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Every Day is a Victory

How my dog’s nearly life-ending injury enriched my life

Posted: March 23, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: March 23, 2013 2:00 a.m.
 

Buster’s not moving." Those three words, uttered by my boyfriend on Oct. 27, 2012, changed my life in more in ways than I could ever imagine.

The younger of my two dogs, Buster was in the hospital with two ruptured discs from degenerative disc disease. A fall off the couch or some other routine movement set off the rupture; we never knew that he was in danger of such an injury.

Buster’s prognosis was not great: a 50 percent chance of walking if he underwent spinal surgery that day or 5 percent if I delayed the decision until the next morning.

If I chose the surgery, there would be months of recovery and no guarantees that he would ever walk again.

My head was spinning, as I was in Las Vegas for a conference to promote my books "Pit Stops" and "Pit Stops 2." What was supposed to be one of the best weekends of my life quickly turned into the worst.

Finding Pog

Buster wasn’t just a dog to me, he was my baby. I had spotted him about seven years prior, a little brown pit bull mix puppy wandering around a shopping center parking lot in Newhall. His right ear stuck straight up and he was trotting from one person to another, none of whom acknowledged him.

Oh no, I thought, a stray. If he was still there after I covered my story, I would take him back to The Signal with me and try to find him a home.

There were no takers, nor did anyone respond to the classified ad I placed, so Buster ended up coming home with me. Though he was just about three months old and only 20 pounds, the irascible Buster quickly took over my pack of three big dogs.

Buster snored like an old man, snorted like a hog, and trotted like a truffle pig. At a portly, barrel-chested 55 pounds, we nicknamed him The Pog; part pig, part dog. I loved Buster with all my heart.

On the way home from Vegas, I gave the order for surgery, which was an instant, tangible success. The recovery was something quite different.

Recovery

Buster was resting in a kennel following his surgery. Blue gauze was wrapped around his back feet, tiny booties that would protect them from getting scraped up. This once tough dog seemed so vulnerable, yet the fire in Buster’s eyes was still there. He bestowed one of his rare kisses on me as I contorted to myself to his kennel for hours at a time.

A vet tech showed me how to put a sling around Buster so we could go for a walk. Buster could poop, but he didn’t pee. Through YouTube and a nurse friend, I tackled the skill of catheterization fairly quickly.

Buster came home within a week of his initial surgery.

I carried him along in the sling awkwardly, my shoulders stiffening as I lugged his now 50 pound body around. Buster was a model patient when I catheterized him, settling on his side and sighing as we went through the invasive procedure three times a day.

Within two weeks, Buster began to show movement in his back end, emulating the motion of walking without actually bearing any weight.

His little tail even started to wag, ever so slightly, another sign of progress.

All this time Buster never seemed depressed. He was curious, willing and engaged, his golden brown eyes shining with enthusiasm, especially when there was a treat involved.

Yet, progress wasn’t coming fast enough for me. I was irritated by the medications, the four or five walks he needed every day, having to cart Buster around to vet visits or because I couldn’t leave him at home alone anymore. I always had to have a "Buster Bag" ready in case we got stuck somewhere.

I felt like the mother of a newborn. This wasn’t what I signed up for. Dogs were supposed to be easy.

As I would see able-bodied dogs walking with their owners, I would get angry, then jealous, then sad. Why did this happen to Buster? To us?

About a month into his recovery, I took Buster for a walk. He always wanted to go further than the doctor recommended. When I turned him around, Buster stood his ground and refused to move. I picked him up and half-dragged, half-carried him the several hundred yards home.

By the time we reached the house, Buster’s couldn’t stand on his own or pee anymore. My heart broke.

A third chance

Immediately I called the surgeon’s office. Their recommendation? Another MRI, at up to $1,800, and possibly another surgery. Buster had insurance, which covered about 60 percent of his bills, but I couldn’t afford more expensive procedures. I was already several thousands of dollars in debt.

I blamed myself for his setback, setting off a series of intense sobbing sessions and serious doubt. If I hadn’t been impatient, Buster would never have regressed.

I squeezed the pads of his feet to see if they would retract, which meant he could still feel. When he didn’t react strongly, I convinced myself it was time to put Buster down.

We went to our local vet to have Buster tested for deep pain. After prodding and poking him as I cried, the vet looked at me and said, "Buster can feel, Michelle. If it were me, I would give him a chance. This is not a dog that’s ready to stop fighting," she said.

Buster’s steady gaze met mine and in that moment, I knew what she said was true. He wasn’t giving up, I was.

"You’re just going to have to give it time. At least six months," the vet continued.

I took a deep breath and vowed to take care of The Pog with love as long as he was willing. That night, as I laid Buster down for catheterization, I rubbed his furry, frail legs with great affection. He half-sighed, half-snorted as we finished, then I moved his feet in a bicycle motion as I had been taught to do by physical therapists.

I thought of the many people and dogs that were able to freely walk and do normal daily things without a second thought. And of those who had it much worse.

"What we take for granted," I said.

A new perspective

Those walks I once resented became a source of great peace. Whenever I started to ruminate on what might happen in the future, I stopped and took a deep breath. Refocused, I would notice the flowers, the trees, the birds, the sky, as Buster pulled me along, trudging through life with gusto.

New tricks emerged: Buster pushed himself up from the sitting position then started to stand at meal time.

Friends pitched in with to ease my financial burden: garage sales and Facebook auctions yielded several thousands of dollars to pay off Buster’s bills and help with ongoing care, such as underwater treadmill.

Happy Pets Veterinary Center in Valencia became Buster’s sanctuary, providing physical therapy and acupuncture when I had to go to the office.

It’s a relief for me to get a break from the caregiving once in a while, but I’m always happy to see Buster again. He’s my silent sidekick in the car, lounging in the back seat. I adjust the rearview mirror so I can see him snoozing or chewing on a bone, one ear sticking straight up. It never fails to put a smile on my face.

Four months after surgery, Buster stands on his own up to five minutes at a time and clumsily walks anywhere from several feet to yards at a time without the sling.

Thanks to Buster, I’ve learned to appreciate the little things in life again and to never give up the fight.

As we navigate about our day, still a little clumsily, people who see us have reactions that range from admiration to pity.

"How sad, that poor dog," some say.

"Don’t feel sorry for Buster. Feel sorry for the shelter dog that will die today because no one cares," I say back. "Buster is very loved. He has a great life."

We both do.

Michelle Sathe is a freelance contribution to The Signal and the author of "Pit Stops 2: Adventures with Kara." For more info, visit www.pitstopsbook.com.

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