About a year ago, I walked into a busy waiting room, called a patient’s name and was rewarded with the kind of life lesson usually delivered by dogs. A woman in her early twenties (I’ll call her Lauren), with cropped, bleach-blond hair and a healthy tan, struggled to hang onto her frisky retriever’s leash. From a distance, I thought I saw one of her arms in a sling, hence her difficulty, and rushed right in with, “Can I give you a hand?” The question got away from me and found its mark before I realized my grievous mistake — Lauren had no right hand. Lauren was an amputee.
Not my best opening gambit, but, thankfully, Lauren laughed and took me up on my offer. By the end of our consultation, I was completely in awe of her refreshing attitude toward the change in her body’s appearance. She had lost most of her right arm (and she was righthanded) in a car accident, and I loved the fact that she had absolutely no inhibitions about wearing a spaghetti strap top, laughing off her physical limitations and refusing to be defined by them. Her confidence and manner said it all.
It was the first time I had ever witnessed, in a human, a sentiment I have perceived in so many three-legged dogs over the past twenty years. Amputation conjures mental images of civil war, genocide, unsightly stumps and puckered scars from which we avert our eyes, swallow hard and try to act as though we are perfectly comfortable with raw disfiguration. We forget that such talents as sleight-of-hand magic are for people, not other mammals. Sure, reservations and psychological projections are perfectly logical, but our dogs are focused on far weightier matters such as the absence of pain and the ability to ambulate. They remind us that, for them at least, Pride is not a deadly sin.
My job requires me to convey precisely this reassuring message to anxious owners battling two relentless and alltoo- common demons — fear and denial. So when Zoe, a seven-year-old brindle Boxer, and her owner, Ellyn, walked into my examination room, I knew I had my work cut out.
“I’ve been to two other vets,” said Ellyn. “They both think it’s a badly torn ligament in her knee and she needs surgery.”
In my experience, Boxers are always fun, their bouncy and exuberant demeanor a challenge during my hunt for clues as to the cause of a lameness. Perhaps this was why Zoe struck me as all wrong. She carried her right hind leg completely off the ground, her wet eyes conveying a “don’t want to play” attitude.
No one wants to hear, “It’s not a torn ligament, it’s a tumor,” but a brief palpation followed by a set of damning x-rays brought us to a predictable moment in which I would attempt to justify an amputation.
Ellyn looked lost, trying to stay with me, clawing her way back after being felled by my diagnosis and shocking therapeutic option.
“Zoe actually has three really positive factors in her favor,” I told her. “First, the tumor is in the knee joint, destructive but slow to spread to other areas of her body. With an amputation, there is a good chance Zoe might enjoy a normal lifespan. Second, this is a back leg and not a front leg. Since dogs carry about 60 percent of their weight up front and 40 percent in the back, losing a back leg is usually a little easier than losing a front. Finally, and most importantly, Zoe is already a three-legged dog. She doesn’t put weight on her right hind leg. Zoe has completely adapted to life on three legs. Believe me, she’ll be grateful to be rid of a useless appendage weighing her down, causing her pain.”
It took a while, but Ellyn finally agreed to the surgery. On the day of Zoe’s discharge from the hospital, I watched their reunion from afar. Ellyn was visibly nervous, afraid for the transformation in her dog’s appearance, but what impressed me most was this woman’s determination to connect with the dog she loved. When Zoe trotted out, Ellyn never hesitated; she was all about reassurance in her eye-to-eye contact, sneaking a sideways glance at the incision as she fussed and hugged and convinced her Boxer that nothing between them had really changed.
A month or so later, I checked in with Ellyn by phone.
“What have you noticed since the surgery?” I asked. “I mean, when you take Zoe for a walk, does anyone say anything?”