Trials and Triumphs

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) is a genetic condition where the pancreas does not produce the necessary enzymes required to digest food and absorb nutrients causing starvation regardless of the amount of food taken in. For further information and other resources on EPI I highly recommend visiting because my knowledge comes entirely through my experiences with Yara. Much of which has been chronicled here on my blog.

EPI is highly treatable, thankfully, but to say the entire thing was a struggle is truly an understatement. Yara has a penchant for stubbornness and from practically the moment she entered my life her choice method to showcase this was refusing to eat. Looking back it’s hard not to focus on all the mistakes that I made. Signs of her EPI were present from the moment she entered my life; her bowel movements were a tan color and always disproportionately large in comparison to how much she ate. Our instructor assured me that this was normal and so I never gave much thought to it. At her first annual checkup she got a clean bill of health, but had dropped an alarming twelve pounds! The weight loss continued steadily over the next three months, which was certainly baffling but not exactly alarming. Other than a noticeable increase in her bowel movements and an occasional bout of diarrhea or vomiting Yara seemed fine.

Portrait of me and Yara on a white background; Yara is standing beside me with my arms wrapped under her bellyThroughout this I was in constant contact with Yara’s school, Fidelco. They were very sympathetic, but hardly alarmed by the weight loss. They offered a bunch of suggestions that included adding everything from vitamin supplements and probiotics to canned dog food and raw beef to her daily meals. At her peak Yara was eating what amounted to more than nine cups of food a day! The addition of the raw beef ignited the first undeniable symptoms of EPI; Yara’s stools morphed into a bright yellow “cow plop” and she started vomiting almost daily. It was exactly the worst thing she could have had in her diet, but I’m strangely grateful that we did because it alerted everyone to how serious things were. Still, it would take nearly two months before she was formally diagnosed. She had a battery of different tests run and they all returned normal results; in fact, the GI test that determined her EPI diagnosis initially showed that she was “marginally” in the range.

By that point I was fully on board with whatever the vet told me. Yara was clearly sick! She never was as ravaged as some EPI dogs I’ve seen, but her ribs were clearly visible at the height of her weight loss. (This photo is the best example I could find.) A fact that the general public made me aware of almost constantly. In fact, there was even a formal complaint made to Fidelco! I tried not to take it as a personal offense when they sent a trainer out within a few days to check on things while for months before they were made aware of the entire situation at every interval and had been completely nonplussed.

The resounding memory of these six months is the amount of stress I was under. I felt pressure from Fidelco to take their advice against my own better judgment or that of my vet’s. This greatly influenced the length of time it took to diagnosis Yara. On the rare occasion that I didn’t side with the school it was made abundantly clear they felt that decision was the root of the problem. I had changed her food, for instance, so that might be the culprit because she was used to the other food. Admittedly, I took a substantial amount of time off because of Yara, but my superiors at work were largely unsympathetic. The level of passive aggression and outright punishment directed towards me probably only furthered my own health issues with chronic migraines. So, when I needed time off because I was sick it was a Big Problem. And I got no respite because everyone from my family and friends to outright strangers made it known how bad things were. People made a point to remark about how thin Yara was and suggest ways to offset this. (“I think you need to feed her more.”) On countless occasions I was accosted in public about my “obvious” abuse; one woman actually dragged me by the arm while literally in the middle of crossing a street to yell at me!

Portrait of me and Yara on a white background; Yara is in harness, lying on the floor beside me, resting her head on my kneeWorst of all was my own personal struggle. I scoured every possible resource for anything that might help. Perhaps she was sensitive to chemicals and so along with her various food alterations she drank only purified water. For months. I changed all of my cleaning and laundry supplies to green products, which I admit I had wanted to do anyway because of my migraines. I went so far as to replace all of her bedding, including a very expensive bed, thinking that she might have an allergy (which she does but that’s a whole other story) and began a long process of eliminating things one by one to determine the cause. But with every change that netted no resolution I kept coming back to one constant: me.

