Archive for November, 2014

Dog Woes

Spencer on the day of his devastating diagnosis.

Spencer on the day of his devastating diagnosis.

 

This was a tough Spring and Summer in Maine.  The bugs were out in full force and constantly biting.  As miserable as it was, it was worse for my Standard Poodle, Spencer, who was left scratching and biting and licking all the discomforts his skin suffered from bug bites. (Yes, our dog is an “indoor dog” – – except when we are outdoors, which is a lot of the time.  And yes, we use Heartguard and Frontline.  But you can’t put DEET insect repellent on a dog.)

So when Spencer started licking a bit under his tail I thought it was kind of gross, but figured he’d stop when the discomfort of a bite faded away.  He was still occasionally licking the area in September once the bugs were gone, but I couldn’t find any irritation on his tail that would indicate he’d been bitten.  So when I dropped him off to be groomed, I asked my groomer, Chris, to check and make sure he didn’t have a clogged or overly full anal sac.  Spencer had not been “scooting” on the ground which would have hinted at this problem, but I figured since Chris was going to be grooming him anyway, it was a good opportunity to check.

Her answer was alarming.  “Something is wrong,” she said.  “The sac is hard and dry, and it felt weird.  You need to go see a vet – – immediately.”

We were leaving for Maine in two days so I decided to wait until we got back to Maine before having him seen.  Within a day or two of being back, I took Spencer to the vet for an exam.  Meanwhile, ever the clown, Spencer was his exuberant, happy self; he was eating well; and still enjoyed chasing a ball and going for long walks.  I had no reason at this point to be overly concerned.  But the vet sucker-punched me.

“Bad news.  Spencer has a walnut-sized growth in his anal sac, and these types of things are almost always adenocarcinoma.”

Cancer.

She said he needed surgery sooner than later, but it would require a specialty surgeon, due to the delicacy of the area.  “I don’t have enough experience with soft tissue surgery of this nature.  And I’m likely to do more harm than good if I need to get aggressive.”  She recommended a specialty veterinary surgery practice in Portland ME – – but when she got an estimate from them by phone, it was $4,000!!!!

That’s when I cried.  I felt like it was only my inability (and let’s be honest, my unwillingness) to come up with such a hefty sum that was dooming my dog to a premature death.  I felt so guilty!  I called two vets back in my hometown for a second and third opinion, and they both said the same thing:  Spencer would require a surgical specialist to do the surgery.

Maybe in big cities you can find specialists, but in rural Maine it’s another story.  For one thing, out in the country many dogs are working dogs.  Many of them live outside or in a barn.  Many people in the country are of very limited financial means.  If a dog gets really sick, and they don’t have the money for a vet, they will euthanize the animal (and many will simply shoot the animal behind the barn).  That’s life in the country.  They may feel sad, but not sentimental.  Bad things happen, and that’s just part of life.  So there is very little incentive for vet specialists to set up practice in rural Maine.

None of the vets I called within an hour’s drive of my house in Maine said they had the expertise for this surgery (at least they were honest).  I called the renowned Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and Foster Hospital for Small Animals in North Grafton, Massachusetts – – and they quoted me a price that was a fraction of the $4,000 quoted earlier by the specialty vet practice in Portland.  Even though it was a 3 1/2 hour ride from our house in Maine, I made an appointment for a consult and the surgery, which would take place in a week’s time.

I couldn’t bear to euthanize him, because he was not ready to die, nor was I willing to let him go – – at least, not yet.  Spencer certainly didn’t realize he was terminally ill!  He was bouncing around jubilantly and not currently suffering in any way.  Partly I was in denial – – how could a creature so full of life be dying?

On Friday, a week before the upcoming surgery, we were playing hard outside.  It was a game of chase combined with hide and seek.  First, I would hide.  Then he’d try to find me.  Then he’d run like the wind to get away from me, encouraging me to chase and “catch” him if I could.  Of course I never could, and he loved that.  Then it was my turn to hide again and the whole scene repeated itself.  He always loves to play this game and he always sports a huge devil-dog “grin.”

