June 30, 2020

Interspecies Soul Mates

Fourth of July hike, 2011, Camel’s Hump, Vermont

          While my soul mate vomited and collapsed into a lethargic heap of feverish black and cinnamon fur—looking nothing like the charismatic German Shepherd I knew—I heard an echo, as if the words from a recent journal entry leapt from the page: “My greatest fear is losing Brady.” I raced him to the emergency hospital that sunny Sunday afternoon, whispering: “Everything will be okay,” while fretting that it wouldn’t.

We had just returned from Brady’s ‘five-star’ vacation in Vermont at my dad’s house. This meant swimming. We swam in pristine Lake Willoughby right next to the “No dogs allowed at the beach” sign. Brady jutted his head out by mine as I stretched my lanky legs to keep up. We perfected synchronized swimming. 

“Are we going to the doggy Olympics this year?” I whispered. 

“You did this just for me and I love it,” I heard him reply.

That vacation seemed light years away as Brady endured hours of prodding in a sterile room under fluorescent lights. In between tests, he nestled on my lap while I caressed the thick cream and tan swath on his cheeks. I played Krishna Das chants to soothe us until my iPhone battery died. 

“His fever is so high that we want to keep him overnight on fluids until we have a diagnosis,” the head veterinarian said as she popped her blonde head in our room.

“Dr. Whitney, please treat him as you would a human. I will see him through this no matter what,” I said. 

The vet tech put Brady on the hospital’s leash, and handed his worn blue leash and embroidered collar to me for safekeeping. This small gesture underscored the disquieting reality that Brady was staying there without me. It was as if my husband had admitted me to the hospital, and the nurses gave him my jewelry in an envelope. 

As overnight stretched into several days with no diagnosis and no abating of symptoms, I showed up with a backpack loaded with salad, his purple bear, dried chicken, books, and my laptop. We had a room of our own during visiting hours, albeit one with a pungent bleach bouquet, but that could not keep me away. I curled up next to my boy from morning to bedtime as the IV machine pumped fluids into his ailing body.

When Brady placed his head on my lap, I stroked his velvety coat and he let out a stress-relieving cross between a groan and a yawn. It was a grawn. “I would rather be with you than anywhere else in the world, even if it’s doggy lockdown,” I said. Over and over again. “My fearless warrior, you are,” I heard him reply. Endorphins and dopamine rushed through us and our serotonin levels spiked. They must have heard our hums of contentment in the hallways. This was just one of our interspecies bonding practices that we used to displace bad news for another day. 

Dr. Whitney burst in on our snuggling session one afternoon with the answer I wasn’t looking for. “Brady tested positive for Leptospirosis. He has acute renal failure,” she said. 

“Uh uh. He was vaccinated for Lepto,” I said.

She shook her head. “The Lepto vaccination is problematic. Was Brady swimming in any rivers or streams recently?” 

I recalled our vacation in Vermont and fessed up soberly. “It’s not your fault, Michelle,” she said, tilting her head.  But Brady’s dream vacation is becoming his bucket list vacation, I thought.

“He could be here for an indefinite period, and he will have to be attached to the IV machine 24 hours a day through a catheter inserted into his veins,” she said. 

“Give him every treatment he needs. I would give him my own kidney if it were compatible,” I said calmly while my heart screamed. 

I logged into my Johns Hopkins alumni library account that night to become an expert on kidney failure and Leptospirosis. Leptospira are spirochetes, one of the most aggressive forms of bacteriaSince I myself had been fighting spirochetal Lyme disease for a few years, I realized just what we were up against. My bedside table quickly became covered in pieces of paper with creatinine and BUN kidney levels that I got from my morning calls to the hospital, but I didn’t waver in my fight to save my soul mate dog’s life.

My husband had always somewhat jokingly referred to Brady as “my wife’s fiancé.” But I had never experienced love at first sight until I stared into this puppy’s intent bluish brown eyes five years earlier. Something supernatural must have happened between us because I don’t know how else to account for it. No one took our situation lightly. A team of people were praying and meditating for Brady. My husband was flying in from his job across the country to spend the weekends with Brady at the hospital. He brought home-cooked meals of salmon and filet mignon, and coaxed Brady to eat when no one else could. I was about to put my mail on forward to the emergency hospital. 

But the IV machine had become Brady’s critical prosthetic. Our new abnormal kept us at the brink of death’s call. It was time for epic reinforcements, time to bring in the person who taught me how to listen to Brady, how to become fluent in the language of dog.

This post is based on Michelle Slater’s [unpublished] memoir: Soul Mate Dog: Becoming Fluent in the Language of Dog, a unique twenty-first century love story that explores animal communication and the philosophical relationship between dogs and humans. It’s based on a medical journey, one that vets have said needs to be told.