Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sages long way home

I was called late one evening by one of my technicians. She told me that her neighbor had “dropped” their 4 month old pit bull puppy off of the porch, and she believed the puppy had a broken leg. I told her to meet me at the clinic with the puppy first thing the next morning. Now I know all of you are gasping in horror and thinking that I am a cold, inconsiderate, awful person because I was waiting until the morning. But I will remind you all that a broken leg is not a life-threatening problem. And to my defense I did give her instructions for pain medicines to get her comfortably through the night.
Many times in trauma cases we do not rush into surgery. We don’t rush into surgery because we need to make sure that the really critical parts of the body are o.k. We want to make sure your heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, bladder, intestines, etc. are all still intact. A bone, really almost any bone, is ancillary. Bones are just to protect other more important things, or help you get around.  
I met Sage puppy the next morning. She was the most adorable grey happy bundle of cuteness ever. I knew the minute that I saw her that I was going to try to make everything alright for her. I was dedicated to her from the first moment. It was impossible to not want to hug her, cuddle her, and love her. And that was all she wanted to do back. She was so happy and so sweet and soo adorable. (Man, I just can’t resist a pit bull puppy!  Especially a fat nosed doe-eyed wiggly butt pittie bull.)
Then I looked at her. She was limping on not one front leg, but both. Damn it! I knew what that meant. And then the girls confirmed it with an x-ray. She had broken the right elbow and the left wrist. God, she was a mess. My technician then divulged to me that the family who owned Sage was a very young couple with two children under 3, and the father was undergoing treatment for cancer. She didn’t have to tell me what she said next. They had no money. Really? Am I surprised? Why should I be? I wasn’t? But how was I going to fix two broken legs for free?
I called her family in to talk the next day. I wanted to meet them and decide how to procede. I had some hard questions and I wanted some honest answers.  A 3 year old little girl was being carried in by her mid-twenties year old mom, and barely thirty year old dad carrying a less than 1 year old baby. My first question was, “why would you get a puppy when you are facing cancer and two very small children?” I know it is a direct hard question, but I wanted to know. Why would you get a puppy when you can't afford anything, and you have two small children to raise? Their answer was, “I,” (this is dad speaking), “always wanted a pit bull puppy.” Ok, I understand, and yes, I completely empathisize with the severity of this disease, and the fear of leaving a wife and two small children, but a puppy is a big responsibility. Emotionally and financially. They had no funds to get her basic vaccines, so of course they can't afford a broken leg, (or two). I feel very strongly that a puppy, or any pet for that matter, is a responsibility, not a right. I told the family that we wanted to help Sage but that I would not do it for free. They had had Sage for months and not had any veterinary care for her. I felt that once we “fixed” her she would go right back to being uncared for medically. She still needed all of her vaccines, to be spayed, and then the monthly flea and tick preventatives.  
Sages family signed her over to us that day.
I called a staff meeting to decide what to do next. We collectively decided that we were going to fix Sage. I think that after that I sort of lost track of the plan. Because before I knew it the front desk had raised about $2000 for her care. I was so proud of the staff.  I decided that her wrist could probably just be splinted and as long as we paid very good attention to the bandage and kept it clean, and dry and changed it often so her rapidly growing bones wouldn’t be hindered by the stiff splint she would probably be ok on the left front leg. The splint did help provide her with some rigid support. The splint acted like a cane for her so she was very happy to place all of her weight on her front left leg. She quickly learned how to run around on three legs.