But on Saturday morning, he most uncharacteristically did not get up from his bed to do his business outside.  Instead, he lay on his dog bed, listless and apathetic.  My first thought was that the cancer must be super-aggressive, and perhaps this was the beginning of the end.  When I finally convinced him to get up and go outside, he hobbled painfully.  But upon examination I couldn’t find anything wrong with his feet or legs.  The entire day he was stiff and clearly in some kind of pain.

By evening things deteriorated dramatically.  He was hot to the touch, as if he was running a fever.  But – – and this had NEVER happened before – – he would not let me touch him at all.  His right front leg was completely lame, but I could not visually see anything wrong with it.  The pain was so intense that the muscles of his leg were involuntarily quivering.  The closest 24 hour emergency vet facility is about an hour away, but since his cancer diagnosis I knew they would want to run tests with equipment their clinic didn’t have, and they would send me on to Portland.  So I waited until the first morning’s light and set out for the Tufts Foster Animal Hospital emergency room.  Luckily I had all his vet medical records on hand.

From the time I put Spencer into the car until 3 1/2 hours later when we arrived, Spencer’s leg had meanwhile swollen to gross proportions.  He also had a tennis-ball-sized lump in his joint that was soft and mushy.  His pain was extreme.

“I think it’s bone cancer,” the intern (1st year medical resident) said.  She recommended an x-ray, but said that if the x-ray showed cancer, I’d have to have his leg amputated and even then, his prognosis would be extremely poor so it would be in his best interest to be euthanized.  Her severe hypothesis came as such a shock to me that I burst into tears. Meanwhile the lump on his leg burst and (spoiler alert: this gets gross) it started seeping pus and blood.

“Well,” she said after the x-ray, “the radiologist (yes, there are vet radiologists! And just about every other specialty too, from ophthalmologists to oncologists to orthopedists to nephrologists to neurologists to surgeons, etc.) said that there is no evidence of bone cancer.  So that’s good news.  But we need to figure out what IS happening and why.  Meanwhile I’m starting him on an antibiotic IV to see if we can control the infection.”  Cummins vet school at Tufts is a teaching hospital, but overall the vet residents are really smart people.  Statistically it’s actually harder to get into Tufts vet school than it is to Harvard medical school.  But it was interesting to see how Spencer’s cancer diagnosis prejudiced the resident giving the intake exam, and that bias made her overreach her initial assessment regarding his leg.

Spencer was then seen by an Attending (yes, veterinary medicine in the US is engineered similarly to our medical school system: after veterinary medical school vets do an internship and residency, and there is a chief resident and an attending physician on duty at the hospital for in-patient creatures big and small), who then referred him to the surgeon on duty.  Here is where we really lucked out, because Dr. Kudej (pronounced KOO-jee) is arguably the best surgeon at Tufts and a professor of veterinary medicine at the school.  Besides being a true mensch and explaining things carefully and giving me all the options for Spencer’s care, he consistently kept in touch with me in person and via cell phone throughout the entire ordeal.

As it turned out, Spencer’s infected leg was the result of a totally freak accident and had nothing whatsoever to do with his cancer.  While we were playing on Friday, he suffered a puncture from a small piece of bark or wood that was lying about.  He must have slammed into it very hard, because although it was small it traveled up into his leg five inches (!) taking with it a bunch of his hair (poodles have hair, not fur), and the two foreign bodies (hair, wood) caused massive infection.    Spencer would not only need surgery to remove the cancerous growth; he would require surgery to open up the entire length of his leg and debride it.

Spencer a few hours after his surgery, feeling pretty woozy and miserable.  I gave him a personal "cast signing party" which fell out on the 5th game of the World Series.  One of the residents was originally from Kansas City and was delighted by my "artwork."

Spencer a few hours after his surgery, feeling pretty woozy and miserable. I gave him a personal “cast signing party” which fell out on the 5th game of the World Series. One of the residents was originally from Kansas City and was delighted by my “artwork.”

