Sam: A Dog Story

It was the worst day of his life, and I could hear the despair in his voice. Matt was calling from the emergency animal hospital inMatt and Sam Sacramento. My son and his wife were on their way to the Sierras for a camping weekend. Pulling alongside on Highway 80, a woman frantically signaled them to pull over. He yanked his silver Dodge pick-up out of the fast lane and slammed to a halt. Sam, Matt’s nine-year-old yellow Lab, loved to lunge to the side of the truck and bark at the big trucks rushing by, confident in the ties restraining her. Except this time she lunged at the semi behind them and flipped out the back end at 80 miles an hour. Secured by two side leashes, she was half running, half dragged, trapped by her ties.

Sam was dangling from the tailgate, not moving. Both leashes were twisted so tightly that her collar was strangling her, her back end and legs a bloody mess, her eyes rolled back, her tongue hanging from her slack-jawed mouth. Unable to free her, Matt gave up and just cut her loose, certain she was dead. He and Brooke held each other up, screaming into the early morning with Sam lifeless at their feet, traffic hurtling by in the fast lane in slow motion like a bad movie on the wrong reel speed.

Matt heard a small cough. Dropping to his knees he leaned close to Sam’s head and whispered, “Are you alive, girl?”

My son blamed himself for ignoring that little voice nudging him to secure Sam closer to the cab end instead of the middle as he was loading his truck. The decision whether or not to put Sam down was what now weighed on him and he wanted to know what I thought. I asked, “If she makes it honey, what will her life be like, and, how much is this going to cost you?”

A month goes by before I see her in the hospital. I’d waited. I’m not big on dogs: a few I barely tolerate, the rest I avoid. But my aversion to dogs is not why I waited—I was afraid to see how bad Sam looked. A tiny thin blue plastic tube snakes up her left nostril, cotton blankets cushion her all around, a catheter retreats from her backside, and her disintegrated hind feet are in rubber casts. In a purple haze from pain medication, she cocks her head and thwaps her tail in happy recognition, smiles at me, and invites me into her cubicle. Lying with her on the floor, we talk and cry. Actually she talks and I cry. She says how nice I look in my dance clothes, that this has certainly put her old hip pain in perspective, and what a shock it was cart-wheeling over the tailgate—like bungee jumping and finding out the rope is not tied short enough but you don’t realize it until you hit land. She appreciates all the love and attention she’s getting, the visits from everyone, the red felt-tip hearts the staff draws on her casts, the green rubber frog her nurse gave her that holds sentry at her furry front feet, protecting her day and night. She says she’d prefer to lie on the flowers people bring her like she does in the back yard at home, but she doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. My head is touching hers so I can hear her. Stroking her soft ears and the part of her back that is still covered with her yellow fur, my hand avoids the rest of her body which is completely skinned from the pavement and grafting. She looks like half an uncooked Thanksgiving turkey. Wiping my nose to keep from making a mess all over her, she takes her top paw and moves my hand back in between hers so she can tenderly hold it and tells me not to worry. With a single last wag, she drifts back off into a peaceful pharmaceutical sleep.

Breathing together, in and out, softly and evenly, I quietly talk to her while she sleeps. I tell her how beautiful she is; how much her family, her neighborhood friends, and everyone at the Rugworks misses her. I also tell her how the Collins girls across the street are going to set up a lemonade stand to help with the vet costs. I say small prayers for her, and thank her for teaching me to fall in love with a dog. I notice she’s lost a lot of weightSam as a puppy and tell her she looks better than ever… well, her front half anyway. I remind her of all her other close calls with Matt when she was younger: tumbling end-over-end down treacherous ski slopes, sailing over rocky cliffs, paddling down rushing rivers, and as she made it through those—she can make it through this.

Sam and Satchel

Sam and Satchel

I whisper close to her ear, “There are a couple of things you might want to know. Matt and Brooke brought home a small gray kitten last week, and I know you don’t have much patience for kittens. They are also having a baby in a few months. You need to heal so it won’t hurt when the baby gets big enough to crawl all over you, and maybe the baby won’t irritate you nearly as much as the kitten will. You’ll get used to them, perhaps even fall in love with them.”

