It was exactly a year ago when I found out that our dog Jenna was dying. I admit that despite her increasing problems getting around and her age (just a few months short of 15 years – good for any dog, for her a miracle, as you’ll see), her dying soon hadn’t crossed my mind. I had good reason, too. She’d just had a good checkup at the vet a few months before. But more importantly, Jenna had an impressive track record when it came to resilience. Through her years Jenna, who was strong and healthy, nevertheless suffered a wide range of incidents – a torn kneecap muscle, a large intramuscular growth requiring extensive surgery, a broken toe, a cyst on her eyelid requiring surgery, teeth extraction – and she pulled through each one of them with such determination to get back to her normal routine, amazing the doctors – and us – with her resilience to such an extent that one of my many nicknames for her (and there were many, and she answered to them all) became the Iron Dog.
When our family brought Jenna home, she was an eight-month-old rescue, part Whippet and part German Shepherd, small enough to ride home in my lap, and strong enough to pull my arm off when on a leash. She certainly barked like a Shepherd, and she was incredibly alert and intelligent. That same day we discovered a massive water leak in my house. By evening the floors had been removed in part of the kitchen and industrial fans and dehumidifiers were blaring – and would have to stay that way for days.
It was no place for a dog. So, the next day I took her to work with me to my recently opened computer repair shop, just a mile away from the house, then ran out and got another crate and dog bowls. From that day on she came to work with me, every day, and for the next nine years she was a shop dog, with her picture on my web site, greeting all the customers who came through the door of my shop with her typical noisy, barking enthusiasm. But she always settled right down. She knew her role at the shop.
The owners of the building I was in loved her dearly and took her over to their office for treats every day and kept an eye on her when I was out in the field. Jenna also loved riding in the car and was very proud to be a front-seat dog. She went to the bank with me, where they gave her treats at the drive-through, and she came to pick up the kids from school. So, she was a very well-known dog around town. When she broke her toe, the veterinarian put her picture on their holiday cards that year.
Apart from her injuries, then, she was a very happy, active dog. Then, a dramatic illness struck her that tested both of us and resulted in a frightening but ultimately miraculous journey that I want to share with you.
In spring 2017 we began to notice that Jenna seemed restless at night, and I noticed that she seemed slow on her walks (usually I could barely keep up with her). Then one day I came back to the shop and found that she had peed on the floor. At age nine this was a first, and when it happened again, I knew something was wrong. I scheduled an examination at our veterinarian. They kept her for a few hours to do an ultrasound.
When the vet called me that afternoon, she said she had bad news and asked if I was sitting down. I was driving, so, yes, I was sitting down. She then told me that the ultrasound had revealed that Jenna had a blood clot that was occluding 80% of her vena cava, greatly reducing blood flow to her heart. Worse, she told me that this clot could break off and kill her at any moment. Fortunately for Jenna, one of the best veterinary clinics in the country is nearby in Raleigh, at NC State. We were referred there for further analysis – next appointment available, 16 days away – an eternity when I thought she might die at any moment.
Years later I found out that this event had deeply shaken the entire staff at the clinic. Our new, young doctor had just been starting out there in 2017, and when she met us for the first time in 2021 her eyes got wide and she said, “this is that Jenna??”, amazed in part that she was even still alive.
When we went to the NC State Veterinary Hospital they did their own imaging, and the entire picture – literally – changed. It turned out that what had been interpreted as a massive blood clot was not that at all. In fact, it was a massive adrenal gland tumor that had grown out of the gland and into the vena cava. This explained her constant drinking and urinating. Her adrenal gland was being overstimulated and releasing more and more adrenaline, in random bursts. So, there was not a risk of something breaking off and killing her, but the situation was just as potentially lethal for Jenna. Adrenal gland tumors are common in dogs, but mostly fatal. We were referred to Oncology.
Jenna and I went back to the hospital, and the Oncology team went over our options. I hated all of them. Surgery to remove the tumor, I was told, was dangerous because of the tumor’s intrusion in the vein, and would leave Jenna on hormone replacement therapy and constant medical monitoring for the rest of her life. Chemo was floated as a possibility, and radiation. But… making it even more frightening, I was told that efforts to shrink the tumor with chemo or radiation could kill her by causing the vein to leak and bleed out. Seemingly there were no good options.
By then Jenna was beginning to have visible adrenalin fits and her heart would race. She’d drop to the floor at my feet panting until it passed. So, while we were at the Oncology meeting, I asked the doctors if there was any medicine that might alleviate her symptoms. They told me that there was one medicine, but two types of tumors, and the medicine only worked on one type of tumor, so they’d have to do testing first, etc.
How about just give me the medicine now and we’ll see if it helps!?
