‘The Six Million Dollar Dog’

Gary Tetz

When I was a strapping young lad of 14 or so, one of my favorite TV shows was The Six Million Dollar Man. If you're my age, I bet you watched it too. Lee Majors played the role of the dashing Steve Austin, a former astronaut with multiple bionic implants who battled the forces of evil with slow-motion feats of speed, sight and strength.

The best I can remember, Steve had been gravely injured in a frightening television montage of a pretend space accident, but given new life through the miracles of science-fictional medicine. “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him,” said a voice at the start of every show. “Better than he was before.” And they did. And he was-until he got canceled and lost all his powers.

I mention this because I just went through something very, very similar, and now plan to pitch a spin-off show to the ABC Network based on my own real-life experience. I'll call it, cleverly, The Six Thousand Dollar Dog. To make a long story short (no wait, this column is due tomorrow, so I need to make a short story long), here's what happened.

It started with lethargy, whining and hiding in a dark corner. While that's pretty much the way every day starts for me, I had never seen my dog, Fizbo (pictured), exhibit these symptoms. So obviously, I was worried. I picked up the listless little bundle of unbelievable cuteness and rushed him to his beloved local veterinarian.

After three days with no improvement, it was clear stronger action was required, so I was referred to a veterinary teaching hospital about three hours away. It was reputed to be one of the finest in the nation, so dawn found me driving my sick little bundle of ultimate adorability through vineyards and wheat fields in a desperate quest for help and hope.

After an ultrasound, I was met back in the lobby by a small posse of professionals who revealed that Fizbo, and I hope I have the technical language right, was “a really sick little dog.” I also heard them say “emergency” and “surgery”-words that on their own are plenty forbidding enough. But used together, they form something even more frightening and sinister: the word “expensive.”

When the surgeon said, “Don't worry, Mr. Tetz. We can rebuild him. Better than he was before,” I started to realize just how costly the procedure could be. But somehow, at that moment, the money didn't matter-I just wanted my dog back. And by the way, although I have always mocked the concept of health insurance for animals, I am now a strong advocate for pets to be included in future healthcare reform efforts, perhaps under Peticare Part P.

As I signed the form giving permission to operate, the veterinarian asked a surprising question. “Do you want to see him first?” For some reason, I wasn't ready for this, and I admit I started to get a tad emotional-if “tad” means falling totally to pieces in a crowded hospital lobby. I followed her back to his cage, forced to weave my way with misty eyes through a group of teenagers on a tour of the facility that looked at me like they'd just seen a grimacing bald man with tears running down his face.

When we got to Fizbo's cage, he was sitting up with an IV already in his paw, just wagging his tail and smiling. As I leaned forward to give him one last snuggle, he licked the top of my head and everyone in the room let out a collective, “Ahhhhh.” This outpouring of empathy set off a new flood of embarrassing public emotion, and I exited the room as quickly as possible. Hearing footsteps behind me, I turned to see the white-coated veterinarian running down the hall, calling my name and holding out a box of tissues.

I took a few. Then I sat in the car and waited for news.

Epilogue: The surgery went well. It's been a rough road back, but my little bundle of incomparable sweetness is well on the way to a full recovery. By the time I counted the many vet visits, diagnostic tests, surgery, intensive care, travel and pharmacy, it added up to almost $6,000, not including the psychotropic medications and psychotherapy required for me to cope with the possibility of life after Fizbo.

When I tell this story, the reaction to that dollar figure is almost universal shock, with often an undercurrent of disbelief, even mockery. “Why didn't you just get a new dog?” asked one alleged friend, questioning my financial savvy. I can't wait for him to get his daughter's first college bill, when I can say, “$30,000, huh? Why don't you just buy a new kid?”

In dog dollars, $6,000 is actually $6 million, so it turns out Fizbo and TV's Six Million Dollar Man have matching price tags-although so far, Fizbo exhibits few of Steve Austin's post-surgery strengths. His eye must not be bionic, because he still can't seem to see the bunny crouching under the rhododendron. He's fast, but he has yet to catch a car and bring it back home in his teeth. But I don't care-at least he's alive.

I needed and received what I think anyone in any healthcare situation most craves at such a vulnerable time: timely information, proactive communication-and kindness.

And as I wrote in a recent Long-Term Living blog post, it was the best healthcare experience I've ever had. Seriously. Because not only were the doctors and staff highly skilled, they cared and communicated. They were available whenever I had a question, for as long as I needed. They returned phone calls. They even-gasp-answered emails. They expressed interest long after my check cleared.

Now, I know animals are different than people. I know veterinary medicine is different than healthcare for actual humans. I know the system is different, the risks and liabilities are different, the time constraints and financial pressures are different. But here's what's the same. I needed and received what I think anyone in any healthcare situation most craves at such a vulnerable time: timely information, proactive communication-and kindness.

Sure, Fizbo's life was saved by world-class treatment in a state-of-the-art hospital with the latest technology. But what I'll always remember is the attentiveness of the entire team-and the enduring image of a veterinarian who cared enough to chase me down the hall with a box of tissues.

I don't know how they have time for so much compassion. They must be bionic.

Gary Tetz is a long-term care commentator based in Walla Walla, Washington. Long-Term Living 2011 August;60(8):20-21

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