By Birdstrike MD
“Would you know my name,
If I saw you in Heaven?” -Eric Clapton, Tears In Heaven
Pete was my best friend. I had known him for over 10 years. Pete was more than just a friend. Pete had become part of my family. All of Pete’s relatives had died. He was born in a different state, and when he came into our lives, Pete had no one but us. You could say my family adopted him.
Pete was quiet. I swear it seemed like he never talked. I’m quiet, too. I think that’s why we got along so seamlessly, and without drama or complication. We had quite the connection. Words were overrated to me and Pete. Pete and I liked to do the same things. We both loved to run. We went on countless runs together. I preferred to run alone, and Pete was the only real training partner I had ever wanted to run with. Pete had even helped me train for a marathon. Pete just liked to run with me. That was enough. Pete didn’t care who was faster. I liked to think I could outrun him. I was kidding myself. He never went ahead, though. The truth was, if he wanted to beat me, he could have run twice as fast, twice as long, but he always held back out of respect, I think. Pete was significantly younger than me. My only hope of beating Pete in a race was to wait for a 90 degree day. The heat was his Achilles heel. Pete’s speed disappeared in the heat. Nevertheless, we bonded over countless miles, during many great runs together.
Pete was a super loyal friend; in all honesty, much more so than I. I don’t know that I ever did anything to deserve how loyal and dedicated a friend Pete was. That’s just how Pete was. You almost got the sense he’d lay down his life for anyone of us. Most of what I gave Pete was just someone to hang out with. Other than running together, we spent lots of time outside. We shared a great love for grilling steaks, and we’re both suckers for any sport involving a ball. No one loved a great juicy rib eye as much as him. Pete also had a strange liking for popcorn.
In all the years I knew Pete, I never knew him to have any career in the traditional sense, like a doctor has. That’s unless one considers being a boxer that never received a real paycheck a “career.” He also worked as a volunteer security guard. Some would say that made Pete a free-loader. Sure, he was a sucker for a free steak and a rent-free roof over his head, but I never held it against him. He more than made up for it in the intangibles.
My wife and kids had bonded with Pete as much as I had, since we were his adopted family. My kids had grown up with him. Many times in the summer, we’d hang out at the pool. He’d play ball with my kids. Pete loved kids. Pete was in as many family photos as my own kids. Brown hair, brown eyes, there’s Pete again!
One day, Pete was tagging along as my wife pushed my youngest in a stroller. A viscious dog had aggressively lunged at the stroller. Pete threw himself between the baby and the dog, without hesitation. Pete could have been eaten alive. The viscous dog backed down. Pete was forever a hero to our family after that day. From that moment on, we all had the sense Pete wouldn’t hesitate to lay down his life for any one of us.
One day Pete got sick. It was no big deal. He just threw up a few times. Pete had no one else to take him to the doctor, so my wife did. They ran a few tests but couldn’t find much. Things seemed to worsen, to the point he couldn’t even hold down liquids, so they admitted him. Being the medical one in the family, and the closest thing to “next of kin” Pete had, I told the doctor to call me with any questions. I told him to call me on my cell, that I would be at work, but not to worry. I’d answer. I was midway through an otherwise uneventful shift and in with a patient, prepping for a procedure. The phone rang. “Hello,” I said.
“Hey Doc, this is Pete’s doctor,” said the voice on the other end of the line.
“Sure, what’s going on? How’s Pete?” I asked.
“Not well. He’s got a bowel obstruction. I think we’re going to have to open him up, and do an exploratory laparotomy,” said my best friend’s doctor. “He’s taken a turn for the worse. He’s sedated and asleep right now.”
“Wow, that’s a surprise. I mean, I knew he was sick, but wow…” I trailed off.
“I just wanted to call you and make sure you agreed with everything we were doing,” said the doctor.
“Yes, of course. Absolutely, if that’s what you need to do. Do what you think is best,” I agreed.
“I can’t be sure at this point, but I suspect there’s a mass obstructing him somewhere. His stomach is massively dilated. It’s an emergency situation, at this point,” said the doctor.
“By all means, do what you think is best. I trust you. I’ve got my phone on me. I’ll be at work seeing patients myself. Don’t hesitate to call, even while you’ve got him on the table if needed,” I answered, starting to choke up a little bit. This could be much more serious than I thought.
I went back to my shift, a wound-up ball of nerves, with my cell phone in my front pocket on vibrate plus max volume. I hope he doesn’t try to call while I’m sterile in some procedure, I thought to myself. I can’t allow myself to miss the call. I wanted to leave work. Most anyone else, in any other profession would be able to. Walking off the job is pretty hard, if not impossible at times, when you are a doctor.
About an hour later, I was about to numb a patient up for a procedure. The phone rang. Fortunately, my patient did not have an emergency, so I excused myself as politely as possible. I took the call, “Hello?”
“Hi, this is Pete’s doc, again. Pete’s got a mass in his stomach. It’s completely obstructing. It looks malignant and appears to have spread into the pancreas. There’s no way we can get it all. Our best option is palliative, to remove the obstruction, reconnect and then close. Even that is going to be a major, risky surgery with a very high risk of complications. It appears very aggressive and is likely to be terminal,” said Pete’s doctor.
I was in shock. The news had me dizzy, and my chest started to feel like it fell 5 floors. I started to choke up, and managed to get out the words, “Do the best you can. Do what you think is right, as if he was your best friend.”
I went back to my own patient, and struggled through the rest of my patient load, trying to pretend I didn’t hear what I had heard. I called my wife and told her the bad news, and she broke down and started crying. It tore my heart out hearing her cry, and brought me to the brink. Think positive, I told myself. Maybe it’s not so bad. I bet it’ll turn out to be nothing.
