Monday, November 9, 2015

My Stroll with Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh the artist was, as we all know, a troubled soul who struggled in near obscurity, with few friends and many demons, until his untimely death from a gunshot wound at age 37, which is widely thought to have been self-inflicted, but some believe he was actually shot by two young friends, no one knows for sure. Since his death, his popularity and fame has ballooned and by the mid 20th century, Van Gogh was seen as one of the greatest and most recognizable painters in history. He has touched more people in the afterlife than while he was alive…

I first heard about the wild child, Vincent van Gogh the Basenji, during a particularly dark period in my life. I was battling depression due to recent personal and professional setbacks in my life. So God saw a way to bring me at least part way out of the depression, by placing this neurotic monster into my care for rehabilitation.

After eight years of faithful devotion, Vincent van Gogh had his love and trust betrayed by his original human. Then less than six months later, having his trust again destroyed by the person who was supposed to help him understand, VVG was left an angry and distrustful creature who was not having anything to do with any other human.

This is where I entered into his life. On October 6th 2013, as I pull into the driveway of the home he was living in, a feeling of trepidation swept over me. I did not know what to expect, but went to the door anyway. Vincent's foster opened the door and said "Thank God, you need to get him out of here, I can't do anything with him". I crossed the threshold and an overweight furkid in a Captain America shirt (which he would not let me take off of him until December 18th) came into the living room from the kitchen, trotted up to me and sniffed my fingers and nipped at them then trotted off. The guy said "See, he tried to bite you" to which I replied "Not really, he just doesn’t know me".

After an hour of sitting and listening to this guy continue to disparage Vincent, I finally was able to put a leash on him and lead him out. I guided VVG toward the car, however he had other ideas. He was intent on walking down the street, which I allowed him too. We walked for about fifteen minutes and then he allowed me to put him into the car. with that gesture, we were off to explore the final phase of Vincent's life.

As soon as we pulled out of the driveway, VVG was up on the dash trying to get out the windshield. He would not get down and definitely would not listen to me. I pulled into a parking lot and was able to get him down and we walked for a few minutes while I mulled this over. I finally concluded I was going to have to secure him so he would stay off the dash. I tied his leash to the child safety hook on the back of the seat and played out just enough to allow him to stand with his front feet on the center console. Thus began our adventure together.

After a very interesting three hour drive, where Vincent stood on the center console leaning against my shoulder the entire drive, we arrived at VVG's new temporary home. He was excited but very wary. He sniffed around the front yard and porch and decided he was ready to enter the new lair. As we came into the house I dropped the lead and let him drag it. VVG immediately began exploring the house, going from room to room checking everything, his curiosity leading him along, finally bringing him to the kitchen and the open back door. He looked out the window of the screen door and jumped back, having been accosted by the snarls and sounds of three Basenjis and the barking of a Schipperke.

 The pack was outside in the back yard while VVG checked out his new surroundings and they were ready to have Vincent for lunch. At this point I brought the venerable Benny, the Basenji ambassador,  into the house to begin the introductions. The usual sniff-fest took place, then something very un-Benny like happened, when Vincent puffed his chest toward him, Benny let out a snarl and took VVG to the ground. As Benny stood over him Vincent started to get up and Benny poked him in the shoulder with his snout. This happened several times until VVG just lay there looking at Benny. Benny then walked away and let VVG up, he then turned and after VVG got up Benny came over, went shoulder to shoulder with Vincent and then play bowed to tried to get VVG to play, which was not going to happen anytime soon. One by one - Willow, Tess and Mr. Bear came into the house and introduced themselves to VVG. Nothing as dramatic as meeting Benny, but pretty intense just the same.

Terrie and I then set about the business of getting to know VVG and learning what we could about his trauma, in the early days, usually the hard way. This was evidenced very quickly when we were putting the pack outside that afternoon with VVG being hesitant by the door. I placed my hand on the back of his head and VVG turned and bit my hand without warning. I took hold of the lead on his collar and was able to bring him outside. When we brought him in we were able to examine his head area without any indication of distrust by VVG. We discovered his head was badly swollen on the left side and was tender. We checked out the rest of his body and  discovered a blackish-grey coloring all around his underside. We were not impressed with his condition. He was overweight, bruised and swollen and had some type of infection, as we later learned it was a staph infection.

