On a daily basis there are few interactions that make Wendy and I smile as much as our time with our pets. We don't have any human children, so our four legged babies whose lives are our responsibility are truly our pride and joy. If you look at our crew page, you will see the various furry companions who are active participants in our renovation projects. And if you go to the bottom of the page, you will see a little memorial to our first puppy, Oliver.
Today is a bit of a sad day, as it marks the one year anniversary of Oliver's untimely passing. Some people will easily understand our attachment and deep bond that we formed with Oliver, while others simply can't understand how a dog can mean so much in a family's lives. But today we can take a look back and remember what a special addition Oliver was to our lives, and the profound ways that he helped us along the way.
One of the stipulations for Wendy to accept my marriage proposal was the agreement that I could not deny her a puppy. Wendy grew up as a child without a cat or dog, though she wanted one her whole life. After about six and a half years since our wedding, the desire to bring a dog into our lives continued to grow until Wendy began looking for puppies to adopt in earnest. Being adopters without previous dog experience made the process difficult. It seems so many dogs that were in rescues had so many people looking to adopt that it was often hard to even get on their waiting lists. After a couple of possible adoptions fell through, Wendy received a photo of a dog that needed a home, a little eight month old "puggle" (who actually turned out to be a pug dachshund rather than a pug beagle) named Bandit.
Knowing the difficulties we were having, we took the two hour trip up to Pennsylvania to meet this little pug mix to see if we would be a good match for him. Not knowing anything more than what we had seen on the occasional viewing of Dog Whisperer, we ignored his constant biting, inability to walk on a leash, difficulty in obeying commands, and general disregard to instruction. Hey, we were noobs.
A few weeks later, we brought "Bandit" home and gave him his new name, Oliver. To say we were unprepared is a massive understatement. What followed was months of our patience wearing thin, obedience training, biting, wall clawing, general destruction, and frustration, but we were not going to let this little puppy that Wendy had wanted for 29 years defeat us.
Through the work and patience of friends, family, Kathleen at Olde Towne School For Dogs, and our own inability to throw in the towel, what had started as a situation many would have said was a lost cause turned into one of the best experiences of our lives. Early on in the process, just after trying to nip at the hand of our veterinarian, she informed us that we were probably Ollie's last chance. He had already been given up by two prior families, and we might be his last hope for a good life. We figured that if we gave up, not only were we failing ourselves, we were failing the little puppy we had agreed to care for.
After about eight months of work and effort, our little Oliver had become the dog he wanted to be, loved in our lives and a true member of our family. The little snaggle toothed terror had won us over and we won him over. Ollie's story was a true success story of what perseverance, patience, caring, and a little bit of discipline can do to help a dog and how much a dog can help people. He was loving life and truly loved being around us.
The winter of 2009 into January 2010 was wonderful. Oliver loved everything about his new life. He would walk for hours, run for miles at a time on his stumpy little legs, we would take him to the dog park to play with all of his friends (there wasn't a dog out there Ollie didn't love to play with), and we would show him all of the great things about being a dog in Old Town.
Some of our fondest memories actually come from the series of snow storms that swept through our area in winter 2010. He loved running around in snow much taller than he was.
We were having fun, happy, and finally enjoying life with our puppy. Sure, there were still frustrations and we still needed to invest a lot of effort with him, but it was going great.
In mid-January, Ollie came down with some sort of a flu. To this day we're still not sure what it was, but for about 24 hours he was lethargic and sick, spending almost all of his time under his blanket, only getting up to go to the bathroom outside or to eat a little bit, but the next day he was back to normal. We didn't think much of it at the time, but in retrospect I think this was the start of our painful journey.
In late February Ollie developed a cough. It seemed to get worse when we would walk outside in the cold, but he didn't seem much worse for the wear. He was still a happy and energetic puppy, still loving life, but seemed to be coughing a lot. His cough would come and go, some days worse and others not so bad. In mid-March 2010, Wendy and I had to go out of town for a long weekend. We arranged for Ollie to stay with his favorite neighbor Kristin while we were away. He still had a little cough, but we knew he was in great hands in case something happened. Little did we know how important those hands would be.