 

As far as the surgery to remove the growth, the real question is how far the cancer had metastasized.  An ultrasound revealed that his lymph nodes near the abdomen were enlarged – – a really bad sign – – and there was a tiny lesion on his spleen.  Dr. Kudej indicated that for the best outcome, he would have to remove the lymph nodes and spleen, which was a rather involved abdominal incision and surgery that would require a longer post-op recovery.  And expense:  it would be an additional $2,000.  But Dr. Kudej was not finished.  He suggested that Spencer ideally should undergo both chemotherapy and radiation treatments.  The chemo would be administered weekly by IV; and the radiation was not only a huge commitment of time, it would be an additional $5,000 – $6,000!!!!

Once again I cried.  I knew there was no way I was going to commit this kind of money to my dog’s recovery, nor was I going to put the dog through the pain and suffering of treatment which would buy him an extra year at most beyond treating the primary cancer.  The vet said that the goal was not to “cure” Spencer: since his cancer was terminal, the chemo/radiation was merely to extend his life.  I was heartbroken, but knew that we would not be treating him beyond removing the primary tumor.

It is hard, but I have to put it into perspective.  I am very sad about the cancer diagnosis, but I am also glad it is not my husband, children or grandchildren.  Spencer is such a wonderful dog.  He’s a companion for my many walks and hikes in the White Mountains.  He’s a loving dog with great tolerance and love for baby grandchildren who unintentionally clobber him or pet him a little too hard.  He loves to run around with the older grandkids and appreciates their attention and excitement, and has taught them a bit about pet ownership and responsibility that they would not have had the opportunity to experience otherwise.  There is not a person or other dog that he doesn’t greet with excitement and friendliness and love.  He can be wild and crazy and fun, but is always gentle and kind.  I cannot justify spending tens of thousands of dollars on my dog, although I met many caring people while waiting in the emergency room at Tufts who were doing just that, and no, they were (mostly) not neurotic (stay tuned for more about our Tufts adventure in a future blog post).  I will not judge them for their decisions to treat their animals sparing no expense, though those decisions are different from mine; and I only ask that they not judge me.  My goal is simply to appreciate Spencer for whatever time we have left (6 months?  1 year?), and when the joy goes out of his demeanor, and he is in pain that cannot be resolved, I will know it is time for us to say a final goodbye.

Right now Spencer is full of life, and enjoying every minute of it.

If you click on this link you will see Spencer a week after his surgery, once again playing “catch me if you can.”  He is wearing an e-collar temporarily until his stitches dissolve.

 

 

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Fall Chores

After a month of Jewish holidays spent in our home town and in Kansas City, where my youngest daughter recently moved with her family, we returned to Maine.  We missed the peak leaf-peeping season this year, although I was able to take a quick series of photos with my cellphone the first couple of days while we were settling in (see below).

Many people from my hometown are amazed that I don’t find life in Maine boring, especially since our location is pretty isolated and we don’t live near other people or activities.  “What do you do all day?” they want to know.

Yes, I do keep busy.  It’s just “busy” in ways that are very different from city life.  I don’t do carpools or babysit or participate in childcare while in Maine.  I don’t work in an office.  I don’t visit the dry cleaners and I don’t drive in traffic.

For my husband, location is irrelevant, professionally speaking.  He has worked from home for a few decades as a software developer/architect and his eyes are glued to a computer monitor and his ears to his business phone.  That said, the view out of his office window (located in our walk-out basement and facing the woods) can’t be beat.

The first few days after returning from our home town were really busy.  As the weather turned colder, the clock was ticking for me to complete all my outdoor chores.  First I pulled up the peppers and tomatoes, chard and kale from my raised-bed gardens.  The first two weren’t going to ripen further and it seemed pointless to keep them going.  The latter were pretty scraggly and tired looking.  Instead, I planted lots and lots and lots of hardneck fiery garlic.  I covered the beds of compost with straw to further insulate them against harsh winter temperatures.

I planted garlic in the composted raised beds and covered them in straw.

I planted garlic in the composted raised beds and covered them in straw.

