A Different Kind Of Heart Attack
It was late in June of 2013. I was planning on graduating from the University of Colorado in December, and I was home for a few weeks in the summer. For two years, I lived without a dog. Many of my days were robotic, and there was a distinct void in my life. I found her online, and I begged my dad to do me a solid and help me get the first dog of my own. She came from an “oops” litter and was less expensive than the average Giant Schnauzer, but she was perfect…my little Black Beauty.
I preyed on my dad’s willingness as a pushover, and I don’t regret it a single bit. We drove 4 hours to the Bass Pro Shop parking lot in Kansas City on July 3rd to pick her up. The breeder agreed to meet us there because the drive would have been twice as long, and I would have been backtracking to head back to Colorado with her the following day. I’ll admit, the whole situation was sketchy. If I had any sense of responsibility, I should have asked to meet them at their house to make sure she wasn’t coming from a puppy mill, and to make sure I was actually going home with a papered Giant Schnauzer. None of that mattered to me once I held her for the first time.
I was shocked at how heavy she was. It was like picking up a puppy that was wearing a weighted vest or something. She was 11 weeks old and 17 pounds, and she smelled like shit. I fell in love with all of her.
We drove home and she got a hardcore scrub-down before I let her snuggle up all over my parents’ house. She was so sweet, big, a little clumsy, and a whole lot of sassy. She slept through the entire night with me and never made a peep. We drove back to Colorado to begin our new life together.
Sophie loved learning everything. She was incredibly amused whenever I would “cheer” for her accomplishments, and it made potty and crate-training a breeze. She was a lazy little girl, but she loved to explore her environment and take it all in. One of her favorite things to do was to watch people playing baseball at the park near our apartment because she thought they were these tiny specs running around. Everything around her caught her interest.
She came to work with me at the office, and she quickly learned her place - under my feet at my cubicle or watching the front door. She loved spending time with any kind of person. We went to brunch at Bontons regularly, sitting outside and learning not to beg or bark. She barked for the first time when she was six months old, only because my childhood dog, Nellie (now 16 years old), was a really good barking instructor.
At five months old, we had to move in with a few new roommates. She loved having a fenced in yard, but she loved being with me the most. She thrived on routines and predictability, but was so resilient with any changes. In fact, we moved five separate times within the first two years of her life, and she never seemed to mind being along for the adventure.
We finally landed in a house of our own in Colorado, and she took up sunbathing on the deck, getting ice from the fridge by herself, and playing with her Chuckit! at the park as her hobbies. We stayed on top of our brunch schedule and incorporated many hikes into our weekends together. She had such a lust for life when outdoors. Sniffing horse shit at Garden of the Gods was one of her favorite outdoor activities, along with trips to dog parks and accompanying me while I skated around on rollerblades.
In the evenings, she would snuggle up on top of me without any consideration for personal space and comfort. She loved to lay her head in the crook of my neck and snore, dream, bark, and drool. I desperately crave that time with her. Some nights, when she had an eventful-enough day, she would tuck herself in early. I would go upstairs to find my bed torn apart with the exception of a small pillow nest in the middle. Sophie would plant herself strategically, almost as if it were a bird’s nest and she was laying on a pile of eggs. I’d try to get her to move and she would respond with a grumble, so we settled: she didn’t move and I contorted my body to sleep around hers. We kept this same sleeping style up until she took her last breath.
Sophie was my sidekick through everything: multiple moves, breaking off an engagement, the sickness and death of my father, the complete change in my life’s path (I’ve done this multiple times), buying my first house, and meeting the love of my life, who became the best dad she’s ever known. Sometimes, I think she’s the one who picked him first and I was smart enough to trust her judgment.
Sophie eventually gained a brother, Archie, and she became very attached to him. Sure, he annoyed her most of the time, but his sweetness and goofiness allowed her to learn how to trust dogs again after being attacked multiple times. They became inseparable, and I would find them snuggling (accidentally) on a regular basis. Archie was always the initiator of snuggles, and Sophie finally stopped trying to block him after a few months of persistence. He was there for her until the very end, reminding her that she could never be alone even if she tried.
We brought Archie home for the first time on November 9th, 2018. Sophie tore her CCL two hours after his arrival. They were zooming around the backyard trying to feel each other out when she pivoted too quickly and completely ruptured the ligament and her meniscus. Two days later, she was in surgery and on the road to recovery. We had to force her through six weeks of crate rest before initiating physical therapy.
She began licking her foot a few weeks after surgery (a different foot), and I brought her in because her nail bed looked abnormal. She was diagnosed with a nail bed infection and sent home with antibiotics. After those didn’t seem to be helping, a culture of the area was done and the nail was cut all the way back. I expressed a concern about it potentially being toe cancer, but we all thought that was a bit of a stretch (myself included).
