Saving Sammy

Sammy, aka Pup, runs on the beach. (Courtney Dunham / LiveWELL Correspondent)

Liver cancer was no match for a great puppy love

Two major transitional moments stand out when I think of my 17-year old dog Sammy, or Pup, which is what all who knew him well called him.

The first was when we adopted each other that cold February day at an outdoor kennel in rural Oregon. The other is when my longtime vet Jason came out and told me that Pup’s liver cancer was “all over and inoperable.”

Our adoption of each other was totally unexpected. I was a young news reporter at my first job at a weekly in Stayton, Ore. The photographer and I were called out to a vet in town, which also doubled as the city’s dog pound, for a story about overcrowded conditions and a need to get these animals homes.

This wasn’t a modern Humane Society or no-kill shelter. Dogs and cats that were dropped off here were given two weeks until their owners picked them up or new people adopted them. If not, they were put to death.

We walked to the outdoor concrete kennels where we first heard dozens of dogs barking and howling before we even saw them shivering. It couldn’t have been more than 30 degrees that day.

All of them except for an overgrown cocker spaniel mix were making as much noise as they could, as if to yell out, “Help! Get me outta here!” The overgrown curly cocker was jet black with what appeared to be a Lab’s face, and the only one quietly whimpering in the corner.

It was love at first sight. Overgrown and a bit mangy, he was still gorgeous with those black flowing curls.

“Is that a cocker?” I asked the office manager, Merilee.

“Yes, he’s a mix with Lab in him too. Please don’t put this in the paper, but we’ve had him for almost two months. He and his brother were abandoned at seven months on the highway,” she said. “He’s so sweet and smart – not to mention gorgeous, so we just couldn’t bear to put him down.”

“I want to take him home.”

My words came with no pause or second thought and no call to my husband. He’ll love him, I convinced myself, knowing that we had already talked about getting a dog to join our kitty, The Babe.

Ten minutes later after quickly finishing the interview, Sammy and I were on our way home. His name was already picked out for either a dog or a human baby – whoever came first.

Sammy got along with The Babe, and both remained my only children through years of trying to get pregnant.

To say that Pup was like my child seems so naïve and disrespectful now. He was my gorgeous boy, who I affectionately called “My Big Man” too. He and I experienced about every major life transition in our 17 years together.

Pup and I made two cross-country road trips together with our best friend Shell, including to the Deep South after Hurricane Katrina and four years later to Manhattan, where I moved cross country. On our Southern road trip, he walked Bourbon Street with us and shared a Hurricane drink with Shell at O’Briens.

One of our most memorable days was when we stopped at a quiet beach outside of St. Augustine, Fla. After days in the backseat never uttering a complaint or bark, we took a day just to play in the surf and I threw Pup his signature blue ball for hours. I don’t think that I ever saw him look happier.

The other day that still stands out was a visit to the Civil Rights Museum and Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., where Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed.

Three young African American boys ran up to us and asked if they could play ball with him. How could I say no? We took him off the leash, and outside the Lorraine Motel, right below the balcony where King was shot, Sammy and the boys played.

I remember thinking at the time how dogs and children could literally save the world.

There were many more memorable moments with Pup, but the other stand-out was on the night of his cancer diagnosis.

I had spent the last eight hours crying, from the time I lay on the floor with him at the vet, cuddling him as he woke up from anesthesia. We were home now cuddling on the couch. My lip kept quivering all night, as I couldn’t bear the thought of him not by my side.

Pup took his paw and familiarly wrapped it around my arm tightly – the same way he did the night that I suffered a late miscarriage, and never left my side since.

This time was different, though. He kept pawing at me and looking at me almost irritated. Finally, I got what he was trying to say. “But Mama, I’m still here so don’t cry. I’m not ready to go yet. We got a lot of living to do still!”

I immediately snapped out of it and dried my tears. He was right. Although he was bit jaundiced, he had a great appetite after a few days of hydration. If he hadn’t gotten exploratory surgery, I would have never guessed he was so sick.

I jumped off the couch and immediately searched for Holistic Vets in Portland. I loved my vet and trusted his diagnosis, but thought Pup was more than worth a second opinion and alternative care.

