November 15, 2016, my dog Junie (and RTP canine pal) suffered fibrocartilaginous embolism (FCE) or canine spinal stroke that left her paralyzed from her pelvis down.
FCE is neither preventable nor detectable, and can happen to any dog of any age. Junie just so happened to draw a short straw in her already difficult life. Because I’m biased to rescue-dogs only, I adopted a mid-aged dog, who’s active enough for my lifestyle (which includes lots of hiking and exploring). Junie was the perfect fit! She’s only 3-4 years old, but was overlooked after months in foster care after being relocated to Seattle from an abusive past in California. Our first few months together, we spent every evening at the beach or park. On the weekends we clocked miles while peaking mountains and swimming in glacial lakes.
When Junie’s FCE occurred, she was jumping into the car after a long run in the rain. It was shocking to watch. Her back legs immediately went limp, just moments after she’d run circles in the mud at lightning speed. After 5 nights in intensive care, she came home to begin a long, hard road to recovery. Our new lifestyle was far different from the one she had come to know. For weeks, she was unable to move at all. Her back legs lay heavy and limp. Her tail was also immobile leaving her unable to express joy in a wag or single thump on the floor in response to seeing familiar, warm faces. I slept on the floor next to her, waking every couple hours to clean her, change her diapers, and give her nerve pain medications. Our evenings out at the beach and weekends on the trail became tiring, difficult, long days and nights of learning to care for a paraplegic.
About two weeks post-FCE, Junie had a custom wheelchair made, and I’d tie up her rear legs so that at least for a little while each day she could forget that she can’t walk on her own. Next came physical therapy, which includes assisted walking on an underwater treadmill 3 times a week, acupuncture, and range-of-motion exercises on the floor every couple hours. There’s no way of telling what the future holds for Junie’s legs because every FCE case is different. Some dogs become paralyzed in all 4 legs, and some just 1. Others make huge recoveries and learn to walk again or regain control of their bladders, and others remain incontinent and unable to walk on their own for the remainder of their lives.
Learning to care for Junie day-to-day can only be compared to the challenges of parents bringing their first newborn home. Unlike parents of a human, I didn’t have 9 months to prepare. I discovered that changing tables are pretty magical inventions, as well. Putting a diaper on a 45-lb. dog while holding them up with one hand and trying to fish their tail through a hole with the other is a challenge of another dimension. Doggie diapers aren’t as foolproof as human diapers, which is why I’ve started buying Pampers (Sesame Street theme, of course, because who can resist an Elmo image on a little doggie butt!) and cutting my own tail holes. I’m learning as we go, and our routine has become more and more doable as I understand what works and what doesn’t. Here’s the great thing about dogs, which if you have one of your own, you’ll surely agree: they don’t feel sorry for themselves. Sure, Junie understands her life has drastically changed. Does she let it stop her? Nope! We’re now 6 weeks post-FCE and she’s dragging herself around and hopping on two legs like she’s never known differently. She looks a bit like a kangaroo, and the cutest darn kangaroo ever. She asks for belly rubs, gets excited about every meal, loves a good wheelchair walk, and still gives the squirrels a run for their money. Her eyes still brighten when I walk in the room, and in her mind, her tail is definitely going “thump thump thump” on the floor, even though I can’t see it do so anymore.
Junie love-love-loves the RTP office and will hopefully return to my desk-side soon so that Ceili can offer butt-rubs (where she may be permanently numb, but I guarantee she’ll appreciate the thought!) and Renee can share her apple slices. We specialize in handling curveballs and making the best out of what we’ve got as event planners, so luckily, I’ve got the right team beside me through this journey!