Valentine's Day: Luca's Story
As cheesy as it sounds I really do like Valentine's Day. I know it's easy for single people to focus on the "lack" of love that they have on this day but I've always chosen to look at it as a day to celebrate love that we have in all forms. I celebrate the love my dogs have for me, I appreciate the love my family shows me, and if I am in a relationship I focus on letting that significant other know what goodness they bring to my life. Valentine's Day reminds me to slow down and show the ones I love how much I care.
Which brings me to Luca. Remember Luca? She is the adorable shepherdy/hound mix that came from the shelter with Gilligan to be trained as a Diabetes Alert Dog last spring? I've specifically refrained from writing about her because up until now I felt like her story wasn't complete yet.
But let me back up a bit...rewind back to mid-October of 2016. Gilligan had been adopted (and not yet returned) and I was polishing up Luca's training before her placement. She had already picked up a bunch of interest and although there were several parties that sounded like nice matches there was one particular family that I really liked and had felt an instant connection. I had been chatting with them back and forth since September. Mom was a T1D and had been for a long time. Dad was super supportive and great with the two teenage kids. They wanted a family dog but also one that would help Mom keep tabs on the out of range blood sugars that she didn't feel. After spending over an hour chatting with Mom on the phone for a phone interview something inside told me that this was the place Luca was meant to be. After much discussion between Alex and myself, we decided to share the news with the family that they were the front runners. The next step was to meet in person to see if there was a connection with Luca. And that's where it started...
Literally days after telling the family that they had been selected, Luca woke up with what I can only describe as a fluidy filled cyst on her lower abdomen the size of a golf ball. Luca had finished her breakfast and had rolled in front of me exposing her belly to beg for a rub. I looked down and was horrified. What is THAT?! was the only thought I could muster. She wasn't showing any other symptoms that would make me believe something was wrong. Her appetite was great, potty habits normal, no lethargy or acting as if she was in pain. She allowed me to touch the "thing" without hesitation. For all I knew she didn't even know it was there.
Alex and I made an appointment for later that week and took her into the vet. By that time the "thing" had ruptured and it was nasty! Pus and small amounts of blood oozed, and it was then that Luca wanted to lick it constantly. The vet was puzzled, but followed protocol and did a needle aspiration of the original lump and also of a tiny new one developing off to the side that had recently appeared as well. She was a champ and handled being poked and prodded like the good natured sweet girl that is Luca. The needle aspiration concluded that it was an infection of some sort. Alex and I walked away from the vet's office that day with prescriptions for antibiotics and anti-inflammatories as well as an appointment in a week to recheck to see if the infection had improved.
I was worried, very worried, that she had picked up something. All I could think about were foxtails, which as any dog parents knows, are a real pain in the butt. Even if you're super careful they get embedded in all sorts of places. A little nagging voice inside of me kept telling me that that wasn't it. The vet had mentioned it could be a foreign object (like a foxtail) but it could also be a myriad of other possibilities such as an infection from the dissolvable stitches from her spay surgery which was where the "thing" was located.
"That can even happen months later?" I remember asking. "We've been fostering her for 6 months."
"It's uncommon but not impossible," the vet answered.
A week later it was looking much better. A combination of Luca wearing the cone-of-shame so she wouldn't pick at it, the drugs, and applying a warm compress once a day seemed to really be helping. Alex took her back for her recheck appointment and we were feeling pretty good that we had taken care of the problem. The vet, however, thought otherwise. It was her opinion that it wasn't healing the way it should and that something else was the cause. She wanted to do surgery. After looking at the estimate of over a thousand dollars and much discussion, Alex and I decided that this was a bigger problem than we originally had thought and that it was time to take Luca back to Fresno so that she could see Animal Compassion Team's vet as she was still their dog and I trusted their opinion. By the time I could make the trip from the bay area to the central valley the lump had reappeared and was continuing to drain. That made it clear to me that there was something deeper that was causing the problem. In the back of my mind, however, I couldn't accept that it wasn't an external type of foreign object. It had appeared too suddenly and it was in such a weird location. My instincts were telling me it was something internal.
The opinion from the second vet in Fresno was that surgery was needed to see if there was still a foreign object that needed to be removed. After surgery, the vet did not find anything and had explored all the way up the drainage track in the lump so they thoroughly cleaned it and stitched up the wound. Luca was put back on a 10 day round of antibiotics and anti-inflamitories (her second round) and I was instructed to bring her back in 7-10 days for stitches to be removed.
I made plans to have the family meet Luca while I was in their neck of the woods and upon meeting them my instincts were confirmed. They were wonderful! Their family energy was warm and inviting -- the kids were cheerful and energetic and you could tell that they all were devoted to each other. I had a good feeling that the family would work together as a unit to make sure they all did their best to help Luca adjust and set her up for alerting success as she transitioned. As much as I wanted to have them take her home that day we all decided it was best for her to spend the next week with me and not transition to their home until the stitches were removed and she was finally on the mend. So, I drove back to the bay area and made plans to make the trip back out to the valley the following weekend to complete the adoption process.