I also researched diets for days and learned about the value of organic homemade food. There were dozens of recipes online that aided liver health, so from that day on, I started cooking his meals, which consisted of chicken breast, brown rice, flaxseed oil, cottage cheese, broccoli, and sweet potato. I also added in pumpkin and other recommended veggies.

The vet prescribed a variety of liver cleansing vitamins and herbs, which mostly centered on milk thistle and other known healing herbs.

Getting about eight pills a day down him was going to be tough, I thought, since he was too smart for me to hide medicine in his food.

I found the answer in organic roast beef, which I wrapped around his pills. Pup loved roast beef so much that I don’t think he actually ever tasted it and instead quickly swallowed it and the pills.

Pup’s energy began to soar. He started putting weight back on and playing with his blue ball again. I had my healthy puppy back, and I was overjoyed. A year and a half later, Sammy was declared cancer free, and his new nickname was Miracle Man.

Pup and I beat liver cancer; it was nothing short of miracle. It was a lesson in never giving up if there’s a will to survive and make your life better. Pup told me he wasn’t ready to go and because of the healing herbs and an organic healing diet, I got two more years with my Big Man.

About six months later, shortly after he, Bella, and I moved to Manhattan, Pup’s legs started failing. He began to randomly lose his balance and slip, especially on the waxed marble lobby floor of my high-rise apartment.

I brought him in to see about muscle or arthritis painkillers, which seem to make him feel better. Further tests, though, revealed that he was suffering kidney failure.

He was still eating a lot and although a bit stiff and slower, I didn’t believe in giving up on him just because he was old and had more needs, so decided to give him an IV at home daily instead of at the clinic.

The extra fluid supported his kidneys, the doctor said, and made him feel a lot better. She was right and Pup responded like a champ again.

At first I was a bit nervous to give him an IV, but it turns out that you can do a lot of things you couldn’t imagine for souls you love.

I turned it into the Pup Massage Hour on the kitchen counter each night, and I don’t think he ever felt the little needle and he also enjoyed our routine. I did it for two months and Sammy’s numbers went way up and shocked the vet. She said that she had never seen a dog with that low of numbers bounce back so fast. He was out of kidney trouble for now.

Unfortunately, his tired legs were giving out more. It was then that I saw a look in Pup’s eyes that I hadn’t seen before. He was telling me that he wasn’t having any fun and was frustrated and embarrassed about falling down. I always swore that I’d do anything to improve the quality of his life, but I wouldn’t prolong it if he wasn’t enjoying his time anymore.

I could see it in his eyes and on a Sunday morning, Feb. 21, 2010, I carried Pup to the vet nine blocks away in a snowstorm. It was time and if it was up to him, he’d never leave me.

People closest to me said that I’d know when it was time, which I highly doubted. How would I ever choose to end a life that had saved mine so many times? Because I loved him and he deserved to have me wrap my paws around him this time and make everything better.

Upon entering the vet, Sammy got his second wind – again. I don’t know if it was because I was giving him as many cookies as I could in the waiting room, or if he actually knew he was going to feel better forever. I’d like to think the latter. The vet encouraged me to get some tests done, but I cut her off this time and told her it was time.

My last words to Pup were, “Go night-night,” as I massaged him to sleep. He was completely relaxed and in dreamland before the vet even came in with the shot. I then thanked him and God for sending me the best boy that I could ever have. I always wanted to have a son, and in those last days, I realized that I was given the most incredible one for 17 years.

Pup taught me a lot about living but it was in his dying that I learned what true love meant. You become a much less selfish person when you’re a caretaker, and you so appreciate the little moments – like when someone you love is sick and has a really good day.

Our pets are our family and deserve the best from us. I’m very proud of the holistic approach that I took with Sammy’s liver cancer and will forever be grateful for the extra two years we got to have together. People say that I saved Sammy. It was always the other way around.

It’s been two years since he passed away and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him, smile or tear up sometimes, and miss him. Then I get on with it like he would like. I know that he lived longer for me, and it’s the least I can do to live longer for him –- to really live like the gate was left open.

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