The Last Few Weeks

I had started to write about being in quarantine solo and how I spent my time but that time at home turned into something much more than I ever thought.

This is an excerpt I wrote back in April:

While most dogs are the winners in this time of quarantine with more time with their humans and more walks than they have ever experienced before, it has become a bit more complicated in my house with an aging dog. It has allowed me to observe him more closely on a daily basis. He has always been excitable and even at 13 years old, has had Quarantine FOMO, as he sits and stares at me wondering what we are doing next, and not napping nearly as much as he should. This time has brought to the surface more than one emergency where I have rushed him to urgent care in the middle of the night while he went into a serious respiratory episode. I cherish all the extra time I have with him in this situation but it has also felt like I have watched him age before my eyes every day. Everything is amplified when you are living in a bubble. It has felt like the end of the world on more than just a couple of days, some long, sleepless nights and, some days, the tears flowed like spring run-off in the Rockies. The thought of losing my constant companion of 13 years during this time has weighed on me more days than I can count, as I would truly be alone. Vets not allowing owners in with their pets during this time has also been on my mind should I have to make a terrible decision, I worry every day that I won’t be the last person he sees. Luckily, for now, we have reached a solution to help ease some of the issues, but I also know the clock is ticking.

The clocked ticked alright, it ticked fast some days, and other days it felt like time stood still. That is the tricky thing about dogs, they perk up and give you hope for a few days, and then their bodies age so fast, in front of your eyes, really. I ended up saying good bye to Finn on June 1st. It was the hardest day of my life. All along I was grateful for all the extra time with him while we all waited out a pandemic in quarantine, but even more so now that I was able to devote that time to palliative care for him in his final weeks and days. I was supposed to be leaving for Nashville on a business trip for a week on June 1st…how lucky I was not to be. I always thought that when this time came I would have to take a leave of absence from work to deal with my own emotions, so being furloughed during the pandemic has turned out to be the time I needed.

While the pain of losing him is immense, it is a sadness I can’t explain that is so deep, and his presence absent from my home hits me like a freight train every morning when I don’t wake up to his happy face. Finn had an infectious personality that drew in even the hesitant non-dog people. His smile, his eyes, his tail, his happy-go-lucky personality. That sugar face and his frosted paws when he was older is what got people. His energy and enthusiasm for life were off the charts.happy

It seemed to all start and end while we were in quarantine. He had laryngeal paralysis that was advancing during this time. The vet never advised me on managing the condition except to suggest using a harness on him instead of a collar after letting me know he wasn’t a candidate for surgery without some major obstacles. I didn’t know what to expect, I had no idea, in fact. Looking back on what I know now I believe he had it for at least six years. I took many of the symptoms to vets over the years and asked about it but not one of them mentioned it. Not one warned me of how dangerous it could be. Not one advised me on how to manage it. With his age he certainly had other things going on, as well, like hearing loss and he had been getting bloody noses since the fall. They suspected he had a mass in his nose but it only bled if he bumped his nose into things, like his food bowl. I had figured out how to feed him while I held a low lying bowl for him. I had done it for months with each meal with no bloody noses. The occasional violent sneezing fit brought some blood but he was also taking a Chinese herb called Yunnan Baiyo that was helping to ease those and they were few and far between.

