The day after the day Heather almost died

September 17, 2009

Heather was diagnosed Tuesday with a soft-tissue sarcoma, based on X-rays and ultrasounds. Almost certainly malignant, but without cutting into her, we can’t know, and I’m not doing that at this point in her life. (She’s almost 13.)

drspuppiesThat news was delivered by my primary-care veterinarian, the amazing, compassionate and utterly freakin’ brilliant Dr. Bill Porte (that’s him on the left  in the picture, with Dr. John Kim, as well as McKenzie and her puppies). Dr. Bill started his working life as a ladder-climbing MBA at Ford Motors, but he could not extinguish his dream of being a veterinarian. His wife said, “What are you doing? Go for the dream!” and they moved to California where he went to UC Davis. One of his professors was younger than he was:  Cardiologist Dr. Paul Pion, who went on to save millions of cats and found the Veterinary Information Network.

Dr. Bill is now the Director of General Medicine at the VCA Sacramento Veterinary Referral Center. Even more important, there’s not a patient, client, staffer or veterinarian who doesn’t adore the man, which means when he asks the specialists to take a look and offer an opinion right now, they do.  And so it was that the diagnosis (bad) and prognosis (bad) was the considered opinion not only of our own primary-care veterinarian, but also of a veterinary-school-quality A Team of specialists.

I love my pets’ veterinary hospital.  From the front desk — hi Angie! hi Michelle! — to the wonderfully skilled certified techs, including one who is also a “Heather,”  to the veterinarians all, this place has really hit its stride from a rather rough beginning (in my opinion) when they opened the massive and impressive  facility a couple years back, consolidating most of their regional specialists in one place.

Many’s the time I walk out wishing I could get care like this — an immediate appointment (I waited six weeks for an “urgent” appointment for my own back issues), friendly, efficient front staff, excellent nurses, and GPs and specialists who work with each other constantly and seamlessly.

My veterinarian calls me. My own doctor I can’t get on the phone, don’t even try.  (OK, gotta say here that my doctor does the best she can under the restraints put on her by the system she works in. I don’t blame her at all. But our healthcare system is screwed up beyond almost all hope, even for those of us who DO have health insurance.)

“Cost of such incredible veterinary care?” you say? Yes, it’s high end in veterinary medicine. But compared to what I and my insurance company are paying for care that’s not remotely as caring, competent and convenient,  it’s a complete and utter bargain. And yes, I carry pet-health insurance to offset the cost.

Swell, but I’ve still got a dog with a terminal prognosis. Yesterday, I almost put her down. And without the long-standing, trusting relationship built over 20-plus years with Dr. Bill, she would probably be dead today.

Tuesday after her day at the hospital, we decided to give her a new pain-control medication. It did not go well, and Wednesday morning I had a dog who had no interest in food or even raising her head, and who urinated on herself.


But then Dr. Bill offered that it might be a drug issue, and by noon, when I got home from work to take her for her last car ride, I had a dog who greeted me at the door, tail wagging, who ate my entire lunch ravenously  (grilled beef salad and Bunny Grahams) and who bounced into the hospital as if she were a visiting dignitary, not a dog with a date to die.

Angie ripped up the euthanasia forms, Dr. Bill adjusted the meds, and Heather ate a full dinner last night and re-assumed her normal spot on the bed afterward.

Yes, I’m running a doggie hospice. But while I will not take more time at the cost of her suffering, I will take all the time I can get without her suffering.

And so, another day begins.

Special note to Sacramento-area folks: Since our Dr. Marty Becker likes flying more than I do, we’ve gotten into the routine of having our sorta quarterly ‘where the heck are we? what the heck are we doing?” daylong meetings here in Sacramento, where we are graciously given the conference room at my veterinary hospital for the day.

This led to talks, and those led to this, officially:

Dr. Marty Becker will be at the VCA Sacramento Veterinary Referral Center on Sunday, Oct. 18  to sign books. (Me, too!) I believe there will also be tours of the facility — it’ll knock your socks off — and a chance to meet the staff.  I’ll have more details later, but mark your calendar now.

Heather won’t be there — it’s just too much for an almost 13-year-old dog — but I’ll bring Faith, since I never turn down such a wonderful opportunity to socialize a puppy.


Christie’s mom: Christie offers an update on her mom over on her personal blog. Since it’s exactly what she wants to say, I won’t paraphrase here . Just jump over. And say a prayer for Kathleen McKenzie and her family.

Filed under: pets, connected — Gina Spadafori @ 7:32 am


  1. Gina, I’m glad Heather is still with you. Love to you both.

    Comment by VJ — September 17, 2009 @ 7:49 am

  2. I sincerely hope that Heather is with you for a while longer and will get to see her 13th birthday. She has adorned Flickr and we all love her very much.