The apple orchard also needed work.  Many new branches grew over the summer and they needed pruning (although many people wait for early Spring for this task).  The branches were growing upward instead of outward, and by doing so, not only would any future apples be harder to reach at picking time, the clumpy crowding meant that apples wouldn’t be exposed to enough air, space, and sunlight.  In order to train the branches to grow out rather than up, I tied small plastic water bottles to the branches to weigh them down.

plastic water bottles help weigh down and train the apple branches to grow out rather than up

plastic water bottles help weigh down and train the apple branches, so they’ll grow outwards rather than upwards

Basic errands are always time-fillers because of the great distance I live from shopping, the bank, the post office, and the dump.  My Maine dentist is a 2 hour drive away.  Our dog’s vet is a one-hour drive one way, and recently he needed emergency care and that was a 3 1/2 hour drive one way!  A once-a-week trip to the supermarket is usually a four-hour foray (almost an hour each way to the market, and I also try to combine the journey with other errands).  “Taking out the trash” is a 45-minute round trip to the town dump, usually 2x a week (no, there is no trash pickup).  I also like to buy certain things “locally” such as eggs from organically fed, free-range chickens, organic kale, organic apples and seasonal pumpkins and squash from nearby farms.  But each Maine farm has their specialty items so it means visiting several farms to complete my shopping list.  The farms involve a 30-mile circuit drive  – – one in Lovell (Flyaway Farm in Stowe sells their produce and eggs in Central Lovell Market) and one in Sweden (Pietree Orchards)  and one in Fryeburg (Weston’s Farm).  And these are still closer than the nearest supermarket! That said, anytime I drive anywhere the scenery is spectacular, and there is never traffic, so the time flies by.

Once I bring produce home, it needs to be sorted, cleaned, checked for bugs and cooked or juiced, and the unusable stuff, composted.  (The pumpkins were especially time consuming and messy.  But besides using the flesh for pies, soups and stews, I managed to save the seeds for roasting – yum.) I easily spend 4 hours per day cooking and baking from scratch; more time is spent in the kitchen on Fridays to get ready for the Sabbath.

I also made some delicious pickled turnips this week.  It’s odd but if I eat a few of these before bedtime, even though it’s quite spicy, it totally cures my gastric reflux problem.  I guess it’s the “alkaline” balancing out the “acid.”  This recipe is actually a Middle Eastern recipe.  You will find pickled turnips used in street-side cafes in Israel as a relish that is used in pita and felafel sandwiches, or in shwarma and pita, and it couldn’t be easier to make (other than the peeling and chopping time).
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  • Pickling jar:  wash in very hot soapy water and/or sterilize, and air dry. I prefer the wide-mouthed Ball brand.
  • Peel some purple-top turnips, and slice them into small “finger-sized” pieces.  Put a layer of these turnips into the glass pickling jar.
  • Peel some garlic cloves, but leave the individual cloves whole.  Add a 1 – 3 cloves on top of the turnip layer.
  • Peel a beet, also slicing into “fingers.”  Add a couple of pieces on top of the garlic.
  • Now add a whole hot pepper to the layered mix.  I would suggest habanero, jalapeno, or serrano.
  • Add one bay leaf.
  • Repeat this layering order until the jar is packed tight and full.
  • Add 1 Tablespoon of coarse salt to the jar (per quart-sized jar).
  • Now make a mix:  1 part vinegar, 1 part cider vinegar, and 2 parts water.  Add this mix to the packed jar until it’s filled to the very top.
  • Seal the jar.  Shake the jar.
  • Let the jar sit on your kitchen counter for 7 days, shaking the jar intermittently every time you pass by.  After 7 days the pickles will be ready to eat.  Store the glass jar with the pickles in the fridge once the 7 days of pickling are complete.

I also baked corn bread (to go with a pumpkin-and-bean-based chili I made) in a heavy cast-iron skillet.  It was the first time I had tried making corn bread in this old-fashioned way and it was a huge success.  I now own several different sizes of pots and pans and skillets and grills that are made of heavy cast iron.  They are made in the USA by the Lodge Logic company which has been around for a gazillion years.  Their products last for generations and they are extremely reasonably priced.  Food really does cook differently and taste better when made with cast iron, whether on top of a stove or on the ashes of an outdoor campfire.  The more they are used, the more a natural non-stick coating forms, making cleanup super easy.  The important thing is to dry them immediately after cleanup so they will not rust.  Since making the switch to cast iron, I rarely use my Farberware pots anymore.

