Back (way back) in my younger days I heard the call to serve my country. Actually, what I probably heard was merely the voice of my mom, in a somewhat less than subtle tone, “suggest” that I needed get on with my life – somewhere else.
I was 17, just graduated from Kingsbury High School in Memphis, had put in my requisite time on newspaper routes and flippin’ burgers at McDonald’s, so perhaps she was right, it was time to broaden my skill set.
The Viet Nam quagmire was tearing our country apart in 1969. In a moment of semi-lucid, 17-year-old brilliance, I decided I would set my sites high and become a member of The Few, The Proud. I arrived at that conclusion after I had seen a tragic news story from Viet Nam that showed several German Shepherd sentry dogs that had been killed in combat. I vividly remember that to this day.
At that time, I had a wonderful German Shepherd Dog, “Chip”. He was a neighborhood legend, 85 pounds of solid muscle and bone with so much attitude the dog catcher called him “sir”. With ”payback” in mind and a knapsack of ignorance on my back, I presented myself to the Marine recruiter and volunteered both myself and my dog to the service of our country.
After quietly and straight-faced listening to my best ”I am here to volunteer” speech, the strapping Marine behind the desk, after a moment of stunned silence, smiled and yelled to the other Marines in the next room and said “Yall ain’t gonna believe this one.”
The Marines, now an entire group of them, maintained their composure, kept straight faces and politely informed me that because I was only 17 years old, I would need my Mother’s permission to enlist as a Marine dog handler. Once she signed the paper that they slid across the desk to my waiting hand, I could be on my way.
I got back on the bus heartbroken. My plan for the future had crumbled. I already knew that no matter how bad she wanted to get rid of me, or how ingeniously I spun the story, there was no way Mom was gonna let that dog go to war.
I had no other options, I continued to work sacking groceries and on my eighteenth birthday went back and enlisted in the Marines, but Chip stayed behind. My life got better, but not right away. Looking back, boot camp at Parris Island would not have been such a challenge if Chip were there with me. He did not approve of any yelling, any time. He would even growl (under his breath) when Mom would yell at me. Therefore he did a lot of growling. I missed him for sure but I also missed nearly everything in the life I left behind. Culture shock takes on a bold new meaning in Marine boot camp.
In the Marines, the rank of E-7 is called a Gunnery Sergeant. That’s a bunch of syllables for us simple-minded Marines so we just called ‘em “Gunny”. My senior drill instructor was a Gunny. That man was, at once, the baddest, filthiest talking, scariest, muscle boundest, squared away human creature I had ever imagined. I soon came to realize that, had he been there, Chip would have joined forces with the Gunny (out of professional courtesy), in order to help him make something of worth out of us pathetic recruits.
After graduation from Parris Island, instead of making me a dog handler, the Marines, in their infinite wisdom, made me a photographer. I was a bit offended at first. My rifle shooting skills had won numerous awards in high school and in boot camp. But you did what you were told and that was that. A photo I sent home of myself in uniform, armed with only a camera, must have been a real hit around the old neighborhood. Chip looked at the photo and just sighed and walked off. It was final. I was on my own. There would be no dogs in my future for a long while.
I included that biographical snapshot from my past to help my readers understand who I am and how I got to this point in my life. I feel it necessary, from time to time, to share a sidebar of my life to share with my readers my passion for veterinary medicine, my patients, and those that mean so much to me.
First, it should be evident that my affection for dogs, especially working dogs, is a cornerstone of my personal foundation. It has been my great pleasure to care for many great working dogs in my professional life. Hunting dogs such as retrievers and bird dogs, Search and Rescue dogs, Police dogs, and Guide dogs (Seeing Eye dogs) are all “working dogs” in service of mankind. They are similar and yet very different from our household pets. All working dogs hold special respect and reverence from Dr. Norm. My commitment to their welfare in deep and unwavering, including those who have tried to bite me.