BUT, that right elbow was a big problem. It was beyond any of the vets abilities to fix. I called a few friends to see if I could coerce, beg, plead, for help. It took me three weeks to get an old classmate (and very good surgeon) to come and help fix her elbow. He had to come from his real job, as a specialist veterinary surgeon, to the clinic to help with he surgery. Between his regular job, and a significant delay due to traffic, he arrived at the clinic at 7 pm. We started Sages surgery right away. At midnight I looked across the table at my very good friend trying to help me fix a very bad, very old fracture, and I told him that I was ok with accepting that we might not be able to fix this leg. He stopped his struggling with the ulna and said, “I have never given up yet, and I am not starting tonite.” All I could do was smile and say, “ok.” Another 45 minutes later we had the bones lined up and 2 pins placed and we were closing up our incision. He left the clinic at 1 am. That was, and still is, officially the latest night I have had to stay at Jarrettsville Vet. (Yes, please say a little prayer that that record holds for the next 2 decades). I handed over all the money we raised to our surgeon. It was a small fraction of what he would have made on the same surgery in his clinic, and it was a ridiculously long night.
Sage woke up well.  We kept her heavily sedated on morphine and I carried her home to my husband already in bed. Sage recovered remarkable well. It took her a few weeks to learn how to bend her elbow again and regain the muscle in her forearm and biceps. But the whole time she smiled, jumped around, cuddled and kissed. She was so happy to have friends and dogs and cats to play with. She never skipped a beat, and she never slowed down a bit. Within 4 weeks she was almost unrecognizable as ever having had such a catastrophic disaster.
Sage had been with us for about 6 weeks. She was a part of our JVC family. She stayed at my house and with me for the first two weeks post operatively. She played with my puppies and she slept in my bed and was a welcome addition.
After her 6 weeks of recovery I felt an enormous amount of pressure from the staff and the incredibly generous clients who had contributed to her surgery. I called her family back and we sat down again to talk about Sages' future. I explained to them that I was very concerned that if anything happened to them that she would once again be at the mercy of the generosity of others. I also explained that raising a puppy required time and money. I wasn’t sure that they had either. But it was undeniable how much those kids loved her and how much she loved them, and I wanted the same happy ending that everyone else was rooting for. I asked them to sign a contract stating that they understood what the cost of her basic care would entail, and that if anything happened to them where she would need care that they would bring her back to us. Sage’s mom reassured me that they had multiple emergency plans in place. And that her parents would take her and the family if they needed an extra hand or place to live. I reluctantly gave in to the pressures of everyone around me and took a leap of faith and signed her back over to them.
Because they were neighbors with one of my technicians I also felt better about being able to keep a watchful eye over them.
I asked about her frequently and was told that she was doing fine.  Six months went by. My technician came to me again and said that Sage had been given away by the family. I was very upset by the news. I asked why?, and she told me that they couldn’t care for her any longer. I was furious. I had gone against my gut feeling, I had provided them with everything Sage needed for her first year, and I had made them sign a contract saying that they would give her back to us if they couldn’t care for her any longer. I asked if there had been a death in the family?, or if they had moved?, and my tech told me that "No, they were fine". She did add in that she hadn’t seen Sage in a while and that she thought that Sage was now on a farm getting more exercise and with people who loved her, because that what her neighbors had told her. My tech knew I was furious and she knew that I was going to try to track Sage down. She told me that she believed them and that she really thought Sage was ok, and better off in a different home.
Months went by. And then my phone rang at the clinic late one Thursday night. I remember my receptionist Michele (Nina’s mom) running back to the pharmacy where I was screaming, “Baltimore County Animal Control is on the phone!” and “They have Sage!” I picked up the phone immediately. The director of the shelter was on the phone. She told me the following; That sage had been brought in that day by a Baltimore City police officer. He had gotten her because a Baltimore City Animal Control officer had been dispatched to his house because his neighbor had called to complain about his pit bulls. You see in Baltimore County, and many other places, there is an extreme prejudice against pit bulls. He actually had two very nice pit bulls, but his neighbor wasn’t too fond of them. When the animal control officer pulled in the police officer saw a sweet grey female pit bull in the animal control van. He asked the officer where he was going with her. He told him that he had just picked her up because the owners had bought her off of Craigs List and then had decided that they didn’t want her anymore, so they called Animal Control. Apparently in Baltimore City Animal Control will come pick up an unwanted animal. But in Baltimore City ALL surrendered pit bulls are euthanized. When he told the cop of her impending fate the cop said, “well can I take her?” Now remember the animal control officer was there because the neighbor complained that he already had too many pit bulls, but for some reason he let the cop have her.  Now he had three pit bulls.

Three pit bulls was 1 too many for his house. He quickly realized. He started making some phone calls to try to figure out where he could bring her to try to find her a home without risking her being condemned based on her genetics. He found Baltimore County. They, unlike many others, do not euthanize based on breed. The staff at Baltimore County shelter told him he could bring her there and if she wasn’t adopted in five days, or if they couldn’t adopt her out, then he could come and get her. But at least she would have a chance at finding a home.  When he brought her to the shelter they scanned her for a microchip. We had micro chipped Sage as soon as she was surrendered to us, and it is my policy for this very reason that I do not ever allow a new owner to change the microchip information if the pet is adopted from us. (To date we have gotten three pets back that have been brought to shelters to be euthanized.)
I was soo happy to get that phone call. I told the manager that I would send someone immediately to go get her. She told me that the shelter was closed and that she would hold Sage overnight and let us come and get her in the morning. I gave her my name, my cell phone number, and I told her that we would pay the adoption fee to get her back. She told me not to worry and that she would be there first thing in the morning to meet us. I hung up the phone and relayed the entire phone conversation to the all of the staff who had been eves dropping the whole time. I called the technician who was neighbors with Sages' original owners and told her the whole story. We both had to convince each other that we wouldn’t do something vengeful. We were soo happy to know that Sage was safe, but we were all hurt, and infuriated that they had sold her.
At 8 am the next day two of my technicians went to the shelter and picked her up. She was not exactly the same dog we had remembered. She was skinny, and had a terrible coat, and was not the happy, outgoing, sweetheart she had been. She was now the result of neglect, probably abuse, and I can’t even imagine what else. I feared that she had been sold to go into fighting, and that maybe she was just lucky to have not been killed, because we hadn’t raised her to be a fighter. There were a million thoughts running through my head. But I stayed focused on the fact that at least she was back safe with us, and I had learned my lesson. I will always trust my gut feeling, and I will not let other people coerce me into ignoring my gut. I also spent a lot of time trying to keep myself calm. It was very very difficult for me to not call her original owners and say some really terrible things to them. I almost didn’t care whether he had cancer, and I almost didn’t care what he was thinking, or how he could have justified doing what he did. I will never forgive them for selling her and leaving her to face what would have most likely been a death sentence. Whether it be by lethal injection, dog fighting, or gunshot.
It became clear to all of us immediately that she could not be adopted out without a significant amount of re-training. She now bit people out of fear, and she couldn’t be trusted. It was three weeks of trying to rehabilitate her in the clinic before we all decided that she had to stay with us. Michele asked if she could “foster” her at home. She had just lost one of her Rottweiler’s and she had another Rottie dying from cancer. I was worried that the stress of losing two pets and taking on a behavior case might be too much for her. But I also knew that Sage needed to get out of the hospital and needed the one-on-one attention of her own owner. I told her “yes, on a trial basis.”
Sage went home with her, and she went back to being the puppy we remembered. She hasn’t had any issues, and she and all of us are so happy to have her back.
I don’t know how Sage, or us got so lucky, I am just very grateful that we all did.

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