It was fun to bring out the mittens, gloves and hats and put away the bug spray and bug nets until next Spring.  We also shut off the outdoor water pipes, and put summer tools in storage while bringing out the shovels and rakes to the shed.  I also spent a couple of hours collecting kindling from dead wood and fallen branches in the woods, so that starting our wood stove would be an easy undertaking.

Doing laundry takes a lot longer when you don’t have a dryer and must hang it piece by piece outside on the clothesline.  I also try to get in a walk of 2 – 4 miles every day: more time.  And I am involved in several writing and photography projects at the moment.  And:  am I doing nothing when I am just sitting along a brook or pond, contemplating and praying and thinking things through?  We also try to host guests for a weekend or even a week at a time on a frequent basis.

My point is, I am managing my time differently than I did in the city, and while there is nowhere near the same level of stress — and yes, I am living slower – – I don’t think I am “accomplishing” less than I did in the city and my days are certainly filled and worthwhile.  I do work hard physically and am kept busy, but it’s at tasks that I enjoy. The busy work doesn’t feel like busy work.  And that is a huge thing.

And now for some glimpses of the end of leaf season, taken with my Samsung Galaxy S4 cellphone:

Only 2 days after this photo was taken, all the leaves are gone.

Only 2 days after this photo was taken of our house, all the leaves are gone.

We replaced the screens with acrylic panels so we can enjoy the porch even during cold weather.

We replaced the screens with acrylic panels so we can enjoy the porch even during cold weather.

Now that the leaves are gone, we can see the pond at the bottom of the driveway through the trees.

Now that the leaves are gone, we can see the pond at the bottom of the driveway through the trees.

We actually disassemble the fire pit/campfire every year because it's where the snow plow guy pushes the snow from the driveway

We actually disassemble the fire pit/campfire area every year because it’s where the snow plow guy pushes the snow from the driveway

Our solar panels.

Our solar panels.

The yellow box at left is our backup generator, fueled by propane, which is buried in a 1000 gallon underground tank.  You can see the top of the tank - it's the black cylinder in the middle of the bottom of the picture.

The yellow box at left is our backup generator, fueled by propane, which is buried in a 1000 gallon underground tank. You can see the top of the tank – it’s the black cylinder in the middle of the bottom of the picture.

Taken through the windshield of my car, this is the road leading to my house.

Taken through the windshield of my car, this is the road leading to my house.  You turn left at the second hill.

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My favorite summer swimming spot, Kewaydin Lake, is beautiful in every season.

 

 

Moose on the Loose!

I took this picture of a bull moose on a buggy Spring day. The moose was feeding while immersed in the pond to get away from the bugs.

I took this picture of a bull moose on a buggy Spring day. The moose was feeding while immersed in the pond to get away from the bugs.

I have to admit, both my husband and I have something of a moose fetish.  I can’t logically say why, but we absolutely love these giant, ungainly creatures beyond all reason.  How can the Hagrid of the animal world be so graceful? I’ve seen several moose since moving to Maine and I never tire of a moose sighting or lose my sense of wonder.  Our moose love affair even extends to kitschy decor, which if you know me, is atypical and bizarre since I hate souvenirs, tschotchkes and kitsch of all kinds.  Yet we have a moose salt and pepper shaker, a moose bread board, a moose coaster set, a moose hook for hanging towels, and even moose shower curtains (many of these were gifts from friends and family, and much appreciated).

We’ve had a few moose visiting our property over the years.  One horrendously buggy Spring day, a bull moose, his antlers in velvet (the soft coating on new antlers that grow in the Spring) , was feeding in the pond beneath our house, where he had immersed to get some relief from the blackflies, ticks and deerflies.  Like an idiot and completely in awe, I crouched behind a tree and with a long lens, took dozens of pictures.  Since I hadn’t expected this encounter, I didn’t come coated with the necessary bug spray; in those 15 minutes I suffered over 75 painful insect bites on my ankles while taking pictures (but it was worth it, even though I was itchy, swollen and miserable for 3 weeks afterwards!)

