“For the fiftieth time, Lily: ‘no’. I don’t want a third dog. Two is plenty. You are NOT getting a puppy!’
This is where it began. I am seeing it play out on a big screen inside my head. Lily, 11, in the back seat of the rental car is determinedly petitioning us for a dog of her very own and has been non stop on the topic throughout our three week tour of England. I involuntarily duck as yet another fighter jet plane thunders overhead in the supposedly tranquil Lakes District and with suitably frazzled nerves I put an end to the topic. ‘No dog!’ I am resolute. Ironically, it was at about that very moment that ‘he‘ was born… Wilbur, a little black long haired yappy Chihuahua.
I tune back to the alarming reality of the present, and hear my impossibly terrifying screams for the family to get up and come and help. Loud as I can yell, with all the urgency I can inject: “Call the vet! Get up! Get up!”
I am running the distance of two hundred metres from the doggery building site to our home. It’s only 6.30 on a Sunday morning, but my day was well under way. My yelling continues but drops from focus as my attention shifts to the limp body planked across the palms of my hands. I know he’s dead. Tongue lolling, not breathing. His tongue is now a deathly white with the most horrendous tinge of black purple. God. Please breathe! Should I do mouth to mouth?
I ran 100 metres at school in an unimpressive 16 seconds from memory. What was I making this 200m dash at? Still screaming for help I am somehow imploring Wilbur at the same time to stay with us; not to leave us.
I know he is dead but refuse to believe it. How can this be? The story that began in the UK so long ago now ends? Wilbur’s story is completed? His ‘Once Upon a Time’ set in England now capped by ‘The End’ in a paddock in Gippsland at the jaws of his best buddy? God no! The 11 year old primary school girl now a 20 year old uni student living in Melbourne. Is this it?
The film in my head plays some more: reel two. I see Lily leaning into the back of the Discovery; I have sent her to the car on the pretext of helping me bring in groceries, where in truth the only grocery is a 500 gram eight week old black scruffy little puppy, sporting a bejewelled red cat collar – and even that is way too big. I see Lily; her face, her disbelief, her utter joy. She cannot take air, this delightful 11 year old girl. She literally cannot breathe and has one hand to her decolletage and the other fanning the air and a beaming smile on her face as broad as a smile has ever been. Wilbur, as he would soon be named, for his part was doing impossibly cute little pitter patters foward with those funny matchstick legs, followed by scrunch-up-and-shuffle-backwards excited little movements. Such was their meeting.
He moves and I think he might be alive. But is it muscle twitches and not real life? I cannot know and I cannot allocate time to investigate, for there is nothing more I can do than what I am already doing.
Still no David and Amelia to be seen and I am approaching the back gate. Then they appear, alarmed and ready for action. Thank God! We’re not alone.
‘Call Mark; call the vet,’ my voice loud, words clarity clipped that no time be frittered in not hearing, not understanding. ‘Amelia, you drive.’
Somewhere amidst all this I must have told them what has happened. That Percy, our 37kg Cardigan Corgi attacked 2.5kg Chihuahua Wilbur for apparently no reason. That a six year old gentle giant of a dog snatched up by the neck the tiny feisty little nine year old dog he normally worships and gave him a death whip to break his neck as a hunting dog dispatches a rabbit.
So graphic is my recall because this sorry event unfolded but one metre from me and before my eyes. Percy and Wilbur were standing together and Wilbur grumbled about something, as is his way, but instead of Percy subserviently demurring to his bossy little mate as he normally does, something inside him snapped. He didn’t growl, threaten, nor posture: nothing. No warning sign at all. He simply snatched him up as a nuisance to be disposed of.
A phone is held to my ear as I brief Mark and we both set forth to meet at the vet surgery, some 20 minutes away. I am seeing now that Wilbur is not dead. He is back with us but it seems clear he is dying. The lolling protruding tongue with its appalling deathly white purple black pallor.
Mark is waiting to greet our car. He has the surgery all prepped, with the tiniest oxygen mask already attached to the oxygen machine in readiness for the smallest of patients.
In no time pink colour returns to his tongue. Here I breathe my first sigh of relief. Yes! I got him to Mark alive! First hurdle over! Thank God.
After 10 minutes or so he progresses to the oxygen tent. Mark explains he can do nothing until he is oxygenated and that will be 30 minutes. We call David with the good news. We call Lily with the bad news. It’s 7am on a Sunday morning, but Woolworths is open, so Amelia and I head there. We are both just so darn relieved.
Aimlessly we wander about the supermarket and then the call comes. Wilbur is in considerable pain and has been given morphine and drugs to reduce swelling.
“At the moment he is paralysed down his left side,” Mark went on to say. “He does appear to have feeling there though, but he can’t move that side.
“At this stage all we can do is manage his pain and keep up the drugs to reduce the swelling. Then it’s a waiting game. The paralysis is either the result of spinal chord shock or spinal chord crushing. Both have the same early signs.
“If it’s shock only, we’ll know within a few days because when the inflammation goes down he’ll recover function. If it’s paralysis due to crushing injury, then the outcome is not good.
“I’ll call you later today and then first thing in the morning.”
Whatever the outcome, I comforted myself that Wilbur now had time on his side. We had brought him back from the dead and now he was in expert hands with everything working for him.
The next day Mark rang with news that was not good. His intensive care patient was not responding to the medication as hoped. His paralysis had become worse, not better. By midday he would take a next x-ray to see if his neck had been broken.
The urgency and terror of minutes following the event had morphed into a new disquiet for us all. Had we brought him back from the precipice for…well, for what? He wasn’t going to be a trolley dog, that’s for sure.
Lunchtime brought the news that Wilbur did have a break to his neck, but that it was only significant because it showed the extent of the crushing injury received. That is, the break was on the side away from most of the bruising and this told Mark that the force of the attack had been immense. And only one tiny puncture mark.
Wilbur had another 24 hours in intensive care and then it was home time for some quality home nursing by us.
Mark explained that the next two weeks would be very telling. And also very difficult. He would need around the clock care. Mark said many people get to two weeks and find they are so overwhelmed by what they face they have to have the pet put to sleep. Toileting them, washing them, feeding them with a syringe and so on.
In truth, the recovery – if there was to be one of substance – could take two months.
Wilbur was never alone for one minute after he arrived home. He was twisted to one side and could not move himself from what was a pretty grotesque and distressing pose.
He slept between us propped in our bed on his blankets and incontinence liner. My husband would get up at least four times through the night to hold him outside when he would wake and cry, presumably for a toilet break.
We syringe fed him water at about one ml at a time, frequently. We made his intensive care tinned food into a slurry and syringe fed that too.
By day four he became distressed as he realised his predicament. He knew he could not move. He could not be left alone because the fear in his eyes and his distress was palpable.
We felt like new parents all over again as we tried to decipher what the cries could mean. Is he thirsty? Hungry? In pain? Scared? Toilet maybe? What?
Everyday we would look for signs, any sign, of progress. But there weren’t any really. That first while we focused on keeping him comfortable while he recovered from the pain of his injuries. His neck was severely and extensively bruised – a reminder of the level of trauma inflicted, not that we needed any reminders.
Towards the end of the first week we realised Wilbur would need to start physiotherapy of some form if there was to be any hope of regaining use of his body.
Amelia was his nurse for that first week during the daytime; she came home from Melbourne especially. Lily was tied to Melbourne with exams.
As the pain of the injury started to leave him, we decided it was time to try and get him vertical, if for no other reason that plant the idea in that little head that vertical is something to aim for.
I remembered the Jolly Jumpers that were all the rage when the kids were babies. Essentially the baby is popped into a harness and hung in a door way by a spring.
I adapted Wilbur’s sturdy Drizabone dog coat for the purpose. And so Wilbur would hang for three five minute periods a day, with his wee legs brushing with the ground.
It was quite a complex looking thing in the end to prevent him toppling forward or backwards. We had a lambswool pad under his belly to avoid pressure in any one spot and loss of circulation etc.
Another great tool for recovery was purchasing a heated dog mattress. God love the Reject Shop! A beaut big thing for only $35. It provided a flat base so Wilbur would have to start using his own muscles to support himself, plus it allowed the freedom for him to move about should he so endeavour. And the heat source was vital for those sore bones and muscles.
Progress during those first ten days remained slow, although we did have some good breakthroughs such as him drinking for himself.
Crunch time – hard decisions
Crunch time would come at the two week mark. At this point Wilbur was much stronger and his neck bruising had all but gone. Sadly, though, progress seemed to be going in the backwards direction. His new strength did not bring freer movement; rather, he was contorted more than ever. The left hand side paralysis had not reduced and he was stuck in a twisted form making balancing impossible, let alone movement.
We decided to fashion a flat board to help keep his body straight. This he would be strapped to for brief periods. It was a fine board; like a splint. It was lambswool coated and I sewed velcro onto soft broad elastic. But when I first strapped Wilbur to this, I cried. He cried. I then thought, ‘Enough!’ If this was what was needed for him to finally become mobile one day, then it wasn’t going to happen.
Making matters worse, Wilbur then wet himself on his bed and cried all the while. He is a clean little dog and this upset him greatly. I took the photo below and sent it to Lily in Melbourne, letting her know that we had come to a point where we had to consider what was best for Wilbur. In short, for my part I had decided it was time to love him enough to let him go. Any final decision would be a family one though and, ultimately, Lily’s.
Lily was brave and understood, despite being devastated. I was not good and went to our holiday house to be with friends for the night. To get away.
Then, a miracle happened. David called me to say ‘Wilbur took some steps!’
From thereon it has been one joyous day after another. Watching our funny gimpy little chap make his way in the world once more.
The first night Wilbur was in intensive care and he teetered on life and death, I dreamt he was running about me in the paddock in the annoying way he does and yapping away at me for no reason at all other than to let me know he was pretty excited to be alive. I woke with that awful sinking feeling as reality dawned. I cannot begin to describe the joy we have at seeing this little man back in action. He really is our little miracle and the terrible event of four weeks ago is now but one chapter in the life of Wilbur, with hopefully many many more chapters yet to run.