    Comment by Judy — September 17, 2009 @ 7:52 am

  3. Give Heather a scratch on her belly, behind the ears, under the chin, or wherever her favorite place may be and tell her someone in Texas is thinking of her.

    Comment by Therese — September 17, 2009 @ 7:59 am

  4. Go, Heather! Sirene was never any good at waiting so make her ;)

    Comment by KT — September 17, 2009 @ 8:17 am

  5. Oh, KT … your comment just rocks. You are so right about Sirene, but she will have to wait at the Rainbow Bridge for Heather. Sucks for her. :)

    Comment by Gina Spadafori — September 17, 2009 @ 8:22 am

  6. Gina, I recently lost a family dog to cancer. My mom called to tell me and within 24 hours, I was on a red-eye flight back home. Within 12 hours of my flight back, he had passed. I say this not to sadden you or any of your readers, but to say that I understand exactly what you’re going through and the value of medicine that can increase your time with your dog while decreasing her pain. My thoughts and prayers are with you!

    Comment by Marilyn — September 17, 2009 @ 8:45 am

  7. I am so glad there was a break in the clouds and a bit of a reprieve for you both!

    Comment by Dr. Tony Johnson — September 17, 2009 @ 8:49 am

  8. Hang in there, Heather! We’re glad you’re feeling good right now.

    Comment by Kim Thornton — September 17, 2009 @ 8:52 am

  9. What awesome news. You rule, Queen Heather!! My brother just went through the same scenario. His 13 year old Aussie, was put on antibiotics for a nose problem. He came home to a shaking, vomiting, non-eating, very lethargic dog. He thought for sure it was Snicker’s last day. Nope, change of meds and he was back to his bouncy self. You just never know. Glad to hear she is back to snarfing up your lunch.

    Comment by Jill — September 17, 2009 @ 8:55 am

  10. Give Heather a hug and enjoy her! smile…

    As I have said so many times before and will again, old dogs are a treasure!

    Hugging Riker since I can’t reach Heather!

    Comment by Liz Palika — September 17, 2009 @ 9:05 am

  11. I only wish our doctors would offer the care our vets do. Heck, I wish my barber offered the service my groomer does!

    Please don’t tell me their is a public plan coming for pet care.

    Great post guys.

    Comment by Ray — September 17, 2009 @ 9:08 am

  12. Whew–those end of life rollercoasters, whether with beloved animals or human loved ones, are really something. Been there, done that, all too many times. I sure learned to be grateful for the miracles and reprieves, however temporary. Sending many good thoughts your way and Heather’s.

    Comment by Cindy R — September 17, 2009 @ 9:10 am

  13. Gina, I’m glad that Heather is still with you! Here in Medford, OR we have a good vet specialty center also. I have had my share of visits there with my almost 14 yr. old Huckleberry.

    Comment by Vicki Peterson — September 17, 2009 @ 9:10 am

  14. Glad to hear Heather’s doing better. We lost our 7 year old cat Shadow a month ago to cancer, seems he had a tumor in his chest behind his breast bone that could only be seen with an xray so we didn’t know he had it because he had no symptoms until he suddenly collapsed one night. We have a wonderful vet, who still takes his own emergency calls (doesn’t send you to an emergency clinic with rotating vets that you don’t know)- our vet met us at his office at 11pm. After a couple of days of tests and diagnostics, the vet found that the cancer had spread to Shadows brain and nervous system and there was nothing we could do, except euthanasia, as he was deteriorating rapidly. Shadow was our special “baby” and I still wish we had had more time with him. So I wish all the best for you and Heather and hope you have lots of good quality time with her.

    Comment by Deb — September 17, 2009 @ 9:33 am

  15. You know Gina, I was thinking of how much better and more affordable my pets care is than my own on my ride home from the vet today. It is amazing the difference, and trust me, I know how it feels to have that wonderful staff to help you through the rough times.

    Comment by Cindy — September 17, 2009 @ 9:37 am

  16. Hoping for lots more good quality time for and Heather.

    Comment by Leslie K — September 17, 2009 @ 10:07 am

  17. It’s so great to have a vet you can trust. When our animals have been sick, we have routinely asked what our husband-and-wife team of vets would do if it were their animal. Their advice hasn’t failed us so far. Smooches to Heather!

    Comment by keenwell — September 17, 2009 @ 11:10 am

  18. Heather rocks, Gina. And so do you. Hugs to you both.

    Comment by Susan — September 17, 2009 @ 11:19 am

  19. Dear heather, Grilled beef salad? Tell your mom she should be bringing home a nice steak sandwich for lunch.
    -Bogey (who would like a nice BLT right now. Heavy on the T please.)