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This poor guy's rump is covered in ticks.  Many moose in the White Mountains are victims of Tick Wasting Disease.

This poor guy’s rump is covered in ticks. Many moose in the White Mountains are victims of Tick Wasting Disease.

After immersing his head completely in water, he shook off his antlers much like a dog would do.

After immersing his head completely in water, he shook off his antlers from side to side much like a dog would do.

 

 

One time we weren’t home, but our webcam caught a cow moose near my apple orchard in the distance.

This moose photo was taken by our webcam when we were away from home.  It's along the periphery of the apple orchard fence.

This moose photo was taken by our webcam when we were away from home. It’s along the periphery of the apple orchard fence.

Another time on a late winter night,  I heard noise directly under our bedroom window, and there in the snow were a mother moose and her baby, stripping the bark from our beech trees.  Even though they were only a few feet away, it was a pitch black night and the flashlight wasn’t powerful enough to really get a good look at them.

Two summers ago, I was reading in the hammock outside when suddenly my dog cried “woof.”  A large cow moose ran through our property and moved in the direction of my neighbor’s rustic cabin (his wife saw the moose half an hour later while picking wild berries on their property).

I’ve also seen several moose along our road while driving at dusk, and in Deer Hill bog while hiking and driving.

Two moose nuzzle one another on the road leading to my house

Two moose nuzzle one another on the road leading to my house

But with all of those sightings, my husband was unappeased.  “I won’t be satisfied until I see a big bull moose walking up our driveway,” was his common refrain.  Up close and personal.

Today, exactly that happened!

It was an hour before sunset.  I was sitting at my dining room window, typing away on my laptop.  I love the view from this spot.  Now that the leaves are gone from the trees, I can see down the length of our driveway all the way to Little Pond (an ambitious name:  it’s really a gigantic bog); and out of the side windows, I can look out onto the apple orchard and the woods beyond.

Suddenly I became aware of a big, dark mass in my peripheral vision.  I looked outside:  it was an absolutely gigantic bull moose with a very impressive rack of antlers meandering up our driveway! My first thought was not to get a camera;  it was to scream down to the basement, where my husband has an office, to make sure he would see it too:  “Look outside your window!  It’s a moose!” I shrieked.  I was practically hysterical, I was so excited.  I wasn’t sure my husband could hear my shouting, since his hearing aid had broken over the weekend, so I was yelling as loud as I could down the stairs (fortunately our windows were closed so the moose wasn’t frightened off by my voice).  My husband was on an important business call and tried to control his emotions.   He was unsuccessful.  “Gotta go!  I’m looking at a moose a few feet away from me!” he said to his coworkers in Indiana, who were undoubtedly scratching their heads and wondering what the heck he was drinking. By the time my husband let me know that he was looking at it, the moose was positioned in such a way that a photograph would have been impossible.  But just before that, he stopped only 2′ from the house, sniffed our parked car, and continued moseying, till he reached the outlying fence of my apple orchard and then he walked into the woods, quickly blending in with the trees and disappearing from sight.

My husband and I were like two little kids, overcome with excitement and jumping up and down.  “We saw it!  We saw it!  It really happened!  A bull moose actually wandered up our driveway!”

A few minutes later I got the notion to set out in the same direction as the moose.  I was carrying my smartphone, which has moose call apps.  One is of a cow moose in heat (not a very pretty sound!) and the other is of a male in rut.  Perhaps this was a foolish idea, since this time of year is rutting season, the mating season for moose, and bull moose consumed with desire are truly dangerous animals.

Alas, (perhaps it was ultimately for the best where safety is concerned) the moose calls on my smartphone did not entice Mr. Moose to return.  I was happy, however, that our very smart bull moose was wandering on our side of the road.  You see, it is moose hunting season now, and somewhat oddly, the border between two different Wildlife Management Districts (WMD’s) happens to be the road in front of my house.  On our side of the road, WMD #12, moose hunting season finished a week ago; but just across the street on the other side of the road, WMD #15, hunting season is now through November 29th.

A moose's hoofprint is heart-shaped.

A moose’s hoofprint is heart-shaped.