I didn’t always want to be a veterinarian. When I was really little – say around 5 or 6 years old – I wanted to be a paleontologist. Yes, I knew what that was, and yes I knew how to spell it and pronounce it at that age. I was obsessed with dinosaurs and spent just about every waking moment reading about them or playing with plastic models of Tyrannosaurs, Brachiosaurs, and Triceratops. When I was put into advanced classes at the age of 7 and had to select my own set of words to be tested on every week for spelling, I always chose names of various prehistoric reptiles. Half the time, I think the teacher had to look them up to verify that I spelled them right.
Then, one day when I was playing with my best friend Amy (whom I still consider my best friend to this day) and chatting about what we wanted to be when we grew up, I changed my mind. Amy wanted to be a veterinarian, and I wanted to be like my best friend. So that meant I wanted to be a veterinarian, too.
Amy lit a fire within me that still burns to this very day – I had always been passionate about animals but until then I didn’t realize just how much I desired helping them. The two of us often helped to rescue orphaned squirrels, mice, raccoons, kittens, and the like. We preferred playing with plastic horse models over Barbie dolls, and every chance we got, we were riding horses. We both eventually got jobs at the same local animal hospital working as kennel workers, then receptionists, then vet assistants. The two of us had a pipe dream of going to vet school and running our own practice someday.
I was the lucky one – able to escape the small town that often traps young, able-minded people. I went to the University of Illinois in Champaign to chase my dream down. When the time came to apply to vet school, I heard about this college called Ross University – an American school then based out of New York (now New Jersey), but whose campus resided on a quiet little island in the Eastern Caribbean called St. Kitts. I was working part time as an assistant for a vet who had graduated from that school, and I considered him to be one of the most brilliant minds I had ever had the privilege of meeting.
I applied to several vet schools and was accepted to most of them – but I chose Ross. I figured if I could learn half of what my mentor did, I’d be a damned good vet. And I also saw it as likely the only time in my life that I could live abroad and experience a different part of the world.
Fast forward a year or so – I had assimilated into the Kittitian society fairly easily – their slower paced life and their carefree mentality was refreshing. I was excelling in classes and earning accolades among many of the professors. But it all came at a cost – the stress of a heavy course load coupled with missing my family and friends back home led to severe insomnia. I would go days with minimal sleep, sometimes to the point of hallucination before I would pass out for a few hours and then start the process all over again. I began to question whether I was really cut out for this career as I knew that “real life” would present similar levels of stress.
Part of the tasks that 4th semester students were responsible for was caring for the school’s teaching dogs – these animals were our primary source of practicing physical exams, performing blood draws, placing catheters, and administering anesthesia as well as learning how to monitor vitals while they were anesthetized. They were a vital part of our curriculum and these dogs were well cared for in return for their service. The class was divided into groups, and each group was responsible for walking, feeding/watering, and playing with these animals for about 3 weeks at a time. It was a welcome change from dealing with anatomy specimens and most of us enjoyed spending time with them. These dogs are a special breed – affectionately called “Kittitian Terriers” or “Sugar Cane Hounds” (or more generically, “Island Dogs”), these animals are the product of a few hundred years of interbreeding from various breeds brought over from the French and English settlers – mostly Shepherd, Retriever, Greyhound, and various Terrier breeds. They are generally hardy and intelligent, and for the most part, free from a lot of the diseases and genetic predispositions that many of our American dogs are rife with.
When my turn came to work with the dogs, my group worked fairly methodically – there were around 25 dogs and 5 of us, so we divided the kennel up among ourselves and agreed to be in charge of the same 5 dogs, morning and night. The first 5 kennels on the left were in my care for the next couple of weeks. I still remember the names of most of them – Trick, Afuera, and Johnny were in the first three kennels. The dogs would always start barking when they would see people approaching the kennel ward, excited to be walked and played with. All except for one.