    Comment by Verde — September 17, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

  20. I keep trying to write something meaningful for both you and Heather, and Christie and her mother Kathleen. I can’t seem to find the appropriate words. Just know I care and that I wish I could help somehow with the physical & emotional pain, the frustration, the anger, the grieving, the sadness, the ticking away of the time clock. That’s the best I seem to be able to do.

    Comment by Anne T — September 17, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

  21. Gina & Heather plus Christie & Her Mom = me last year. A week after we buried my Dad, my Mom was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. Two weeks after we buried my Mom’s ashes I had to put down my 11 yr. old standard poodle heart dog, Mike, when he could no longer stand or breathe (laryngeal paralysis coupled with the neuropathy that often accompanies it). Oh – did I mention I never got his ashes back? They screwed up the order for individual cremation….

    My eyelids are lips as I read your’s and Christie’s blogs (sniff – go figure…). For whatever it’s worth, there really is something I learned last year and want to share with you and Christie –

    Even as our hearts are breaking, they recognize and realize and remember and memorialize LOVE. In the end, what else is there?

    {{{{{{{HUGS}}}}}}}}} to all ya’ll.

    Comment by Miki — September 17, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

  22. My thoughts are with you.. I remember the feelings near the end of the days when my beloved Harry and my Barkley both lost their war with the big C…I know there is not much more to say then my heart is with you…

    Comment by Carol V — September 17, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

  23. Gina,I truly feel for you at this time.
    Heather, we’re all hoping to be hearing positive things about you for a while to come.
    My best wishes to you both

    Comment by Alison — September 17, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

  24. Wishing you and Heather many more enjoyable lunches together. I know you are cherishing every moment.

    Comment by kb — September 17, 2009 @ 8:02 pm

  25. I know the pain of saying goodbye to a loved pet. My cat Tom lived to be 21 years and 7 months, and I wrote a book about his journey as described on my website.

    Comment by carl henriksen — September 17, 2009 @ 8:15 pm

  26. So happy to hear Heather is doing better. And the cuisine for Friday is …?

    Sending love and hugs to you both.

    Comment by Nadine L — September 17, 2009 @ 8:53 pm

  27. Not much else I can say, except my emotional support is with you. Also, and I am glad you are having extra days with Heather.

    I guess, like Dr. Tony stated, the appetite is a big indicator of their will to live.

    Comment by Colorado Transplant — September 18, 2009 @ 5:55 am

  28. Gina, Your story touches me as a dog owner and lover and inspires me as a verinary student. Thank you.

    Comment by Jennifer S. E. — September 18, 2009 @ 6:29 am

  29. Dr. Bill, and the entire staff at VCA, make all our visits very special. I kinda wish Bill was a human doctor. But, in a way, he is. Years ago, Maggie couldn’t walk or get up. It was an emergency surgery for a spinal tumor. Maggie was left paralyzed. Bill Porte, sat with me and Maggie. He just said,”Take her home and see how she does.” Maggie, did well for over a year-on wheels. She was an inspiration. Bill and the staff support was the reason we had Maggie, and she had us. Special people.

    Comment by Bruce Broughton — September 18, 2009 @ 8:54 am

  30. Oh no! Give Heather a hug from her Auntie Ginger. I loved watching her on the beach in Florida.


    Comment by G.Sanders — September 18, 2009 @ 10:11 am

  31. I love Lucy Postins of Honest Kitchen. I told her this morning that their Nuzzles treats were one of the few things Heather will eat when her appetite is down, and Lucy immediately dropped everything to get us more of them ASAP. Along with Ice Pups, to be served as a warm liquid instead of frozen.

    Thank you, Lucy! You’re more than a sponsor: You’re a friend and a true dog-lover!

    Comment by Gina Spadafori — September 18, 2009 @ 11:33 am

  32. Oh, Queen Heather. Sending you kisses on your regal head, and wishes for as many comfortable days as we can get. When I get home I’m going to hug my furbabies tight. (I’ll probably get at least one tail to the face as a reward, but it’s worth it.)

    Comment by (Another) Liz — September 18, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

  33. Hugs to Gina and Heather… I’m so sorry for Heather’s diagnosis. :-(

    Comment by karen — September 18, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

  34. Hugs and love to you and Heather! Dr. Porte is our vet too. And Dr. Kim saved our girl during one of her worst medical episodes. You are indeed in good hands with a caring and compassionate group. Best to you.

    Comment by Nancy — September 20, 2009 @ 4:41 pm

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