He had two breathing emergencies one month apart in March and then April. Always in the middle of the night, gasping for air, often after we had been for a walk and he seemed wound up, unable to calm himself down. I would rush him to urgent care at 3 am. Once he threw up in the car and that seemed to open up his airways. Once he threw up at home. I didn’t know that that was part of the vicious cycle, taking in so much air it filled their stomachs causing them to throw up to release it. I didn’t know that keeping them calm was key, as he had always been like this, excitable, wound up, panting a lot. Urgent care visits presented their own host of problems afterwards, as they gave him a sedative injection that weakened his whole hind end. LP weakens their hind end so it is that much harder to recover from. After the first visit he paced for 5 hours before exhausting himself to sleep then took a week to recover. At the second visit they automatically gave him the sedative without telling me because they had done it before so I asked for something to help him sleep. I had no idea what they had done. It would be one of my worst nights as a dog owner as he was out cold by the time we got home and I had to get him in the house by myself. It was so upsetting and is something I don’t want to remember. He slept it off but it seemed to have a lasting effect, as he dragged a back paw for a week, couldn’t navigate a door threshold or steps, he fell a lot and could barely walk. I nursed him back to health and iced his legs and put heat on his back, held him when he went to the bathroom, and got him up and moving. It took two weeks to get him back to normal. The vet suggested starting a med during this time that would help keep him calm to tag onto the sedative wearing off him. It was the worst thing we could have done. He was agitated, up all night panting, or up all day panting, for 14 hours straight sometimes. It was not right. After a week I weaned him off it. By the second week he was improving a little until he was strong enough to go back to the woods for a walk on the trail. TrailHe wasn’t on any meds at the time and things were perfect. He did pretty well on our short walk although I noticed his legs couldn’t get him up a bike ramp over a log that he used to be able to navigate so we walked around, it was a small hint at what was coming.

In the meantime I had started stress walking so I could be close to home and not be gone from him long. I started with 2.5 miles then started doing that twice a day. Its where I got a lot of my crying out so it wasn’t in front of him, although some of it was. And then someone referred me to a support group on social media where I learned everything I know about laryngeal paralysis. I started ordering all the tools I would need – a wagon to help move him if I needed to, harnesses to help lift him, cooling mat, cooling vest, CBD oil, bone broth to soak his food, a fan to keep him cool, sun screens for my car windows to keep him cool. cooling vestI started him on Doxepin that seemed to be working for a lot of dogs that was still in a trial period at Cornell. I started taking him to laser therapy. I got portable oxygen. I had the air conditioning on to keep him cool. In the middle of all this I saw my regular vet and we did x-rays and bloodwork. They were ok, but not great. He had a little mass on his spleen they said they were not worried about. His bloodwork, which had been low for a year, had improved a little. All in all it was ok news for a 13 year old. Soon after this we started laser therapy and it was helping and one night he turned into a crazy puppy I hadn’t seen in years. Playing with toys, flinging them around, sucking on them trying to take squeakers out.koala I would take one away and he would go get another one. I tried to close the door to go to bed and he would sneak out around it and escape straight to the toy box. This went on for an hour and a half. He was so funny and the crazy dog I was missing. I loved it, but I also worried about him being so wound up and not being able to wind him back down. It was a constant worry that at any minute his breathing would go into crisis. And from the all-nighters we would have, emergency or not, I knew that was not how I wanted to lose him. Every night I turned on the light a dozen times to check on him and listened to him breathe every night all night; sometimes his breaths were so quiet I had to watch his body rise and fall, other nights he snored like a freight train, which I loved, and other nights I was up all night with worry. I did not want to make a decision in the middle of the night under duress. After our life together I wanted a proper good bye with him.

In May he seemed pretty stable. So I took him on a road trip, which is something we always shared over our life together. It was a photo mission to gather missing photos from the 48 States we had visited together, including Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma. I watched weather in those areas to wait for cooler temps and to be clear of severe storms and took off. We were finally out of the house after 75 Days of quarantine! I vowed to turn around at the first sign of trouble with him, though. I was still worried about his comfort and constantly worried that things could change at any minute. At the same time I was hopeful this would perk him up, he loved road trips. I was careful about temperature control and had a cooling mat in the back for him to lie on. On the first day he let me know that his spot in the car was cramping his legs and he had not slept at all. We were already in Iowa but I almost turned around. I stopped for the day in mid-afternoon and found a hotel to get him out and stretch. Thinking it thru I then rearranged the back of the car so he could stretch out better and we went out for a test run. IowaWe spent the evening touring around the dirt roads to the Bridges of Madison County in Iowa. It was a beautiful evening, birds chirping, a storm rolling in, no tourists. Just me and my dog. We had stopped here many years before and I had wanted to redo a photo of him at one of the bridges for his Iowa picture. I got him in the back of the car and he stretched out and fell asleep. I knew we were good to keep going.