Later that afternoon we introduced him to a crate, at which he balked and struggled to stay away from and he was highly resistant to going in. This proved to be the first real power struggle with VVG. After about thirty minutes of trying to persuade him, entice him and force him to go in We were finally able to get him in the crate. We accomplished this by feeding the lead to the back of the crate and pulling him in while Terrie was ready with the door to close it. We put a cookie into the crate for him. He reached down, grabbed his blanket and gave it the Basenji death shake, then ate his cookie. Over the next several weeks we worked with him to become comfortable in the crate and to help him understand it was his safe zone anytime. Every time he went into the crate he got a cookie (just like the rest of the pack). He would watch as the others went into their crates and became very intent when I hand fed each one their cookies. He would follow suit and when I would reach my hand out with the cookie, he would snarl and growl, at which I would drop his cookie and then slowly remove my hand while he ate his cookie. Often times he would slowly back away and then sit with a defiant look and snarl. When he did this I would snicker and snarl back, which would cause him to pause and stare directly into my eyes. Eventually, Vincent came to understand the crate was his friend and would go in of his own accord and eventually took the cookie out of my hand without any back talk. He was sharp, if there was no cookie in sight he was not going into the crate.

The following Monday I took him to the vet to get his head checked out and some strange looking discoloration on his belly and loins. Turns out the discoloration was a severe staph infection most likely caused from spending a great deal of time in a damp environment. His head was tender and swollen, however his eyes and ears appeared normal, so the vet believed the likelihood of permanent damage was slight. 

Every day we were discovering little things about VVG and what were the triggers for which he felt he needed to defend himself, two of which were reaching for the head and /or the collar. About a week after I was bit, Terrie was putting him outside and reached down to grasp his collar and VVG turned and bit her on the forearm. Again he gave no warning which to me, indicates he was held by his collar and beat about the head and shoulders. To his very last day VVG occasionally reacted when I place my hand to his head in certain situations, but the reaction is pulling back with a warning huff.  
There were many incidents of nipping the hand and attempting to bite and pulling back during the first three of four months, which became fewer and farther between with Terrie and I, however VVG would not allow anyone else near him until early December, when a couple of dog savvy people came to visit. VVG took his time to check out the visitors and within an hour he was sitting in their laps. At the end of December our son came to visit for the holidays. VVG was very aloof initially, eventually warming up to my son and spending much time in his lap.

Vincent became very attached to me, and decided to trust me almost exclusively. He allowed me to touch him everywhere, hold him anyway I wanted and to pick him up. He also started to resource guard my lap and eventually Terrie's lap too. This was the first time we needed to establish a precedence with Vincent, so I pushed him off, and he jumped directly back into my lap. I pushed him off again and said "No, you are not going to resource guard". He started to jump back up and I stood up. He then laid down by my feet. We had to work on his resource guarding right up to his final month. At the same time, we also were working on the same issue with Tess, they both got better about this issue as time went by. Vincent would sleep under the covers next to my nestled into my leg. If I moved he would too. This was his favorite way to sleep, right up to his last night.

All of this interaction was closely watched to prevent any incidents until, In January, a biting incident with a friend. This person reached across a baby gate separating VVG from this person and VVG bit her hand without warning. It was a puncture wound with no tearing and healed quickly. We were trying to figure out what his trigger was in this incident, eventually coming to understand the friend extended her hand in a fist configuration which is what VVG responded to. We discovered this about two months later when, as I was sitting at my computer eating a sandwich and not paying attention and Vincent was sitting nicely, watching me as I ate. Terrie called for him to go out and I asked VVG to go to the back door and inadvertently pointed a fist toward him and he struck as quickly as a rattle snake and bit me. He sat back and growled at me with a "I dare you to come at me" look. This too was a puncture wound with no tearing, which indicated a warning bite. I looked at him and said "dumbass, you still need to go out" and he jumped up and trotted to the back door where Terrie let him out. This was in the beginning of March and we have not had any more biting incidents since then. There were many opportunities for Vincent to bite either Terrie or I, however he had made the leap of faith to the point where he believed we would never hurt him on purpose.  This was evidenced at one point in May, when we were camping in the RV and Terrie had accidently stepped on Vincent. VVG screamed,  turned his body around and moved his mouth to Terrie's leg. Miraculously he stopped and let Terrie pet him and make amends.

