My Story

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  • A Tribute to Banjo (aka Lover Boy) Sylvia F

    Banjo the DogWhen I first sat down to write about Banjo’s story, it was such a sad documentary about a life well lived.  Anyone reading this and anyone who has come to Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching School to have their pet treated, knows how it goes.  No need to go into the sadness, frustration, exhaustion, anger, confusion, struggle, etc., one goes through when cancer strikes a family member, be it a human being or a pet.  I thought about Banjo and the only way I could really honor him was to try to write his story the way he was – energetic, happy, and full of life – and how he handled his cancer. He had such a huge personality – thinking of his facial expressions is making me smile as I write about him.  We liked to say that Banjo in one word was ALIVE.  Banjo lived hard, loved hard, ate hard, slept hard, played hard and in the end, Banjo fought so, so very hard. 

    Banjo was diagnosed with a possible glioma on 24 April 2017.  Looking back, there had been subtle signs beginning October/November 2016.  He out of character and unprovoked growled at his littermate, Sally, and made some weird leg motions when going to the bathroom.  These incidents only happened occasionally, and each time I brought him to the doctor with no apparent problem found.  At the time, Banjo was 11 years old, sight challenged with cataracts, and on the border with Cushing’s Disease.  Other than that, he was as healthy as could be.  Some of the odd behavior could have been attributed to any of those things.  The one thing no one thought about was the possibility of a brain tumor.  In March 2017 it became very evident that something was very wrong with Banjo.  He stopped playing, and Banjo was all about playing.  I could hear a difference in his gait and it seemed his hind legs were a little weak.  His voice changed.  Lab work came back normal.  But I knew something was wrong with my boy and the doctor quickly arranged for Banjo to have an MRI.  That’s when the tumor was discovered.

    After a lot of research and soul searching, I reached out to WSU to see if Banjo was a candidate for radiation therapy treatment.  A month later, on 24 May 2017, Banjo started four weeks of treatment.  Sally and I kept him company the entire time.  My experience from the time I checked into the hotel, met with Dr. Fidel and her staff, during Banjo’s treatment until the last day there was nothing short of outstanding.  Everyone seemed to go out of the way to accommodate and help make a very stressful, scary and emotional time somehow better.  The gratitude I feel for Dr. Fidel and her staff, the receptionists, Kay, and even the hotel staff cannot be measured in words.  It will be an experience I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

    On 21 June 2017, Banjo received his last radiation treatment and we headed home the same day.  There were no guarantees – there just isn’t enough data out there – as to what Banjo’s outcome would be.  My main goal was that he not be in pain and be comfortable for whatever time he had left on this earth.  At the time of diagnosis, he was given only one to two months without any treatment.  Banjo did improve from the radiation treatment, not by leaps and bounds, but enough that he could have a pretty good quality of life.  I would say he actually improved the most the three weeks after his last treatment.  Banjo tried to play, jump up on me and wagged his tail – major milestones considering how much the tumor had affected him.  After that, though, it seemed he regressed a bit – not enough to be like he was before the radiation treatment but enough to see that he was not improving and losing some of what he had gained back.  Banjo still got up, participated in the goings on around the house, greeted visitors in the best way he could and had a healthy appetite.  With that in mind, I started him on hydro and massage therapy, acupuncture, etc., anything to help strengthen his atrophied limbs.  We were going full speed ahead.

    On 13 September 2017, Banjo had his three-month post radiation treatment MRI.  The results indicated that the treated tumor was either gone or shrank so much it could not be seen on the MRI.  There was concern about brain atrophy – there was shading on the MRI that could not be defined.  It was the first time in months that I allowed myself to be completely happy – the tumor was gone!!!!!!  So, I endeavored to also work on strengthening his atrophied brain with brain games and making arrangements for hyperbaric oxygen treatment.  

    Still Banjo, didn’t seem to be improving but we lived everyday the best we could.  Things took a major turn 25 September 2017.  Suddenly Banjo could not keep his balance and was starting to list to the left when he was walking.  I took him to the neurologist that day and titers for brain infections were taken.  Banjo was put on antibiotics but he continued to deteriorate to the point where he couldn’t get up anymore and had to be handfed and watered.  Test results came back negative.  After several desperate trips to the ER and doctors, the end came.

    On the morning of 4 October 2017, Banjo had a seizure, the only one he had during his cancer ordeal.  I took him to the ER where I was informed he was no longer aware of his surroundings.  Arrangements were made to take him to his regular doctor to be euthanized.  Banjo wasn’t expected to make it to that evening.  Sally was already at the doctor’s office getting ready to have her teeth cleaned.  Fortunately, she wasn’t sedated enough to not be aware of what was going on, so our little family helped Banjo go over the Rainbow Bridge.  He can once again run after squirrels and chase his tennis ball like the champ he was!

