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A Heartbeat at Our Feet

The Author, Claudia Watson is a Pinehurst, North Carolina freelance writer and “Mom” to Tyler. 

ChristmasPhoto_2009wTylerI waited to hear his excited footsteps.  When he entered, all bright eyes and tail wagging, I fell to my knees and gathered him up in my arms.

Within seconds, the veterinarian, a cardiology resident, said it all, “He has third degree atrioventricular (AV) heart block.  He needs a pacemaker implant, immediately.”

She was talking about Tyler, our 10-year old yellow Labrador retriever, who never missed a meal or an opportunity for a walk – and he certainly never had a bad day, until now.

Tyler, who always loved his long morning walks, had been hesitating.  He’d stop at the end of the driveway and just look at me, then sit.  I’d encourage him, but nothing persuaded him to budge.

Then my husband alerted to me some breathing difficulties that Tyler was exhibiting.  Alarmed, we took him to our local vet who recommended we seek a thorough evaluation for Tyler at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, Veterinary Teaching College (NCSU CVM/VTH).

So that’s what brought me to this exam room, and now I was being told that Tyler, who has the biggest heart in the world, needed some help to keep it beating.

The cardiology resident drew a diagram of his heart and compassionately explained how his heart was not operating properly causing the life-threatening situation.  It was this dysfunction that caused the lethargy and exercise intolerance he’d exhibited for months.

Unfamiliar with a pacemaker implant for a dog, I was concerned it was experimental and very costly.  The cardiologist reassured me that it was the recommended procedure for dogs with third degree AV heart block because of their risk for sudden death; and this hospital successfully implants several pacemakers every year.  As for the cost, it was unexpected and not inexpensive, but it was for Tyler, our best buddy.

The pacemaker was inserted the next morning.  The following day, we loaded our still-groggy big boy into the car and fussed over him during the trip home and his recovery.

Remarkably, within the week he was taking long walks.  In a couple months, when permitted to run, he enjoyed ball tosses and chased the deer and our cat with joyous abandon.  It was good to have him back.

It’s been fourteen months since the pacemaker was implanted; the cardiologist reports that he is using the pacemaker 95 percent of the time.  Our local vet says Tyler’s the only dog with a pacemaker she’s ever treated – so his implant is a rarity, possibly because most dogs die from AV heart block before the problem is diagnosed and treated.

When we returned to NCSU VTH this fall to have Tyler’s regular exam and pacemaker evaluation the cardiologist told us that Tyler was displaying evidence of progressive heart disease that would potentially lead to congestive heart failure.

Our dear Mr. Tyler is now in early heart failure – though he doesn’t seem to notice.  He still greets each day as if it was his first, wanting to be all he can be.

So that little pacemaker has given us a lot of time for long walks, though they are shorter now because his arthritic hind end can’t tolerate the long walks in the cold.  He adores belly-rubs and we enjoy watching his feet chase his dreams.  We’ve been blessed to share the love of this beautiful, gentle creature for this extended time and are so thankful.

But now his age is catching up with him – and it is age, we fear, that may take him from us, not his heart.

As long as his life is good he will be with us. We will not let him suffer or prolong his beautiful life for our pleasure; we’ve already made that decision.

In recent weeks, sensing the limited time we share, I’ve been building a scrapbook of our years with Tyler.  It’s therapy for us as we can’t fathom our life without him, so we put the photos of our life together in this book, hoping it will soothe our loss when he is gone.

There’s not a place in our home without an etched memory or a place in our souls that has not been awakened by his spirit.  He’s been our best and most loyal friend.  He’s family, and now, in the words of Edith Wharton, “he’s our old dog, and his heartbeat is at our feet.”

And his last gift to us is a simple lesson; live your day fully and with joy in your heart.

Bless his heart…his big heart.