The Conformation of a Heart
The following is an article I wrote for the American Border Collie Magazine 15+ years ago and the dog lived with me to the day she died.
I want to start this story by telling you that the dog I am talking about has an overshot bite, which is a major fault under AKC show rules. She would have been by-passed by anyone interested in anything except working ability. This is why I am against judging “a book by it cover”, a dog (or I might add … a person) by its looks, or should I say lack of them.
Sage is a 6 year old dog that is a joy to behold when she’s working. Even in everyday life she is fun to be around because she’s so playful and full of life. This of late has been a problem because she hasn’t been able to work. It started two years ago when we were out working, she was “giving it her all” but I could see something was wrong, acting as if she was walking on eggshells. I rushed her to the vet and couldn’t find anything except she was running a slight fever and “as noted” walking odd. We did a blood test, put her on antibiotics and watched her. The results of the blood tests all seemed normal and she appeared to recover. However; a few months later she developed an abscess on her side and had to go in for surgery. She had a foxtail (for those of you that are lucky enough not to have any – it’s a grass seed with a barb at the end. When it gets into the animal it travels throughout the body – and can be deadly if it gets into vital parts). She came out of her surgery well … seeming to recover fully.
Then around 7 months later she started acting odd again. It wasn’t anything you could say “this is what is different about her” but you could tell she was in pain. It started out with what at the time seemed like daily but was in reality weekly treks to the vet. We ran every test we could think of and then some. We performed X-rays, a sonogram and then blood test after blood test even taking her to a back specialist, thinking perhaps she was walking odd because of a disc. We tried vitamins and minerals with no luck.
What I want to convey is that at no time during all this did she ever want to stop working. Even when she physically couldn’t get up she still would try “the minute” she heard me getting ready to go out to work.
It all came “to a head” when she was up all night trying to breath and feeling cold to the touch – that’s when I began thinking about putting her down. She was in so much pain and we just couldn’t seem to diagnose it but decided to take her to the Emergency Room and try one more time. I walked in holding her in my arms … as she couldn’t walk. The Vet came in, took one look and rushed her to the back room. I went to the front prepared for along wait. He came in within 5 minutes …Sonogram in hand (actually I still have that picture). She had a hole in her heart and was bleeding into the sack surrounding the heart. Every time her heart beat it acted as a girdle and restricted the blood flow.
He was honest when he gave me the options. We could drain the blood, but it would fill back up unless we figured out why it had happened in the first place. The draining process would probably kill her. We could do surgery, opening the heart in order to find out what was causing the bleeding and the surgery would probably kill her. If perhaps the surgery didn’t kill her – the reason for the problem might be a tumor and she would have to be put to sleep. The only chance she had was if the hole was caused by a foreign body and even then the chance of repair was slim at best. The only answer I could give was “If she’s going to die then let her die while we are trying to do something, even if it’s wrong” – – – with that the all night vigil began The first good news, she was in surgery and holding her own. The second good news, it was a foreign body (remember our foxtail — we hadn’t gotten it all in the first surgery) and not a tumor. Then the final news for the night was she had made it through surgery then all I could do was wait. I didn’t know it at the time but the vet, I lucked on to, did nothing but heart and bone surgeries.
The next morning came and again, I had a hard time making the call for fear of hearing “She didn’t make it”. However, I received the good news she was “hard to believe -very much alive” and trying to get up. I went to pick her up and take her to a regular vet as the Emergency vet is only open at night. She walked into the other vet’s office, slow but with tail wagging. Nancy (my “regular” vet) explained what had happen. When the surgery was done, he placed a window in the sack around the heart, so that if it started to bleed again it wouldn’t build up. She also explained that the foxtail had traveled around the lungs and heart leaving scar tissue every where it went. So the lungs had fluid in them; some from the flushing after the surgery, some from the infection from the foxtail. So we had her on antibiotics and rest for the next month, which would still be a wait and see time. There was no guarantee that she would make it, even though the worst was over. She had one bad spell when she was extremely congested and coughing. So, we switched antibiotics and added a diuretic to help drain the fluid from her lungs. Again through this time she always tried to go to the door when she knew it was time to work. She would have worked; I have no doubt, even if it meant giving her life. Most vets I have told this story to say “She’s still alive”? She’s doing well now and I’m sure she will live. I have high hopes of her working again but only time will tell, how much. I have a feeling knowing Sage she will come back full force. This is the point of the story — This is what we should be breeding for. “Somehow” I don’t imagine if her bite had been “even” she would have fought any harder for life than she did. If she had been bred for looks instead of working ability, she might have been put down. She is one of the nicest working dogs I’ve ever had the privilege of working. She gives 100% all the time in work, in life, and in love.
I think the “moral” of the story is … we, “as a whole in Society”, need to get over the fact that if something looks good it must be. It just isn’t so, you can have the best looking whatever (person or animal) and if they don’t have heart and soul, you have nothing. Ability is what we should value and hold in high regard and not looks.
Follow up 2 years later:
Sage is now 8 years old and still ruling the roost. She recovered almost completely although I can definitely see a difference in the “before” and “after”. It took her about a year to a year and a half to physically recover. It’s the mental I don’t ever think came back 100 percent. She seems more hesitant on her stock than she did before but I often think it’s because she’s knows her physical limitations.
One interesting note on the mental aspect was before surgery she was never really that crazy about people – tended to be a bit stand offish. However, I now joke about her dying and seeing the “light” because she loves everybody. Running up to people … tail wagging saying “pet me – pet me”.
It makes me sad at times as she was in her prime when she first came down sick, meaning I lost the best of her working years. However the sadness doesn’t last because I’m just happy she’s alive and if the scenario had played out to her never working another day of her life I would have been downhearted but not dismayed. She’s still full of life and love and the working is the icing on the cake.