11th Hour Love – Succasunna, NJ

“Have you found any beagles?” Patty, co-director of the Beagle Rescue League in New Jersey, asked the West Virginia shelter.

The answer, not surprisingly, was yes. They had picked up one small beagle wandering along a back road. She was painfully thin, weak, and coughing a lot due to a heavy load of heartworms. In fact, she was scheduled to be euthanized because the shelter couldn’t afford treatment.

“We’ll take her,” Patty told them. Released at the 11th hour from certain death, the beagle named Sahara made the long journey from West Virginia to New Jersey without incident. Patty made arrangements for Karen, one of their volunteers to foster her while the rescue arranged for heartworm treatment.

Patty laughed when she told us the story about Sahara and Karen. “When Karen met Sahara, we knew we had what we call a black hole dog. That dog wasn’t going anywhere.” And she didn’t.

Sahara’s doe eyes with a thick fringe of lashes was the first step to winning Karen’s heart. “She was so small and so cute,” Karen told us. “And her personality was so sweet; I just couldn’t let her go.”

Sahara and Cagney Hulmes, Succasunna, NJSahara recovered from her heartworm infection, and true to her easy going nature, she got along very well with Karen’s other two beagles, Cagney and Kylie. Her regular routine was to sleep with Cagney, wrapping herself around him.

“She’s just a perfect little dog!” Karen said, beaming. For about six years, Sahara enjoyed the good life. You never would have known that this little shrimp of a dog had had such a hard life. Love mends a lot of hearts, but it also helped that Sahara had such a tender, loving heart, too.

Under Karen’s care, Sahara gained weight. She had no significant health problems until eight months ago. That’s when the recurrent bladder infections began. While Sahara always recovered from the infections, inevitably, the infections would come back.

Quite by accident, Karen noticed one day that Sahara’s urine didn’t look right. Then she saw that it was loaded with blood. Something was really wrong.

An ultrasound revealed that Sahara had a cancerous tumor in her bladder. Dr. Werner, Sahara’s vet, was hopeful because it appeared to be operable. However, when he performed the surgery, he found that the tumor was intricately wrapped around the bladder. There was no way to remove all of it.

TCC, or invasive transitional cell carcinoma, is the most common and deadliest bladder cancer in dogs. It’s sneaky, and can spread to other vital organs, and it’s very rare for the disease to go into remission.

This was the cancer Sahara had.

As you can imagine, Karen was devastated. She looked into Sahara’s soft brown eyes and made a promise.

Karen promised her perfect little dog that when the time came, she would not keep Sahara earthbound because she didn’t want to let her go. But until that time, Karen would do everything possible to keep Sahara’s quality of life exactly that, quality, pain-free and happy.

It was a big promise from a woman who had little money, but Karen wasn’t about to let that stop her.

A veterinary oncologist told her about a study that Purdue University was conducting on dogs with bladder cancer. It was with the top canine oncologist in the country, Dr. Deborah Knapp.

This study did not use traditional chemotherapy. As Karen said, “Chemo is chemo. It could maybe give Sahara six months. I had to do something different.” Instead, the Purdue chemotherapy combined folate with a particular chemotherapy drug.

This targeted treatment guards the healthy cells as much as possible with the folate, while the drug attacks the cancer, sparing the patient major side effects.

Sarhara and Karen HulmesWhen Karen heard that, she was determined to get Sahara into the study. When Chris, Dr. Knapp’s nurse, read Karen’s comment about getting into the study, she saw how committed Karen was. “I just want to try everything I can to help her and I know Dr. Knapp is the best at what she does. So I want to be involved in the study.”

Then Chris saw that Karen lived in New Jersey, not Indiana! Karen was accepted into the study. “It was obvious from the start that Karen doesn’t care what it takes. She just wants the best for Sahara. Karen knows that TCC is very rarely cured. She just wants her to have a good quality of life. That’s really big for her.”

The first time Karen and Sahara flew out to Indiana, Karen missed her flight. She and Sahara slept at the airport and caught the next flight out the following day. “If that isn’t dedication,” Chris said. “I don’t know what it is.”

Karen’s veterinarian would give Sahara the targeted chemotherapy once a week. Once each month, Karen and Sahara fly out to Purdue for intensive follow up. The drug company covers the majority of Sahara’s treatment there, but it does not cover her flights or Dr. Werner’s treatments.

Dr. Knapp’s team performs an ultrasound to see if the tumor is shrinking. They also review Sahara’s blood work to make sure her red and white blood cells are holding steady. Sahara also gets her chemo treatment while there. So far, her little body is responding.

She’s a bit of a rock star in the treatment room because her personality is so sweet and kind. “We just love on her while she gets her treatment,” Chris said. “We give her peanut butter and treats so she doesn’t care about the catheter. We want to make this as positive an experience as possible so that Sahara will be excited about coming back to get her chemo.”

Sahara has only had one side effect. “She seems to be hungrier,” Karen said. For Sahara, it appears that this is all just one big adventure. Amazing, isn’t it?

To help with Sahara’s treatments with Dr. Werner, Karen turned to the web to find financial help. That’s when she found The Mosby Foundation.

When we saw that face, we were smitten, too! We read Sahara’s story and knew she had been lucky enough to cheat death once. We shared Karen’s commitment to give Sahara an asymptomatic, good quality of life. That’s why we gladly made a donation toward her chemotherapy treatments with Dr. Werner.

So how long can Sahara remain asymptomatic? No one knows. With this targeted treatment, there’s a 70% chance it will go into remission.

But as Chris points out,” Some dogs go years before the tumor starts to grow.”

Once that happens, and it will happen, Karen will have to find a different chemotherapy treatment. Or, if Sahara’s quality of life has become degraded, she will have to live up to her promise to Sahara.

Each moment with Sahara is precious. Each silly little act takes on a heightened appreciation of their time together. Just watching Sahara hungrily eat her chow is a joyful experience. It’s a reminder of how transient and temporary all of life is.

In a way, each of us who loves a dog loves them like it’s the 11th hour of their life. You rejoice.

Karen rejoices every day. Don’t you?