The words that I shared about my dog “Chip”; a few of my days as a Marine, and what a “Gunny” is are to set the stage for the following story:
Wakulla County Florida is home to one of the best police dogs I have ever met. I have been closely acquainted with many police dogs. I have attended to police dogs shot in the line of duty where the entire hospital is packed with deeply concerned cops demanding minute by minute updates on their wounded comrade. I have nursed them through illness and injury and stood, unable to speak, with their grief-stricken handlers during their final moments of life. Some are downright crazy mean and some have great innate understanding that I am there as a friend and not a felon. All are working dogs, and as such they get the absolute best I can give them any time they ask for help.
It so happens that this fine German Shepherd dog is named “Gunny”. The name is very fitting. Armed with the background that I have supplied about the name “Gunny” in Chapter 1 of this little saga, just know that the name is a perfect fit. “Gunny” is a very impressive canine cop. He can do it all. He is trained to search and find marijuana, cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, crystal meth and he’s very good at it. He has apprehended untold numbers of fleeing felons at all hours of day and night, both armed and unarmed. (It only matters to the dog so they know which arm to bite – the one holding the weapon.) “Gunny”, with the tenderness of a poodle, has tracked and located elderly people who wandered from home at night and become lost in the woods. He has done it all – and done it well.
It is with the greatest admiration that I listen to his handler, Sgt. “Boonie” Mitchell recount the tales of their years together on the beat. The bond that Boonie and Gunny share is impossible to explain and difficult to imagine. Gunny is a normal household pet all day, but at night he is Sgt. Mitchell’s second set of eyes, ears, and all-star backup for every cop within driving range. All law enforcement officers are glad to have a dog that can fearlessly and thoroughly “clear” a building, especially at night. Gunny performs this task with professional zeal and gusto. He’s a marvelously conditioned, consummate professional at his job – just like my Gunny Drill Instructor.
Last Sunday night I was enjoying a little “chill” time at home with Melody. My phone rang and on the other end was Boonie. I could tell by the tone of his voice as he apologized for calling on Sunday that there was serious trouble, most likely, I figured, with Gunny.
When it comes to details with his dog’s day-to-day life Boonie misses absolutely nothing; period. I listened quietly while he described a slight right rear leg lameness beginning two weeks before. He was uncertain but thought it possibly related to a near head-on collision with a fleeing felon who switched off his headlights and attempted to collide with the officer and dog’s vehicle. Gunny was tossed about the vehicle like a rag doll while his handler swerved to avoid a potentially deadly impact. Gunny shook it off at the time and even went through his rigorous annual re-qualification a few days later. However, he solemnly explained that for the past several days Gunny had progressively lost use of his rear legs. He told me he knew Gunny’s working days were over but he wanted to save his life. The profound sadness and concern in his voice was multiplied in my heart because of my personal appreciation for these dogs and the special bond they have with their handlers.
We talked for a long time and agreed to meet first thing Monday morning and try to diagnose and, most importantly, help this dog and his best friend. After I hung up the phone I knew that great hurdles would lie between this incredible dog, and survival. I went to bed but sound sleep was elusive. I worried about those two all night. I needed to bring my “A” game to the clinic on Monday. We also needed luck – better make it a double.
Monday’s tend to get hectic at the clinic these days. I walked into my office and immediately asked Alison how the morning appointment schedule looked. At that point she looked at me fully knowing that there was something cooking that she needed to know about. I told her she needed to make a hole in a packed morning schedule for Gunny. The tone of my voice was all she needed and she got right to it. She’s the best.
It was only a half hour later when the girls ushered Boonie into the exam room with a pitifully sad look on his face while carrying his proud partner. I did my best to maintain a professional, objective approach to this case while I took my first looks as Gunny. Sometimes the game is over before it begins, and with neuro cases odds often get stacked against us.
