to wheel her in on a cart for Karen to say goodbye before taking her in back to begin administering fluids. A teary-eyed Karen filled me in and then left to get ready for work. I felt so empty inside, having no choice but to wait. My personal productivity that day was probably not the greatest, but I know I gave it my best, knowing that Karen would be back at the animal hospital before I could even leave my office.
When Karen returned around mid-afternoon that day, she had to visit Leia in her crate and the dog barely lifted her head in acknowledgement. On her last visit, right before visiting hours eneded, Leia walked into the exam/visiting room under her own power, albeit very slowly. Then she almost immediately laid down and closed her eyes. Karen visited for a while, spoke with the veterinarian, and then sent me the photo she took along with an update, that Leia was holding her own, but not improving. If she survived the next 24 hours, her prognosis might be better. In order to keep a medical appointment of my own, I wouldn’t be able to get back to Plainfield before visiting hours were over. My heart was heavy, not knowing whether I would see my girl again. I steeled myself and hoped for the best.
The following day, following a telephone update or two, I was able to go see Leia myself. Again she walked into the room under her own power, but that was about it. Karen had brought some scrambled eggs for her, but the dog would not eat. Her platelet and glucose counts were dangerously low and her liver values were too high to be measured by the vet’s equipment. One day later, an external lab result came back with a liver enzyme value above 10,000. Normal was 12 and high was anything over 60. The animal hospital’s machine would have counted anything up to 1,000. Leia’s values were higher than her vet had ever seen in a dog. Whatever had happened was causing her liver to die off. It could be a toxin, such as xylitol, the effects of a tick bite (we knew she’d had at least one), or even an autoimmune reaction. In addition, one of the lab results that came back indicated that she was heartworm positive, despite having been on a preventative medication all summer long. Treating the wrong cause could make it worse, so our only hope was to keep her liver going long enough to fight back. They gave her fluids, platelets, and antibiotics. On top of everyting else, the original estimate for the cost of treatment had been surpassed by the end of day two. We waited.
Leia was hospitalized for six days and but for that first day, I managed to see her at least once each day. During those days I watched her gradually become more alert. About halfway through, I got her to eat some grilled chicken that I’d cooked especially for her. Mostly we laid together and talked. We had to get her eating again in order to make it possible for her to take oral medications, thus making it possible for her to come home. We also had to have proof that her numbers were returning to normal, even though it might take a long time to get there. In an effort to give her veins and arteries a chance to recover, all four of her legs had been shaven and used for IV’s and blood draws. Every day we saw progress, though it was clear that Leia looked better in person than on paper, where her numbers still told a different story.
On the evening of day five, we got a call from one of the vets saying that Leia would be put on oral meds the following day and sent home. Her liver numbers had come down to 8,800, still many times normal, but a clear indication that her liver was no longer dying off. Understand that for most of this week, nobody on that veterinary staff had expected this dog to get out alive. That night, emotionally exhausted, even Karen admitted that she hadn’t believed Leia would come home again.
On the evening of day six, we brought Leia home. She had a long list of medications to take and we had a list of symptoms to watch for, any one of which might mean rushing her back to the animal hospital. Total billing to date was in excess of five thousand dollars. As long as everything went okay, we would come back in a week for another blood test. Because of the heartworm result, though, they prescribed six weeks of cage rest—little to no exercise of any kind that could cause an elevated heart rate.The idea was that any exertion could dislodge an adult heartworm and potentially kill my dog. Absolute cage rest was, however, out of the question for this dog, who in an effort to free herself had literally bent the bars of the strongest crate we could find.
So we did what we felt was the next best thing. Leia never went out except on a leash. I took her for daily walks, but only around one block—a fraction of what she’d been accustomed to—and only at a slow, walking pace. As her strength and energy returned with each passing day, Leia quickly grew tired of this routine.Meanwhile, Leia had many people hoping and praying for her, even since before she’d gotten out of the hospital, and her Facebook following surpassed my own.
As the one-week mark approached, Leia had visibly returned as close to normal as I could have hoped for. Along with all her other fans, I had been praying for her every day and as the day of her next blood test approached, I became certain that just getting her liver and platelet counts wouldn’t be good enough. So we made a rather unusual request: “Since you have to draw blood anyway, please run the heartworm test again.” The vet was understanding, but cautioned us that these results were usually very reliable.
On Wednesday, November 23, the day before Thanksgiving, Karen called me at work. Her voice was trembling as she relayed the news to me. The liver number had dropped to 826, a 90% decrease from one week prior. Her platelet count was normal… and the heartworm test had come back negative. Leia was now cleared for any activity. At that point Karen was crying and I was pretty close to doing so myself as I passed the news along to my family, friends and anybody at work who was willing to listen.
And so you see, this year Thanksgiving took on a very special meaning to me. Leia, my black princess, has cheated death three times. I have my dog back. It was raining on that Wednesday, and Leia hates getting wet, so we waited until Thanksgiving day to take our celebratory walk—over three miles worth. Today we did 3.7 miles, and only kept it down to that because I couldn’t keep up with the girl. The video clip below was taken during our walk. She’s back! Thanks be to God, my Leia is back!