This scrappy little dog in the fourth kennel was always quiet, but would eagerly wag her tail and stare towards the front door, patiently awaiting her turn to be walked. With a longer coat, a cowlick running up the top of her muzzle, and bushy tail, she was vastly different in appearance from the rest of the short-haired, slick looking Island Dogs. Also different from the other dogs, once she was out of her kennel, she chose to slowly peruse the grounds, sniffing, rather than run along tugging at the leash. She was not overly affectionate, preferring people to come to her instead of the other way around. Her name was Maxine.
“What a horrible name for a dog,” was my first thought as I glanced at her cage card.
Over the next three weeks I bonded with each of the 5 dogs in my care, but there was something about that little tan cowlicked dog that stayed with me even beyond that period of time. Whenever I saw a classmate walking her I would stop to say hi. Her tail would wag and she would sit quietly as I pet her briefly before going about my business.
In 5th semester, our paths crossed again as my class underwent instruction for anesthesia. She was in my charge twice that semester, where I learned how to give sedation, place an IV catheter in various veins, learn how to draw blood from the jugular vein, administer anesthesia, learn how to intubate (place a breathing tube) and monitor anesthesia. All of the dogs were very good at their “jobs,” but Maxine was exceptionally good – she’d practically hold her leg out for you for blood draws, never flinched or pulled at a “bad stick,” and was patient beyond words. My affection and admiration for her grew to the point of asking the head of the animal care board about adopting her – and the response I got was less than favorable. “She’s one of our best dogs, and we plan on keeping her around longer than we normally would.” Usually, a teaching dog is adoptable after 2 years in the program. Maxine, however, seemed to have a longer contract.
I looked up Maxine’s records and noted that she had already been in the program for almost two years by the time I inquired about her. At 4 years of age (estimated), she was already among the older of the dogs in the program. I persisted with the board director for the next several months, and finally, during my final semester on the island, she agreed to release her to me for adoption. The one stipulation is that Maxine was to be returned for anesthesia practice two more times during my final semester for younger students to learn with her.
I was elated – I had a dog in my life again after being dogless for many years. When she came home for her first night with me, I had a whole slew of new things for her – balls to chase, chew toys, and a brand new crate to sleep in. The apartment I was renting had a fenced in back yard for her to romp in. It was, in my mind, a dog’s paradise.
So, I bring her in my room, introduce her to her food and water bowl, show her the bed she’d be sleeping in, and broke out all the toys. I showed her a ball and tossed it to her.
She looked at me like I had three heads. “Fetch? You fetch it!” Was the look I got. She had no clue what to do with a ball, or a toy at all for that matter. When brought to the backyard and released from her leash, instead of running around and taking in the sights and smells, she preferred to sit by my side in the shade.
She’d lived a life of service for so long, she had forgotten how to be a dog it seemed. But regardless, that was the start of a beautiful relationship. Over time, she became my running companion as we would jog through the cane fields after class. She would go with me to the beach after studying, where I learned that she hated everything there was about sand and the ocean (and Island Dog who hates the beach, go figure). I started sleeping better once she came into my life, but she would be my late night study companion when sleep did manage to elude me, nestling up against my leg on my bed. And speaking of beds — yeah, forget that crate. She slept in my bed with me from night one and never once needed to be crated.
She never did learn to play with toys, but we did eventually learn a game we played together that mimicked a game of tag. It was comical to see and very hard to describe, and I won’t even try to do that here. I’ll just say you had to be there to see it.
When the time came to return to the states, she flew back with my great friend Rich, where she stayed in New York with him for a few weeks before I flew home. That’s right, my dog went to New York before I had ever set foot in that state. It was there that we learned she was a true cold weather dog who reveled in the snow. Guess that explains why she hated the beach so much! She flew to Chicago a couple of days before I returned home and stayed with my future in-laws. The first time I ever heard her bark was when she first saw me after being separated for almost a month. It was a defining moment in my life with her – this dog loved me. And I loved her just as much. I can count on my hands the number of times I’ve ever heard her make a noise, and they always were when she was excited to see me after I had been away for several days at a time.