Midway through our trip, Ollie's cough kept getting worse. It got to the point where he couldn't go on walks, and was even having a hard time breathing while he was just sitting there. Kristin, worried about Ollie and his breathing, took him to the vet and insisted they run tests on him. Though the vet was a little reluctant since it was just a cough, they did a set of chest x-rays and were shocked to find the pleural sac around his lungs and his abdomen filled with fluid.
The fluid had begun to put a tremendous amount of pressure on the outside of his lungs and diaphragm, keeping him from being able to fill his lungs as he breathed. This was the reason he was coughing, and also the reason he was struggling so hard to breathe while staying at Kristin's. The vet had to do an emergency procedure on him to drain the fluid from around his lungs. After the procedure he was feeling better, but the fluid quickly returned and we began the long and tedious process of diagnosis, and eventually treatment.
Over the next month Wendy and I spent several days per week taking Oliver to various veterinary specialists for a number of tests and procedures. From a cardiologist for an EKG to an internal medicine specialist for further tests, nobody could put their finger on exactly why a puppy that wasn't even two years old had this issue. You can see Ollie's shaved stomach in this photo.
Thanks to the wonderful people at the Veterinary Internal Medicine Practice of Northern Virginia and Dr. Deppe, who cared for Ollie in such a kind and patient way, we were able to finally diagnose Ollie's ailment. Unfortunately, it wasn't a diagnosis that was easy or favorable. One of Ollie's tests that was sent out to the University of Colorado veterinary lab came back positive for B-cell lymphoma. It was hard news to receive, but our adopted puppy who had truly become part of our life and family had cancer that was very likely terminal.
Immediately upon the diagnosis and resulting consultation, we made an appointment with The Hope Center's oncology department and began chemotherapy almost immediately. We were nearly overwhelmed with all of the information and decisions we would have to make, and received a crash course in veterinary oncology, but we felt like we could trust the good people caring for Ollie. Again, the staff at The Hope Center was simply wonderful. Ollie's oncologist, Dr. Beck, and the rest of the staff, Tessa, Michelle, Michael, Ana, and everyone else cared so much for Ollie and quickly became an extension of his family network.
We knew the odds were against Ollie's full recovery, and that we had a chance at only extending his life another six months to a year, but we had adopted and nurtured our sweet boy with the understanding that if he was going to be part of our family, we would do all we could to keep him happy and healthy for as long as possible. We also understood that chemo in animals doesn't have the same negative affects on their comfort the way it does on humans, so beginning chemo was our way to give Ollie a chance at as much time as possible, versus just steroids that may only give him a month or two more, and was a relatively easy decision for us. Besides his cough, he was still looking and feeling good and had no problem getting into trouble.
Ollie started chemo almost one year to the day after our adoption of him. Due to the unbelievable understanding of my office that allowed me the necessary weekly time off, Ollie and I developed a routine and an even deeper bond. Once per week we would get up early and drive out to Vienna to visit all of his friends at The Hope Center. Ollie had initially been very scared of the car, shaking, whining, and crying within two blocks from leaving our house, but with all of these trips, he became an old pro. He would hang out in the back seat, occasionally getting up to look around, but relaxing while I talked to him more often than not. As we would prepare to make our final left turn onto The Hope Center's street, he would get excited and would stand up on the center console of the car and begin singing. Because of how much he loved all of the people there, he always liked going in for a visit, even if they were sticking him with needles.
Wendy and I also did a lot of research around holistic treatment and caring for animals with cancer, and we learned a lot. We began home cooking Ollie's food based on an all natural and largely organic recipe. The diet would give Ollie the fat and protein he would need to remain healthy while keeping his carbohydrates and sugar intake low, since cancer feeds on and grows from sugar. We mixed a vitamin supplement and cod liver oil into his meals, and began giving him an immunity booster. You'd think a drastic change to diet would have been met with more resistance, but he absolutely loved what he was eating. So much so that he would stand at our feet singing and grumping at us while we cooked up big batches, constantly wanting to taste test his latest meals.
