A wet snow and cold wind blew my Subaru south to Parker Animal Emergency & Specialty Center, where Jessie awaited me. He was able to return home on his third day of hospitalization and we were all anxious for his company. Both my other dogs, Bailey and Brillo, had moped around the house, uncomprehending and confused. Even the cats, Sadie, Rocky, and Bug, were quieter and less active. The entire chemistry of the house had changed without Jessie’s overarching presence.
Jessie had never been loud, dominant, aggressive, or bossy, yet all the other pets had profound attachments to his benevolent and patient leadership. He was a large dog too, so I found his absence blatant and felt lonely for his loving gaze. I was anxious to get him home so the family could relax and try to get back to normal.
I knew it would be a “new” normal though, for Jessie would be heavily drugged for a few days. He had been on Fentanyl for pain following a four-hour general anesthetic. Although Dr. Curtis Probst had transferred him to Tramadol, a non-narcotic pain reliever, the heavy drugs would take several days to completely leave his system. The night before his release, Jessie had spiked a low fever. He had been on intravenous fluids to protect his stable but compromised kidneys and they had used a urinary catheter. A urinary tract infection was suspected so Jessie was placed on antibiotics as well. The urinalysis test result would take five days to return so Dr. P felt it important to keep Jessie on the full course of two weeks.
The medical attendants had also listened to my appeal for an anti-anxiety medication for Jessie during his stay in the small hospital enclosure. Jessie’s natural claustrophobia may or may not have been a direct result of his forced confinement in a crate in his young years. But I wanted to make sure his trauma at being separated from home and the surgery would not be exacerbated by being locked in a small windowless hospital run with tall cinder-block walls all around him. The anti-anxiety meds would combine with the pain drugs and I was sure he would be quite groggy for several days.
When I arrived at the hospital, I checked in and waited. Dr. P’s technician came out for me to sign release papers, go over discharge instructions, and collect on my enormous bill. Then Dr. P came and sat next to me. He was happy with the surgery outcome even though he did not remove the bulging disc. He felt the release of pressure on Jessie’s leg and tail nerves and vessels due to the removal of the top of the S-1 vertebrae would provide enough relief. There might have been complications with the disc removal so he decided to leave well enough alone.
Jessie had dissolvable sutures inside the outside stapled incision. Dr. P explained that over the spinal column the back muscles ran parallel to the vertebrae. He separated them vertically, clamped them off and worked on the S-1 vertebrae. When the top of the vertebrae was cut off, he freed the nerves and blood vessels from compression they had been confined in. He then grafted fat from under Jessie’s skin to cover the central nervous system and vessels, cushioning them while solidifying them in position. Then he unclamped the muscles, re-laid them over the fat graft and sutured them together until they regrew and intertwined with each other once again.
As I sat with my mouth open, amazed at the precision of such a sensitive surgery, Dr. P reiterated the precautions he wanted me to follow and the restrictions Jessie would have to remain under for six to eight weeks. We shook hands, I thanked Dr. P, and he left. I made a follow-up appointment for four weeks, sat down and waited again. I tried to process the fact that my dog was going to be out of chronic pain and had avoided paralysis—a miracle of surgeon skill and ongoing technical advancement.
The tech brought my wobbly boy out of the back hospital area. When Jessie saw me and heard my voice he wagged his tail higher than I’d seen for months. He appeared a little drunk but made as much of a bee-line to my open arms as he could muster. He sported an eight-inch angry red incision with shiny silver staples from above his hip area down the center of his back to the base of his tail. He was shaved to the skin; skin I’d never seen because his Labrador undercoat was so thick. A tuft of fur stuck up just as his tail exited his bum, so it looked a little like an Arabian horse tail, arching out of his back. I took Jessie’s leash and we weaved out into the gray, cold, wet January morning.
Jessie navigated the ramp into the car with my arms around his belly for support. When he was in the cargo area, he collapsed with a huff on the orthopedic bed I had prepared. I had placed a long body pillow behind him to cushion and support his back without pressure on the incision as the car moved. Carefully I drove us home, limiting my speed around corners so he would not have extra strain on his back trying to balance. I made conscientious effort to avoid tail-gater drivers and stuck to the slow lanes all the way back to my town.
Once home, I helped Jessie get up in the back of the car, steadied his balance and guarded his decent down the ramp. We hobbled to the garage ramp over the steps into the house. I escorted him into his new pen in the family room where he again collapsed. He was a foot short of his big orthopedic bed, but he seemed unaware of the hardness of the floor beneath the non-stick rugs.
Bailey, Brillo, and the cats all came inside the pen, stiffed their big brother and once convinced that he was who he was, settled on beds, chairs, and the couch. All, except little Brillo. He remained with Jessie in his pen and laid behind Jessie on the orthopedic bed. Although Bailey and Jessie seem to be soul mates, Brillo literally and figuratively looked up to Jessie. The nights before Jessie’s return, Brillo had snuggled first with Bailey on the couch and then with me in my bed. He rarely jumps on my bed and prefers his own next to me, but he was having difficulty processing the changes in the household during Jessie’s absence.
Once reunited, each pet seemed to sigh simultaneous sighs and everyone but me fell asleep together in our family room. I surveyed the family I had brought together through my rescue work (I am after all, a colossal “foster-flunky”), gazed at the low blaze in the fireplace, and felt deeply grateful for the people and technology that allowed us more quality time together.
Next: Nursing Jessie during the first days of recovery.