She was there during my clinical year back at the University of Illinois, where I spent many a night up studying with her by my side. She was my faithful jogging partner around campus. She was there for my graduation and my marriage a few months later. When I got my first veterinary position, she was the one who would be the Guinea pig for the new vet assistant or technician who was nervous or needing more practice with catheter placement or blood draws. Ever patient, ever kind. That was my Maxxie.
She and I even did a season’s worth of agility classes, and was surprisingly good at it for her age (she was around 7 years at that time, as compared to her classmates who were all under the age of 2). Her intelligence allowed her to master obstacles quicker than just about any other dog in the class, proving that you can, indeed, teach an old dog new tricks. The instructors were amazed at how unemotional she typically was, yet dialed in to me like I was the only living thing in that arena. She was cool, collected, and calculating. Kinda like her mom.
She was a great big sister to the Newfie that my husband and I adopted, as well as to the various cats that we had – especially Jake. Those two would groom each other for hours and were often found napping together in the sun.
She was there for me when I lost my horse, Raven, lying next to me and nuzzling my cheek as I cried myself to sleep for several nights in a row. She did the same for me as my marriage dissolved a few years later. Unwavering, unfaltering, resolute. She was my rock.
Years ticked by, and her face continued to gray, but her mind remained sharp and her body fairly strong. No longer able to run long distances, she became my walking companion in the evenings after work, and we continued to play our made up game of tag together. No matter how rough a day I was having at work or in my personal life, she was there. She never questioned me and never passed judgement.
One day a little over a year ago, Maxxie seemed a little “off”. Long story short, I felt that her spleen was markedly enlarged when I felt her abdomen, and I naturally feared the worst – cancer. I rushed her to my clinic where diagnostics confirmed the enlarged spleen. The next day I took her to surgery where I removed it. She recovered like a champ, and the biopsy results came back negative for cancer, instead favoring an unusual side effect of a tick borne disease called Ehrlichiosis – one of the few infectious diseases that the Island Dogs were afflicted with, due to the large presence of ticks on the island. I was happy that it seemed my girl was going to be around for a while longer – she bounced back amazingly and was more happy than she’d been in a while. For a dog of 15 years, she was in damn good shape. Life was good.
Three months ago, that “off” appearance returned. I doubt anyone else would have even noticed, but I knew my dog and she just wasn’t right – a bit slower to finish her breakfast and a bit more tentative about going down the steps in the house. It was enough for me to bring her back in for bloodwork, and her platelet count was next to nothing. How she wasn’t spontaneously bleeding out of every orifice was beyond comprehension. I knew it was the Ehrlichiosis rearing its ugly head again, in the form of an immune-mediated problem this time. So, with the help of the prayers of family and friends, I started her on medications to try to fight the disease. I wasn’t optimistic as she had less than a 50% chance of recovering, and in my mind I was preparing to have to let her go.
She proved me wrong in such a miraculous way – in less than 10 days her platelet count had gone from practically zero to almost within normal limits. It was astounding…I had the little dog that just wouldn’t quit. And even through this all – even when she was not feeling well – she never failed to greet me at the door when I got home or come greet me good morning when we woke up to face the day. She was the poster child for tenacity in the face of hardship.
For two months, I had my girl back. We’d play in the mornings while I got ready for work, and she was never far from my side whenever I was home. I’d often get out of bed in the middle of the night when sleep was evading me just to lie on the floor next to her for a bit, running my hand through her soft fur. It was soothing, and she always knew what to do to ease whatever stress I was burdened with.
About three weeks ago, I started to see her body slow down. Her legs couldn’t keep up with her mind; she would stumble on the steps, so I relegated myself to carrying her up and down when she needed help. I could see her thank me with a quick glance and a wag of her tail before walking to her final destination at that moment. Not soon after that, her appetite started to wane. I knew that damned disease was coming back, and I also knew that this time, there was nothing I could do to fix her. All I could do was keep her comfortable and happy for as long as she wished.
