When Marina first noticed Bandit, her two and a half year old black Labrador, limping and holding up a back paw one Saturday, she thought he’d stepped on something and took him to the vet. The exam didn’t turn up any visible wound and, over the next couple of days, Bandit started putting weight back on his foot and things seemed back to normal. Then on Thursday, Bandit didn’t eat his dinner and the next day, he seemed sleepy and again ignored his food. By Saturday, Marina was worried; Bandit was still not eating and was drinking unusual amounts of water. Marina went back to see their vet. Bandit’s symptoms were confusing. His eyelids were pulled back, he was having trouble blinking and the muscles in his head were tensed up. Maybe Bandit was having an allergic reaction or had ingested a toxin of some kind. Marina was advised to take Bandit home, monitor him overnight and come back immediately if there was a change for the worse.
That night nobody in the house slept and by morning Bandit’s muscles were even more tense. Marina rushed Bandit into San Francisco Veterinary Specialists where Dr. Elyse Hammer was the first to examine him and reach a diagnosis. It was tetanus - a potentially fatal condition in which a toxin from a bacteria blocks nerve signals and produces severe muscle contractions, causing difficulty eating, drinking, and breathing. Muscle spasms can be so intense they fracture bones. Almost all mammals are susceptible to tetanus but dogs typically come into contact with the bacteria in the soil through a cut or puncture wound.
Dr. Hammer knew Bandit needed life saving treatment fast. She started IV fluids to prevent dehydration as well as medication to stop progression of the tetanus, reduce the muscle spasms and keep Bandit calm. Marina was told that Bandit would require round the clock care and observation for at least a week in hospital. Bandit was becoming increasingly weak and needed to eat. Marina went to the store and bought his favorite soft foods to try to tempt him to take something. After multiple attempts, Bandit took a tiny bit of cheese from her finger. It felt like a small victory and Marina thought it was maybe a turning point. Then Bandit’s temperature spiked to 107° and the team told Marina they would have to fully sedate Bandit to try to keep him stable and insert a feeding tube to keep him nourished. For the next week, even though Bandit was unresponsive, Marina continued to visit twice a day just to whisper words of encouragement in his ear and let him know she was there. She watched as the hospital team turned Bandit over regularly in bed to avoid pressure on his joints and wondered if he would ever come home. Marina recalls:
“The weekends were hard. It was so quiet without him and, with no work to do, we would both start wondering how long this was all going to last and would he make it.”
Marina and her husband had budgeted for a week but, with this set back, they were now well into a second week with costs mounting daily and no end in sight. Marina felt they had made the right decision but was worried that the treatment costs would overtake them.
“With such a young and healthy dog, we knew that we wanted to give Bandit the time and medical resources to fight tetanus, but it was not an easy decision. What we thought would be one week in the hospital quickly turned into two and then three. The costs outpaced our expectations, and recovery progress was stalled. The doctors kept asking us if we wanted to continue - and to let them know when we could no longer go on emotionally or financially. We committed to him and each other that as long as he stayed in the fight with a good chance to make it, we would find a way to stay in it, too.”
The incredible round the clock one-on-one care that Bandit was receiving from the hospital team was keeping him alive but the treatments costs were now way over what Marina and her husband had budgeted for or could afford. “One day”, Marina remembers, “during Bandit's third week in the hospital, Dr. Hammer informed us that she had contacted San Francisco Aid for Animals and secured a generous $5,000 grant from the Ingrid Tauber Fund for Animals. We were stunned. All we had hoped for was good news about Bandit's recovery progress. Receiving a financial lifeline was not only a tangible benefit but also a huge emotional boost. The support from the fund said “you are not alone”. However, with Bandit’s recovery stalled, the team at SFVS was running out of options. The lifeline from the Ingrid Tauber Fund for Animals allowed the SFVS team to try one last drug they thought might work.
On the day Bandit was to receive the new drug, Marina was told to wait until the afternoon to call. She tried to concentrate on her work but ended up watching the clock. Finally, Marina spoke to the hospital and the news was good; Bandit was showing signs of improvement and, this time, it looked like he really had turned a corner. When Marina went in to see Bandit that night, he was awake and tried jerkily to get his legs to work so he could greet her. Even with this good news, Bandit had a long way to go. He was still very noise and light sensitive and was confined to his own darkened room. Worrying that he was lonely during the long nights, members of the hospital team would take turns to sneak in beside Bandit so they could watch a movie on their phones with him.
Rehab started the next day with the SFVS team encouraging Bandit to stand up, first supported by a pillow and then on his own. A couple of days after that, Marina saw him take his first steps. Recovery was slow but his spirit was back and soon the SFVS staff were responding to barks from Bandit that meant he was bored and needed a cuddle.
Marina says it’s hard to find a way to thank everyone involved with Bandit’s recovery. In addition to Drs. Hammer, Maretzki and Ybarra, there were many other doctors and nurses at SFVS who contributed to Bandit's care and recovery. Almost everyone at the hospital either cared for Bandit during their shifts, or gave him cuddles and words of encouragement between their own patient cases.