Part of me couldn’t believe that this was possible. I rejected the notion that I was the problem by reminding myself of her nearly flawless work in harness. But every time she refused a morsel of food or had an accident in the house I became just a bit more convinced that she was stressed out by her job. I felt like a rotten human being; I was selfish to want to keep working her and cruel to continue to do so if she wasn’t cut out for this life. Mostly, I felt like a failure. The partnership was faltering and I couldn’t fix it. I was increasingly convinced I was doing something wrong, but proud enough that I wouldn’t dare admit it. Friends tell me they guessed as much, but I never told anyone how bad it really was for me or how close I came to calling Fidelco to take Yara back. To this day I can’t tell you what stopped me. I could say I didn’t want to give up, but I did. I could say that I didn’t want to be parted from her, but that’s hard to believe when every room in the house is covered in dog sick.

Obviously it wasn’t all for naught and we made it through all of this. Yara’s recovery was very swift and though I did eventually retire her because of her health issues it actually had very little to do with any of this or the fact she has EPI. I’ve since remarked on how profoundly she impacted my life in her short working career even though we had more than our fair share of “downs.” Not that I want to repeat it, but I don’t regret the struggle. For all I know it only made the bond we shared even stronger. Mostly, it made me appreciate all the positives we had. Sometimes it was a way to distract myself from how miserable things were and other times that focus was the driving force behind figuring it all out. Together, we accomplished so much!

This post was written as part of the fifth Assistance Dog Blog Carnival. This edition’s theme is “Achievement” and further information can be found here on the founder’s blog.

Déjà Vu

Yesterday, Dad called about Yara. She had been vomiting and having loose stool all day, though, otherwise she seemed fine. I chalked it up to an EPI flare-up, which Dad confirmed was plausible since it was likely she could have gotten into something given the current state of chaos his house is in presently thanks to new window installation. Anyway, I advised him to give her a bland dinner and see how she was in the morning noting that it was possible she would still vomit some and/or have loose bowel movements. So long as it’s a decrease and she isn’t acting lethargic, it’s pretty routine stuff for an EPI dog.

I couldn’t help but feel bad about the whole thing. I’ve been through three years of her revolving health, but this is Dad’s first foray into the symptom flare-ups and the unpleasant by-products. I think if I were honest, the clean bill I kept hearing from him only worried me more that this was going to happen. It was bound to.

Anyway, I don’t have to feel too bad about her being sick because this morning Uschi decided to give me a local demonstration. Yup. She had diarrhea. A lot of it. In her crate. For no reason that I can tell. And honestly, I’m rather shocked that she didn’t try and wake me up. She certainly hasn’t had any problem before waking me up at ungodly hours of the morning to take a break outside.

I am a bit concerned about this only in the sense that she did have her normal two bowel movements yesterday. And this was quite a lot of stool. But I think perhaps while she loves peanut butter a great deal, it doesn’t love her back and she before bed I did stuff a bit in a bone for her. I don’t know. But aside from picking at her breakfast, she seems fine otherwise. So, I’m trying not to worry.

I just can’t express how exhausted I am when it comes to canine health issues. I can feel that heavy curtain of stress settle over me and I literally could break down and cry. I keep reminding myself that for each of the dogs it was probably an isolated incident and hardly serious.

Three Years

Time is a strange thing. There are moments when it seems like three years has gone by in a blink of an eye and yet others when I feel it was more like 300. And to complicate matters more it always seems like it’s nonexistent when you need it most, which certainly is a contributing factor to this anniversary post going up more than two weeks late. Not that it’s the first time; I was a day late for our first year.

Portrait of me and Yara on a white background; Yara is standing beside me with my arms wrapped under her bellyThis last year has been a mixture of good and bad for us as a working team. Yara’s had several relapses with her EPI, another bought of SIBO, and developed severe allergies, but also had the most lengthy times of stability in her health, too. And it was this ongoing struggle that ultimately led to the decision to retire her.

It remains one of the single most difficult things I’ve ever done, which is saying a lot because if there’s one thing I’m not known for it’s being decisive. Having no assurance whatsoever of exactly when a new guide dog match will be made, I’ve spent the last six months trying not dwell on the less pleasant aspects of this. Instead, I’ve done my best to celebrate the time we have left. We had a round of professional photos taken at Washington Park. Three times, in fact. Some of which were chosen when Yara was featured at! I even broke down and got a cake to celebrate her birthday in rare form! I’ve also tried to get in some time with all of Yara’s pals one last time, which of course has included photos.