That night we went to see him after the surgery. He was heavily sedated, asleep and still intubated. He looked very peaceful and I felt a little better after seeing him. The doctor explained that he had flat-lined during the surgery, but only for a few seconds and they had gotten his rhythm back right away. There was still hope, but the next 24-48 hours would be the most critical. It’s was not time to give up hope.
In just 48 hours, Pete went from having some vomiting, but otherwise his usual life loving self, to being critically ill, needing a miracle to heal from a major operation. My wife and I were stunned. My kids were upset. Let’s think positive, I told myself. There’s still hope.
The next morning on the way to work, the doctor called again. He said that remarkably, Pete had been extubated, had gotten up, walked and gone to the bathroom with help. I was amazed! It was such a seemingly quick turnaround. “But right now he’s asleep. We just gave him some pain medicine,” said the doctor. “He’s by no means out of the woods yet, but I just wanted to update you and tell you, that at this point, he’s doing about as well as we could expect.”
I felt so relieved. I had started to get a little worried there, that maybe I was going to lose my best friend, not someday, but maybe today. The good news took the pressure off and gave us hope. Maybe Pete would surprise us. As strong as he always was, it wouldn’t surprise me, I thought to myself.
I dug back into my shift and went from patient to patient. I almost forgot about how sick Pete was for a few hours. I was about to leave work at the end of the day, and I got another call. It was the doctor again. “I need to let you know Pete has taken a turn for the worse. His vital signs are unstable. I think it’s his pancreas. He seems to be in tremendous pain, and is on a dilaudid drip, plus sedatives and we can’t control his pain. His respiratory rate is twice normal. I think he’s going into DIC (disseminated intravascular coagulation),” said the doctor. “He could die tonight. You need to come here and see him.”
My wife and I got in the car with my kids and we drove to the hospital, both choked up, and teary eyed. We walked inside. We asked my kids if they wanted to see Pete and that it may be the last time they ever saw him; that it may be a “goodbye.” They both wanted to see him. My 5-year-old leaned over and gave Pete a kiss. The sight brought tears to my eyes. My 8-year-old was afraid, and just sobbed, trying to hold it in. She simply whispered, “I love you, Pete.”
The doctor pulled me aside. We needed to discuss “what more to do” and “when to stop.” The doctor went on, “He’s taken such a turn for the worse, I’m afraid that we may be at a point of no return. We are at a point of futility. I wish I could offer some hope, but if this goes on any longer, he’s just going to suffer needlessly.” The minute his sedative boluses would wear off, he was rapidly breathing and appearing to be in terrible pain and distress.
I heard my wife sobbing and crying in the background. My kids were wiping their eyes. “This is much easier when you’re the doctor and it’s your patient, and not your own. This is just too much. It’s heart wrenching. These decisions are excruciating. I’d like to step out and discuss this with my wife,” I said. After a few minutes, I came back in the room, with the Doctor and Pete. I nodded to the doctor and said, “Okay, go ahead.” The doctor picked up a syringe, kneeled down and injected into the IV. She turned up the drip. I looked at Pete. His rapid breathing and gasping quieted peacefully. *****A few seconds later….. he went peacefully limp and lay motionless.
“He’s dead,” said the Doctor. She wiped a tear off her own eye. “I’m so sorry.”
My heart sank, and felt empty. Even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, the doctor’s words hit me like a punch to the chest. Oh my God, I can’t believe Pete’s really gone. I stumbled back out to see my wife and kids.
“Pete’s dead,” I said to my already teary-eyed wife.
She started to sob. We just sat there in disbelief. Just a few days ago, he seemed fine. Then in 24 hours, we go from vomiting, to surgery, to dead. We drove home sad and sniffling, half in disbelief. My wife led my kids in a prayer for Pete. We talked about how Pete had become such a huge part of our lives, and had become nothing short of family.
I had just lost my best friend. We’d never see Pete again. Pete and I would never again go for a run. Pete would never be around to be the loyal, ever present, quiet and reliable friend we had grown to love and accept as family. But Pete was much more than just my best friend. We had the kind of relationship, some people can just never understand.
Pete was a dog, our family dog. Pete was 100% pure-bred, loyal, face-licking, meat-loving, ball-chasing, house-guarding, family-protecting, Boxer-dog perfection, and my biggest fan. But Pete would never lick my face again. I’d never get to tell Pete, “You’re a good doggie. You’re the best doggie in the world,” with a head scratch, tail-wag and pat on the side. If I had to say so myself, I’d say Pete was the best dog that ever lived.
It’s still been quite some time since he died and I feel like my heart’s been ripped out of my chest, and I can’t cry because my tear glands are empty. Buy stock in Kleenex now, because my family has put the whole town’s Kleenex supply on back order. In between the tears, there are dry tears, as we cycle through the same old gut-wrenching, beautiful, sad, heartwarming and perfect photos. No amount of times that I look at old pictures of him, biting his dirty-drooly favorite ball, or lay on his bed and smell his smell, he’s not coming back. Some people just won’t be able to understand. “It’s just a dog,” they’ll say. But they’ve never had Pete. Pete was much more than “just a dog.” Pete was our baby; our “first born.” Pete was the greatest “BFF,” shadow, security guard, running partner, and food-eating floor-cleaner anyone could ever have. Pete loved me unconditionally, much more so then I ever could say I deserved. People that have had a pet like Pete, instantly “get it.” You understand.
May your beautiful-precious canine-soul, live happily ever after, chasing your favorite pink ball, eating meat and popcorn, running, playing, panting and barking with other dogs, being petted and loved on as much as you loved us and we love you. I sincerely hope there’s a Heaven and in it, a wing called Dog Heaven, so that someday, maybe we can be together again. We love you Pete. You are and will be desperately, desperately missed. You were the best dog our family could have ever had.
The Best Dog That Ever Lived