The next few days he did well. We explored and did photos in the early morning or evenings so it was cooler and drove during the day. We went thru Omaha, Tulsa, and as far as the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma
Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma

We hit some cooler weather in Missouri and he was loving it as we got out of the car to stretch our legs at Lake of the Ozarks.

lake of the ozarks
Lake of the Ozarks, MO

Then we headed home. On our last night we stopped in Fort Wayne, Indiana for the night. As I got him out of the car he came down his steps just fine and when he hit the pavement he just fell over. He cried out but got up, limping a little. It was worrisome to me that he just fell over like that, but he seemed ok. We had a rough night that night because of the temperature in our hotel room but we headed out early the next morning to get back home, where two dams had failed the day before and were wreaking havoc on our town. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I drove around to come in from a different approach.

That final road trip together was his gift to me.

the last road trip
Our final road trip together

Our second night home turned into a nightmare. Finn started taking in so much air going into a breathing episode that his stomach was filling with air and the only way to release it was to throw up. Each time bile came up with it. This happened over 15 times throughout the night, we were up all night. In the morning I called my vet and went in right away for an emergency appointment. Only they didn’t seem to have staff there yet despite being open for 30 minutes, it felt chaotic and stressed. My vet was quick to tell me how busy they were and taking in overflow patients from practices closed due to the flood. While we stood in the parking lot she told me I should put him down because he was at the end stage of the laryngeal paralysis. I said, “But he has been doing so well, I know he’s not ready and neither am I.”

Her response, “no one is ever ready.”

She gave me the doom and gloom about how he was going to go into a crisis in the hot humid days we were about to get, that he would probably not eat again despite giving him an anti-nausea injection and that they were too busy to see him again today, they closed at 5 pm for the three day holiday weekend, and she hoped I had help getting him into my car and lastly she said, “don’t let him suffer.”  I was blown away by the lack of compassion in this message but I hadn’t slept and I wasn’t about to make a decision like this standing in a parking lot so I put him in my car and took him home.

He perked up. He did eat. But the vet got in my head. I had “The Talk” with Finn and told him how much I loved him and what he meant to me and he can let me know when its time, that I would be waiting. The next day I called a local vet I heard had someone on call for emergencies. I cried as I told her I think I needed to bring my dog in to say good bye that weekend. Instead we talked. We talked about what he was taking and more importantly, about what he was not taking. She had other ideas. She talked me out of it. She gave me hope. She gave me her compassion as a doctor.

the talk
The moment we had “The Talk”

Two days later, on Memorial Day, I called again. I thought I should bring him in as he was gasping for air. I knew this wasn’t an emergency but it was a chance to go in and deal with it and get some undivided time with a new vet and start a new regimen for him. She met me with a tech a couple hours later. The way he was craning his neck to breathe when we arrived, they said, was acid reflux. They tried a nebulizer of Albuterol on him. He calmed down, he could breathe just fine again. She then carried him to do x-rays to get him on the table. They did bloodwork. His blood counts had improved as we compared them to his last set just a few weeks before. His x-rays showed arthritis in his back and sternum, and that little pesky thing on his spleen and some food in his stomach that had not digested. Two hours later we left there with so much hope as he was doing well. She put him on an anti-inflammatory to help keep swelling down in his throat and suggested he be on an antacid as acid reflux was a huge challenge with the LP.  When we got home the nightmare started. The Albuterol was apparently causing a very bad reaction in him. Someone said its like drinking five Red Bulls. I called the vet and the emergency line was not an option like it had been. I posted something on the support group and people began responding. I kept calling the vet. I called 17 times, I left frantic, desperate messages. Someone on the support group called her own emergency vet and asked about it and they said it just needs to wear off. By the afternoon he was taking in air and throwing up bile again. At least 5 times this time. After 5 pm I tried the vet again since it was a Monday, maybe the afterhours line transferred over. She picked up. She seemed perplexed by his reaction. We decided to let it wear off.

