The biggest unexpected surprise for our family came in July of 2016, when we took Levi in for a routine physical exam prior to having his teeth cleaned. Dogs have to go under anesthesia to have their teeth cleaned, and Levi has traditionally had some issues related to anesthesia and we wanted to be safe. His last checkup was in April 2016; he went in for an ear infection and at that time, he was in perfect health (except for the ear infection, of course). So it came as quite a shock when the vet announced that he heard a heart murmur level 4/5 for the first time in Levi's life.
A lot of small dogs develop a gradual heart murmur that starts low and builds as the dog gets older. We would not have been surprised if, at 9 years of age, that Levi had a minor heart murmur. But to go from zero murmur in April to a level 4/5 in July is alarming.
Heart murmurs in dogs can occur for many reasons, but the most typical of which is degenerative mitral valve regurgitation. The mitral valve is a flap in the heart that allows blood to pump into the ventricle, but not backwards towards the lungs. As a valve should work, it allows one-way movement. Degenerative mitral valve disease causes the thickening of the valve to the point at which it does not close properly and blood moves back and forth ineffectively in the heart. In response, the heart enlarges to allow for a larger capacity of blood pooling and to keep blood pressure in the body stable. Eventually, the excess fluid will back up into the lungs causing congestive heart failure.
We went to the cardiologist at the earliest possible moment. He confirmed that Levi did indeed have a level 5 murmur caused by degenerative mitral valve disease exacerbated by a chordae tendonae rupture. There are chords in the heart (literally what country singers croon about when they sing about heartstrings) that help coordinate the movement of the mitral valve flaps. If they break, the effectiveness of the valve is compromised significantly. That explains why it was not a gradual increase in murmur grade, but all at once.
We were devastated by the news, and we were further shocked when we were told that Levi had 6-9 months before he experienced congestive heart failure, and possibly a year left to live. We left with this news heavy in our hearts. Our devastation turned to anger and frustration. Why is there nothing that anyone can do to correct this issue in dogs? Humans have open heart surgery to repair the heart valves all the time - it's practically routine!
We emailed veterinarians at UC Davis, Cornell University, and several other highly respected veterinary schools in the US, along with one point of contact we found for veterinary surgeons in France. We heard back from the French doctors - they asked for more information about Levi and his results from our cardiologist.
We sent them, and held our breath.
We found more information about the doctors in France, and other dogs and owners from the US who had gone there to have the repair done. We called. We coordinated. We kept researching. No veterinary team in the US performs this procedure. Only one surgeon in the world - renowned Japanese surgeon named Dr. Masami Uechi - performs these operations currently in Japan, Singapore, and France.
When we finally got word from the Clinique Veterinaire Bozon in Versailles, France that Levi was a candidate, we were still in a little bit of disbelief that this was possible, that this was actually something that we could and possibly WOULD do. Were we crazy? Would other people think we were crazy? Can we logistically pull this off?
Maybe we are crazy, maybe we just love our dog. We stopped caring what anyone thought of what we were doing. And yes, we logistically pulled it off . . . one day at a time, one piece at a time, one foot in front of the other. When you want to do something that seems impossible in foresight (and hindsight), you have to know that the little steps in between to make it happen just come as long as you keep moving. We never lost faith, even when it was tested over and over again. I was taught that my heart and my hope are infinitely bigger than I ever realized.
It was unexpected. All of it. The diagnosis. The plan of action. Even the result.
We expected resistance and judgement anytime we talked about cardio-pulmonary bypass surgery for our dog . . . in FRANCE. But, everywhere we turned, friends and family knew exactly what Levi meant to us, and agreed we were doing the right thing for him. Our vets Dr. Carole Richards and Dr. Chris Vanderhoof at Caring Hands Animal Hospital, and Dr. Neal Peckens at CVCA, were 100% on board with us when we made the decision to go forward with it. They ran tests, and re-ran tests, and asked questions, and cared for us as owners. They cheered us on, and helped Levi recover when we got back.
We knew before we even went to France for the surgery, before we even knew Levi would live through it, that we wanted to be of service to Dr. Sabine and Jean-Hugues Bozon. We didn't know how, but we felt so inspired by what they are doing. When we met them, saw their clear vision of the future, learned about the many leaps of faith they took to get where they are, and witnessed the loving care they put into every living being that they touch, it was very clear to us and a few owners who came before, that we would need to take our own leap of faith to help them, and to help this cause in some way. And that is one of many reasons that Mighty Hearts Project was born.
Though most of all, it was unexpected what two people with love and hope in their hearts can accomplish together. I do mean Ginny and myself; however, we saw it in Dr. Sabine and Jean-Hugues as well. Their love for each other and their love for saving animals is unparalleled. Dr. Sabine taught us not to ever lose faith in something that is important to you. If the solutions presented to you are unacceptable, find new solutions.
We are currently on a mission to find new solutions for dogs in the United States. We will not lose faith.