Ohio State veterinary oncologists and cancer surgeons at Ohio State’s James Cancer Hospital collaborate to give rescue dog new lease on life
When U.S. armed forces veterans Darrell and Rhonda Victor found a beautiful white shepherd mix hiding under their car on Sept. 28, 2011, they knew right away that the cold, scared puppy was meant to be theirs. Taking their time to earn the timid and slightly aggressive dog’s trust, they brought her into their home and family, which was the start of a mutual healing journey.
Both Darrell and Rhonda suffer from anxiety, depression and PTSD. They say Blondi has helped them navigate in ways they never knew were possible.
“Blondi has helped me so much. I went to the VA (Veterans Affairs) for help all the time and counseling every week. It never helped me as much as Blondi has. My lifestyle changed the day we found her,” says Darrell.
“I started walking seven miles a day with her, and she kept me physically busy and my mind occupied,” he adds. “I was taking 23 different pills a day before Blondi came along, and now I’m down to just a few. Blondi knows if I’m going to cry even before I do; she pays attention to how I’m feeling, and she’s right there with me, supporting me and showing me compassion.”
Darrell and Rhonda both say Blondi brings them through their anxiety, and they feel like she never wants to see them suffer. They feel the same about her, so about a year and a half ago when she started having trouble breathing and was excessively coughing, they knew they had to figure out what was wrong.
Their local veterinarian initially suggested a cough suppressant along with other medications. Her cough would get better for a few days but would come back, persistently getting worse. After additional testing and imaging, their veterinarian suggested they consult with a veterinary oncologist. On Sept. 28, 2021 – 10 years to the date of when they found Blondi – they walked through the doors of The Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center hoping to find answers.
Blondi was diagnosed with a rare cancerous tumor on her windpipe (trachea). The mass was causing airway obstruction that, if surgically unaddressed, could make it difficult for her to breathe and present a life-threatening situation. The location of her tumor made the surgery very delicate; it would require a specialized team to ensure that the nerves controlling her larynx and airway, as well as surrounding nerves that impact swallowing, would not be damaged so she could return to a normal life.
Tracheal surgery for such a large, involved tumor is not commonly performed on dogs, so Laura Selmic, BVetMed (Hons), a surgical oncologist with Ohio State’s Veterinary Medical Center, reached out to Desmond D’Souza, MD, a thoracic surgeon at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James), for a second opinion on Blondi’s case. D’Souza and his colleagues regularly treat complex cancerous masses that impact the lungs, trachea and other structures in the chest cavity.
D’Souza expressed interest in collaborating with the Ohio State Veterinary Medical Center team to assist in Blondi’s surgery and asked his colleague, Stephen Kang, MD, a head and neck surgeon at the OSUCCC – James, to join him. Together this team of experts from both the human and animal sides created a plan for Blondi’s surgery, which took place on Oct. 19.
“The surgery that we performed on Blondi is actually one that Dr. D'Souza and I collaborate on for tumors arising from the trachea or from the thyroid involving the trachea. What was remarkable was that, once we started the surgery, the steps of the operation were exactly the same as in a human; we didn't change a thing,” Kang says. “I grew up loving dogs, and our family has a Labrador retriever that we adore. Seeing the animals in the hospital as patients was certainly a unique experience, but I was just blown away by the expertise and level of care provided by the veterinary hospital.”
Kang had not met Blondi prior to her surgery and was excited to meet her at her postoperative appointment.
“Patients who have these types of tumors usually have difficulty breathing. Our human patients say they can't breathe, or they can't get enough air, like they're slowly suffocating, and it's scary,” says Kang.
Blondi is very timid around people and doesn’t trust many strangers, but on this day, Kang knelt to say goodbye to Blondi and got a high-five from his canine patient.
“Seeing her walking around barking at everyone was just fantastic, because it means we accomplished what we set out to do – we gave Blondi back her ability to breathe freely,” Kang says. “I can't imagine what this would be like for an animal that can't communicate, but to remove this tumor, reconstruct the airway, and see her doing so much better postoperatively, was incredibly rewarding. This was such a unique and memorable patient care collaboration and experience, I know that when I look back at my career, this will be one day I’ll never forget.”
Blondi is recovering incredibly well, and her surgical team is happy with how the procedure went. This collaborative effort between animal and human health experts has given Blondi a new lease on life.
“I was worried because Blondi brings so much happiness into our lives, and I knew that this cancer could take her away from us, and that was devastating. I spent a lot of time googling and reading about resection surgery, and it was terrifying,” says Rhonda. “But I thought about it this way: If we don't get this fixed, she has a large chance of dying, so why not try it? What do we have to lose? And here we are on the other side of her surgery, and we didn't lose anything; we didn't lose our girl.”
Darrell and Rhonda say that everyone involved from Ohio State did a fantastic job walking them through the process from start to finish and making them feel comfortable. They were both impressed with how well the surgery went and still can’t believe it was so seamless. They expressed extreme gratitude for the team involved with Blondi’s care.
Blondi and Darrell are easing back into their daily walks as she heals and regains strength. “I will be ready to go the distance when she is,” Darrell says. “We would do anything for Blondi, and we are so thankful for all she does for us.”
Ohio State veterinary oncologists and researchers regularly collaborate with physicians and researchers at the OSUCCC – James and Nationwide Children’s Hospital on disease-based collaborative research initiatives through the Comparative Oncology Program.
“These research collaborations with physicians at the OSUCCC – James allow us to reach out to discuss clinical cases. Some of our collaborations have resulted in clinical trials in the vet school. Both the clinical trials and the insight improve patient care for our patients,” Selmic adds.
To learn more about oncology services at the Ohio State Veterinary Medical Center, visit http://vet.osu.edu/vmc/.
To learn more about cancer services at the OSUCCC – James, visit cancer.osu.edu.