This was the turning point in VVGs transformation. VVG had been exposed to my six year old grandson, on a regular basis over this time, with no interaction allowed. At one point, VVG pushed over the baby gate because Caleb was there and he wanted to meet him. Once he was done VVG came over to me and laid down. From this point forward there was no more separation and VVG has shown no aggression toward him at all. VVG has been introduced to people more and more, with no incidents of aggression. The key for VVG is to let him initiate the contact and allow him to check out the person. All along Vincent had been establishing this fact, I was his human, Terrie was an OK substitute as was my Son, But I was his and he would trust me like no other.

Along with all of the behavioral changes, we finally got VVGs thyroid issues stabilized with medication. When I picked up Vincent he weighed in at a hefty 47lbs. By getting him on a good, well balanced diet and getting his thyroid levels back to normal, He was able to lose 17 lbs by the end of May of 2014, eventually stabilizing at 26 lbs. We attended the BRAT convention which was held in Syracuse, NY in June 2014 and VVG was a big hit getting some much needed exposure to other people and Basenjis with no incidents reported. VVG made many new friends, two legged and four legged alike.

In discussions with his BRAT coordinator, we decided it was time to begin the process of finding the right home for VVG to live and prosper in. It would have to be a special home where the prospective family understood a potential biter and would be patient with VVG to help him completely heal. There were a couple of people familiar with VVG who expressed interest in adopting him, but whose current situations did not allow for this to happen. The coordinator received several promising inquiries into adopting VVG, however there were a few concerns which ultimately led to the final path of VVGs life.

With concerns about VVGs welfare and mental state in having to make another major change in his life after the last ten months of stabilizing his environment and concerns about how the prospective family would react to VVG if he attempted to bite or bully his new family the ultimate decision was for VVG to remain with us. So, on August the 7th 2014, the Sigler pack grew by one member when the adoption of VVG was official.  It was pointed out to me this was only a formal thing as Vincent had already decided we were his forever family long ago.

I wish I could relate that Vincent lived a long and loving life, but alas, I cannot. After a wonderful month of September where he made great strides in tolerance and trust, on the 2nd of October we noticed a swelling in Vincent's lower jaw on the left side. Thinking it was probably an abscess, we took him to the vet for a check-up. The vet indicated he would probably need to have the molar removed and referred us to another vet who had the equipment necessary to do this. I contacted this vet and they scheduled an appointment for the following Monday morning. The result of this appointment was yet another for a teeth cleaning and exploratory surgery. 

On Friday October 10th we went to the vet and VVG spent the day. The result of this visit was the worst possible scenario for Vincent and was devastating news for us, he has an invasive tumor which has eaten the back half of his lower jaw bone and the roots of the molar. The vet performed a biopsy which was sent to Purdue University for evaluation to determine the scope of the injury. The vet indicated VVG had trauma to his jaw consistent with a break that did not properly heal  and that it was very likely the tumor began in this area. Well this coincided with the initial finding from a year earlier when our vet first examined his head and neck.

The following week initial results were received indicating the tumor was malignant cancer. Purdue was running further testing to identify the markers of the cells. Finally on Thursday October 23rd we moved to the next step in determining the extent of the cancer. In the two week period between the first indications of swelling and this point the mass had tripled in size and was the size of a small fist. We consulted with the people at Purdue and made an appointment for Vincent to spend the night at Purdue for extensive testing including ultrasounds and a CT scan. The results of this testing should reveal the extent of his cancer and what, if anything we can do for him. A week later, on October 28th 2014, Vincent went to Purdue for testing. By this time his mass was the size of my fist. They began with  a full body CT scan which indicated the tumor was localized to his jaw with no apparent spreading. They indicated the mass was so invasive the surgeon did not want to try to remove it because he did not believe he would get it all and that the surgery would not be successful.

We discussed the limited options available and settled on palliative radiation treatment.  This consisted of a series of four intensive radiation sessions over a four week period. His first treatment was to start two days later and lasted six hours, as they had to perform all of the baseline measurements. His first treatment went well with no negative effects. A week later the follow-up exam and second treatment also went well. The oncologist indicated the tumor has not grown since the first treatment - good news - and they were able to actually open his mouth wide, which they were not able to during the CT scan or at the first treatment, which gave hope the tumor might actually be beatable. Vincent was a trooper through his treatments and actually handled the anesthesia a well as could be expected. His next two treatment went off without any problems either. When we came for the third treatment, the measurements indicated the mass had begun to reduce in size and after the final treatment there was a marked reduction in the mass. His energy levels are back to pre-tumor levels and he is his old snarky self. We have an observation period of about three weeks, then we will return to Purdue to do follow-up blood work and a physical.

