Week One – Day 6: How Many Inches to Healthy?


Duchess Dustine von Bahm (“Dusty”)

9 wk, female German Shepherd, black and silver

DOB: 7/27/11

Date of diagnosis: 9/24/11

14 pounds

Medication: 1/2 tab Pepcid AC morning and night

Feeding schedule: I/D prescription diet wet gastrointestinal health mixed with goat’s milk 4 x daily in milkshake form, 20 minutes in Bailey chair after eating, knox blox for hydration along with small quantities of water with meals


My dad says that tragedy always comes in waves. As a matter of fact, when I was younger, he used to keep me in the house when tragedy began to strike. When I was sixteen and got my driver’s license, in a week where several bad things happened all at once, he would take my keys and ground me, just because he was afraid I would be next.

This week has been one of those weeks. I woke up bright and early yesterday morning to get Dusty ready for her visit to Dr. Jane. On our way out of the house, I suddenly felt very sick. The butterflies in my stomach were more like a swarm of angry wasps, stinging and buzzing. I ran upstairs and threw up a few times, only to hear Joe shout, “What’s going on up there? Are you okay?”

I walked down the steps and tried a smile that I’m sure looked more like a grimace, “Nerves.”

“Jesus, are you throwing up?”

I nodded, “Let’s go.”

“Are you…”

“Yes.” I picked up my keys and we both got in our separate cars. He took Dusty, I took her X-rays and medical charts.

The news was not good. I guess I should have expected that, but the hope was burning brightly, and I couldn’t put the fire out, not even with the fire extinguisher of facts that I wielded against it. I was hoping that Dr. Jane would tell us that our Doctor was wrong, that they’d caught Dusty at the wrong angle. But the Barium contrast seemed to explode like the Aurora Borealis on the screen. All I could see was white, blinding, beautiful, swirls of white against a screen of black.

“What am I looking at?”

“Her esophagus.” It spread deep into her chest cavity, thick and dominant. It seemed to take up 75% of her body. “This is one of the worst cases of this I have seen.”

I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. Behind me, the vet tech was holding our puppy who was whining and struggling to get back into my arms. I barely heard her, I just kept staring at the screen. I still wasn’t sure what it meant or even what I was looking at it, but I knew it couldn’t be good.

“Mommy? Your puppy wants you.”

I turned around and took Dusty into my arms, “So, what does this mean? I mean, how big is it supposed to be?”

Dr. Jane pointed to a thin grayish-black line that ran down her throat and then seemed to disappear, “This is her trachea. It should be about that size.”

Well, that just couldn’t be right. Her trachea was about an eighth of an inch. Her esophagus was a good three. Where was the legend on this map of the canine body? How did I know how many inches to healthy? How did I get there?

“So I read online that sometimes they like, get over it, that they grow out of it or something, like, they don’t ever get all the way better, but they get pretty okay.”

Dr. Jane smiled sadly and shook her head, “Yes, that can happen, but it’s not going to happen with this dog. This is very severe. I would be surprised if you got a year out of her.”

“What do we do?” Joe’s eyes were filling with tears, but he kept his face placid, void.

“What I would do, if I were you, would be to keep feeding her in the Bailey chair, keep her upright as best you can, and keep her comfortable and happy. Then, when the aspiration pneumonia comes, I would make a decision on what her quality of life would be. Honestly, she is just going to keep losing weight. And once she gets sick, even if you bring her back from it, she is going to keep starving. At that point, you are going to have to ask yourselves if you can watch your puppy starve to death.”

I kept staring at the screen, mesmerized by the powerful beauty of a deformed esophagus.

“The barium really lights it up, doesn’t it?”

I nodded. Yes, the barium had certainly lit it up. It had lit up my life, in a way. No more denial, no more specialists or vet bills or crazy hopes. Dr. Jane told us what we already knew, there was nothing we could do except keep trying as long as we could, as long as Dusty could, but anything more was just going to destroy us, mentally and financially. There was no miracle cure.

