Building A Mystery

AKC Gazette Magazine Special Issue September 2001, VOL.118 -

By Rhonda Hillman

My daughter, Gabrielle, has a rare, progressive neuromuscular disease called Friedreich's ataxia, diagnosed when she was 12. The disease has crippled her and taken away her dreams of being a ballet dancer. But when her beloved Black and Tan Coonhound, Building a Mystery (Izzy), was diagnosed with a rare condition that ironically mirrored many of Gabe's symptoms, it helped Gabe come to terms with her own disease and become passionate about helping Izzy. Their journey together - dog and girl - has been full of odd, yet wonderful coincidences that no one wants to try to explain.

When still in school, Gabe tried to hide her disease from her classmates. As time went by, she was teased by many of them for her slurred speech and clumsy walk. But at graduation, she was able to proudly make her way across the stage without the aide of a cane or a walker.

Things grew worse for Gabe after graduation. In the two years following, she became depressed. Her condition caused her to give up her job. Her high school friends wouldn't return her calls. Soon she began to lose a lot of weight, which caused her disease to progress faster. She became very lonely and isolated. She said she was ashamed of herself. She refused to use a wheelchair, opting instead to crawl across the floor, or she would ask me to carry her piggyback.

Then one day she asked if she could get a dog. She researched different breeds, and settled on a Black and Tan Coonhound because "they look so cute with their long ears," she would say. The breed was too large for my taste, but Gabe was so excited that I agreed. I called a breeder who said she had a "little girl with the longest ears of the litter" - just like Gabe requested.

When handed the puppy, she fell in love with the velvety creature. On our way home, I told Gabe that the pup was her responsibility, physically and financially, just like she, my daughter, was my responsibility. (I hoped that owning and caring for a dog would help Gabe come out of hiding.) She agreed.

Gabe became a different person when Izzy (pictured above) entered her life. She said she had a reason to get up in the morning. She took total care of Izzy even if it meant she had to crawl to the back door to let her outside. It was like watching a new mother with her infant child. I would hear Gabe sing to Izzy at night and talk to her during the day.

Then suddenly something went wrong.

One day, I heard Gabe desperately call out "Mom!" Izzy was lying on the floor, unable to stand. A trip to the vet revealed that Izzy had eaten a large rock. But during the surgery to remove it, the veterinarian noticed that Izzy's liver was abnormally small. Her liver enzymes were elevated, and she did not come out of the anesthetic as quickly as she should have. The cause was determined to be portal systemic shunt, a condition that allows some of the dog's blood to flow back into the circulatory system before being detoxified by the liver. This causes toxins to build up in the brain, which can cause neurological symptoms. Izzy's balance and coordination became abnormal. As Gabe had stumbled, now too was Izzy stumbling. Major surgery to correct the condition was recommended.

The cost of the surgery - about $4,000 - would be a huge burden on Gabe. I tried to negotiate a payment plan for Gabe with the Michigan State Veterinary Clinic, but to no avail. I spoke to Sharon Akin, the owner of Izzy's sister, and she called a TV station in Detroit to see if their viewers knew of a veterinarian who accepted payment plans. I received a call from the station's anchorwoman, Leslie LoBue, who found a surgeon in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., who would do the surgery for free. His name is Dr. Craig Riggs, a familiar name as Izzy, Gabe and I live on Riggs Street. But that would be just the beginning of a long string of coincidences.

On the way to her surgery, Izzy, Gabe and I heard Sarah McLachlan's song "Building a Mystery" on the car radio - Izzy was named for that song. Once in surgery, a true mystery appeared: Dr. Riggs could not find the shunt, which he had believed was on the outside of the liver. He closed Izzy up and planned to send her to Michigan State - they had the equipment to do a test that would absolutely locate the shunt. A day after Izzy came home, her bandage was full of drainage. Dr. Riggs was called. He examined her and realized that her incision was not closing normally. She was not responding to the IV medications and would need blood from a donor dog. The dog that turned out to be a perfect match was none other than the one owned by the anchorwoman, Leslie LoBue, who ironically had brought her dog to the vet that day. Izzy began to heal.

Michigan State could not do the test to locate the shunt due to Izzy's large size. The only alternative was to cut into Izzy's liver, but her chance of surviving that procedure would be only 50 percent. Gabe's response to this was: "Bring her home. I can't live with a 50-50 chance. I don't want her to die on the table."

Izzy was put on a low-protein diet, and it proved to work wonders. She gained back 30 pounds. Dr. Riggs calls her a miracle dog. I call Izzy "Angel Izzy" because I believe that she was meant just for Gabe. She has helped Gabe to come to terms with her own disease. Once refusing to use the wheelchair out in public, Gabe would use it in order to accompany Izzy to her veterinarian appointments. Izzy has helped Gabe form new relationships and erased from her life the loneliness that was eating her up. I give Izzy all the glory because she has opened doors for Gabe. Although it has been difficult for her, she has spoken at local schools in an effort to teach kids that they should value their health, that it is harmful to make fun of others, and that animals have therapeutic value.

Others call Gabe the "human angel" because she is an inspiration to them. Gabe has never complained about her disease. But when her dog became ill, she said, "Why my dog?"

The two of them truly exemplify the human-dog connection. I hope Gabe's story will inspire all of us. With Izzy's help, she may have found her meaning and purpose in life. If she can do it, others can too.