We’d been laying on the floor of Examination Room 8 for an hour. Maybe more. Maybe less. The frigid floor was the kind of cold that seeps into your bones like the damp San Francisco fog. I hardly noticed. My cheek was nuzzled into the warm back of our “brown bear,” my arm draped over her weakened body as she took quick, shallow breaths.
“She’s dying,” I thought to myself. Her body was consuming itself as her liver destroys her own red blood cells faster than her bone marrow can produce new ones. Fewer red blood cells mean less oxygen to vital organs. I couldn’t see it happening, but I could see the result. She wasn’t able to lift her head, much less walk or eat.
Room 8 was our home for two weeks. Two, sometimes three times a day, my wife, three-year-old son, and I made the trip to Sage Centers for Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Care in San Mateo to lie on the floor with our beloved dog. We were referred there by Dr. Harish Narayanaswamy and Dr. Husna Ulla, the husband and wife team at Peninsula Pet Hospital in Menlo Park, where, as residents of Menlo, we’d first visited when our dog Bella got sick.
Before Bella’s illness, I didn’t even know that places like Sage existed. It’s an inpatient animal hospital for critical care — oncology, cardiology, neurology, surgery, and emergency care are their specialties. If you love your pet, a critical care hospital is a place you never want to visit. However, when tragedy or life-threatening illness strikes, there’s no doubt that Sage is exactly where you want to be.
Upon admittance, her case read: Bella Bond, 7-year-old Chocolate Labrador Retriever, presents with severe swelling in the head, snout, and left front leg. The left eye is bulging, presumably from an infection in the sinus cavity or just in front of the brain. The nose and left front paw are close to twice their normal size. There is no sign of a localized source of infection. No snake or spider bite. No foreign body. A possible tick-born disease for Lyme has just returned negative. Typical treatment for generalized swelling from a severe infection is broad-spectrum antibiotics.
On day 5 of Bella’s hospital stay, after one CT scan, numerous ultrasounds, and several rounds of blood work, Dr. Heidi McClain told us that they had some new information. Needless to say, we were desperate for even the tiniest explanation of why our perfectly healthy dog was suddenly wasting away in front of our eyes. We will never forget the moment Dr. Heidi joined us on the floor, visibly concerned yet almost comforting in her delivery of the news.
“There’s been a complication,” she said. “We believe that as a result of Bella’s body fighting off the infection for several days now, a secondary condition has been triggered. We call it Autoimmune Hemolytic Anemia (AIHA), which essentially means that her immune system has gone haywire and is beginning to turn on itself.”
Our minds spinning, mostly around the words “complication,” “haywire,” and “autoimmune,” squelched any remaining optimism. We searched Dr. Heidi’s face for the signs of resignation that we were feeling. Instead, however, she very cautiously explained how she and her colleagues, Dr. Abby Kaufman and Dr. Diane Roberts, felt that if they could just “buy Bella some more time,” there was a possibility that after several weeks of treatment and recovery, she could fully recover.
She explained that AIHA is extremely rare in Labs, but in Bella’s case, the disease had been triggered by the severe infection. Upon further learning that this condition regularly takes the lives of more than half the dogs it afflicts, we gave the Sage doctors and their team of surgeons, nurses, and support staff permission to treat Bella in whatever capacity necessary.
The days and weeks ticked by with a gut-wrenching slowness. Bella continued to fight. Multiple transfusions of fresh blood bought Bella the time she needed for the drug treatment to take its course. On two occasions, we grilled a juicy steak and scrambled eggs for what we thought would be her final meal. However, after almost 13 days in critical care, almost imperceptibly, her red blood cell count began to stabilize to a level that allowed us to bring her home.
Once released, over the course of the next several weeks, we returned to Sage on a daily basis for outpatient follow-up visits, eventually cutting back to every few days. During this time the focus of treatment was mostly continued administration and monitoring of steroids and antibiotics, while also tending to some of the less life-threatening conditions that had emerged.
Now at the end of January, we know that Bella was a dramatically different dog since the day she first arrived at Sage — physically, biologically, and emotionally. AIHA will be a lifelong concern (relapses are not uncommon). However, Bella’s personality and passion for life, relationships, and connection has become stronger as a result of her experience. She has returned to long walks, prancing in the sand and the ocean waves, riding shotgun with her head out of the window, and occasional visits to Sage. We are so grateful.
Photos courtesy of Matt Bond