Ten days ago, early in the morning before my family woke, Phoebe and I snuck out to see if the Canada geese were around. A hundred or more were peacefully grazing on the high school field. Phoebe knows about herding now, and crept wide around the flock, keeping sufficient air space to prevent the flock from flushing. Her body was low, tense, focused and, when the geese finally rose honking into the sky, she broke into a long, joyful gallop after them.
We came home and Phoebe jumped out of the car and went to lay under the piano, where she rested while I hustled the boys off to summer camp and settled down for my morning work. A few hours later, while my son Wylie and I ate lunch, I heard Phoebe stand up, and fall down.
I went to look and saw Phoebe propped on her front legs, her back legs splayed on the floor, her face distressed and confused. I felt her legs and feet. Had she sprained an ankle or injured her spine herding the geese? What had happened to my dog?
A few minutes later, my friend and dog-walking partner Kristin stopped by to see if Phoebe wanted to play with her buddy Lily the poodle. Kristin stayed with her while I ran to call our vet and my mother. My vet was on vacation and the substitute vet did not seem up to this challenge. By the time my mother arrived at the house, Phoebe's front legs had gone too. We put her in the car and drove directly to Angell Memorial Hospital, Boston's top research animal hospital.
The emergency room vet, Michelle Davis, didn't know exactly what was happening to Phoebe, yet felt it was serious and admitted her for the night. We came home to wait.
Later that night, Dr. Davis called. The staff neurologist had examined Phoebe and felt there were four possible diagnoses: Coonhound Paralysis, Botulism, Tick Paralysis, or Myasthenia Gravis. Dr. Davis gave me an update on Phoebe's condition. The paralysis had extended as far as her face. Now she couldn't even blink.
The vets gave her a high dose of steroids to halt the progress of the paralysis before it reached her respiratory muscles. She kept breathing, although every breath was a desperate pant.
By the next day, the vets had settled on Coonhound Paralysis as the most likely diagnosis. Rare and not well understood, the disease is seen mainly in hunting dogs, often those who have recently come in contact with a raccoon. Fifty percent of cases, however, have no clear etiology. In Coonhound, the dog's immune system overreacts to a foreign protein, virus or other agent, inflaming the peripheral nerve and creating total flaccid temporary paralysis. The canine equivalent of Guillan-Barre, the disease is highly variable. Sometimes the paralysis lasts just a few days, sometimes months. The average period before the paralysis recedes is ten days. If a dog can keep breathing, eating and drinking until the paralysis wears off, however, recovery is usually swift and complete.
I brought Phoebe home two days later to provide supportive care as long as she needed it: feeding and watering her by hand, carrying her outside and holding her in position to eliminate, cleaning her up when I didn't get her out in time, flexing her joints and massaging her muscles, putting drops in her eyes, and turning her every three hours to prevent bed sores. My husband organized her bedding and ran to the store for more supplies, the boys helped massage and feed her, and our neighbors pitched in by carrying her whenever I asked to save my back.
The supportive care was not a terrible thing; I've always loved having a newborn baby in the house, and having Phoebe home was a lot like those days - with the exception that she weighs forty pounds rather than eight. Her unquenchable thirst, desperate panting and staring, frightened eyes, however, were terrible and kept me awake more than nursing tasks. Over three days, I never saw Phoebe's eyes close.
Then Phoebe's pee turned dark brown. I drove her back to Angell. By the time I arrived, her temperature was 106 F. There, the vets brought her fever down and put an IV in to hydrate her and deliver antibiotics. They gave up the plan to wean her off the steroids and stopped them altogether.
I told the vets that while Phoebe may have slept while I was sleeping, I had been checking her four or five times a night and watching her all day long, and I had never witnessed her sleeping. Dr. Davis instructed the critical care staff to mark on her chart if anyone saw her sleeping. Over the next two days, no one did.
We realized, with awe, that Phoebe had been working so hard to breath and was so determined to stay alive that she had kept herself awake for five days.
By the evening of day six of the disease, I could feel her breath become shallower and shallower as she lay prone. After fifteen or twenty minutes of slowing breath, she would make the Herculean effort of jerking up onto her elbows to shake her head and wake herself up. Then she would lie down and rest until her breath slowed too far again. The vets didn't feel she could manage on her own much longer, and that a ventilator might be necessary very soon.
How long would she need to be on it? Anywhere from three days to three weeks, they told me. It was impossible to predict. She would also be at an increased risk of pneumonia and other complications from the ventilator itself. And how much would it cost? $300 a day.
Yet, if we could keep her alive - and she wanted to live so much - she would recover and would have a long and healthy life. I asked them to put her on the ventilator for another three days, with the thought that if we could get her past day 10 of the disease, the average duration, she might begin to recover on her own.
After I left the hospital, Dr. Davis had a thought. She called the nearest human pharmacy and asked for a prescription of Xanax for Phoebe. An anti-depressant useful for situational anxiety in people, the drug might easy Phoebe's anxiety and fear just enough to let her rest without depressing her breathing. If she could sleep, thought Dr. Davis, she might just be able to recover without the help of the ventilator.
It worked. With the help of the Xanax, Phoebe relaxed, began breathing through her nose, and slept that night. She dozed the next two days, until they allowed me to bring her home again.
Today, day 10 of the Coonhound Paralysis, Phoebe stood up on four shaky, bendy legs, pooped, and then walked five feet. Now she's sleeping, utterly exhausted and building up energy for her next amazing feat. While it may take some time before we're herding sheep and geese again, Phoebe is on her way back.
September 25: Phoebe has, seven weeks later, returned to full capacity. Able to fly two miles without fatigue. In fact, I haven't found anything recently that does fatigue her. She seems once again powered by electrical current rather than muscle and bone; barely touches the ground when she runs. Glossy coat, mischievous eyes, a menace to anyone walking by in white socks. The whole event is dimming into a bizarre memory, although I'll never look at her again and not be thankful that she's still here, lying at my feet and waiting to have some fun.