This was my response to them. Forget the testing. Perhaps they saw I was getting kind of desperate. I wanted to save Jenna, but I needed to make her more comfortable, now. They said yes, and the medicine worked. Miracle 1.
This bought me some time to call back and follow up on something that had been briefly mentioned among all the bad options. I found out there was in fact one other option we hadn’t discussed in the first Oncology meeting, mainly because it was a new and experimental treatment in the Radiation Oncology department, and they didn’t know anything about it. I scheduled an appointment and they agreed to see me right away. At this point we were running out of time.
Back we went to Raleigh.
Parenthetically, these repeated trips to and from Raleigh quickly became problematic. It was summer and extremely hot. The seats in my old Honda were small and Jenna couldn’t get comfortable for the long, hot drives – and as I said, she was strictly a front seat dog, so getting in the back was out of the question. Coincidentally I had been looking for a car for my son, and a friend connected me with a 2002 Camry XLE V6 – a very large car with a big front bench seat and blasting cold air conditioning – the perfect car to shuttle Jenna to and from Raleigh, which I was about to learn I was going to do a bunch more times. Miracle 2.
The Radiation Oncology people told me that they had looked over Jenna’s information and imaging and that she was a good candidate for a new treatment they were experimenting with – targeted radiation therapy. It was still in the earliest stages of experimentation with smaller animals, and they told me they were eager to find patients willing to try it. The treatment involved five microdoses of radiation aimed directly at the tumor. After that, we would just wait for it to shrink and her adrenal gland to go back to normal.
But wouldn’t the shrinking tumor cause her to bleed out? According to these doctors, no, the shrinking of the tumor posed no risk to the vein – as the tumor shrank the vein would repair itself. All Jenna would need was six sessions under general anesthesia and a couple of shaved spots, and if it worked, she’d live maybe two more years, but comfortably and normally again.
Miracle 3 – the biggest one.
There was another way. These folks could save her, without permanently disabling her. It wasn’t beyond my wildest dream. It was my wildest dream.
If, that is, I could come up with the money.
Being so experimental, targeted radiation therapy was very expensive. On the other hand, they told me, it looked like a real breakthrough and could save countless dogs and other small animals if it turned out to be viable.
This is when they told me that the hospital had just arranged a sponsorship program with the pet store chain Petco to help them test the procedure on healthy candidates like Jenna, and that Petco would pay for half the cost of the procedure, in return for an interview for their newsletter.
Miracle 4. The Petco program was so new that nobody knew how to complete the paperwork. Jenna was the first recipient. I gladly paid the rest.
It was a hell of a week for Jenna. Six sessions under general anesthesia (one to measure, five for the treatment) over 13 days. Back and forth in the front seat (natch) of the Camry, 12 more times.
And it worked. Really worked! Once the treatments were over, I took her off the medicine and Jenna soon became herself again.
Six months after her treatment Jenna and I went back to the hospital again for another image, so they could see the results. They called me later that day – the whole staff was abuzz because her tumor had shrunk so drastically. Her vein was healed. For them it was a stunning success – the doctor called it “the best possible result”. I was so stunned and happy myself that when I got there to pick Jenna up the doctor actually told me I ‘wasn’t happy enough’ – but I assured him I had been smiling so hard since the phone call that morning that my mouth just couldn’t do it anymore. We took her back for one more image six months later, and to their further amazement they said the tumor had shrunk even more. At that point they said don’t bother bringing her back unless you need to. Go home and let her enjoy her life.
And that she did. The Iron Dog beat a big one, alright, and she did it with incredible bravery and determination. I closed the shop the following spring and Jenna came home to finally just be a house dog, though she did get to go visit her friends at the old shop from time to time…
True to form, the ‘wonder dog’ (as my friend called her), the ‘miracle pup’ (as her new vet called her) far outdistanced the life expectancy predictions for her procedure, which was 1 to 2 years: she lived for 5 and half years. She was our joy and comfort all throughout the pandemic, a period I’m sure she really loved, with all of us home all the time and her getting three walks a day. Her hearing went, then she got arthritic, then her eyesight began to go, then finally her balance went, but she was as eager to go out and come in for a treat, and as overflowing with love the night she passed away as she had ever been. Maybe even more.
Jenna touched many lives and – I can hope – helped many other dogs to be cured of tumors in this incredibly gentle and non-invasive way. My sweet girl. She’s a part of me so deeply that I’m still only learning to live with her being gone. She was a remarkable spirit, a true companion, a gentle, loving soul and possessed of a boundless will – my Iron Dog.
Cover Photo: Jenna the Wonder Dog, the dog who lived. This is the photo I sent to the doctors at NC State as a thank you.
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