Potter and I “adopted” each other in November of 2005 on Prince Edward Island, Canada, where I was in my third year of veterinary school at the Atlantic Veterinary College. He had been a stray from the Moncton, NB SPCA and was my junior surgery patient for neutering. Even though I was not planning on acquiring a pet during veterinary school, this 1-year-old Doberman/Shepherd Mix weaseled his way into my heart and never left. He became what many of us refer to as a “heart dog.” And he became my “soul dog” through and through.
Potter accompanied me on walks and other outdoor adventures through all types of weather. He loved riding in the car, tearing up tennis balls, going to the beach (especially the red sand beaches of PEI), and taking afternoon naps on my bed. Pizza crust was his favorite treat (shhh – don’t tell the vet). He had to have a couple of orthopedic surgeries when I first adopted him to fix an angular deformity in his right front leg. Thus, he always walked with a slight limp.
In the spring of 2015, Potter started slowing down. I attributed it to his arthritis, the consequence of years of wear and tear on that right front leg. He was constantly getting check-ups, blood work, and x-rays, me being the paranoid “vet mom.” I always panicked that he would end up with osteosarcoma (bone cancer), partially because of the years of chronic inflammation in that right front leg. But, nothing could have prepared me for what was really going on. One evening at the end of May, I found him hiding behind a chair in the living room. When I hauled him up onto my lap for a pretend snuggle before bed (he did NOT like siting on my lap . . . he just liked sitting NEXT to me or against me), I could feel his heart racing. He had developed a significant heart murmur and arrhythmia that had not been present just 2 weeks before. X-rays revealed nothing, but an echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart) at Cornell University revealed a very large mass invading the free wall of his left ventricle. It was partially obstructing the flow of blood through his aorta. It was suspected that he had hemangiosarcoma (HSA). But, it couldn’t be confirmed, and it was an unusual spot in the heart for it to be found. I was told that his heart could literally “burst” if the mass continued to invade through the heart wall. It was one of the most humbling and devastating experiences of my entire life, being on the opposite side of that dreaded phone call that we unfortunately as vets have to make so frequently. “I have some really bad news. Your dog has cancer.” – those words still haunt my mind. Those words came on the 8-year anniversary of me beginning private practice.
Despite a valiant attempt at chemotherapy to slow down the growth of the tumor, I only got to spend two more weeks with him. On June 12, 2015, Potter just stopped walking with me. It had been a roller coaster ride for two weeks, trying to get him to eat anything at all – our local butcher felt bad and even gave us some free beef liver (which he did love, despite the smell). When he just stopped walking and looked at me, not willing to walk any further (we had been taking really short trips around the block, etc.), I knew that he wasn’t my Potter anymore. I was so very lucky to have the amazing support of my coworkers, family, and friends while I made the unthinkable decision to say goodbye to him. I felt like an absolute failure – me, being a vet and not being able to do anything to help him. The only thing that I was able to give him was peace without suffering, which in hindsight is the most precious gift I think that we can give to our four-footed companions.
It was unfortunately well after I lost Potter that I realized two very important things . . .
1) Dogs always live in the moment. They don’t fret about tomorrow or weeks/months/years from now. They care about what’s going on at this very moment . . . it’s all about the here and now. I should have spent the last two weeks of Potter’s life just enjoying him and not worrying and fretting about what could and would happen.
2) Grief doesn’t really leave us when we lose someone so special. It might be dull at some moments and razor sharp at others. It might come in slow trickles or rage in like a hurricane, but it’s always there. Maybe that is the price that we pay for opening our souls up to unconditional love. But, I wouldn’t trade any day – good or bad – that I had with Potter. Each day was special in its very own way.
I still struggle sometimes with that grief. But, I have found some solace and some comfort in the National Canine Cancer Foundation. Their Facebook page of followers, not to mention their leaders, have helped me tremendously since losing Potter – everyone has been through similar situations, and their support has been so helpful with the healing process.
The premise behind the NCCF and all of the things that it has done are nothing short of amazing. It is even involved in helping to fund a current research grant for HSA research. I hope that, someday, we can cure these dogs and make cancer a word of the past.
I have been involved in our local community’s Relay For Life (to benefit the American Cancer Society) for nearly a decade. 2015 was the first of those years that I was involved but didn’t get to go to the actual event – it was ironically the day that I lost my best buddy. A day of celebration of life and reflection on lives lost to cancer quickly became the worst day of my entire life.
Unfortunately, there are very few organizations in our area that help to promote awareness for pet cancer and raise money for pet cancer research in a similar fashion as the American Cancer Society does for human cancer.
After I lost Potter, I realized that I really wanted to become more committed to bringing more awareness about pet cancer to our local communities. I don’t want other people to have to experience that kind of hopeless anguish.
Thus, I decided to create “Paws4Potter,” a local organization dedicated to raising awareness to our local communities about pet cancer, providing helpful information and links about different forms of pet cancer, and providing donations to support the National Canine Cancer Foundation so that more research on canine cancer and education to the public can be continued.
I keep walking every single day for you, Potter. I love you with all of my heart, P. Forever and ever . . .