While we paid, I let Dusty play with a couple of labs in the waiting room. The receptionist scolded me and told me that I shouldn’t do that, because she was still a puppy after all, and not fully vaccinated. “It doesn’t really matter, she doesn’t have much time left anyway.” Joe whispered, and I picked her up and started to cry.

Outside, Joe held me while I sobbed, “I just wanted her to be okay. It’s not fair. Why is this happening? She’s just a baby!” As if something in my words would make it all go away, as if, if I said it over and over it just might be true, that some angel of mercy might sweep down and snap his fingers and make my puppy’s esophagus work. As if something might bring that dead, lifeless organ back to life, just for me. I wanted it so badly I thought I might be able to make it happen.

As a confirmation that that was not reality, as soon as we got home, Dusty regurgitated part of her breakfast. I just pulled her into my lap and held her, but I didn’t feel anything. Numbly, I cleaned the carpet. A few hours later, she regurgitated some water. Again, nothing.

It wasn’t until later that night, when I accidentally gave Smokey a piece of chicken that was too hot, and he ended up throwing up his whole dinner on the floor that I fell to my knees and started sobbing. Joe helped me clean it up while Dusty squirmed to get to another source of food. “That’s throwing up. That’s the difference between what she does and throwing up. She doesn’t throw up.”

“I know.”

I said it again and again, and Joe finally got irritated and snapped, “I know, I’m not an idiot. I get it.”

I looked at him and started to cry, “It’s not…I just…she really has this. But Smokey can’t, right? I mean he just threw up right? I mean, he doesn’t, you don’t think?”

Joe grabbed me while our dinner got cold, “No panda, no, Smokey is fine. You just gave him a piece of chicken that was too hot, and he swallowed it whole like the idiot he is, and it hurt his tummy. He’s fine. Don’t worry, he’s fine.”

In the next few hours, both of our cell phones rang several times. “Who is calling me from an 814 number?” Joe asked, and I sighed, “Probably my mom. Don’t answer it.”

I didn’t want to talk about Dusty, so when my aunt called over and over, I just let it ring. Finally, on the fourth call, at eleven o’clock, I picked it up. “Honey, has anyone talked to you about your mom?”

“What? No.”

“She’s in the hospital sweetie. She was life-flighted to Pittsburgh. They think she had a stroke, but they don’t really know anything yet.”

It happened in front of my seven  year old brother, who lost his father when he was two to a terminal illness. Tyler saw his father die, and he saw this happen to my mom. He was, obviously, a nervous wreck. I am also his legal guardian in the event that my mother dies or becomes incapacitated. My brain turned off the switch that makes your tear ducts work. I was almost one hundred percent sure I was losing my mind.

I didn’t sleep much last night.

This morning, Dusty jumped off the bed after play wrestling with Smokey. In her weakened state, she landed incorrectly and threw something in her legs. She yiped and dragged her back legs on the ground while she tried to walk. Every time she tried to stand up she screamed. I called Joe, hysterical. “Please make it stop.”

“What happened?”

I told him, and he told me to watch her, that if she wasn’t walking okay in twenty minutes to take her to the emergency vet, and he would meet me there. Fortunately, when I left for work, she was gimpy, but not crying and getting around okay. Joe is leaving work early to go be with her in case I have to go to Pittsburgh to be with my mom, or Punxsutawney to go pick up my little brother.  

Madness is starting to take over. I feel it creeping in on me. I don’t know how much more I can take before my mind breaks. I can’t even feel anything at this point. When I talked to my coworkers this morning, they all asked me how I was doing and my only answer was, “Honestly, I don’t know.”

Joe texted me and said, “I love you. We’ll get through this. You’re stronger than you think.”

I hope he’s right, because if this wave of tragedy doesn’t end soon, I feel like I may be swallowed up by the pain. Once more, I look at Dusty’s X-rays and think to myself – how many inches to healthy?