I don’t even know how to start. If you’ve never loved a dog like a human, you may not understand this sentiment: humans simply don’t deserve dogs. The last week of our lives has, bar none, been the most difficult one I’ve ever endured. We discovered the nightmare way that our dog has a genetic, degenerative disease: intervertebral disc disease, also known as IVDD. But, let’s skip the sugar-coating:
Apropos of nothing, Obi, my four-year-old, sweetest and gentlest 70 lb shar pei mix, woke up in pain in the middle of the night. Within hours, he was paralyzed at an RV campground in Tennessee.
What does having IVDD mean? In short, he doesn’t have normal cartilage in his spine, and is prone to ruptures that cause rapid-onset paralysis which–if not treated with an MRI and surgery within 24 hours, a dog has a 50/50 shot of causing life-long paralysis.
In our case, that paralysis occurred within a four-hour window.
What even happened?
Our dog’s spinal injury likely started long before our RV trip.
Because this is a degenerative disease, we can’t be sure where this started. Probably the local dog park, where he’s jumped off a few obstacles from time to time, sloppily run over and been himself run over by other dogs more times than we can count. It even may have happened in our own backyard, when Obi would rough-house like a normal dog does with his sister, Nia.
In short, we simply don’t know when this started.
Leading up to this trip, everything was normal, with one exception: for a week or two, every other day or so, Obi would gently yelp when jumping up onto our bed. It was pretty rare, and he was otherwise acting entirely normal.
Still, being a responsible pet owner, I took him to his general vet the day before we left for our next RV trip. They checked him over twice–no pain response. They even put him in a muzzle and performed a pain test to examine his spine.
Maybe he stepped on a thorn? his vet said, though that didn’t sound right to me. She also floated the possibility of a tick-borne illness, which creates lameness on alternating legs, but that didn’t fit his presentation either. Ultimately, though, the vet gave us some simple pain medication and cleared him for light hikes. No dog parks, no rough-and-tumble puppy playtime, but we could go on long, slow romps through the forest. Fine with me, I had managed to break my toe a few weeks earlier and couldn’t do more than shuffle slowly anyway.
Why didn’t the vet diagnose him before we left home?
IVDD doesn’t usually affect dogs like Obi (half shar pei, half pit bull)–it’s usually found in dachsunds, French bulldogs, poodles, and dogs with sloped backs (like German Shepherds), which he does not have. Additionally, he had none of the warning signs:
Common symptoms include back pain, reluctance to move or climb stairs, difficulty walking, muscle weakness, and even loss of bladder or bowel control.–Understanding Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) in Pit Bulls
The Day Before Paralysis
We arrived early in a campground in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Jason spent the day working and I spent the day cleaning and writing. The week before, we’d gone hiking (or in my case, hobbling) around another state park we’d been staying at on the way to Tennessee. Obi hadn’t yelped once since starting the pain medication and he’d finished the medication the vet had given us up a few days before we arrived, so we figured something was a little sore on him (a toe, thought the first vet).
Our Only Warning
After work, we took Obi and Nia to what RV parks consider “dog parks”, a small fenced area they are allowed off leash. Obi took up a trot to find a space to do his business; ten seconds later, he yelped in pain–nothing out of the ordinary. We checked him over and found nothing. He was his happy little self, so we headed to downtown Chattanooga, found delightful Tennessee beer, ate a great hamburger, and walked for miles.
Friday Night: The First Circle of Hell
Obi didn’t feel like eating his dinner before bed, which isn’t uncommon for either of our stubborn shar peis on our driving days. Still, I couldn’t bribe him with bone broth, which usually works… something was a little off. If he didn’t eat breakfast, we decided, there was an emergency vet ten minutes away, and we could get him checked out again the following day.
So, we went to bed. As normal, he hopped up onto the stool our dogs use to jump up to bed, and into the covers. We went to sleep.