Sam is so far the most experimental case at the Animal Care Center—a struggling new hospital and the only one of its kind in California—where they are healing her damaged body with science and love. They work Sam daily on the underwater treadmill to exercise her limbs to keep her weight off her feet. They massage her. They care. She’s become the hospital’s beloved mascot and longest resident.

Her doctor quietly appears and joins me on the floor. Gently rubbing the naked places on Sam’s body, Dr. Alexander explains to me how new fur is already growing through the rectangular blocks of skin grafted from her sides to her hips and legs; how the ruby puckered patchwork seams all over her are healing beautifully; how her raw front paw pads are growing back and toughening up just fine; and how Sam is finally well enough to be taken outside where she loves to roll her face in the fresh grass, smell the earth, and feel like a dog again.

I’m touched that Dr. Alexander is sitting on this dark speckled linoleum floor with me at 8:30 on a Friday night. She has done so much for Sam, like keeping her own Lab there on call for a week in the event Sam needed a blood transfusion. Suddenly Sam jerks, her eyes flutter, her nose and mouth rapidly twitch, her front paws race wildly. Startled, I’m afraid she’s having a seizure. The doctor laughs and says she’s dreaming. I’m happy she can run, even if it’s just in her dreams.

When Matt asked me on the call from Sacramento, “What would you do if it were you, Mom? Would you spend $25,000 on a dog?”

“On a dog? No. On Sam? Maybe.”

Catherine Sevenau
September 14, 2002

P.S. Sam has been home from the hospital a month. Most of her fur has grown back; her hind feet are in small neoprene booties. She carefully, and very happily, chases her soggy green tennis ball in the backyard, lies in the flowerbeds (I put in a good word for her), and is making friends with the small gray kitten, Mahari.

On her first trip back to the hospital for therapy and bandage changes, she carefully walks through the front door by herself. Twenty people slowly follow, one by one, two by two, and then in a parade as the furry Pied Piper gingerly makes her way through the reception room, down the long hallway, and into the big recovery room. Arriving at her former bed she turns around a couple of times, lies down, and smiles. The doctors, nurses and staff are gathered: crying, cheering, and clapping. My son, eyes brimming with tears, is grateful.

Satchel Sevenau 12-06P.P.S. Sam is twelve years old now. Her feet are healed but her rear paws look like they’re on backwards. She still loves to camp, has outlived the kitty Mahari who was run over by a car, tolerates Shiva, the other cat, and is very patient with Satchel, Matt and Brooke’s now two-and a-half year-old son. I think Sam feels about kids like I feel about dogs, so I tell her what a good girl she is every time I see her, and thank her for being so sweet to my grandson.

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Comments

  1. Jeff Elliot says:

    Made me cry, Cath, and I’m not a dog person. Sam is, obviously, a special dog, but it’s your thoughts and actions that brought the tears.

    • That story still makes ME cry. Sam was a good dog. The kids were gone for a couple of days so I went over to check on her, threw the tennis ball for her for a bit (this was before the accident) and when it came time for me to return to work, she refused to go in the back yard and stood next to my car door, balefully begging me. We argued for about five minutes and the next thing I know she’s in the back seat of my shiny BMW and I’m taking her to work, her head out the window, floppy ears blowing in the wind, happy as a lark. Damn dog.

  2. David Winton says:

    Thank you Catherine. Great piece. Dog lovers all over get it.

  3. As a vet tech for over 20 years, I have seen the good and the bad with pets. I like to think that there are more people that are like this—that treat their pet like family, instead of an inconvenience. I’ve seen the pain, and felt the pain of losing a best furry friend. Thank you, you have truly captured how both owners and professionals can feel when a special animal crosses their path.

  4. Laura Allmon says:

    Cathy you are truly the writer in the family!

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