It wasn’t a stretch at all. After our third round of antibiotics produced no results and her pain increased, we had an x-ray done and it revealed that her bone was completely demolished. Our vet suspected cancer or an extremely gnarly bacterial infection and recommended amputation so we could alleviate pain and send it off to pathology to figure out what the cause was. He gave me the rundown of what it could be, with the worst case scenario being malignant melanoma.
It was worst case scenario, and we began aggressive treatment with the Oncology team at Mizzou. Chemotherapy isn’t effective against melanomas, but there is a new immunotherapy called “Oncept” that can help the immune system recognize and destroy melanoma within the body. Without treatment, my baby girl had maybe a few months left with us, so we went ahead with treatment to try and give her the best chance of survival.
We completed treatment in April, and Sophie was thriving considering all that she had been through. She was able to walk long distances, wrestle with her brother, play frisbee, and surf counters. She wasn’t as fast as she once was, but it didn’t stop her from trying.
Fast forward a few months. At the end of June, she became reluctant to jump on the bed, but she was like that sometimes. She was six years old and heat intolerant, so I figured the hot summer weather was wearing her out. It wasn’t until the last days in June that I noticed her personality shift from sassy to melancholy. When she hesitated to greet me after being gone for several days, we took her to the emergency room. Her only symptoms were suspected back pain and lethargy. She was misdiagnosed with gastroenteritis and sent home with nothing for her pain. The emergency vet suggested monitoring her and following up with our regular vet. Her health declined overnight and she started shallow, quick breathing. After a few hours of laying in bed with her, I took her to a different emergency clinic. They snowballed on the initial misdiagnosis, but at least gave her some pain meds.
My mom took her to our vet the following day, and after five minutes of looking at her, Dr. Bedard diagnosed Sophie with an iliopsoas strain. She was right about that, and we began laser therapy and crate rest. Sophie showed minimal improvement over several weeks, and her gait began to change. She struggled to get up and she winced in pain when we picked her up to take her to bed at night. I thought acupuncture may help (couldn’t hurt at that point), so we gave that a shot, too. After the past week, she rapidly deteriorated. We noticed several new growths that appeared within a few days, and we had our vet perform fine needle aspirations to figure out the cause of them. On Monday, she screamed in pain after trying to adjust herself, and she lost her ability to walk without assistance. I called our vet and he recommended that we take her to Mizzou in Columbia, MO, to see a neurologist. He feared that it may be something far more sinister than a muscle strain.
We arrived at 6:30pm on Tuesday, and she was held overnight until the neurology and orthopedic specialists could evaluate her. They suspected that it could be a slipped disc in her back, which would require surgery, and we planned on having an MRI the following day to confirm that and to check for any metastases. We drove back the next morning after staying in a hotel, and we were home for about two hours before we received a call from the neurologist. They did thoracic and abdominal radiographs and found severe metastasis to her vertebrae, lungs, and lymph nodes. She had also suffered a fracture in her lumbar region at some point, and it was compressing her spinal cord whenever she attempted to move. That explained her extreme, uncontrollable pain that we witnessed in the days prior. The recommendation was humane euthanasia, as she was unable to be treated for the fracture due to the severe damage the cancer had caused to the other vertebrae.
She was six years old. My baby. My sidekick. My Black Beauty. My Best Friend.
Dr. Jessen came to the house today to relieve her of her agony. We have trusted him with the care of our beloved animals for nearly 20 years, and he has never failed to show them the love and compassion that they deserve. I wanted her to be able to die at home, surrounded by loved ones, just as my father had done 363 days ago. She spent her last 16 hours on her cheetah-print bed, unable to move and unable to control her bodily functions. She could have peed all over me and I wouldn’t have loved her any less. I loved her more for her incredible stoicism, strength, and patience. She was a tough broad, and we couldn’t allow her to suffer anymore. She feasted on bacon, mac & cheese, ice cream, pizza, and a ton of pain meds. Dr. Jessen confirmed that all of the growths came back as melanoma metastases. Her entire body was cancer-ridden.
My mom and brother got the house ready while we drove back from Mizzou, and we had a little party to send her off to heaven. We watched The Secret Life of Pets and cried so hard on every inch of her soft, beautiful , black fur. She refused to give me any kisses until about an hour before she passed, at which point she showered me with about a hundred of them. I held her close and played the role of “big spoon” as she took her last breath. Mac petted her the entire time, reassuring her that she was loved and adored. Archie planted himself at her side, protecting her dignity. My mom, my brother, Mac, Archie, and myself did our best to make her final moments comfortable. My dad was anxiously awaiting her arrival, treats in hand and love abundant.