Friday, June 18, 2010

Breathless

It used to be when I woke up in the middle of night, I'd toss and turn a while but then fall back to sleep. Now, in darkness, I lay still in bed and I listen for the sound of Stella breathing.

A soft, rhythmic hush of air, one breath every 3 seconds, no faster, eases my anxieties and as anxieties fade, sleep returns. For a while at least, I know Stella is comfortable, her lungs not filled with fluid. Anything faster, sharper, raspier immediately sets me on edge and I wait and pray for the breathing to slow down, hoping perhaps a dream is the cause of her rapid breath. But if it does not slow down, if it starts to sound like panting, then I get up and go downstairs and I prepare the pills, the furosemide, a diuretic which will dry out her lungs but eventually ruin her kidneys. Dilated cardiomyopathy is an illness of her heart but it is the fluid build up in her lungs which give her the most grief.

I take out a cube of raw beef, about an inch square and I cut a slit through the center. I jam the pills inside the meat. I feed the meat to Stella and she gobbles it down and I feel like I am feeding her poison but within an hour, her breathing is good again and my anxieties are pushed back.

Sometimes listening in the dark, I can't tell if the breathing I hear is coming from Rocky or Stella. Then I have to sit up to better discern from which direction the sound is coming. If Rocky yelps, whines or groans that is fine. He is an active dreamer more conversant in sleep than awake.

Such noises coming from Stella, though, tells me she is in discomfort. She has, until recently, been a mostly silent sleeper. If she groans and rolls about, it's because she's having a hard time finding a position which allows her to breathe properly. She likes to sleep on her side but it's often bad on her side and so she has to force herself into a sphinx position. She has a hard time balancing in that pose, tilting over to one side or the other. I imagine it's the equivalent of a person trying to sleep sitting up in a chair without arms.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw her in her sphinx pose, drifting off. Her head came down, eyes closed and she slowly rolled over onto her side. Her breathing started to increase rapidly and then suddenly she was panicking when she realized she was getting no air. I could see a moment of terror in her eyes as she startled up and coughed and inhaled big lungfuls of air.

Stella grumbles and I go over to her, checking her pulse, counting her breaths. She knows this is how things work now so sometimes she plays it up, grumbling when she wants attention. She'll look straight at me, breathing fine, and she'll grumble. If I don't move, she grumbles louder and longer and with more urgency. Almost always by the third grumble, my will power is gone and I am consoling her just in case there actually is discomfort. I guess she figures she may as well milk it.

Every week it progresses. The noises she makes could fill a melodramatic thespian's reportoire. There are high and low grunts. Extended groans of increasing then diminishing loudness. Sometimes there are sighs, long and so melancholic she is like an old woman remembering the better days of her youth.

There have been some bad days, especially at first when I over exerted her on a walk or when she spit out a couple of the pills without me noticing. Those two times resulted in panting, almost gasping and anxious visits to the cardiologist. Now she is on a more even keel. The dosing is appropriate. She only gets short walks. I try to make sure she doesn't get over excited.

This has unfortunately meant that we aren't able to continue with her tour of Toronto sites but it does mean much more time lounging in the backyard and that is perhaps just as well appreciated by her.

Day to day, the hardest thing to deal with is the amount of peeing Stella does because of the diuretics. She was spayed too young so she is incontinent as well and the incontinence seems to be getting worse. I don't want her lying in her own piss and I'm wary about using diapers because of possible infections so it comes down to getting her to go out every 3 or 4 hours or more. That means coming home from work twice during the day and waking up twice during the night.

She doesn't appreciate me rousing her up at 3 in the morning to go into the backyard. Who would? Then we stand around and I say, "Go pee," and she looks at me like I'm an asshole for making her do this at that ridiculous hour and then finally she goes and pees. She is a good sport.

Coming home from work twice a day has been fine up until now as work was only 5 minutes away but as of next week, work has moved much further away so I'm in the process of finding a dog walker to come by to give her the meds in the afternoon. It's a big stress trying to find the right one. I will be leaving her life literally in some stranger's hands.

So, life around here has changed. I've never had to deal with something like this before and while I would never begrudge Stella anything, it is, admittedly, draining and perhaps more so because I know the outcome will not be a positive one. Well, no, I'm thinking about it wrong. The outcome is her everyday well-being and that is what I am working at but the final outcome ... well, that is intransigent.

I wonder to myself, when the time comes, how it can happen. How can something - this life - be there one moment and then not be there the next especially when the vessel holding it will have hardly changed from that one moment to the next. Life doesn't make sense and death makes even less sense. Why doesn't life just continue?

There are moments when I lie awake listening to Stella breathing, I wish, like most pet owners I know, that when the time comes, she goes to sleep and just never wakes up. Then I'll know she was meant to go, that her life chose to move on of its on volition. Then I won't have to make the phone call for the vet to come over and wait with her while she is in some sort of agony. Then answering the door to let the vet in will be like inviting in the grim reaper and bringing the vet over to Stella and preparing Stella for the injections and saying goodbye and not knowing when to stop saying goodbye and when to finally let go. How will I know the right moment to say to the vet that it is time? I can only imagine that at the end, every second will be gold and how will I know when exactly to let go? How can I choose the last moment which will define her life and every moment after which will define life without her?

This is hard.

Right now, looking at her asleep, she is breathing well with maybe a slight tremor of her back leg from a dream she is having. She is breathing well and that is what I hold onto.

14 comments:

House of the Discarded said...

Three years ago I asked those same questions to our vet about our 14 year old black lab. He had terminal cancer and I was desperate for a marker of some kind....I would pester the doctor whenever I would take him in for Chemotherapy (to add some months to his life.)

"HOW? I need to know HOW will I know when it's time?" I was persistent.