Three hours later, it started. Obi woke us up–he was shivering. Wouldn’t settle. Wouldn’t lie down. In past RV trips, he’s had an upset stomach, so we took him outside to see if he was sick to his stomach. He walked a little slowly, but had no limp. Jason and I decided we would take him to the vet in the morning.
When we returned to the RV, Jason lifted him into bed–but then he couldn’t lie down. He sat with his neck at a funny angle, front paws extended in front of him. We worried he’d thrown out his back, maybe. back spasm?–though how, we had no idea. We gave him additional pain meds we had in our doggy and birdy emergency kit. We massaged his back. He started to settle down to sleep for a few more hours… then sat upright again around five a.m. So we applied an icepack through a wash cloth. We switched to heat. He wouldn’t (or couldn’t) lie down.
At six a.m., we decided to take him to the 24 hour vet nearby. When we scooped him out of bed and set him on the ground, suddenly, he was limping on his back legs.
By the time we got to the vet, fifteen minutes away, he was dragging them behind him.
The emergency vet had grim news: Obi likely had IVDD, stage IV of V. As long as he kept some feeling in his back feet (called a deep pain response), surgery had a 90% chance of allowing him to walk again.
Saturday Morning: The Second Circle of Hell
Here was the terrifying catch: Before Obi could have surgery, he would need an MRI for a full diagnosis (and to find out which vertebrate needed attention).
No MRI, no surgery.
Because it was Saturday morning, sorry, they told us, their MRI tech wasn’t in. Our options were:
- Leave Obi at the vet on extreme bed rest (That will be $7,000 please) over the weekend, they would MRI him on Monday, and maybe get him into surgery (Total cost: $22,000 — I am not exaggerating)
- Take lots of anti-inflammatory medications back to the RV, keep him on extreme bedrest there, and monitor his legs for signs of deterioration. Bonus: We could come back Monday for MRI’s and surgery, and it would only run us $13K.
We ONLY chose the second option because we were pretty sure we could find him an MRI somewhere else, and many dogs with IVDD can get better with 8 weeks of strict, crated bedrest, only going outside to do their business. It’s a conservative approach, for those who are interested.
If he gets worse, we may be able to refer him somewhere who can get him in faster, they told us.
So, we took him home to the RV. He could still wag his tail and was limping severely, but could still move his back legs. I got him settled and started cooking him rice and chicken to help settle his stomach with the antibiotics while Jason raced to the nearest pet store to get what we would need (a crate that would work in the RV, puppy pads, ergonomic bed, etc.)
Obi was calm, sedated on his medications, and sleeping comfortably.
Unfortunately, things were about to go from bad to worse.
Saturday Afternoon: The Third Circle of Hell
By the time Jason returned an hour and change later, he opened the door to find me sobbing my eyes out, hunched over our dog.
Obi couldn’t move his back legs anymore.
He didn’t respond when I tickled his feet.
His little tail couldn’t wag at all.
We now had twenty-four hours to get little man into surgery, or he may never walk, run, or even piddle without our help again.
We started making phone calls. We called every vet who listed MRI services from Atlanta to Nashville. Over and over:
Hi, do you have an MRI machine? Yes? Great!
Is it possible to get him an MRI before Monday? No?
…Do you know anyone who can?
Rinse, repeat. No one would MRI our dog unless it was a life and death emergency–apparently paralysis doesn’t count.
Finally, I got in touch with someone at UT’s Veterinary School. They could admit him if we had a referral from an existing veterinarian. We frantically called the emergency vet again–they wouldn’t refer him without looking him over again.
So, back to the emergency vet we went.
Obi’s Referral: The Fourth Circle of Hell
We carefully carried our little man back to the emergency vet. The night-time vet had been replaced by another lovely veterinarian, who had recently gone through a neurology fellowship. They took him back into their office. And we waited.
Three hours later, she returned with some grim news: she couldn’t get a deep pain response from Obi’s little toes. He’d transitioned from stage IV to end-stage IVDD, and his chances of walking again dropped to 50%, but only if we could get him into surgery in the next 24 hours.