I greeted this fine German Shepherd Dog with genuine respect and joy. Dogs, especially smart ones like this, can read you like an open book. If I am fearful or emotionally “off” this dog would instantly know it. We have to bond quickly and understand one another as things are about to get personal. Gunny’s eyes and manner immediately welcomed me into his space. Sgt. Mitchell, a very seasoned dog handler, projected exactly the correct support the dog needed without speaking a word to him. Dogs just know what the vibe is and respond appropriately, it is usually us that cannot understand what they say.
As I began the exam we continued to talk about details of the changes in Gunny’s performance over the past 2 weeks. On presentation he was no longer able to consciously use his rear legs. His right rear leg was much worse than the left and had lost over 90% of its function. His reflexes were exaggerated in the right much more than the left. He was still able to move his tail consciously (a great sign) but could no longer control urination. In addition, his front legs showed no neurological deficits. (Another great sign.)
There are a number of possible causes for his loss of neurological function to his rear legs. Because his nerve problem involved just his rear quarters and exaggerated myotatic (knee jerk) reflexes, there was most likely a spinal cord problem between his upper chest and his pelvis. Because it was worse on the right side it was most likely a focal lesion which makes a great case for a ruptured inter-vertebral disk. I told Boonie that if it was, indeed, a disk rupture, we could find it with a myelogram and hopefully remove the offending disk from the spinal canal. Successfully doing so would thereby end the pressure on his spinal cord. Then, the long road back…
Spinal cords are completely surrounded by bone for protection. There is no such thing as an insult to a spinal cord that has no consequences. Mother nature wrapped them in solid bone for a reason. It is essential to protect it at all times, no exceptions. That includes, of course, insults caused by surgical errors.
We admitted Gunny to the hospital and went to work on ancillary things like tending to his full urinary bladder by catheterizing and draining, placing an IV in his front leg and getting some baseline blood tests prior to anesthesia. Gunny was a perfect patient. He doesn’t even blink at the discomfort of these procedures. He just watches, he always watches; everything.
Myelograms are reserved only for spinal cases which will probably go to surgery. They are simple to perform but there are several ways to mess things up and when we are putting a needle in the spinal canal, messing up can carry consequences. Basically we carefully place a needle between two vertebra in the back and carefully advance the needle into the spinal canal. When we get it into position spinal fluid will flow from the needle to indicate we are where we want to be. That is the only feedback you receive. If you are not in perfect position- well remember what I said about insults and consequences.
Gunny slipped off to comfortable sleep as I injected the anesthetic into his IV. His vital were all good and we decided to go forward with the myelogram. His back has to be surgically prepped as these are sterile procedures. Once Maria was finished with the prep she switched places with me and took over the job of monitoring Gunny under anesthesia. We take that stuff seriously and she is as good as they come. The needle hit the spinal canal on the first attempt. Clear fluid spilled from the hub of the needle. I always measure the quantity of the spinal fluid as well as other characteristics such as color and turbidity. All are important as diagnostic indicators.
Next, I injected the contrast media into the space around his spinal cord. This “dye” would outline his spinal cord on the X-ray and tell me if there were places where the cord was compressed for any reason.
As the image came up on the computer there was no longer any question. Gunny had indeed ruptured the disk at L3-4 in his lower back. He was going to need surgical decompression of his spinal cord. The procedure is called a hemilaminectomy. I called Boonie and advised him that there was hope,but Gunny was facing surgery. I knew he was nervous about what lay ahead. Me too.
The surgical procedure, although straightforward, is technically challenging. Years ago, when I was in veterinary school, my neurology instructor, Dr. Bob Selcer, and I became good friends. He was a tough guy, many feared him, but he was home to the most gifted pair of hands that I have ever seen. At the University of Tennessee we saw a number of dachshunds with disk ruptures most of the time after hours as emergencies. In my clinical year I tried to be there as often as I could on those cases. I assisted Dr. Selcer and watched him perform the hemilaminectomy many times. On those long nights, I watched every move he made and learned. He was an incredible surgeon, the best I have ever scrubbed with. He taught me the procedure that few veterinarians will attempt, and he made me both competent and confident when performing it. I think of him every time I perform a spinal surgery.
