Can This Dog Be Saved?

08/23/2007 09:46 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

If you love animals as I do, read on. If not, don't.

In 1998, my dog Molly saved my life. I was stuck at my desk all day, poring through my cluttered financial records in response to an IRS audit, trying to justify every single deposit to my account from three years earlier. I ignored a terrible pain in my leg. Molly came to get me about 7 p.m. and she let me know in unmistakable dog language that she had to go outside and that the audit could wait.

I took her outside, ran into my neighbors--a doctor and his wife (a nurse)--and asked them what to do about the pain in my left leg. They immediately noticed that my breathing was labored and told me to call my own doctor at once. I did, went to a nearby hospital, where I was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism. I learned that my lungs were filling up with blood clots, and that if I had not gotten medical treatment when I did, I would have died.

I owe Molly a big debt. Now she is very sick and strangely enough she has a lung problem too. Her lungs are constricted, and she is having trouble breathing. My local vet said she had congestive heart failure but it would take a week for him to get a sonogram to confirm the diagnosis. I whisked her off to a fancy veterinary clinic that I read about in the New York Times called New York City Veterinary Specialists, which is supposedly tops in every field of veterinary medicine.

At NYC-VS, the doctors quickly concluded that Molly did not have congestive heart failure, but that she probably had lymphoma, which is a cancer. Lymphoma, I learned, was responsible for filling her chest cavity with water and making it hard for her to breathe. After two days of hospitalization and extensive testing (at a cost of $3,000), Molly was turned over to a staff oncologist, who recommended that we start chemotherapy.

Last week, she had her first chemo, a drug called Elspar.

I should mention that Molly's major symptom is a very bad, hacking cough, that sounds as though she can't possibly draw a breath of air. The cough lasts about 10 seconds (which feels more like 10 minutes) and it is very upsetting to hear. The coughing occurs maybe 8-10 times a day. After she got the Elspar, she also had very bad diarrhea.

In between the periodic coughing episodes, Molly is usually alert, perky, and playful. She is not as active as she once was, but she is still our beloved friend.

Yesterday I took her back to the NYC-VS clinic for her second chemo. In the middle of the day, the oncologist called to say that Molly had not responded to the chemo, and she concluded either that Molly did not have cancer at all, or that she had a cancer that did not respond to chemotherapy. I asked what she would recommend. She recommended either more testing of an invasive kind (sedation, DNA analysis, bone marrow, etc.) or euthanasia.

I certainly would not consider euthanasia at this point, so I agreed to the testing. After some minutes of reflection, I realized that the tests would subject the dog to a painful set of procedures that would either prove that she has incurable cancer or come up empty as the earlier tests had. In the past, other vets have told me that sedating an older dog or a dog with respiratory problems is extremely dangerous. I decided to stop the tests, and I withdrew Molly from the NYC-VS custody.

I must say, I have seldom seen her so happy as the moment that I took her away. She ran for the double glass doors, leapt into the car, and was actually smiling (I know what her smile looks like). I had the distinct feeling that I had liberated Molly and for the first time since she fell ill, I felt happy too.

The ugly part of this story is that when I came to pick Molly up, no doctor met with me. In fact, I could not get the internist to answer my calls. I got the impression that the doctors were angry that I had interfered with their plans for more testing.

I think that the problem with this hyperspecialized clinic is that once they put the dog into the care of a specialist, no one could consider any alternative treatments. If she does not have cancer, something else is causing her pulmonary distress, but NYC-VS only wanted to find cancer.

Now, we are going to take Molly to see a renowned homeopathic veterinarian.

There may not be any cure for her illness, and I know that ultimately we will have to euthanize this beloved friend, but when it happens, I want to know (and I hope she knows) that we did everything possible to be sure that she got the best of care and was treated only by loving and kind hands.