Finally, they made the call to refer Obi to UT’s Vet in Knoxville.
We raced back to the RV, little man gently in tow, rounded up all five of our birds and their food, tucked all our medications into a bag (steroids and cancer drugs for Nia, Rowena’s heart medications, my thyroid meds, and Jason’s lyme treatments), managed to remember our toothbrushes and some toiletries, a single change of clothes, and tetrised ourselves carefully into the car around Obi.
The fact that we found a place to land in Knoxville was lucky; Jason’s wonderful mother recently moved back there, and she and her incredible partner Tom would allow us to stay with them. Teresa would meet us in the vet’s parking lot, collect all five birds and our other dog, Nia, and we would reconvene at her new home… eventually.
It was six p.m. We had a two-hour drive ahead of us. With no pain response, we’d been told, every moment counted. He needed surgery as soon as they could possibly squeeze him in.
Now we had a plan and a shimmer of light ahead of us.
I fucking hate Sportsball: The Fifth Circle of Hell
We arrived in Knoxville just as the UT Football Game let out.
Traffic wasn’t just sluggish: it was entirely stopped. Gridlocked.
The minutes dragged into an hour. I frantically called the UT Vet’s office again, terrified we wouldn’t get there before 10 p.m. when they ostensibly closed.
Get here when you can; I’ll see if we can call the police dispatch to help you along, they told us.
We were 1.5 miles from UT. Stopped. For an entire hour. Should Jason get out and walk, carrying our 70 lb dog with a spinal cord injury amid the drunken sports fans? I got out of the car myself several times, approaching distant policemen in my flipflops and short sleeves in 40 degree weather, tentatively waving them down through tears. I am sure I looked a little crazy.
Did you receive a call from dispatch about a dog? No, he’s not loose, he’s in our car and we need to get to the vet school. Please, it’s an emergency.
Over and over, I was told that they hadn’t received a call–they weren’t the “normal” Knoxville police, they didn’t receive those kind of radio calls. No, they wouldn’t wave traffic on our side of the street through, even just a few more cars at a time. Sorry, wish I could help, they told me.
Help, I begged God, the universe, any spirit who might hear me.
FINALLY, traffic started inching. As our car crept past a children’s hospital, I prayed no mother was desperately trying to take her child there in this hellscape that is Knoxville’s Sportsball.
We finally pulled into the UT parking lot where Teresa was waiting. As the vet techs brought out a gurney for our little man, Teresa loaded her vehicle up with all our babies.
Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers
Ragged, exhausted, and joyful, we followed the tech into an office where they wheeled Obi away.
Thank you, we told them, over and over again. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
UT’s Vet school doesn’t actually close for emergencies; they could MRI him that night, get surgery under way.
Jason and I collapsed against each other. Now, all we could do was wait.
Then, a miracle: the vet called us several hours later after we’d settled into Teresa and Tom’s home.
Obi had a deep pain response. If we got him into surgery early tomorrow morning, there was a 90% chance he would walk again.
Obi’s MRI showed that surgery was 100% necessary. The conservative approach (not that we wanted to do that when surgery was his best chance) would never work for him.
Twenty-three hours after he became paralyzed, he got his surgery. It wasn’t cheap, but thankfully it also wasn’t $22k. We will be selling our second vehicle to help pay his expenses.
Meanwhile, we went out and bought wire dog crates and all kinds of toys for the parrots to stay in, as they couldn’t stay in their travel backpacks for days on end. We loaded up on the supplies we would need to care for him after surgery. We went to a thrift store to get some clothes, as we only had what was on our backs (and Knoxville is cold right now.)
Little man got through surgery like a champ. We got to visit him on Monday for ten minutes and learned that ketamine makes puppies literally hallucinate (poor Obi).
