by Helen-Anne Travis
For the O'Sheas, it couldn’t have happened at a worse time.
Barely a month after Patrick O’Shea was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, their dachshund, Mr. Fritz, lost control of his back legs. The normally outgoing dog was suddenly unable to walk or use the bathroom on his own.
As the O’Sheas, both 57, tried to wade through the growing pile of medical bills for Patrick, they were slapped with another crises and another bill. It would cost several thousand dollars to fix Mr. Fritz.
“I thought, ‘someone upstairs really doesn’t like me,’” says Marianne O'Shea.
But through a nonprofit called Frankie’s Friends, and some finagling from the vets at BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Tampa, Fla., the O’Sheas were able to secure a grant to cover most of Mr. Fritz’s surgery. Now the dachshund is back to his old tricks, bringing his pet parents love and entertainment while they hope for a treatment to ease Patrick's suffering.
”Mr. Fritz is doing fantastic,” says Marianne. “He’s a very happy dog, and we are so happy to have him back in the house.”
The O’Sheas adopted Mr. Fritz—“a small dog with a huge personality”—seven years ago. He was originally a gift for Marianne’s mother. But after three days with the spunky pup, she called her daughter in tears. She just couldn’t handle Mr. Fritz.
As Marianne was drafting a newspaper ad to find Mr. Fritz a new home, Patrick walked in and told his wife, That dog isn’t going anywhere.”
“He’s been with us ever since,” Marianne says. “He has taken over the household and our hearts.”
When Patrick was diagnosed with brain cancer in late August, it was Mr. Fritz and the couple's cocker spaniels who helped lift their spirits during the stream of doctor visits. Mr. Fritz’s insistence on being let out twice before bedtime—once at 8 p.m. and then again exactly one hour later—gave them a sense of routine. His warm body in between them on the bed gave them comfort.
“[Dogs] add something to your life; they really do,” says Marianne. The couple’s two human children are grown and living on their own. “These are our kids now that our big kids don't need us.”
Dachshunds like Mr. Fritz, and other breeds with long backs and short limbs, are at a higher risk for a condition called intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), says Dr. Michael Kimura, the veterinary neurologist at BluePearl who worked with the O’Sheas. In people terms, it’s equivalent to a slipped disc or pinched nerve. The spinal cord becomes compressed and the dog loses mobility, and sometimes sensation, in its rear limbs.
“Surgery is recommended when patients become unable to walk or if the condition is progressing rapidly,” says Dr. Kimura.
The procedure—called a hemilaminectomy—boasts a 50 to 100 percent recovery rate. Because Mr. Fritz still had sensation in his back limbs, the O’Sheas were told he had an 80 to 90 percent chance of walking again.
They were ecstatic... until they saw the bill.
As a result of his own medical issues, Patrick is unable to work. When Marianne’s not driving him to doctor appointments she works as a dental hygienist a few days a week.
But there wasn’t much time to think. Patrick had a radiation treatment that afternoon he couldn’t miss. The couple cried all the way there, trying to figure out if they could afford to save Mr. Fritz.
“This dog has given us so much love, we wanted to give him something in return and we couldn’t,” Marianne says. “Life is so uncertain right now and I don’t know what the future holds. I just knew I was dealing with a man with terminal brain cancer and a dog that couldn’t walk. I had to help both. I had to fix everybody.”
As she sat, waiting for Patrick’s radiation treatment to finish, the vet called. BluePearl veterinary assistant Shannon Valdez had secured more than $1,700 in funding through Frankie’s Friends to cover Mr. Fritz’ surgery. BluePearl had kicked in another $440 in discounts, which covered the majority of the cost.
“They said bring him back by three and we can do the surgery,” Marianne said. “I drove like a bat out of hell to get him there in time.”
The surgery took place on Thursday. By Saturday, Mr. Fritz was ready to come home. When they placed the pup in Patrick’s arms, Mr. Fritz’s dad burst into tears. In a few seconds the whole room was crying.
Even Mr. Fritz.
“I think he was a little doped up,” says Marianne.
Today the dog is back to his old ways. He sometimes has a “wobbly moment” when he wakes up, but otherwise is as good as new. He runs. He fetches. He plays with the couple’s cocker spaniels Rosie and Kellie, both ten.
The O’Sheas are taking things day by day. They are still reeling at Patrick’s diagnosis and adjusting to what Marianne calls “the new normal.”
Patrick can’t talk. He can’t walk. But he can still make Marianne laugh.
“We’ve been married for 38 years. I think part of the key to a good marriage is laughing at yourself and having laughter in your life—even through the hard times,” she says. “We feel so blessed. Our family will be okay and our little furry kids are doing just wonderful.”
Recognizing the Symptoms of Intervertebral Disc Disease
For some dogs, like Mr. Fritz, the onset of IVDD is acute. One minute they are fine, the next they can’t walk. Others may show symptoms like decreased movement and appetite, hesitation to jump, and crying out when they are picked up.
“It is very common, even at a veterinary clinic, for back pain to be mistaken for belly pain,” says Dr. Kimura. “Having a suspicion of back pain is the first step in diagnosing it.”