The next weekend Luca's wound was looking great. The swelling had gone way down, and although it was still slightly upraised the vet mentioned that it was possible for there to be some scar tissue. The stitches were removed and Luca was looking like she was feeling much better. She still had a couple days of medication left but the way it was healing I was comfortable allowing the family to adopt her and finish her care routine while she finished healing. I spent that Friday evening with the family training them how to work with Luna's training and I left that night feeling wonderful. As much as I knew I'd miss Luca my heart was full and I was happy knowing that she was going to have a wonderful life with this fabulous family.
I woke up very early a few days later to a text from Mom saying "the soft lump is back..." My heart instantly fell. How could that be?! We had taken care of it! Back to the vet they went. Because the previous surgery hadn't helped, this time, the vet thought it was a serum type infection and that possibly the skin had separated from the muscle causing a pocket that was collecting the draining body fluid.
"Back on meds again and very restricted exercise until it can reattach and heal..." Mom's text read after the vet appointment. I apologized profusely. I just felt horrible...like really really terrible. I knew the expenses were rapidly adding up and it was unfair that they suddenly had been saddled with this medical expense when they thought they were getting a healthy dog. Mom's reply made me tear up with how sweet it was. "No sorry needed...we already love this dog. I just want it to end for her!! She is amazing!!"
Thanksgiving came and went and Luca was still healing from the "thing."
"The vet wants to do exploratory surgery," Mom wrote to me on the 1st of December. It had been over a month and it wasn't any better. My heart sank even further. What the hell was this demon?! Why could no one tell us what it was? Of course my mind went to the worst - was it cancer?! Luca was in good spirits, it seemed, but there were still times where she seemed a bit under the weather and her alerting wasn't stellar. She was getting some alerts, but not all. I assured the family to reward whatever correct alerts she did catch and to not worry about tweaking her training for better results until she was healed and feeling better. Mom agreed with me and promised to update me about how the surgery went in a few days.
The second surgery happened and still nothing was found, even though a very hard spot on the lump had appeared. Back to meds and the cone-of-shame. By this time it was mid-December and poor Luca had been on medication and wearing the cone since October. I felt so bad. The whole saga just kept getting worse. I kept waiting for the text from the family saying they just couldn't handle it and that they needed to return Luca...and honestly I wouldn't have blamed them one bit.
But that text never came. "We will just keep asking until we find an answer!" was Mom's attitude. I was astonished at this family's resolve and dedication. It just proved that the instincts I had about them from the very beginning was spot on.
Christmas came and went the the "thing" was still there. It was the end of December and the story was still the same. It wasn't healing, and Luca wasn't looking like she was feeling like herself. The vet wanted to do another exploratory surgery, but this time it was going to be a BIG one as the other surgeries hadn't revealed anything. The last day of December she was scheduled to go in again, and all throughout the day I kept praying. I was praying for a resolution for both Luca and the family. I prayed for the veterinarian and all of the surgical staff. I prayed for Luca - this whole episode hadn't been easy on her either. I just prayed....all day.
Later that afternoon Mom texted me with the results. "They went in and found an old drain attached to the stitches at the spay site. They took out the old drain, some dead tissue and the stitches. Luca is doing good now. I am so glad they found something! It was from her original surgery..."
I was shocked. She had been spayed before Alex and I had pulled her for our Diabetes Alert Dog Pilot Program. How had she not shown ANY symptoms for 6 whole months before the "thing" appeared?! How had she had that hanging out inside of her the entire time?! She had somehow managed to learn how to be a Diabetes Alert Dog and a valuable member of a family while she hadn't felt at her best. Poor girl. Accidents happen and now it was finally all over.
I can now say she has healed from her surgeries and is thriving! Mom reports that she whines at night to wake her up when her blood sugar is low. Luca hangs out with her daughter, plays with her son, and supervises her husband while he cooks and all the while makes sure to check in with Mom to make sure her diabetes isn't sneaking up on her. Alex and I couldn't be happier - that was what we wanted for Luca all along! All we wanted was for her to be happy and loved and this amazing family stuck by her side, through thick and thin to make sure that happened! That is such a huge display of love and a perfect story for this wonderful day dedicated to love!
Luca now spends her days hanging out by the pool with her family and making sure Mom is doing well. I would like to thank her new family for loving her as much as they do! Thanks to Dr. B from Castro Valley Companion Animal Hospital for doing the initial exam and making time to see Luca so quickly. A huge thank you to Pet Medical Center and Spa (who did not perform the original spay surgery) for continuing to problem solve until the issue was resolved and for completing the last surgery at no cost to the family to give them a much deserved break. Thank you to Fresno Humane Animal Services (where Luca originally came from) and Animal Compassion Team (who pulled her for rescue) for seeing the value in Luca and saving her life. And last but not least, thank you Luca for having faith in us that we would get you the life that you deserved!