Cherished Time and Memories with Hank
Story by Mia Patterson
Hank and the Varner Family
Some still ask, and many may not know, that 11-year-old chocolate Labrador, Hank, has been living with a brain tumor (a meningioma) which was diagnosed almost three years ago after a significant and almost fatal seizure.
It was in the summer of 2015 when the Jeff and Tracy Varner family were going about their evening as normal. Tracy was upstairs bathing their 5- year-old daughters, twins Tessa and Taylor, while Jeff was downstairs watching television. While downstairs, Jeff heard an odd noise coming from the kitchen that sounded like Hank’s toenails rapidly tapping the floor. He turned to see Hank, the family’s then eight-year-old chocolate lab, staggering around the kitchen, foaming at the mouth, disoriented with blood tinged saliva all over the kitchen floor from his bleeding tongue; Hank was having a massive seizure.
Jeff immediately put Hank in the family vehicle and drove to West Vet. Tracy called from home for an update and recalled “Hank had a critical temperature of 107.2 degrees and continued to have persistent seizures. He was immediately put on a cooling protocol and they started ruling out toxin exposure but were unable to confirm cause of the seizures. His temp slowly dropped and seizures were finally controlled after he was loaded up on phenobarbital. After a couple of days, we were finally at a point we were able to bring him home.”
Jeff said, “He was home but it was horrible. He couldn’t walk, he had no balance, couldn’t go to the bathroom. I had to put an elastic band under his tummy to help him walk. He could hardly eat or drink because his lips and tongue were so swollen and enlarged from biting it during the seizure. We didn’t know if he’d make it through the weekend so we called West Vet again and they suggested we bring him back in.” At that time his medication was switched from phenobarbital to keppra. His seizures remained under control and now he was less sedated, more alert and able to walk on his own. For a week, he was hand fed soft canned food rolled into balls and placed at the back of his mouth until his tongue swelling improved and he was able to chew again.
The previous six months leading up to Hank’s seizure, Jeff and Tracy both acknowledged some odd behaviors they had noticed. Stating that Hank would sometimes just stare at the wall, whimper for no reason and wouldn’t lay down for hours when everyone else was sleeping. They had Hank screened and evaluated and were told he was just fine. When one of Hank’s eyes started bulging, they took him in again and were told he had Horner’s Syndrome.
Hank enjoying a day in the field.
It was after Hank was re-evaluated following his seizure, that the Varner’s were told the shocking news, their dog, whom they had picked up when he was 9-weeks old, and lovingly refer to as their “first born,” had a brain tumor.
“We were told he had a brain tumor and his prognosis was one to three months with no treatment at all.” Jeff said. “I was beyond devastated. We had just lost our cat two months prior to cancer and a month before that I had lost my job. It was just really sad to go through this now.”
It was during Hank’s initial diagnosis that the Varner family was referred to the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine for radiation treatment with Dr. Janean Fidel where Hank would undergo a series of 18 treatments over the course of three and a half weeks in WSU’s care. He was given a prognosis of approximately 1 year of good quality of life after treatment.
“The expertise of Dr. Fidel made us feel very comfortable.” Tracy said. “She was able to tell us she did not feel it was a glioma and was very confident his tumor was a meningioma which responds better to radiation treatment. Side effects are minimal if any at all. From the consult, we felt there was an excellent track record of experience at WSU. It seemed like a great fit and a drivable distance having to go out of state”
“We just knew that if we could have another year of quality life with Hank, it would be worth it.” Jeff said. “Years from now, we knew we would cherish all of those extra memories with him even more.”
Knowing that Hank was in a vulnerable state, to take him and leave him somewhere for three weeks was very difficult. But we were relieved that the treatment was so easy and Hank did so well.
“We’re very thankful for what WSU was able to provide at that time. We’ve been living on borrowed time with Hank and we never expected to have three extra years with him. We are very, very thankful.” The Varner’s said. “We would recommend anyone to WSU and if anybody was in our dilemma we would refer them to you in a heartbeat.”
When asked what was next for the family and Hank, they said it’s been their goal to take Hank everywhere they go.
“We took him to the Oregon Coast, Lake Tahoe, and Seattle.” Jeff said. “If anything were to happen I would never forgive myself for not being there with him. At 11 years old, Hank is starting to slow down which we never thought we’d be able to see. We just expect less from him and let him live happy and let him do what he likes to do in his twilight years– we don’t know whether it will be cancer or old age that separates us. We just cherish each day we have with him.”