Obi got to come home to Teresa and Tom’s on Tuesday. I’ll spare you the very gross details of learning to help a paralyzed dog do his business, but we were ready and prepared and we finally had necessary changes of clothes.
While Teresa and Tom’s home is lovely, comfortable for people, and we were lucky enough to have an open invitation to stay as long as we needed, we quickly realized it was not suited for puppy recovery. Too many stairs, too many animals (they have a rambunctious and adorable lab mix of their own), and their ceiling was full of holes presently being repaired by workmen from a tornado that ripped through their neighborhood the month before. We have to give Mister Man medication at different times all through the night, and there was no way we would ever get any sleep if we stayed.
We had to go home.
And that meant first going back to get the RV, because the campsite was full and we had nowhere else to stay after Thursday.
The Sixth through Ninth (God-willing) Circles of Hell: RVing home with a broken dog
When we returned to the RV, it became apparent immediately we couldn’t take our time getting home. Obi weighs too much. I can’t lift him, flailing like he does, in and out of the RV safely, and Jason’s rotator cuff is already healing from a former injury. Jason wrenched his shoulder moving him inside to his crate the first time, which we set up between bird cages on the RV tabletop. There was no possibility of helping him do his business inside, there simply wasn’t space.
If Jason injured his shoulder trying to get him home, that would be game over. An already extremely difficult situation would have become impossible.
We made the decision to drive the twelve hours home.
I cannot begin to describe the hell that drive was. Obi wouldn’t settle, drugged up though he was, and I spent nearly the entire time in the back with him, desperately trying to keep him still and settled, wondering the whole time if carefully repositioning him among the bumps and brakes and the horrid Atlanta traffic to try and make him comfortable was doing him more harm than letting him flail on his own, but trying my best anyway.
A single small car accident would have been deadly, but I didn’t feel like I had a choice. Whatever bad karma I might have accrued, Obi didn’t deserve this.
I am not religious, but I prayed with everything I had in me that we would just make it home. I don’t know where I found the strength, but at some point around hour ten, out of desperation, I gently and correctly lifted him from his crate and settled him beside me on the couch. Finally, he settled, his little head on my lap. He slept.
And we did. Somehow, some way, we made it.
Yesterday was our first day home. While we were helping little man do his business outside, getting it right for the first time, Jason managed to kneel on an ant hill right outside our front door. He has over fifty ant bites, ended up in the ER for an anaphalactic reaction, and there was an actual fire in the hospital’s ICU while he was there.
Needless to say, today has gone better.
This experience taught me what it means to take things one hour at a time. That there’s no good time to have an veterinary emergency, but the weekend is the worst.
I’ve learned I really can do very hard things. That you can do everything as right as you can, and you can still end up in hell. That I have the very best partner a woman could ever dream of. That together, we will surmount anything.
I once told Jason I would rather go through hell with him than anywhere else without him. Universe, if you were listening, it wasn’t a goddamned challenge — but just leave my innocent creatures out of it. My sins are not my dogs’ or parrots’.
I wasn’t going to write this post. Jason talked me into it, so others who go through a similar journey know that they can make it out the other side. So they don’t feel as alone as we did. So they don’t give up.
I cannot express enough how special the vets and the students at UT are. They walked with us every step of the way with a kindness, compassion, and gentleness I’ve never before experienced. They were the angels who held us through the fires of it all and helped us keep it together. They made us laugh when we were drowning in tears. “Above and beyond” is an understatement. Someday, I will remember them when I reach out to someone in need, and help pay it forward. I don’t know how yet… but that is my solemn promise.
We have a long road ahead of us. Obi will need crated bedrest for a minimum of six weeks, and it’s possible this might happen again at some point. His dog park days and rough-and-tumble rough-housing excursions are 100% behind him. He’s not out of the woods today, and he may never walk again.
Today, though, he is okay:
Yesterday, two days after having intensive spinal surgery, the clouds parted:
Obi wagged his tail for us for the first time.
And it was all worth it.