I don’t like things that are broken. I am a big fan of purging and am ALWAYS throwing things out or giving them away. Broken things I definitely do not have time for. That was until I held something broken in my hands this past winter. I was at the vet clinic with a very special puppy from my first litter of German Shepherds. The litter was years in the making – waiting, planning, preparing. When people asked what I wanted for the pick of the litter I said, “A sable girl, like Annie”. Ask and you shall receive – “Oakley” was the one and only girl in her family of 8. From the get-go I knew she was special. As I struggled to get her brothers to nurse Oaks wiggled right up to the milk bar like she had been doing it for months. She was the first to bark at me and while her brothers passed out next to their mom’s tummy Oakley would wriggle up and fall asleep on Annie’s paw. She loved to play with her brothers but never let them push her around – she had a sparkle, no doubt and I had big dreams – Oakley would be a perfect mixture of her beautiful parents and a show dog extraordinaire. Where Annie was ultra serious and a worrier, Oakley exuded joy by running everywhere and giving enthusiastic kisses. A little history on Oakley’s name: Her beautiful mom is “Ch. Whispawillow’s Shotgun Annie” , named after the famous Annie Oakley of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. We named Oakley when she was one day old, carrying on the tradition of the American sharpshooting icon – Annie Oakley was only five feet tall and tough as nails. At 4 weeks old, just newly started onto kibble, I knew something was wrong: Oakley’s breathing was labored and she didn’t want to eat so off we went to the clinic. I was shocked when she weighed in much lighter than her litter mates. How could she be so little? How could I not notice how small and weak she was? After a few x-rays, her fuzzy little body was given back to me with bad news: Oakley had megaesophagus: a congenital birth defect where the muscles of the esophagus fail and it cannot propel food or water into the stomach. Anything ingested sits in the esophagus within the chest cavity and never makes it to the stomach. The most serious complication is that fluid/food will at some point pool in the esophagus which generally results in aspiration pneumonia, which is what my tiny girl was fighting. My perfect little puppy was broken. I was overcome with self-pity: ‘Why did this happen to my sweet, sweet little girl? Why not her brothers? Why me?’ I took Oakley home that day to think about our new reality. My head told me euthanasia was the best decision so her suffering was no prolonged but even as I looked at her, curled up in my hands looking so weak, it just didn’t feel right. I searched the Internet until my eyes burned. I went back and forth between friends, mentors and other mega-E dog owners. I asked the question that I am sure every veterinarian dreads, “What would you do?” I went back to the Internet again….I meditated….I cried…I snuggled my broken little puppy. I was so torn between taking up the challenge of caring for a life that held no guarantees or quietly letting her go. Why was I burdened with such a difficult choice? Some people encouraged me to put Oakley to sleep; to move on and put my time and energy into a dog that was healthy and wouldn’t complicate my life. I considered this, agreeing that life would be easier, but still it just didn’t feel right. One day I was talking with my dog mentor about the decision that weighed over me. He said, “Forget what everyone else is telling you. What do you want Natalie?”. Without hesitation I said, “I want Oakley to grow up…… however and whenever it happens….. to be a beautiful show dog and a great German Shepherd. And I will tell everyone how she is a survivor and a fighter and how I always believed in her”. Still, I wavered. Owning a mega esophagus dog is a big commitment of careful daily management. Mega-E dogs have to eat and drink vertically and stay that way for at least 20 minutes for gravity to empty everything into their stomach. Could I do this? Could Oakley live a normal life like the rest of my dogs – running around the barn and playing with her family? I just had to trust the answer would come to me.
Not long after Oakley’s diagnosis my amazing friends, Ron & Gordie, showed up at my door with a custom built chair to hold her upright so she could digest her food. It took awhile for her to grow into her new furniture but I started the experiments with food and feeding methods……canned food, mashed kibble, meatballs, soupy concoctions, milkshakes and baby food combined with a lot of patience, tears, cuddles and angst. Every meal was a struggle but every day Oakley was ready to try again.
She fought back against the deadly pneumonia that should have killed her. She still played with her brothers, although she could only run up and down the hall a couple times before she had to rest. There was no doubt her spunky attitude was helping to keep her alive.
One morning as she yowled unhappily in her big chair, surrounded by pillows and winter jackets to keep her contained, I searched the meaning of the name “Oakley”. It represents the oak tree, naturally. What I didn’t know is that oak trees are known for their strength and hardiness and their ability to thrive in undesirable conditions and poor soil. Just like my Oakley! I never questioned if this was a coincidence. That day I got my answer and going forward I was committed 100% to this journey. I stopped dwelling on the ‘whys’ and worrying about what might happen and started loving my spirited and joyful broken thing. There have been many peaks and valleys but Oakley is 9 months old and just keeps growing. She is a very happy and smart baby – loving and intense like her mom and kind and goofy like her dad. She is now bigger than Annie and is a normal naughty puppy – she chases the cows, counter surfs and loves car rides. She floats when she trots and wakes up every morning with a loud yawn, announcing that she’s ready to tackle another day with a wagging tail and unbridled joy. Her registered name is “PortageCreek’s Sure Shot”, a nickname of the real-life Annie Oakley, who was little but mighty.