Nala, the Diagnosis
On a hot August day, I went back to Nala’s home. Nearly a month had passed since our first meeting. As Michele, Mike, and their son Bobby and I greeted one another, I noticed Nala pacing back and forth. I tried to get her to engage with me as she did the first time we met. She stopped the pacing and let me caress her gleaming smooth black side. Then, she turned and growled. I pulled away, and she continued pacing back and forth, back and forth.
“How’s she doing?” I asked. I missed the way she’d once gazed into my eyes. She now seemed unreachable.
“Big Dog’s got me real worried,” Mike said, and I smiled to hear him use Nala’s nickname.
“Mike was recently out of town,” Michelle said. “While he was gone Nala was so agitated and aggressive I could barely go near her. A few times I saw her wobble and collapse. I wanted so much to help her, but if I touch her, she growls and snaps.” Michele crossed her arms across her chest, hugging herself, her brow knit with worry. “I feel so helpless.” We four stood watching Nala endlessly pace, hypnotizing us with her rhythm, all of us sharing in that helplessness. “Our other dogs have been avoiding her as well,” she added. “Want to meet them?”
“Yes,” I said, eager to break the spell.
The terriers came out first. They were cute, friendly, small, and curious. They were littermates that had never been separated, and you could tell that they were everlastingly bonded. As they rushed me and then romped in the yard, they purposely avoided Nala. She ignored them as well. A moment later, the sheltie mix blasted out the door and after the terriers. Mac was medium-sized, active, affectionate to his family, and slightly wary of me. However, he seemed especially on guard with Nala, tail tucked, ears back, giving her lots of room. He knew something wasn’t right.
Mike clicked his tongue. “That’s the saddest thing right there,” he said. “Big Dog and Mac were always best buddies. See what I mean? This is definitely not normal.”
Bobby chimed in, “I can’t pet her or take her for a walk. I can barely touch her without the fear of being bitten.”
Mike talked about the most recent visit to a veterinarian in Pennsylvania. She had been previously examined by a veterinarian while living in Boston with his son Biff. “She tested positive for Lyme disease so we’re treating her for the Lyme disease and pain. Anxiety medicine was also prescribed to help her to settle down. The doctor suspects some sort of central nervous system disorder and suggested that we take her to a local neurologist. We’re taking her next week.” He sighed, his eyes following Nala as she paced back and forth and the other dogs gave her room. “We’ll do whatever it takes. We need to get to the bottom of this.”
“I hate to say this, but what I recommend is for all of you to keep Nala as quiet and comfortable as possible. If she’ll go into her crate and rest comfortably, use it as often as you can. Keep a very thin four-foot leash attached to her collar so if you need to take a hold of her you’ll be at less risk of being bitten. Be sure to call me anytime if you have any questions or if there is anything I can do for you and please keep me posted.”
“Thanks,” Mike said, giving me a wan smile. “We’ll let you know how Big Dog’s coming along.”
The entire drive home I replayed all of the events from the last couple of months over and over again. I was trying to make sense of Nala’s bizarre behavior. I was mystified. My heart was heavy not only for Nala, but her family as well.
After seeing both a neurologist and an internist, Nala was taken to surgery in late August. The poor dog had been diagnosed with Lyme disease, hypothyroidism, and an abscess in her armpit that was no doubt causing her discomfort and pain. A surgical specialist removed the abscess, and she was sent home with a drain coming from her armpit, a bandage, and medication. Hypothyroidism can promote behavioral problems, I thought. Could the answer have been found? She would need time to heal. All we could do is wait, hope and pray.
Over the next month, Mike sent me email updates on Nala’s progress. She had two post-op appointments, and the specialists were pleased with her healing. Her behavior, however, was still as unpredictable as an uncharted river. Most worrisome, she was now consistently turning in circles to the left, so Mike scheduled an appointment to take her back to the neurologist.
On September 11th, a staff member at the animal hospital came into my office and handed me a fax. The report was from a veterinary neurologist; Mike had taken Nala to him that same morning. My eyes scanned the report. I was like a speed reader going from the pertinent history, quickly through the physical examination notes, skimming the diagnostics and finally on page 2, the diagnosis. I took a deep breath: Intracranial advanced brain lesion (thalamus), placing pressure on the cortical plates.
So, that was it. After all was said and done, Nala had a brain tumor. For a moment, I was paralyzed with grief for Nala and her family. I sat in silence, still holding the report. I no longer looked at it, but through it, where I could see big, sweet Nala gaze again into my eyes the powerful and pleading way she did that first time.
Then, I snapped out of it and read on. “The family decided to let her go . . .”
She’s no longer in pain, I thought, the report blurring through my tears. For that I am relieved.
I would like to offer my deepest sympathies to the Patrician family. I cannot thank them enough for allowing me to share their story.
“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.”