We’ve done a lot of fun things that haven’t had any involvement in my neurotic and roundabout preparations for Yara’s retirement: we went to the Empire State Book Festival, the Tulip Festival, and the Victorian Stroll (which I still intend to finish a post on). All of these were firsts for Yara — and aside from the Tulip Festival, for me as well! We also took a trip to visit Raechel and James, which included attending this year’s Walk for Fidelco and a trip to Mystic Aquarium for my birthday! Speaking of the Fidelco walkathon, we had Jean take some fabulous photos that became our thank you cards for donors.

Headshot of Yara lying in the grassOh, and we also moved! Which actually did fulfill my hope from last year that this year’s anniversary would be at a much less drama-filled abode. Yara now has an entire house to clomp around in.

More recently, we’ve been preparing for the holidays. Yesterday we even went caroling! Of course there is the usual card, which will be sent out tomorrow barring that my fingers can get through the last 30 or so! The house is all decked out and Yara’s matured enough that I’m not constantly finding ornaments strewn about. In fact, so far the only ornament that’s been knocked off the tree has been by me and that was while decorating it. Unlike last year, we actually managed to get to stores to do some shopping without any unfortunate incidents, though, that hasn’t seemed to help me actually get gifts.

Yara and me lying in the grass togetherYara’s been an amazing addition to my life: a phenomenal guide dog and an exceptional companion. Even though the time wasn’t perfect by any means, I wouldn’t trade the experience. Rather, looking back over the last year — and the two before that, I find myself feeling cheated that our time as a team will be so short. There is so much I had planned to do with her by my side, so many things that I am sure she would have enjoyed and even more that I’m intensely curious as to how she would have reacted. I think, for me, the hardest part of letting go is that I didn’t expect it to be so hard. I’ve done the retiring thing before and thought I knew what it entailed and for more reasons than I am able to articulate, this is so very different than before and so much more difficult.

Short as our time has been, I’ll certainly not soon forget how powerful I have found it to be.

Memorable Lasts

Before I forget, I’m having holiday card photos taken on Dec. 11th, so there’s still time to get in on having adorable German shepherd in your mailbox for the holidays!

Yes, I’m still making cupcake pies. Don’t judge, it makes you seem jealous.

Tray of cupcakes decorated as blueberry and cherry pies

This particular batch are a surprise for the staff at our vet’s office. Today Yara is getting her rabies vaccination renewed and this will (hopefully) be her last trip there. It is one of a growing list of lasts that have been going on of late. Somehow saying “lasts” seems like bad English. At least it seems so when I say it in my head. But I think my inward pronunciation leans towards a lisping sound.

I’ve been pretty quiet here in general and usually that would mean that I am much with the busy, which is true. However, it’s mostly been due to the fact that any update on Casa de Mí would require blathering on about Yara’s health and related events regarding her retirement and the complete lack of news about Guide Dog #3. The retirement stuff especially has weighed heavily on my mind lately as I’m sure anyone who’s physically seen me in the last month can attest. I’m very stressed about it. Retiring a guide dog is never easy and for a plethora of reasons this time is even more difficult than I’d ever have anticipated.

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It’s been about a week since starting Yara’s new regimen of meds and shots and things seem to be going well. She isn’t showing any more interest in eating, though, but this is no surprise to me. The B12 definitely is giving her more pep, which wasn’t exactly lacking to begin with. She’s always been happy and interested in everything, but now it seems like she almost can’t not be stalking squirrels or enticing children to play with her or observing the goings-on of the entire planet.

Her stool is looking better, but it’s not quite firm.

As for the shots themselves, she cried a bit during the first but wasn’t fazed a bit for her second one. She does definitely recognize the syringe and is certainly not thrilled about the idea, but at least she isn’t fighting me.

Oh, also, since people are starting to ask with more frequency: I have heard absolutely nothing about my next guide dog. I don’t anticipate a call before the end of this month. But yes it is becoming very real to me and I’m desperately sad about having to retire Yara. The reality that she’ll be someone else’s dog is still hard for me to comprehend and while I’ve gone through this before with Dolly, I’m finding this to be so much harder than I remember.

I will most assuredly report here when I have news to share, though.

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