I was able to spend a great deal of time with Vincent and was amazed in his resiliency. He started playing with Benny, Tess and even the Fun Police from time to time. Looking at him you would not know there was anything wrong. We went back to Purdue on the 15th of December (Terrie and my wedding anniversary) and the radiology group was very pleased with VVG's progress and how he looked. We waited around for the medical Oncologist to meet with us. As soon as he walked into the room Vincent snarked at him and he stated they would not be able to help him. The vet was afraid of Vincent and did not want to deal with him.  He was afraid of VVG and made a possible life and death decision due to fear. I waited over the weekend and contacted my vet to confer. She agreed to oversee his chemo treatments (with consults to Purdue) and to make necessary blood draws and physical measurements. Very grateful for this.

We started the chemo in January and after we completed three weeks of chemo without any apparent side effects I saw that VVG was a trooper and has a very strong survival instinct. The measurements made by the vet indicated the tumor continues to shrink, but we don't know if it’s the chemo or continued effects of the radiation. The results of the blood work are pawsitive, the white cell count is excellent and his red cell count continues to increase. Vincent continues to eat and drink well. His energy levels are good and he continues to play with Benny and Tess. He runs around the back yard and shows interest in helping Benny search the yard for ebil kettah.

We continued chemo therapy and I watched him for any indications of reaction to the meds or change in his face and the smell of his breath. We were on a monthly recheck schedule. At the February 5th checkup the blood work was back to within normal levels and his mouth seemed to be healing fine. At the March 6th checkup, the results were comparable to February. All through this Vincent had a sparkle in his eyes and was enjoying life with Benny and the jesters. Vincent loved to snuggle and always wanted to be touching me. He had started to give kisses and to snuggle with Tess and Mr. Bear.

At the end of March we noticed the side of his mouth beginning to swell once again and there was a distinct change in the odor from his mouth. We went into the April 4th checkup with the knowledge that Vincent had took a turn for the worse and all the prayers in the world was not going to be enough. The news was disappointing on one hand and encouraging on the other. Yes, the mass had started to enlarge and an open sore had materialized. The good news was his blood work was still holding steady. As I looked into his eyes, I noticed there was a change. His eyes still sparkled, but there was a sadness present too, like he knew he would not be with us much longer. The de-bulking the vet was doing would reduce the size and the sore would begin to heal. This would be good for about three weeks, then the mass would enlarge again requiring de-bulking again. At the May 8th checkup, the news was pretty much the same.

On May the 18th we packed up the RV and headed to Florida where Terrie had a new job awaiting her. We planned to stop in Huntsville, Atlanta, Jacksonville and Winter Haven before arriving in Jenson Beach. Vincent and the rest of the pack did well on the trip, making new friends at every stop. Terrie started her new job on Tuesday May 26th and a week later on Wednesday June 3rd we headed to Colombia SC for the BRAT convention. A wonderful time was had by all. However, you could see that VVG was getting tired easily and needed to rest. We returned to Florida and get Terrie and the kiddos setup in the RV, and then VVG, Willow and I headed back to Indy on June 13th.

