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The Chronically Ill Child and the Puppy

When I told colleagues, friends and family that we were getting a puppy, they all said I was crazy. And I’ll admit, now that the puppy’s arrived, I walk around thinking mournfully to myself “What have I done? What have I done?”

“Dutch” is a black standard poodle and she’s eight weeks old. I’m quite convinced she was raised by servants so I no longer worry she’s missing her siblings or her mother. I’m quite sure she’s missing the standard of living she’d grown accustomed to. It’s been twenty-four hours and what I’ve learned is that if I am not showering attention upon her, she barks in a high-pitched bossy way. If I play with her, she barks in delight. If I sit, she wants up on my lap and barks until that happens. If I take her for a walk, she barks until I pick her up and carry her while walking. This morning when she woke up at 4:30, she started barking, apparently just at the joy of a new day. Honestly, I am worried about the neighbors almost as much as myself. I wonder if there’s a mental illness that begins with the barking of a puppy and ends in a straightjacket.

What would possess a woman who’s working more than full time on major projects and who has a very busy husband, a son at university, and a fifteen year old in high-school, to get a puppy?

The short answer is: the fifteen year old has stage two kidney disease. There are five stages before one needs a transplant to survive. Angus has one functioning kidney; it’s at 70% and degenerating.

The long answer, as to what would possess me to get a puppy, is that dogs are healers just as much as the amazing doctors and teachers out there who we’ve had the privilege of working with to care for our son through the years. The long answer requires several entwined backstories.

Last June, just as the school year was ending, our eleven year old dog “Shadow” became ill with cancer.  My husband was out of town picking up our older son from university so it was up to Angus and me to go to the animal hospital and be with Shadow as she was put to sleep. It was an extremely painful experience for us to watch a beloved creature, absolutely a part of our family---who such a short time before had been full of energy and life---drift into death.

It was particularly painful because Angus lives with an acute sense of his own frail mortality. While other teenagers worry about having blemished skin or not getting an A on an assignment or not knowing if someone will ask them to dance, Angus worries about dying.

The last time he had an infection that put his kidney at risk and we were driving to the hospital for another round of IV antibiotics, he turned to me and asked point blank: “Am I going to die?” I assured him that he was not going to die. But the question hung in the car between us. We spend a lot of time in doctors’ offices and hospital rooms. And when he undergoes a kidney transplant, this question will be raised again.

We brought Shadow into our lives when Angus was four years old so he couldn’t remember a time when we didn’t have a dog. Then she had to be put to sleep and suddenly, our house was empty. Arrivals were a humdrum affair where keys were put down, bags stowed, people slipped off to their respective rooms. It was a tough adjustment because we were used to coming home to a dog that would leap, cavort, bustle about with pure joy that we had arrived at the door and so we were all together again.

Coming home had become painfully quiet.

It was okay to coast through the summer without a dog, but I knew well enough that for the chronically-ill child school had particular added element of suffering and the only antidote would be a puppy.

People can’t see kidney disease and although they’ve been informed and in that moment express sympathy and care, it can sometimes be short-lived. I can understand this in children whose experiences are limited and memories short, but I have higher expectations for teachers. One teacher who worked closely with our son told me that she thought he should put his laptop away, disdainful of his passion for videogames, and get out to “play soccer” with the other boys. I was dumbfounded and didn’t even reply.

It’s so important for educators to understand that children, who live in bodies that are exhausted and/ or in pain, withdraw into videogames because they are so distracting. When kids have chronic diseases, a videogame character becomes a welcome alternate self: as a player the child can run, leap, drop from a height and triumph over enemies. This is an imaginative world that replaces a limited, oftentimes pain-infused, physical reality completely out of their control.

The teacher gave the “soccer advice” in grade 8 when Angus was finding it harder and harder to walk and numerous specialists were examining his legs. In grade 9 as his walking became more painful, another teacher got close up to his face, when he withdrew from PE class saying he couldn’t handle it, and she told him “you’re not trying.” Teachers need to know that the kid with a chronic disease, with an added medical problem in his legs, is trying so much harder than all the comfortable, pain-free kids playing soccer and getting kudos from teachers. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

Later when Angus told me the story of the teacher saying he wasn’t trying, he started to cry.  He’s a kid that almost never sheds a tear or complains about his pain. So to see this teacher bring him so much hurt, was an unforgettable experience and this is why I write about it.

As Angus was going through an adolescent growth spurt, he was even more exhausted as was to be expected with kidney disease, but the doctors discovered that his bones were growing and his leg tendons were not. Endless specialist appointments confirmed that the only remedy would be surgery to lengthen each tendon and hope that after he would be able to walk without pain and a hobbled gait. 

With two surgeries on the horizon, we planned to transform our home into a place where imagination and affection were the rule, not unjust criticism. The leader in the realm of imagination and affection is none other than a puppy.

Puppies are bumbling, clumsy symbols of spirited life force. They are as close to birth as chronically-ill kids are to death. They are full of rule-breaking, playful, joyful, affectionate behavior that are constant reminders to the frail child that life is essentially funny, imaginative and unpredictable.

Our puppy “Dutch” growls at her reflection in the mirror; she pounces on inanimate objects; she cries to be picked up and held. She snuggles into the crook of our sons’ arms for a safe place to sleep. Her affection already knows no bounds and her expectation that we will drop to our knees and play tug of war with a toy is a good lesson in family assertiveness: home is the place where people meet you on your level and are delighted at your every effort because they never forget what it’s like to be little and needy like a puppy or suffering like a teenager with some unseen, but nonetheless, painfully difficult issue.

Maybe a kid with chronic illness should be allowed to bring a puppy to school like a visually impaired person can have a guide dog. The guide dog is a perpetual reminder to the privileged ones who can see, just how hard it must be to get through the day without vision.

Bullying Expert

With a PhD in Comparative Literature, Fraser is a passionate educator, researcher and writer. Her most recent book, Teaching Bullies, is an exploration of what happens when the teacher or coach is the bully. Drawing on psychology, psychiatry, sports journalism and neuroscience, she argues that bullying done by adults—namely emotional abuse—does such significant harm it should join sexual and physical abuse in criminal code.  Her new book, Teaching Bullies: Zero Tolerance on the Court or in the Classroom, is available now!