    Because of the scarce information concerning gliomas in animals, and because I didn’t want Banjo’s battle to have been in vain, his last gift was to have a necropsy done at WSU.  If his tumor and the study of his brain can help someday save the life of another animal, Banjo will have checked out of this world as only he knew how –in a very big way.  

    I am honored to have had the privilege of loving and caring for this magnificent dog.  I miss my lover boy terribly and always will.

    Photo: Banjo, Taken by Sylvia F.

  • Greta and Jim

    Greta on a couch with a blanket

    Greta’s story is a miracle of the coalescence of science, love of family and friends, and the very special care that is the hallmark of the Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital. She is alive and healthy and one more testament to how non-humans can bring out the best in us.

    The first six months of Greta’s life are her secret and a mystery to me. We came together one morning in March 2010 as I was on my way to work near the north end of the Salton Sea in California. Out of a flurry of dust and swerving automobiles on a narrow desert road came a stately young shepherd who had no doubt of her way home. I stopped and called her to me. She came, but would continue her journey, so I talked her into the back of the car and away we went. None of the local shelters had reports of a missing dog of her description and after two days in her company I could not imagine being without her. Shepherds are heartbreakingly loyal, and though we became friends, it took a long time for her to fully adopt me.

    Our life in Palm Springs was idyllic. We hiked the desert canyons where she gave jackrabbits their exercise, and came home to rest in the pool or in her recliner. After several years there together, we converted to a travelers’ lifestyle and have since traveled the west in a 5th wheel trailer, wintering in Arizona and spending the warm months in Woodland, WA with family. I am a landscape painter, and the minute I pull my easel from pack, she knows our hike is over for a bit. She is very patient, but seems to know when I should stop lest I overwork, and then we resume our march. We have met many friends along the way, Greta being the social director, of course; friends who would one day help to save her life and ours together.

    Greta at the hospitalAfter six years of friendship and travel, Greta began showing signs of pain at the base of her skull. She was thought to have a herniated disc in her neck and I began giving her rimadyl as a temporary remedy. When we reached Washington this spring, her veterinarian in Woodland, Dr. Courneen, pressed me to get a CT scan. Dr. Krull, neurologist at Columbia River Veterinary Hospital, conducted the scan, and found the source of pain to be a large, slow-growing mass inside the upper vertebra, C-1, restricting her spinal cord by nearly 75 percent. I was advised that Greta had but a few weeks or little more before paralysis would set in. After discussing available options, Dr. Krull suggested consultation with staff at Washington State University Veterinary Teaching School. He sent a report on Greta to his colleague there, Dr. Chen-Allen, for an opinion on surgery.

    Dr. Chen-Allen called me and confidently recommended surgery for what she believed was a spinal meningioma. She told me meningiomas are typically benign tumors of the spinal cord but is still locally invasive and will grow over time to cause progressive neurologic deficits. She also recommended applying for a grant from the WSU Good Samaritans Fund. Several friends and family members immediately donated toward her treatment. After receiving an estimate on costs of surgery and follow-up radiation, we set a tentative date for treatment. Without expectation, but knowing I had to work for Greta, I published a GoFundMe campaign to Facebook on July 1. Within minutes, a friend in Hawaii who knew her contributed, followed by several other friends and trailside acquaintances. After substantial donations from family and friends, and success with the Good Samaritans Fund, we set the date with Dr. Chen-Allen, and I brought Greta to the hospital on July 11.

    Greta and JimAfter a MR image confirmed size and location of the tumor, Greta was admitted July 14 (how fitting it should be Bastille Day) for surgery. I waited in the lobby a long time talking with other worried clients and suddenly was greeted by the smiling faces of her surgeons, Dr. Chen-Allen and Dr. Dixon. Surgery was a success with 90% of the tumor removed! The tumor was a confirmed meningioma which allowed much of the cost to be assumed within an on-going research study on meningioma tumors. The day following surgery, Greta surprised everyone by walking, and after several days in ICU we were reunited. She had been in a big fight for her life and came through it by a combination of spirit and the dogged professionalism of her surgical team.

    On August 1, Greta began her radiation treatment under the direction of oncologist, Dr. Fidel. Her technicians were always happy to see Greta and made the ordeal as pleasant as possible. She also received four treatments of acupuncture by Dr. Bunch assisted by student doctors and jars of frozen baby food. August 24 was her final treatment of radiation and she will now be awaiting a final MRI the end of November to determine the success of the surgery and radiation and a prognosis for the future.

    Our experience at the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital has been exceptional in every way, with comfort and compassion shown by everyone from staff in reception and billing, to the student doctors, to the faculty of professional physicians. I waited for Greta during each of her treatments and saw many cases of people with troubled pets and every one I witnessed was treated as if it were the only one. This hospital is truly a life and spirit saving institution.


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