Vets don't like to give you specific answers like that. I allowed her to say, "you'll just know.." a few times, but that wasn't good enough afterwhile.

Finally, she gave me something very specific to look for when it was time to let go.

When that time came, I knew the vet had been right and I could let him go. It wasn't without emotional anguish for me. But it was a marker I've been able to live with.

Ask for that marker and you'll be able to move forward with some peace.

Believe me...I understand. ((hugs))

Social Mange said...

Oh, Fred. I'm so very sorry.

For the frequent urination....could you use dog training pads on a shower curtain liner? The interrupted sleep and the stress are going to take a toll on you.

As for the right moment...I think there's never a right moment because you want them to stay with you forever. She may tell you when it's the right moment, it's just very hard to hear it "said". It's so...final.

The golden moments are all the moments of her life, the funny ones and the loving ones, not just the ones at the end *hug*. Anthropomorphic as it may be, Stella sounds like she knows she's much loved.

redstarcafe said...

Fred, I don't think anyone could write more sensitively about our vigils than you have just now.

I find myself snapping on the light if I hear something out of the ordinary in the middle of the night, checking for the rise and fall of her chest as she sleeps, wishing that the practical laminate was soft broadloom, telling her to be careful on the stairs, resenting the time spent at work away from her, wondering how it will end, and looking at the toys that will remain.

Every moment has become so precious.

Erin said...

Oh Fred, my heart breaks for you and Stella. Our beautiful Moka passed away last August and the agony of having to say goodbye, even with the knowledge that there was literally nothing more we could do, was terrible and I truly wish that no one else ever had to have the same experience.

Your vet will be a great support during the process, the specialists who took care of Moka were unbelievably helpful and really were quite amazing under the circumstances.

I wish you and Stella more quality time, more time listening to her breathe peacefully, more time lounging in the yard and just plain old fashioned more time.

Thε Countεss said...

I feel your pain, Fred. I wish all the best for you and Stella. I really do not have words to comfort you, but if it makes any difference: You are a great person, and Stella knows it.

Joanne said...

I have been through this 20 times and have the little urns to prove it and it has never got one little, tiny bit easier. I often wonder why I subject myself to this agony. We all know how the story ends and we are never prepared emotionally although we may be rationally. I always feel as if I have been hit in the head with a 2 x 4 afterwards and cursing the my own powerlessness. Why do I run straight home after work, anxious until I open the door and realize they are all ok and that nothing bad has happened while I was away. Why do I spend a fortune on the best possible food I can find and still worry about their nutrition when mine is basically horrible; buy a ton of dog toys that go ignored on the floor; spend a forture at the vet? Why, because they are my steadfast and true friends....they have never once betrayed me. The following is the explanation offered by a four-year old after his dog was put down from cancer as to why dogs don't live as long as us...."What came out of his mouth next stunned me. I'd never heard a more comforting explanation. He said, "Everybody is born so that they can
learn how to live a good life -- like loving everybody and being
nice, right?" The four-year-old continued, "Well, animals already
know how to do that, so they don't have to stay as long." Simple perhaps, but I am going to choose to believe that. My vet once said to me after I had to put my last friend to sleep (god that is such a stupid expression...you wake up from sleep, not from euthanasia), that the best testament you can pay to your animal that has just passed is to give another needy animal a home. I think I took that a little too seriously. We simply do the best we can for them, and then we cry.

Anonymous said...

Fred, sending you and Stella strength.
G&C

Deebo said...

I'm still a fairly new reader of your blog, but you should know I have a hard time looking at pictures of Stella without crying.
It's kind of strange how much a stranger and his dog is affecting me. I don't know if I'm crying more for her, or you. I know that I don't really know you, or Stella, but it breaks my heart to know what you're going through, but it also makes me happy to know how much you are doing to make her comfortable.

I don't know what I'm trying to say.. But I really wish you (or anyone) didn't have to go through this. ♥

GoodDog said...

Oh Fred, my heart breaks for you. All you can do now is love on her (and Rocky -- he knows something is up).

As for the peeing - get a stack of the washable piddle pads. We have 2 elderly dogs that can't make it through the night either. They now make a best effort to go on the pads. For a dane you'll probably want to double stack them. Wash and replace in the morning...

Anonymous said...

Aww Fred you are awsome. Stella is so so lucky to have a dad like you. Hearing about what you are going through right now is incredibly touching. I know it must be very hard. All you can do is appreciate every moment you have together and know that Stella is aware of how lucky she is to have you in her life!

Susan

Anonymous said...

sigh.
hugs.
time races and yet is so slow.
health care stores (& SDM )have washable incontinent pads
large - less than $15 each
(approx 2 1/2 feet X 2 1/2 feet)
wish i could hand over the couple that i have
they arn't perfect-but might help.
soft,white cotton on one side and pale green waterproof on the other side
could you also bunch up a few pillows/an old comforter on one side of Stella to help prop her in a sitting postion? so when she 'falls" she is still partially upright.

DogsDeserveFreedom said...

Wish I could give you a big hug.

Anonymous said...

I can relate to this, having lost my elderly pet recently. Very well written. Have you tried any naturopathic treatments? Homeopathy can work incredibly well on animals for certain problems.

candise said...

Fred, everyone has said everything you need to hear and I have no more eloquent words for you except to say what I did when I lost my sweet Fassie, was to look her in the eyes and ask her to let me know when she was ready, when she couldn't deal anymore with her diabetes and the terrible side effects. She did do this so bravely and I prepared her and myself as best I could When she left me I was suddenly consoled by an overwhelming sense of peace and lightness which immediately stopped my heaving sobs and tears. I knew then she was at peace and her spirit would linger with me forever...and it does.
You are a beautiful soul and Stella loves you for it.