By Karin Ursula Edmondson, Kingston, N.Y.
Suzie Beagle was only supposed to be my foster dog until a suitable home was found for her. In August 2017, I met the transport driver to pick Suzie up after the long trip from death row at a North Carolina shelter to Kingston, New York. She jumped eagerly from the transport car into the crate in my truck but on the drive home I stole a glance back at her and saw a glimmer of distrust, anxiety, and fear in her eyes.
The first couple of days at home Suzie slept, walked perfectly leashed, and ate all her meals in true beagle style. She ignored my two other dogs and did her own thing. On the third day she suddenly lashed out at my oldest dog, Bella. A Shepherd/lab mix who weighed close to fifty pounds, Bella was twice as big as Suzie but that didn’t stop Suzie from reaching up and lunging for Bella’s neck and head as they trotted side by side across the deck. Was this a one off or would Suzie’s behavior repeat itself?
Suzie’s outbursts toward Bella continued and started to include my other beagle, Ollie. My heart sank. I felt guilty for placing my two dogs in harm’s way so I told the rescue I can’t do this, that Suzie’s outbursts were overwhelming. Finding another foster for Suzie and her issues took time so I started observing Suzie and how her independent and affectionate behavior altered at specific situations when she was sitting next to me and Ollie or Bella came close. Her body tensed and her breath quickened, escalating into high pitched whines right before she lunged and snapped her teeth. I recognized Suzie’s behavior; I experienced a something similar in my own nervous system due to unprocessed long-ago trauma.
Right then, instead of giving up on Suzie and handing her over to another foster, I submitted an adoption application. I get you, Suzie. We got this. Instead of running away, I moved in closer to Suzie’s trauma, her triggers.
Four years later, after Suzie officially became part of the family pack and we successfully managed her issues, she became my sole remaining dog. All my other dogs had died one by one, Bella just the summer prior. We had nine months of quality Suzie -Karin time before Suzie was diagnosed with a trigeminal nerve sheath tumor somewhere in the right side of her skull. She had lost weight, had an indentation around her eye, had been a little unsteady on her feet, and was circling to the right every now and then. We saw a neurologist who confirmed a trigeminal nerve sheath tumor that would eventually affect her jaw, masticating muscles and nerves, and mobility.
There were two treatment options: an MRI followed by a series of ten radiation treatments. The entire process cost around twenty thousand dollars and would not cure Suzie, only prolonging her life for several more months. During that time, Suzie would have had to been anesthetized for the MRI and all of the radiation treatments and we would have had to travel three hours each way for treatment. Between anesthesia and travel stress, doctor’s visits where I wouldn’t be allowed in with her (Covid) – the aggressive prolonging of life was a lot of cost, side effects, and stress for the same inevitable outcome. Prognosis with MRI/radiation – seven to twelve months, depending.
I opted for palliative care and focused on creating optimal health for Suzie to support her quality of life and bring her joy in her final journey. Prognosis of palliative care – two to four months.
Then we started consulting with Joanna to check in with Suzie physically and mentally and ask her how I could facilitate making Suzie’s end of life journey most comfortable. Joanna relayed that Suzie was calm, more curious and confused why she couldn’t balance things out than nervous or agitated. With jovial spirit, she continued to enjoy life – long beagle sniffs in the meadow, beautiful beagle ears flapping in the wind of the truck window. I was the one thinking about Suzie’s end and not being present with her in the moment. Joanna helped me realize the possibilities that existed and to put the diagnosis away for now so I could be fully present for Suzie.
As Suzie’s balance shifted even more, she adjusted by walking alongside furniture and keeping to walls to support her body. Joanna suggested we contact a homeopathic vet. We tried a Rife machine but when Suzie became restless during treatments, we let that one go favoring Suzie’s freedom to live out her life on her terms- to be a curious Snuffaluffagus, joining me at jobsites to romp in enclosed gardens – to be in as many moments of each other’s lives as possible. I took daily photos of her – Suzie stretched out alongside a row of daylilies in May, Suzie napping on a clump of fern in July. My favorite - the selfie of me driving and her poking her head underneath my left arm both of us looking out at the road ahead.
The last nine days of her life, she refused food but accepted droppers of water. This is the stage most pet owners choose to euthanize their pets. Suzie’s body was dying, the tumor taking its final toll, but Suzie’s Spirit was still here – her white-tipped tail still wagged whenever I came close to her or gently moved her from bed to couch. Her good left eye followed me wherever I puttered around the room watering plants, cooking, cleaning up. When I lay down next to her bed, she would slowly inch her way over, twisting and turning to get as close as she could to me and there we would both sleep. She would still let me know when she had to urinate by raising her head up and pointing her snout to her rear end so that I would be ready with a warm bath and a clean wee pad.
I assume most people euthanize their animals at this stage because it is gut-wrenching to witness death taking one thing at a time- balance, mobility, ability to eat and drink and defecate. Robbing the health, the weight, leaving bones protruding. Suzie’s death tested my ability to show up for her and love her knowing that she would be taken from me any day, any night. Consulting with Joanna three times during Suzie’s cancer journey helped me to understand that Suzie was accepting of her path, she was not fighting death’s natural process. When she was still able, she navigated new ways of being in this world. When she was unable to do that anymore, she slept more and drifted in and out of the earthly realm between worlds and allowed me to clean her body, give her small bites of food and droppers of water.
These final days were the heart-breaking for me and I checked in with Joanna again to make sure that Suzie was aware what was happening. She was. And that Suzie was at peace. She was. And comfortable. Yes. And knew what was coming. Joanna walked Suzie through the final dying process so Suzie would recognize the stages and release herself from her body when the time came. Suzie communicated to Joanna that she was deeply aware of the gift she was receiving, to die on her own terms in the company of her human.
Via Joanna, Suzie gave me encouragement that I would be all right after her passing, to remember my capacity to give love and care to an animal or a human. Suzie also suggested adopting another animal who was in greater need than most – in Suzie’s honor.
So, about a month after Suzie took her final breath by my side in our truck on a sunny September day, I adopted Lola Beagle. She is nine, sweet as sugar, but terrified of men and loud noises. It took exactly three days for me to fall in love with Lola, a testament to the enormous capacity of the human heart to love anew even in grief. Together, with love and patience and lots of treats, Lola and I are working on her issues and finding a joyful way forward together even as I still think of Suzie every day and offer prayers of thanks for the time she and I spent together.
On palliative care with optimal nutritional, herbal and homeopathic support, pain management and consulting with Joanna, Suzie lived to nine days shy of the high end of the prognosis of four months. Most importantly, she continued living as she had prior to the tumor – in the moment, enjoying all the beagle-y things she loved so much and made her life worth living.