The Six Million Dollar Dog – or, Why we Need to Keep Fighting | Vivian Wagner

Listen to Vivian’s story below. It was originally performed at Story Club Columbus in front of a live audience. 

It seemed a fitting end to 2016. On Christmas morning, around 4 AM, my 17-year-old daughter Rose was woken by our little dog Ziggy vomiting profusely around the house. She went back to sleep, but at 6 AM she woke me up to tell me that something was wrong with Ziggy– she suspected he’d eaten a chocolate bar that she’d brought home, a gift from her stepmom. A three-ounce Endangered Species Fair Trade dark chocolate bar. With espresso beans. Ziggy is 15 pounds. In case you haven’t heard, chocolate is poisonous to dogs. Very poisonous. It can kill them, especially if it’s a lot of chocolate, and it’s dark, and it has espresso beans.

That was the situation that morning. Rose was worried and scared and guilty, and she asked me to look at Ziggy to see what I thought. Here’s what I thought at first: she was overreacting.

“C’mon, Ziggy, let’s go for a walk,” I called, trying to coax him off Rose’s bed. He’s a little reddish-brown dog with pointy-saggy ears, part Manchester terrier and part Chihuahua. He’s normally excited and happy, running around to do the next thing and the next, eager for walks and cuddling and playing catch and whatever else we might want to do. That morning, though, he wouldn’t budge. He looked like he was wilting, or melting. He looked scared and shaken. He alternated between shivering and lying down wanly, his eyes flickering, fading out. I finally got him up off the bed, and he walked a few paces outside, tried to pee, and then immediately wanted to go back into the house. He lay on the futon for a while, shivering as I pet him, trying to figure out what to do. I googled “chocolate and dogs”. It didn’t look good for Ziggy. And when he started circling into something that looked like a death curl, I started getting really worried. This also didn’t look good. This looked like he was leaving us.

I called our vet, who’s just outside of our village of New Concord, frantically leaving a message. On their machine, they listed phone numbers for several 24-hour vets who could be reached during off hours and holidays, and one of them was MedVet in Columbus. I immediately called MedVet and described the situation: the ounces of the chocolate bar, the poundage of the dog. The woman on the other end of the line was silent for a moment. “Mmmm, hmmm,” she then said, feigning cavalierness, as she looked up figures in her chocolate-dog poisoning calculator. Finally, she came out and said it. Judging from whatever chart she was looking at, she told me he was right on the edge of severe and fatal. He had to have medical attention as soon as possible.

So at 9 AM on Christmas morning, Rose and I bundled Ziggy up in his crocheted white blanket, the one he cuddles in all the time, and loaded him into the car. I drove the hour-and-a-half drive to the vet while my daughter held Ziggy on her lap, blanketed and shaking, his bright, cocoa-colored eyes looking at me as if to ask, What’s wrong with me? Where are we going? What’s going to happen?

At the hospital, we trundled him into an examination room. After a few minutes a veterinary assistant came in to have us sign a piece of paper that said that the price for services started at $500. Numbly, I signed, not sure at that point what else I could do. Ziggy jumped weakly off Rose’s lap and was shaking on the floor. He didn’t seem to know if he wanted to be held or to get down, or to just die right there. He just looked miserable. The vet’s assistant took his pulse and other vitals and whisked him away into a backroom. We waited for a while, worried and scared, until the vet finally came back. She was young and nervous and seemed to be shaking herself.

“I’ve had a chance to examine Ziggy,” she said, grimly. “It’s pretty serious, and we’re going to have to do aggressive treatment. We need to put him on an IV because he’s so dehydrated, and we need to give him medication to try to slow down and regulate his heart. It’s beating out of control with the theobromine from the chocolate and the caffeine from the espresso beans.” We nodded, watching her, glancing at each other. “This could kill him,” she said, with little emotion. No, I’m sorry it’s Christmas. No, I know this is difficult. Just, “This could kill him.” My daughter started crying. I put my arm around her.

“OK,” I said. “I guess we’ll go ahead with treatment.”

The vet nodded. “You should know that it’s very aggressive treatment,” she said.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It could cost a couple thousand dollars.”

ziggyI swallowed and said nothing, trying to keep a poker face as my daughter cried on my shoulder. “Um, OK,” I said, shocked. What else could I say? We had no choice. My daughter was crying. My dog was dying.

Finally, we left the room with assurances from the vet that they would do everything they could to save him, and that I could call to get updates whenever I wanted. At the checkout, I paid $2,200 on my credit card, their low-end estimate for the costs. I’d never paid so much for vet services. But I didn’t know what else to do. This seemed the only thing to do. I wished in that moment that I’d stuck with the plan to get pet health insurance when we’d first adopted Ziggy from the shelter a few years before, but it was too late for that now. So I swallowed my pride and my ability to budget and pay any other bills for the next six months and paid the $2,200, hoping we were buying back both Ziggy’s life and our life with him.

We drove back home to New Concord solemnly, my daughter still wiping tears from her eyes. We talked about the doctor, laughed a little at how cold she was, how uncaring. It was kind of funny, her awful bedside manner–if it weren’t so tragic, if we weren’t so distraught. For the rest of the day we couldn’t concentrate on much else. We opened presents, but it was a half-hearted attempt at normalcy. My daughter spent most of the day in her room. I tried to be chipper, but really I was anxious and terrified. I kept wanting to go for walks, but soon realized I had no reason to go for walks now, with Ziggy gone. I read every website I could about dogs and chocolate poisoning, many of them with dire warnings and distressing charts and uncomfortably stark data. None of the information looked hopeful. I called MedVet late in the afternoon, and they were pretty close-lipped about it all. The doctor said Ziggy was having heart arrhythmias, and that it was still pretty touch-and-go.

Somehow we slept that night, and woke up the next morning expecting the worse. Remarkably, though, MedVet called mid-morning and told us that Ziggy was fine. He’d recovered overnight. He’d been off the heart medication for a few hours and his arrhythmias had stopped. He was ready to go home as soon as we wanted to get him.

Just like that. The heavens had parted. We were granted a reprieve. Everything would be okay.

We drove to Columbus, my daughter and I, and were reunited with a happy, squirming, tail-wagging Ziggy in the MedVet lobby. Back from the brink. Saved. He had some pills to take for a few days for his pancreas, but other than that he’d be fine. There wouldn’t be any long-term effects. He would live! And they even gave me back $400, bringing the total to just $1,800. A bargain.

We walked with him out to the car, my daughter all smiles, Ziggy his old self. I took a picture of her standing with him in front of the hospital, and we climbed back into the car and made our way home. We’d brushed up against the worst and come back to tell the tale. He’d lived. We’d been spared. Everything would be fine.

The thing is, the Ziggy-chocolate episode came at the end of a long, difficult year of political and emotional loss, of fear and anxiety about our democracy’s fate, of worry for the future. Ziggy’s crisis showed us, though, that you never know when, in the midst of everything, there will be a happy ending, a win. Ziggy was our one success story for 2016. It could so easily have gone the other way, but it didn’t.

Sometimes the best you can do is get up each day, deal with whatever you can, in whatever way you can, with whatever resources you can muster. And hopefully, you’ll win some of the battles. Some days, despite all evidence to the contrary, your dog will survive.

Vivian WagnerVivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Creative Nonfiction, The Atlantic, Narratively, and other publications. She’s also the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), and a poetry collection, The Village (Kelsay Books).

%d bloggers like this: