It was the weekend of the Johns Hopkins University spring fair, and I was walking my dog about a block from the campus when he suddenly fell over on his side and began thrashing in the grass. A young woman getting out of a car said she was a medical student and told me, ''That dog has epilepsy. Try to hold him on his side to keep him from hurting himself.''
A year-and-a-half-old Boston Terrier, Woody survived that episode, but it was the beginning of years of strict drug therapy and constant monitoring, of emergency visits to vets, experimental medication and the decision to allow Woody to participate in research that might benefit not only him, but other dogs -- and possibly humans.
Even if we had known how serious Woody's illness would become, I am certain my husband and I never would have considered any path other than treatment. In the beginning, of course, we still hoped Woody's epilepsy was curable. But even after we realized he might never be out of danger, we persevered. We did so in large part because he persevered. Healthy, Woody was one of the happiest dogs I've ever seen; ill, his will to live was so strong, he almost seemed to be commenting on those of us humans who give up as soon as the going gets tough.
At first, we had trouble finding a veterinarian who could properly diagnose the problem and treat it in a way that seemed likely to mitigate the seizures. The vet who treated Woody as a puppy tried to tell us his seizures were merely choking episodes. But Gary M. Brooks at Academy Animal Hospital impressed us by his willingness to get input from specialists and researchers.
A year after the seizure at the Hopkins fair, Woody went into status epilepticus -- non-stop seizures. At Dr. Brooks' suggestion, we made an appointment with a veterinary neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary Hospital. husband and I found ourselves driving to Philadelphia with an anesthetized dog in the back seat of the car. The heavy sedation was intended to stop, or at least subdue, the seizures.
At Penn, Woody became the patient of Betsy Dayrell-Hart. Her diagnosis was idiopathic epilepsy -- in other words, no known cause. Woody's medication was altered, as it was to be at irregular intervals, depending on his tolerance of various levels of phenobarbitol and Valium. Twice a year blood tests were taken to look for dangerously high drug levels or liver damage.
Although Woody normally ran around the house playing and barking like a canine dervish, he was a model patient. Maybe because he spent so much time at veterinary hospitals, or maybe because no vet ever mistreated him, once he was up on that metal table, he would willingly do whatever was required. When blood samples were taken from his neck, he would raise his head for the procedure, never uttering so much as a whimper.
We hoped Woody would settle into some sort of pattern, but unpredictability turned out to be the most predictable characteristic of his illness. Sometimes he would go for months without a seizure. Other times, he would have three to five in a single evening. As long as there was space between them, and he was cognizant when he came to, we didn't panic. We also didn't believe he was suffering. People who have grand-mal seizures are said not to remember the episodes, and dogs aren't known for their memories, anyway. Most important, Woody always seemed to be his happy self afterward; there was no doubt in our minds that his prolonged periods of canine glee far outweighed his difficulties.
A couple of years ago, the accumulated seizures and strong drugs began to take their toll. Woody fell sick, and after his worst bout ever he lapsed into a near coma. My husband mixed up a gruel of chicken broth, canned dog food and ground kibble and fed it to him with an eye dropper. For the first time, we considered having Woody put to sleep, but we decided to give him two more days. And Woody snapped out of it. Once more this trouper was begging for table scraps and tearing around the house chasing tennis balls.
A few weeks ago Woody developed what appeared to be a cold. On the way home from his morning walk he became lethargic and a bit uncoordinated and his nose was running. By dinner time, he seemed worse; he refused most food -- a sure sign of trouble with this chow hound. Dr. Brooks was away for the day, so we called Ed F. Molesworth at Main Street Animal Hospital in Reisterstown, which has 24-hour emergency service.
A chest X-ray revealed pneumonia, and the following day a barium X-ray showed an enlarged esophagus that caused him to aspirate food when he ate. That was the probable cause of the pneumonia, but what caused the enlargement? It wasn't related to the epilepsy, except for the fact that it also looked to be idiopathic.