I worried about her moreso as my upcoming Iron Triathlon crept near – I was to leave town for 4 days, leaving her in the care of my step-sister Megan (who takes very good care of her when I’m out of town). Part of me had already decided that, should she really take a turn for the worse, I was going to cancel my trip and skip the race in favor of being with her. But about 2 days before I was set to leave, she perked up again and began eating better and acting more like herself. I felt more at peace with going out of town at that point, and Megan and I even talked about how good she looked since the last time she saw her. She continued to be the dog that just wouldn’t give up.
Following the Ironman, I spent the next 5 days with her at home while I recovered and took some much needed vacation for myself. The two of us hung out in her bed as well as outside when the weather permitted. She was slow-moving, but happy. I was proud of my little girl for being so strong. I brought her back to Megan this last weekend as I was scheduled to be out of town for the Milwaukee Spartan Race. I dropped her off and gave her a kiss like I always do before settling her in to her home away from home. Everything was great, and Megan even sent me a picture of her with a Halloween costume on.
This morning while I was still in Milwaukee, Megan messaged me saying that Maxxie wasn’t right – she had collapsed in the backyard while out for her morning business. Megan got her inside and comfortable on her bed again, but she was visibly different from how she looked just a short while before. Rick and I rushed back home to our dog.
I walked into Megan’s house and called to Maxxie, who normally would come greet me. Instead, I heard a tail thumping in the next room – happy to see me, but too weak to get up. I knelt beside her and stroked her head before lifting her lip and looking at her gums, which were very pale. Her breathing was shallow, and the skin of her belly was bruised in several locations – the result of not having any platelets left to clot with. Maxxie looked at me and wagged her tail weakly, her eyes looking different for the first time. They lacked the sparkle that she always had, instead appearing tired. I knew what she was telling me. She did manage to get up to greet Rick as the two of us gathered her things, and she mustered up the strength to walk down the porch steps without asking for assistance. I lifted her into the car and seatbelted her in, as I always have.
Rick asked me what the plan was, and I asked him to head to the clinic. We arrived there and he waited in the car with Maxxie as I ran inside to gather the necessary supplies I would need to help my dog, then the three of us drove back home. He carried her things inside while I gathered my supplies and got Maxxie out of the car, carrying her inside and up the stairs.
I set her down, and she meandered over to her bed. She and Rick and I all sat together for several minutes, just quietly talking to her and petting her. Rick then helped me place an IV catheter in her front leg, and as always, Maxxie never flinched a muscle. I taped it into place, and then spent a long time softly talking with her again and feeding her some of her favorite treats, which she took happily but with less vigor than she would have in other circumstances.
What happened next is something that I will carry with me forever…She stood up and pressed her head into Rick’s chest, standing there for several moments. She then did the same to me before returning to her bed and lying down, her catheterized leg outstretched and offered up to me. She was ready, and she just finished saying her goodbyes to the both of us. Rick stroked her neck as I talked to her, telling her just how much I loved her and would miss her, all the while administering the anesthetic overdose that would stop her heart from beating. She went to sleep peacefully. Her fight was over.
For the first time in God knows how long, I cried. The tears ran down my face and onto Maxxie’s cowlicked muzzle as I knelt over her. I had just lost my best friend, my rock and my kindred spirit. I was sad for me, but also sad for the world because not everyone can be so lucky as to share their life with a dog, let alone a dog as amazing as she was. My life – and this planet – now have a void which will never be filled. She had a beautiful soul, unrivaled in its strength and fortitude.
Many of us wonder why a dog’s life is so much shorter than that of humans. I believe I know the answer to that…people have to live longer in order to learn how to love perfectly and unconditionally. We, as a species, are stupid like that. Dogs, on the other hand, get it right from the start. They are here to help us learn that aspect of love. And Maxxie was the best teacher I could have ever asked for.
Rest in peace, Ma Ma. Sixteen-plus years young, you were my teacher and my best friend. All this time I thought it was me who chose you, but I had it backwards – it was you who chose me, from the very beginning. And I hope to God that you are among the first I see when my day of reckoning comes. Until that day, I shall keep you in my heart as a reminder of all that is right in this world. You’re a good girl, and I love you.