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“My life changed forever in the spring of 2012 when I was fortunate enough to come across the most incredible, beloved little puppy,” began Dr. Stan Marks. Bean was a rescue pit bull who was brought to the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital because she wasn’t able to walk properly. “To most observers, it looked like she was an old man walking in flippers.”
Corrective surgery would help the issue, but a neurological evaluation revealed that Bean had muscular dystrophy, which, similarly for people with the same condition, meant that the dog couldn’t eat or swallow normally and would be a “ticking time bomb” for aspiration pneumonia. UC Davis veterinary neurologist, Dr. Karen Vernau, adopted Bean and her colleagues rallied around them both.
Stan showed a video of Bean unresponsive to a tossed soccer ball and trying to eat. “She’s unable to swallow…and looking quite lethargic. She’s gagging and aspirating food and water. And she’s developing pneumonia.” The team knew that they would have to act quickly. “We first assessed Bean’s esophagus with a procedure that enables us to see what’s going on in real time.” Stan showed a video of an image revealed by an endoscope: Barium paste was trapped in Bean’s esophagus, then refluxed and aspirated into her windpipe.
“The only way to keep Bean alive would be to place a feeding tube directly in her stomach,” a minimally invasive procedure that would serve as a lifeline. Stan showed a picture of Bean’s tube. “It’s flush with the abdominal wall…and you don’t have a long tube that’s likely to be detached by the pet.” He showed a video of owner Karen feeding Bean, who looks comfortable and happy.
However, even though Bean was now able to get nourishment, she continued to aspirate—and came down with life-threatening pneumonia. “That’s when we got desperate,” said Stan. “Bean was close to being humanely euthanized to put her out of her misery.” And then another member of the UC Davis Medical School community stepped up. Dr. Peter Belafsky suggested a radical procedure: removing Bean’s entire voice box.
“And you may think that sounds barbaric,” said Stan. But by removing the voice box you are separating the windpipe from the esophagus, to prevent aspiration pneumonia from ever occurring again. “We were fortunate to have an incredible team of doctors, surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, to drop everything to assist us with this complex procedure. It took about three hours to perform, and it went beautifully.”
While Bean was hospitalized, her Facebook friends—yes, she has nearly a thousand followers—monitored her progress, wrote posts, and sent soccer balls. Today, “her quality of life is outstanding,” said Stan. But her recovery is more than just a happy ending; it’s also a beginning. “Bean has given hope to others–including people who are going through the same challenges in their lives.”
He shows an image of Bean surrounded by patients at the UC Davis Medical School, where every month, people who have undergone a similar procedure get together as members of the Lost Cord Club. “When these people saw Bean with her indomitable spirit, tail wag and her smile, their faces lit up.” She has also taught Stan’s colleagues at UC Davis to “think outside the box,” and her case study is taught to both veterinary and medical school students.
Near the end of Stan’s talk at the Purina Better With Pets Summit, he surprised the audience with a live appearance from Bean and her owner, Karen. As Bean bounded around the stage, she embodied a famous quotation that Stan flashed on-screen: “Man can live about 40 days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope.”