The following morning I called again. He had not eaten or had anything to drink, I knew he was going to be dehydrated. I brought him in right away. The vet met me in the parking lot before I could take him out of the car and first apologized for the phones the day before, but then asked me what my expectations were. I said, I wanted to get him stable. I know he can do it. She said, maybe it’s the mass on his spleen pushing his stomach, and then added, ”I think this is our Hail Mary.”

She climbed into my backseat with him and inserted an IV of anti-nausea, vitamins, steroids and fluids so I didn’t have to take him out of the car. vet visit in the carThis poor dog had been thru so much. He had recovered from so much. How much more could he take?

By the end of the day he was eating again. Small meals. Taking his meds. The anti-inflammatory was working. The ant-acid I wasn’t so sure about. In the next couple of days he was back to eating his normal amount broken up into 4 small meals. eatingI was getting him up and moving a little but he wasn’t as enthusiastic about walking. I started to notice his hind legs were losing more mass and his hip bones were showing more than ever. When did that happen? With hope I scheduled another appointment with the physical therapist, as we had missed the last couple of appointments due to the flood and vet appointments. I had noticed that, once a very enthusiastic runner in his sleep, that when he was dreaming now his legs were barely moving.

Nights were still a little restless but he had very restful days. I tried some Benadryl on him for some mild allergies he appeared to be having with runny eyes and gunky ears to try and clear up all I could for him. He lay awake panting quietly all night. I stopped it immediately. I started some fish oil on his meals. The next morning he threw up a little when we got up. But he still ate a couple morning meals.

The weekend was nice and cool so we sat outside most of the weekend and took short walks to get his legs moving. He lay on his bed on the patio while I sat and read a book. I didn’t do anything else but just be with him. I prepared more boiled chicken for those bland meals he might need if his stomach was upset. I was hopeful. Things were getting under control, except his stomach. I needed to figure out how to help the acid reflux as it wreaked havoc on the stomach and the throat.together

Sunday was lovely. We spent the whole day together but he didn’t want to walk as much as the day before. I tried to give him a cookie, which he is normally obsessed with, and he spit it out, almost like he couldn’t chew. the last postI took this calm, docile photo of him on his bed outside and posted it on his Instagram with a hopeful message.  A few minutes later, at the end of the day, we went inside and he immediately asked to go out and threw up a little again in the grass. Then he didn’t want to come in. He went out further into the grass and laid down. the last day He didn’t eat again. When he drank water that night he threw it up. I knew we could not go down this path again, his stomach and body couldn’t take it. I went to bed with a list of things to ask the vet in the morning.

By morning Finn had been awake all night, quietly panting but not in crisis. It was more like a weak panting, like his body winding down. I heard his stomach during the night have a reflux episode where I tried to get a pill down him to help. His jaw clamped down and he refused. When we got up, he stood up and just didn’t move. I had to coax him. I took him outside and he didn’t move. I couldn’t interest him in food. He didn’t drink water. Today was just different than any other day. He looked at me differently and I knew it was time. His beautiful sparkling eyes had dulled. The light panting continued. He laid down on his mat and didn’t move all day, fur falling out of him onto the mat like never before. They say they will let you know when its time and I just knew he was telling me it was ok. Someone once told me to not keep him alive for me, make sure I do what he wants, and it was clear on this morning. It took me two hours to call the vet because I was so scared; scared for me, afraid of the sadness that was to follow. They told me I could bring him in at the end of the day so I had all day with him. I lay with him, my hand on his paw, kissing him, talking to him, telling him what he has meant to me, naming all the dogs he knew that would meet him at the Rainbow Bridge, telling him he would never have to get his nails cut again. Except for one final bark at someone in our yard, he didn’t try to change my mind. I knew he was tired from the fight. It had been a long, hard couple of months. He had been the Comeback Kid too many times, he didn’t have anything left. He wasn’t in crisis, he could walk in on his own, and we had a couple of nice days together, that was everything I could have asked for in the end.

