That first night at the Stone Villa motel, I’m amazed I slept at all. The last word from the doctors at UC Davis veterinary hospital, when we left Jasmine Blue with them for yet more tests, was if I didn’t hear anything by 10:30 the next morning, that was a good sign; it meant they had looked at the extensive full-body scans of Jazzy’s insides, and the cancer hadn’t spread. If the cancer hadn’t spread, she would be a candidate for radiation – the only viable treatment option. If, on the other hand, I got a call by 10:30, it would mean the cancer had spread and there were no options other than to make Jazzy comfortable for whatever time she had left.
I finally passed out from sheer exhaustion around 3 a.m., only to wake with a start at 7:30. I had set the alarm on my iPhone for 10:15 – as if I would actually be able to sleep until then – and I clutched it tightly as I tiptoed around the room so as not to wake up Steve. After throwing on a pair of sweats, some flip-flops, and a T-shirt that says, “My best friend is a pit bull,” I shuffled out of room 206 and down the air-conditioned hallway. Opening the door, I hit an 80-degree wall of heat – just a typical August morning in Davis, California.
As I walked toward the motel lobby, I obsessively looked at the time on my iPhone (8:10 ... 8:30 ... 8:45 ...), and I checked to make sure the ringer was on, too, even as I poured a cup of decaf, toasted a bagel and smeared it with cream cheese. Somehow I managed to balance the coffee, the bagel and the phone while pulling open the iron gate surrounding the swimming pool. There wasn’t another soul in sight, and with the exception of New Age music piped via satellite radio through the surround-sound speakers, it was eerily quiet.
I settled on a table under the canopy – it shielded me from the sun, but definitely not the heat – put the Styrofoam plate with the bagel and cream cheese down, sipped my coffee, and stared at my phone. Why did I even bother toasting a bagel and smearing it with cream cheese when my stomach was in knots, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat? For that matter, why did I go through the balancing act heading to the pool? I took one bite and shoved the plate aside. I checked the time on my iPhone again (9:10 ... 9:30 ... 9:45). Now there were only two sounds – the New Age music through the speakers and my heart pounding in my ears.
After what seemed an eternity, the clock struck 10:30. I checked again to make sure the ringer was on. I stared at my phone and waited for the call, but the call never came. In disbelief, I watched the minutes tick by until 10:45, and then I broke down and sobbed; tears of relief, tears of exhaustion, tears of fear for the unknowns that lie ahead.
At 11 o’clock on the dot, Dr. Jeffrey, Jazzy’s senior vet student, called to confirm the good news I had prayed for: the cancer was localized; it hadn’t spread to the rest of her body, meaning she was a candidate for radiation. “Dr. Theon would like to see you to discuss the options,” Jeffrey said. “What time can you be here?”
“Right away,” I told him, and I ran back to the room to tell Steve the good news.
When we arrived at the Small Animal Clinic, Jeffrey brought Jazzy out, and she pulled so hard that he let go of her leash – she ran to me as fast as her big pit bull butt would take her, and I crouched down on the floor and threw my arms around her muscular, white neck dressed in a hot pink collar that read “Mommy’s Little Girl.” She collapsed in a heap on the floor, trying to sneak in stealth kisses as I hugged her and scratched her belly.
After the love-fest, Jeffrey walked us over to the oncology wing at Reception Three where we waited in the lobby, Steve seated in a chair and Jazzy seated like a little human on a green Naugahyde bench next to me. The other dogs were at their owners’ sides on the floor, but Jazzy barely knows what a floor is unless it has a huge, fluffy dog bed on it.
Then Dr. Theon came out and pulled up a chair beside us, still looking every bit the part of a robust Inspector Clouseau. “It’s good news it hasn’t spread,” he began in his thick French accent. “Now we have to talk about the two options for radiation therapy.” As he went into detail, I caught bits and pieces, but he was speaking a foreign language with a foreign accent, and both Steve and I were having trouble understanding him.
“So, there is palliative, which is radiation one day a week for a month – this is heavier doses, and there can be severe complications such as necrosis ...” He could tell that Steve and I were lost. “That’s when the radiation kills even the healthy tissue – it can burn a hole straight through her nose.” Seeing my startled expression, Dr. Theon quickly added, “This doesn’t happen often, but it can happen.”
The second option, he explained, involved 16 treatments at lower doses, five days a week. “This would mean that she would be under anesthesia every day,” he said. “And there are still risks of complications like necrosis, but smaller risks than with palliative treatment because the radiation doses are not as high. But, of course, anesthesia every day, even though it is a lighter anesthesia than we use for surgery, also involves risks. ...”
In 20 minutes, I went from hopeful to horrified. What would I be putting Jazzy through? It was certainly less barbaric than removing her jaw, but anesthesia and radiation every day, and the potential of having a hole blown through her muzzle didn’t sound all that much better.
“If I choose to not do the radiation treatment, how long do you think she has?” I asked.
Dr. Theon shook his head, “Not long,” he said.
“How long?” Steve asked.
“Three months ... six months ... eight months at the most,” Dr. Theon said in his straightforward way.
My voice shaking, I gathered all my courage. “Do you think you can help her with the radiation?” I asked.
Dr. Theon nodded emphatically. “Yes, I do. If I didn’t think I could help animals like Jasmine, I would be owning a flower shop, depressed on my couch every night.”
I looked at the tumor on Jazzy’s nose, growing bigger by the minute. I held her tightly, burying my face in her neck again so she wouldn’t see me fighting more tears because, as it always does, that would upset her.
“OK,” I said, “If you think you can help her, then we will do the radiation.”
Dr. Theon stroked Jazzy’s head. “You don’t have to decide which course of radiation right away,” he said. “Take a few days to think about it. We are going to have to pull two of her teeth – the left canine and the one next to it – because they are loose from the tumor, and we can’t do radiation with loose teeth. ...”
The very thing I had been most concerned about that first day with Dr. Lommer at Pets Unlimited – that Jazzy would lose a tooth – now seemed so inconsequential. I thought then she might have an infection in her gums, or at most, need a root canal. Just a few weeks later, we were fighting for her life.
“Let’s walk over to Reception One and make an appointment with dentistry for next week,” Dr. Theon said. “The sooner she heals from the dental surgery, the sooner we can start radiation, and we want to do this as quickly as possible because her tumor is very aggressive. ...”
As we left the air-conditioned lobby, we hit that wall of heat again, now 98 degrees. Jazzy spotted a cottontail rabbit on the path, and she looked up at me, full of excitement with those bright blue eyes and that huge pittie grin. I realized that she was really lucky to be a dog, with no idea about pulled teeth or radiation or necrosis; just living in the moment, one rabbit at a time.
“Jazzy halts flow of tears with toys and tenacity,” the story of how Jasmine helped Susan get through the death of her father, appeared Dec. 8, 2010 in the San Francisco Chronicle in Eileen Mitchell’s “Pet Tales” and is available on SFGate (www.sfgate.com/columns/pettales/archive). Susan is currently working on a book, “Jasmine Blue’s Tails: How a throwaway pit bull rescued her rescuer,” based on her column in Northside San Francisco. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org