Gunny’s surgery lasted about one and a half hours. The approach involves an incision right over the center of the back at the level of the offending disk. Once the lumbar muscles are separated from the spinal column and the bleeding controlled, an elliptical “window” is created in the side of the spine over the location of the lesion on the spinal cord using a high-speed burr. It is both difficult and delicate at the same time. While tunneling through the dense bone of the vertebra, the surgeon must know exactly when to stop. Where bone ends, spinal cord begins. Often there is no space between the vertebral bone and the spinal cord itself. If the high-speed burr hits the spinal cord – well nothing good happens.
The bone on this dog’s back is about a quarter-inch thick. The “window” is about 3/4 inch wide and about half that high. Once all the bone is removed and we have a nice smooth window, we begin to remove all of the disk material that is compressing the spinal cord. Most often it is white in color and the consistency of pudding. It is removed with a tiny spoon-like instrument one little scoop at a time with every effort not to disturb the spinal cord. If I touch the spinal cord too hard the dog’s rear legs will jerk. Dr. Selcer always said that every time that happens you can add one week of time to the dog’s recovery. In other words, don’t do it! Hands are often very fatigued after the hard, yet meticulous, work of creating the tunnel but great care is so important at this point.
His surgery went perfectly, his vitals were rock solid all the way through owing, in large part, to his perfect physical condition. We removed a large amount of disk material from Gunny’s spinal canal. By so doing, we know that we were addressing the problem and helping this fine dog. We also know the prognosis for recovery is getting better with every tiny bit of the disk we remove. His spinal cord showed no sign of bruising and I had a great feeling that this saga was going to have a happy ending. Barring unforeseen complications and a good rehab, this dog should fully recover. Norm was a happy camper.
I went straight from surgery to call Gunny’s anxious partner. I was overjoyed to tell him how everything went and that his partner, in my opinion, would not only live but be able to, once again, go back to work. Cautious optimism; I think that’s the best way to describe how I intended to sound, but I probably sounded like I was dancing on air.
Rehab from spinal injury is not a pretty thing. Boonie heard it enough times from me and I knew he understood what we are in for. I taught him how to catheterize his dog and keep his bladder drained. He already knew that when Gunny had to poop that it had to be immediately cleaned up because Gunny just freaks out in embarrassment and drags himself away from his mess. Perhaps, I explained, his recovery would be short but to plan for months.
Boonie checked in with a progress report a few days after he got home and everything sounded like I expected it would. He was getting cathed on a regular schedule, appetite and water consumption good, and his sutures all looked good.
Three days later, he called again to tell me that he was watching TV and Gunny,who had yet to try and stand, staggered by and went through the dog door and outside to take a poop. I laughed with tears in my eyes. I know Boonie did too. A few days later he regained control of his bladder and began to get up and go outside to urinate. Another milestone passed in his recovery.
A couple of days later, now ten days post-op, Boonie and his partner came to the hospital for follow-up. Although Boonie carried him in because it was raining, I was proud to see them both happy again. After I removed his sutures, Boonie, Gunny, Maria and I went out back in the rain so I could have the honor of seeing Gunny pee. I was absolutely delighted to see him hike his left leg and support his entire rear end with the formerly paralyzed right leg and take a good long whiz on the fence.
As they often say, it’s the little things in life. There we all stood in the rain, like silly school kids, deriving great joy from watching a dog pee. How often is life that simple?
I have taken those of you who have read this story through over three thousand five hundred words to have you join us, standing in the rain, watching a dog pee. I am sorry it took so long to get you here but I wanted you to know enough to share that joy with us. I love my job, I am so lucky.
Please keep Boonie and his “Tougher than a Nickel Steak” partner in your thoughts and prayers. He has a long way to go but no shortage of guts to carry him there. Next time you see a cop thank him or her. If it happens to be a canine cop, just remember Gunny, the best of the best.