They say a diamonds are a girl’s best friend, but I will take dogs over diamonds any day.
The darkness in Dr. Tom’s eyes spoke volumes as he quietly closed the chart. My fears had been confirmed. The cancer was back. Now we had to figure out the best thing to do.
My service dog Marshall had struggled with numerous health problems in our eight years together, and our vet, Dr. Tom, had treated them all. So when Marshall started limping, I took him in for tests. Upon hearing the results, my heart sank.
“The cancer cells are isolated in his left front leg,” Dr. Tom said, “The best course of action, Lorraine, is amputation. It will take some time, but Marshall will adjust to moving on three legs. It is up to you, of course. We will do whatever you think is best.”
In bed that night, a million thoughts swirled in my head. On the surface, it was simple. Getting Marshall’s leg removed would get rid of his cancer, and so that is logically what I should do. Right?
Marshall was my companion, my family, the best friend I ever had. Loving him became effortless pretty quickly. After two months with him, I couldn’t imagine my life without him. I loved his personality as much or more than what he did for me. When I dropped a pen on the floor, he picked it up, but more importantly, his “internal snuggle sensor” knew exactly when I needed him to be close by.
Having come into the world ten weeks premature, my lungs were not fully developed at the time of my birth. For the first few minutes of my life, I literally could not breathe. In the time it took the doctors to realize what was happening, and get me into an incubator, some of my brain cells died because they didn’t get enough oxygen. The result is that I have been a wheelchair user for as long as I can remember.
Because I have firsthand experience living in a body that doesn’t work correctly, I wrestled with the decision to save Marshall’s life while disabling him on purpose. In many ways, he would be lucky. He would not be aware of his circumstances. He didn’t have issues with body image or self esteem, like I do. He would only be aware of the variation in balance, and would not be aware that he was different.
But I would.
About once a week when I am out and about somebody gives me “the look”. You know the one. The “You’re in a wheelchair, I can’t imagine your life, I’m glad it’s you and not me, pity-look”. Most people are kind-hearted. They aren’t intentionally offensive. But they tend to see all I can’t do, while I see all I have been able to accomplish.
Some people would see Marshall with three legs and call my dog “handicapped.”
But what other people might think didn’t matter. In deciding whether to amputate Marshall’s leg, I focused on the bond we shared. Amputation might be the best thing for him medically, but was it best for us? How would our relationship change?
Would I love Marshall any less with three legs? Of course not! Would I love him differently? As much as I hated to admit it, I had to say “probably so.”
I might expect less from him. I might coddle him. I might feel sorry for him. Those thoughts turned my stomach. I continually fight against those things with every fiber of my being. It would be a lot to put on a dog.
A few days later, we were in the fenced in area of my apartment complex. Marshall spotted a squirrel, and took off like a shot, completely determined. Watching him made my mind up for me. Without one of his legs he would not be able to run and play in the way he was used to. He was 10 years old, and taking away something he got such pleasure out of didn’t seem fair.
Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that amputating Marshall’s leg in order to prolong his life would be much more for my benefit than for his. Whatever amount of time he had left, I wanted his quality of life to be the same as it had always been.
Marshall lived for another year and a half. Prior to the last week of his life, he ran and played his heart out every day. He was used to the life that we had. That wasn’t altered.
The love we shared was one of the strongest connections I have ever known. He never saw my disability, and I chose to look beyond his illness to make the choice that I felt was best for him.
Marshall trusted our bond. With cancer or without it, that had always been his leg to stand on.