Neurosurgeons Operated on Own Dog
Black dogs are the best dogs. Ask anybody.
Homer was the luckiest of black dogs. Because if a 10-year-old mixed-breed shelter pup is fated to develop a brain tumor, what better masters than two neurosurgeons who bucked the medical/veterinary establishment to remove it --- themselves?
"Between the two of us, we had done 8,000 brain tumors," Dr. Carol Wadon says. "We knew (without the surgery) Homer would die soon. We had saved so many human lives -- why not our dog's?"
The delicate, complex operation afforded Homer one more spring to romp on the beach and sleep on the couch, the bed, wherever he wanted. One more spring to sniff the new grass with his playmates.
And then, on May 7, after a catastrophic stroke for which there was no meaningful treatment, he died peacefully in the arms of Wadon and her partner, Dr. Bruce Jaufmann. Homer is buried with his toys and treats in their yard, beside the dog who inspired his adoption.
Drs. Wadon and Jaufmann have been partners -- in life and profession -- for 20 years. They practice in Fayetteville and Pinehurst through a partnership with FirstHealth of the Carolinas and the University of North Carolina Medical School, where they are associate professors.
She is from Buffalo, he from the Queens borough of Manhattan. They do not have children --- but they have always related to dogs and admit the surrogacy. Jaufmann remembers a family dog that became noticeably attached to his mother during an illness. "He deteriorated after my mother died," he says.
Wadon grew up with dogs; one lived to be 18.
'Meant for Us'
This Homer's odyssey began during Wadon's residency, when she owned a dog named The Kid, with one blue eye and one brown. The Kid's brief escape resulted in five puppies. Wadon kept the one with similar eye coloration and called him Wilder. Eventually, Grendel -- a mammoth Hungarian Kuvasz (similar to Great Pyrenees) -- joined the household. After Wilder's death from inoperable cancer, Grendel mourned. The doctors decided they must adopt a companion.
"We got to the pound late on Friday afternoon with Grendel (to help make the decision), but there was only one puppy left," Wadon recalls. "He was so small he could fit into a Milk Bone box." Grendel wasn't impressed. But the puppy had one blue eye and one brown.
"The coincidence was too much," Wadon says. "He was meant for us. Bruce bonded with him in the back seat on the way home."
They named him Homer. Jaufmann is a baseball fan. They both admired "The Odyssey."
This Homer, they discovered, had mange, worms and parvo virus. He refused food and water. Wadon started an IV and administered antibiotics. The sad, sickly puppy grew into a handsome 65-pound Lab/husky mix known for his crabbing skills on Holden Beach.
"He practiced catch-and-release," Jaufmann chuckles.
Eventually, the couple adopted The Bear, another Kuvasc puppy. Homer, Wadon says, babysat and herded the dogs outside so the doctors could sleep.
Then, last August, on the way to the park, Homer experienced a seizure. He foamed at the mouth and lost consciousness. Afterward, he seemed confused. Seizure medications helped for a while. But by winter, he was crying and dragging a hind leg.
Wadon and Jaufmann investigated an MRI and veterinary neurosurgery at the North Carolina Veterinary College in Raleigh.
"It's not like human neurosurgery," Wadon explains.
Owners of pets with severe neurological diseases often euthanize them for humane and financial reasons. Brain surgery is not common.
Wadon and Jaufmann learned that an MRI would cost about $3,500 and would involve sedation and an overnight stay. No way would they leave Homer alone.
"We called in some favors," Wadon says, and obtained the necessary scans -- which, under general anesthesia, revealed a large brain tumor that was affecting Homer's visual field and appetite control. He had gained 30 pounds.
"We were so worried about him," Wadon says.
The doctors were skeptical of the veterinary options. We can do this, they decided.
Physicians often inject their pets, occasionally set broken bones. But laws governing surgery are more complex. Wadon called the veterinary college, offering to bring their own instruments and teach the residents.
A better option was offered by Homer's longtime vet, Dr. Margaret Wright of 71st Animal Hospital in Fayetteville. After checking with the North Carolina Veterinary Medical Board, Wright offered her facility on a Saturday in early January.
In preparation, Wright says, the doctors came to her office and studied canine skull anatomy. Dogs have huge frontal sinuses that must be avoided, Jaufmann learned. "I'm enthralled that they could take their experience, read a book and go straight to the lesion," Wright says. She did the anesthesia after consulting with a neuroanesthesiologist. Two technicians assisted. An equipment salesman donated a drill and other instruments. A coagulating machine was available.
At no time was the team sure Homer would survive.
The operation lasted for six hours, leaving Wright "in awe."
Buying Him Some Time
Homer sailed through. The doctors converted their bedroom into an ICU. A catheter was inserted, and Homer was put on steroids and antibiotics. They stayed up all night with him.
After a few days, Homer struggled to his feet. After a few weeks, he was playing tug-o-war with The Bear, their 140-pound Kuvasc.
"He was a happy dog," Jaufmann says.
In March, Wadon and Jaufmann decided to present the case, without identifying the patient or his species, to UNC residents during grand rounds. "We put Homer's MRI up," Wadon says, "and presented him like a human: A 70-year-old (in dog years) black male with onset of seizures who, as a child, had had a bilateral oophorectomy (castration) for cultural reasons."
Silence. What Wadon and Jaufmann didn't realize was that because of snow, the March presentation had been postponed to April 1.
Aside from this levity, the event sparked ethical discussions about operating on friends.
"It's hard operating on people you love but you do it anyway," Wadon says. "Should you tell them 'no' even if you're convinced you're the best one to do it?"
Homer, she says, posed a particular challenge.
"It's easier operating on a friend because I can pretend it isn't her," she says. "It would be hard to pretend that this wasn't Homer."
Despite Homer's recovery, the physicians knew the tumor was malignant.
"We expected it to come back," Jaufmann says. "We thought we could buy him some time. We've kept patients with this alive for years."
'One Last Breath'
Homer's reprieve ended one evening in early May.
"We came home from a party -- he had a seizure, we couldn't stop it," Wadon says.
Homer had suffered a massive stroke. He could barely lift his head. The doctors decided against intubation.
"That's going too far," Jaufmann says.
Dr. Wright drove up from Fayetteville and, while Wadon and Jaufmann held and stroked Homer, she administered the injection.
"Some humans beg to be put to sleep and you can't," Wadon says. "That's the greatest gift we can give our animals -- one last breath and he was gone."
Wright recognizes that the stages of grieving for a pet, culminating in acceptance, are the same as for a person.
"Homer was like their child," she says. "Their family."
Wadon faces death daily. But remembering Homer, she struggles to control her emotions.
"As a surgeon," she says, "you always think you could have done something different."
The emptiness is still fresh, she says. They're "not at the point where we can talk and laugh about him yet." She feels Homer's presence in the house. Jaufmann pulls out three treats instead of two. The other dogs viewed Homer after he passed; some animal behaviorists believe this provides closure and prevents survivors from searching for their companion.
Homer now rests beside Wilder of the two-toned eyes. He had a good life, a long life -- a yard, a beach, a dog door, playmates, travel, the best food and, obviously, love, which he returned and for which he was rewarded in a manner few dogs have ever been.
That other Homer wrote a fitting epitaph nearly 3,000 years ago, probably not about his dog: "Even his griefs are a joy long after to one who remembers all that he wrought and endured."
Contact Deborah Salomon at email@example.com.
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