Everyone did well on the drive back . On June 16th 2015 Vincent had his next appointment for his checkup. As I sat and watched over him as he rested and recovered from the andesitic and de-bulking procedure he endured, I marveled at his life force…and the impact he has had on my life, Terrie's life and the lives of thousands of people, most of whom have never met him in person, and know him only by sharing his daily exploits.
Even though we know deep down in our hearts that cancer is eventually fatal in 98% of canines, we continue to hope against hope that VVG will be one of the 2%.........After his remarkable progress from his radiation treatments, when there was little hope, our spirits soared…..Then the realization settled in that most likely the tumor would never completely go away……But we remained optimistic and hopeful…The tumor had remained fairly stable with a predictable amount of growth and the monthly de-bulking keep it manageable. His energy and stamina remained good and his weight was stable.  His white cell count and red cell count remain normal too.
Only this time we find the tumor has grown back toward his throat….most of the mass was bubbling on top of itself…but there is evidence the tumor has started to move back in his jaw. Not the best news we could have. All of the mass above the jaw line was removed so he will be able to eat, we will have to keep a close eye on the rest. Knowing he is not a candidate for further radiation treatment and the chemo treatments are barely keeping him stable… is heartbreaking watching him go through all of this…he didn’t deserve to be abandoned, then beaten and then to get the tumor.
The part about this that gives me the courage to go on is VVG himself…his life force is so strong…the love in his eyes…the trust that is there…He continues to press on and not give up…so the least I can do is walk with him…The prayer warriors that continue to pray for VVGs health and well being are a Godsend, also those who provide the funds to be able to go forth with his care and treatment are to be thanked and commended. I am grateful for everyone of you…
On July 14th 2016 VVG went in for his final treatment with Dr. Clarke, because no matter what, the three of us are heading back to Florida on Saturday. I had noticed his balance had started to be affected. We would go on walks and sometimes he would stagger as he tried to maintain his balance (can remember doing that a time or two after a few too many). He sometimes holds his head canted, I assume to help his balance…which Dr. Clarke echoed. She removed as much as she could and indicated there was not much more she could do. She indicated the mass would most probably continue up into his brain. We will make the trek back to Florida to be with the rest of the pack…Willow is being extra vigilant around him, she knows he is susceptible to hurting himself.
We left Indy on Saturday the 18th and stopped outside of Nashville, Tn at Dawn Bond-Atkinson's for the night. Had some excitement when her boy slipped the harness when we were walking the kiddos. After several hours of searching Dawn finally found him - Oh Happy days. Vincent got some lap time with both Dawn and Alan. He ate well and slept well. His balance is getting worse and there is a puss present at the bottom of his left eye. I clean it out and it come back, I think it’s the cancer pushing out. I do not think he can see from this eye any longer. On Sunday we headed out and stopped in Jacksonville at Deborah Mizzoni's  for the night. He got lap time with Deborah…Vincent was struggling a little but was in good spirits and ate well.
Monday morning we headed out and got back to the RV at the Lion Country Safari KOA campground. All five of the kiddos were happy to see each other, and me too. Over the next two days VVG went downhill pretty quickly. The cancer moved into his eye, completely taking it over. He could hardly stand up without wavering and he could not judge anything around him. His appetite has diminished to the point he does not want to eat if there is any effort involved, the last three days of his life I hand fed him his meals…
We took him to the vet for the final time on Monday morning July the 27th ….He normally would ride in the back seat standing on the center console leaning against my shoulder…this time he rode in Terries lap looking out of the window with his good eye….Just like the first ride he made with me, I think he knew this was not a normal ride and that he would not be coming home. Terrie  and I took him in, the vet got him set up and we talked to him the entire time. As I talked to him I looked into his eyes while he crossed over and I finally saw peace in his eyes…Goodbye my friend, I will never forget you…At 10:30 am July 27th 2015 Vincent van Gogh the Basenji crossed the Rainbow Bridge.

So, it is noted that van Gogh, the painter, On 27 July 1890, aged 37, is believed to have shot himself in the chest with a revolver (although no gun was ever found). There were no witnesses and the location where he shot himself is unclear. Ingo Walther writes, "Some think Van Gogh shot himself in the wheat field that had engaged his attention as an artist of late; others think he did it at a barn near the inn." Biographer David Sweetman writes that the bullet was deflected by a rib bone and passed through his chest without doing apparent damage to internal organs—probably stopped by his spine. He was able to walk back to the Auberge Ravoux, where he was attended by two physicians. However, without a surgeon present the bullet could not be removed. After tending to him as best they could, the two physicians left him alone in his room, smoking his pipe. The following morning (Monday), Theo rushed to be with his brother as soon as he was notified, and found him in surprisingly good shape, but within hours Vincent began to fail due to an untreated infection caused by the wound. Van Gogh died in the evening, 29 hours after he supposedly shot himself. According to Theo, his brother's last words were: "The sadness will last forever."

135 years later to the day, Vincent van Gogh the Basenji crossed the Rainbow Bridge at 10;30 am…

~ Dean Sigler

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful tribute to your boy and the love you shared. I'm sorry for your loss.