When it was time to take him in he got himself up and I had to lead him to the car by his harness. On the short drive I played “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” by Stevie Wonder and “You Are My Sunshine” version by Aretha Franklin and sang them out loud to him. He was my Sunshine. I couldn’t believe this was happening. When we got there I opened his door and leaned in and kissed him over and over and told him I loved him just like I did every night when we went to sleep, then lead him down his steps. As we were walking across the parking lot a rabbit appeared. Finn stopped and took notice. It was a fitting end given our history with rabbits and the injury it had cost me when he chased one years earlier and broke my hand which then needed surgery to repair. Maybe the rabbit appeared to guide him and lead him across the Rainbow Bridge, but I was quite certain he was ready to go, rabbit to chase or not.

We sat on the floor of the vet’s office, a candle burning outside on the reception desk indicating the end of life. I held his paw and kissed his head and wore a dream catcher necklace I had bought on our recent trip to Oklahoma to catch all his dreams and ward off evil spirits as he peacefully went to sleep forever.

When I got in my car to go home I found myself crying harder than I ever had in my life. It was gut-wrenching. I couldn’t believe he was gone, he was such an extension of me, I felt like part of me was gone. In the days that followed a profound sadness came over me like I had never felt before. It was deep and hard to explain. My house was so quiet without his presence.paw print My routine changed drastically without him to care for. I found myself crying off and on all day every day; there were many days I was in my pajamas til noon and back in them by 6 pm; crying first thing in the morning when he wasn’t there to start my day; exercising to release the stress but only to cry as I ran along the trails we used to run together; and while friends texted and called to check in with me I was unable to speak or answer their calls. Having been on a rollercoaster under extreme stress and constant worry for the last couple of months I found myself coming down and recovering from that, as well, and started to sleep soundly again.

Thousands of people had followed our journey thru ups and downs over the years. I was always transparent on the bad days. A group of people came together in the end to help with his medical bills so I could keep up the fight as it seemed so hopeful at times. The kindness of strangers, once again, and a divine intervention in Finn’s life. I felt obligated to share the news with all of them right away. And the messages of grief and sadness came pouring in. It overwhelmed me to read how he had touched so many people with his infectious personality and the tears people shed for his passing and their sadness for my loss. He was special to me, but he was special to so many others, too, and for his entire life I had always loved sharing him.

In hindsight Finn had a solid 13 years of good health, activity, travels, and a pretty darn good life. His deterioration, although it felt like an excruciating 10 weeks, was fast. He was a big dog, almost 100 pounds his whole life, and people are quick, for some reason, to tell you that big dogs don’t live very long. (just a note: don’t tell dog owners that) He was my everything. It was just him and me for over 13 years, my first dog, my only dog. He was just always there. Everything I did I wanted him to do, too. I couldn’t wait to come home from a work trip to see him. I told him when I was coming and going and checked in. I sang to him. If I went to the store I couldn’t wait to get home to him. When it was evident in recent years that he was starting to slow down I was hesitant to do things, like go for a run, without him. Then I started taking him every other day with me. Or I would take him to the trail, we would do our walk, then take him home and drive back for a run. I hated being without him. I loved him with all my heart. And I know my friends have worried about this for some time now, for when he was gone I would be lost without him. They were not wrong, as I am struggling without him. I gave him everything I had. I promised to care for him the best I knew how. I promised to include him and give him the best life I could. It feels like he was with me forever thru so many chapters of our life. And now I want his love to be with me forever, but this sadness….I do not want forever. Someday I want to wake up and be as happy as I was when I first saw his face every morning.

There will never be another Finn for me. There will be another dog some day but Finn was special, once in a lifetime. He taught me so much about being happy and loving the moment we are in. I will miss him like crazy but I am going to try to hang on to all the good days we had, as there were many. I plan to continue to share his life and his story, and will do my best to help friends and strangers alike, and be their steward when they ask “how will I know its time?” as I had asked so many times myself.

And now I know…you will know because you know them better than anybody.

Godspeed, Little Buddy. Until we meet again…

note

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