In retrospect, that summer really seemed to race by, and as we approached fall we got the wonderful news that Ollie's cancer had officially gone into remission. He hadn't had his fluid drained in over a month, his breathing was regular, and he had a fair amount of energy. Though our once strong and muscular puppy had developed a bit of a pot belly on account of the steroids, he was doing well.
Ollie even won the local "Cutest Pet" contest in our local newspaper, the Alexandria Times. It was an event to celebrate, but no surprise to us.
Ollie's cancer fight became well known. We even started a Facebook page for him for where friends and family who had asked about him could track his fight and progress. Ollie amassed an astounding 47 friends, impressive for a dog just learning how to use the computer.
Unfortunately, just after we celebrated his 2nd birthday, Ollie's fluid began to slowly return and he started to take a turn for the worse. His remission that we had worked so hard for only remained for a few weeks. Dr. Beck began changing up his chemo protocol in an attempt to force his body back into remission, but we were unsuccessful.
Ollie made it through the end of October, sometimes coughing more, sometimes less, usually getting his fluid drained every other week. His breathing was more rapid than it should have been, and he couldn't walk much more than around the block without going into his coughing fits, but he still had his good days, and still liked to run around the house as much as he could.
On November 1, 2010, I spent the evening in the basement working on stripping the molding for the vestibule project. Wendy spent the evening putting away our many buckets of Halloween decorations, and Ollie spent the evening running around and playing with Wendy. While I was working in the basement, I could hear his feet running all over the place on the floor above. He was having fun.
On our evening walk, he even got to see his 135 lb. newfoundland girlfriend from across the street, Lizzie. They were always such good friends.
As with every other evening, we put Ollie to bed and said goodnight. The next morning, his coughing was as bad as it ever was. He was trying, but he couldn't breathe well, and we ended up needing to rush him to The Hope Center.
We knew it was not looking good. We were hopeful they could do something. When we arrived they took him into the back, but we already knew the decision we would need to make. Everyone always told us "It is a difficult decision until you know the time is right, then the decision is easy." We couldn't understand exactly what they meant until we were to that point, but everyone who said that was right. He was starting to suffer more than he should need to, and the fluid had begun gathering around his heart. His cancer, a malfunction of his immune system, had continued to grow until it was no longer fair to keep fighting it.
The staff at The Hope Center was as wonderful on this final day as they had been all along. They helped us through every step, cared for Ollie like he was their own, and even provided him a last meal of beef stroganoff and chocolate cake, all from their personal lunches. Here's one of our last photos of Ollie along with "his ladies" of The Hope Center staff.
Ollie passed away just after noon on November 2, 2010. Our friends, neighbors, and co-workers all had an outpouring of love and support for us and our departed friend. Some of my co-workers collected money to donate to various charities in Ollie's name, and everyone let us know how much they liked Ollie, and how fortunate we were to have him in our lives.
Overall, our adoption of him proved to be one of the most emotional and gut wrenching decisions we could make, but we're glad he chose us. We had the desire and the means to give him every chance he had at fighting his cancer. By extending his life for an extra seven months, we were able to give him the opportunity to experience life for as long as possible.
Bottom line, cancer sucks! It is a mysterious and horrible disease and I wish it on nobody. But the most important part of a fight against any cancer is to be surrounded by people who love and care for you. We feel like we were able to provide this for Oliver, and for that we are quite proud.
Personally, we grew and benefited greatly from having Ollie in our lives. We loved him unconditionally, as he did reciprocally. We had good times and bad, but all times helped to better our lives. Though difficult, we consider ourselves to have been lucky to be the ones that helped Ollie live his life to the fullest.
If anyone out there stumbles on this post when searching for information on canine lymphoma, The Hope Center, or anything related to Ollie's unfortunate illness, please feel free to ask us some questions. We obviously had a lot to learn very quickly, and the Internet community of people that had gone through a similar situation made it far easier to cope with. We are more than happy to pass along any of our experiences or information that might make something so difficult just the slightest bit easier for the next person.