Yesterday I took poor Gimpy Dog over to Billings to the veterinary orthopedist. Even typing that makes me feel slightly ashamed of myself — we live in a nation in which an enormous percentage of our population doesn’t even have human health care, and I’m spending how much money on orthopedic surgery for my dog? So anyhow, I was really hesitant about this whole thing — not just because of the money, but because the effect of the first surgery, which was supposed to increase his mobility had exactly the opposite effect — he fell apart entirely. But this guy is a specialist, and does a lot of orthopedic work on animals, and I figured he could give me a reasoned idea about what we were facing.
I left Owen there for about an hour or so while they took another set of xrays, and it turns out that he didn’t have the structural problems I had feared he did. His back is fine, his hips are good (one of the other docs thought his hips were arthritic), and his other knee is sound. His achilles tendon on the leg that had the knee operation is almost totally blown, and both hocks are pretty arthritic. But the vet was confident that he could fix the achilles, and that we could medicate the inflammation and pain in the hocks.
All of which was very good news. And so, I left the poor boy there and we’ll know by late this afternoon how the achilles operation went. He’ll come home with a whole external fixature device on (think the kinds of halos they use for broken necks) and we’ll go through another round of recovery and we’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed that he doesn’t blow the other achilles tendon (statistically, there’s a 50% chance).
While I’m enormously relieved that I didn’t have to put my sweet boy to sleep, I’m still not convinced that performing this kind of medical intervention on a pet is entirely warranted. Luckily, I have the money, and with any luck, this vet is a good judge of his own skills — but I wonder how fair is it to do this to an animal? I can’t explain to him what’s going on, or why we keep hurting him. All he knows is that we keep knocking him out and he wakes up with an incision, on drugs, and in this case he’ll have a device attached to his leg.
But on the other hand, I don’t have much faith in medical intervention for human beings either. I grew up in a cancer cluster in the 70s and 80s — we watched 2 kids and 2 moms in our immediate circle die long slow painful deaths, and there were probably another 6-8 peripheral people we knew who also died. When my cousin Dede was diagnosed last fall with breast cancer, her first impulse was to refuse the chemo — from what we’d seen, what good would that do? We had a long long talk on the phone, about how it was better now, how chemo actually works these days. Neither of us come from a place where our default emotional reaction is that doctors can make it better, that medical intervention actually works. I feel a little bit the same about the dog, that’s why I agreed to the operation — as I said to my mother, I can’t just kill my dog because I have no faith in medicine.
I came home from Billings absolutely exhausted yesterday. I was enormously relieved that this vet thinks he can help, and that I’ve got the money to pay for it. I was enormously relieved that I didn’t have to drive back with a crippled dog I was going to have to put down. But as emotional as this decision has been, and as much as I love my dog — I couldn’t help thinking about my one friend whose girlfriend is waging a heroic and drawn-out battle with cancer, or my other friend whose husband is currently sitting at his ex-wife’s deathbed (both, strangely enough, have pancreatic cancer) — and my heart was sore for both of them. I love my dog, and it would be a big sorrow to put him down, but it is not the same as losing a person. As tired as I was from all this, I can only imagine what they’re all going through — it’s a sad way to keep it all in perspective, but it does.