Jun 27, 2009

Another reason I want our kid to be a vet

So, I have some more medical news about Willow. However, I feel like I have to be somewhat diplomatic about how I approach it. It sounds like terrible news, and it certainly does suck, but it's not as bad as it sounds. To give you a sense of why her diagnosis caused relief rather than anguish, perhaps I should start at the beginning.

It's no secret that Willow has had more than her fair share of medical problems (as have most of our pets). While her back surgery was obviously the most drastic, she's also had adverse reactions to vaccines, a scratched eye, bladder infection, etc. I recently chronicled her bladder stone surgery, and D mentioned that she was begging for food after she came home from that ordeal. Well, the begging didn't stop, and she had several other strange symptoms, such as excessive thirst, rapid weight gain, lethargy, food guarding, etc. A little Internet research led us to believe that it could be Cushing's disease.

The most common cause of Cushing's is a tumor on one of the adrenal or pituitary glands, which would have meant additional surgery, plus medication to maintain appropriate steroid levels for the rest of her life. Though the syndrome is not in itself lethal, one researcher suggested that an average lifespan beyond diagnosis would be about two years. We talked to the veterinarian on the phone and she mentioned that all of Willow's blood work during her surgery had been normal, and that some of the symptoms (the hunger and thirst) could just be learned behaviors from her time being boarded at the vet. So, we waited for things to get better.

Not only did things not get better, they got a little worse.  We started noticing some personality changes, and all of the other symptoms continued unabated.  Then I started noticing that she was having a hard time seeing a treat when I held it on her left side.  It was a little intermittent, but something was definitely going on.  We considered cataracts, glaucoma, etc, but we had no idea why it had come on so suddenly.  Then we considered a brain tumor.  When we started researching dog brain tumors, she ended up having about 75% of the expected symptoms......not a good sign.  Also, all the sites said that the only way to diagnose a brain tumor was to use an MRI or a CT scan, which can run around $1000 just for the test.  If a tumor were confirmed, surgery is uncommon, ridiculously expensive, and not that effective.   Yes, they have dog chemo and dog radiation, but those only extend their lives a bit....prognosis: about six months.

At this point we were sure there was more going on than just learned behaviors from her time at the vet.  We took her back in and they ran some additional tests....thyroid tests, blood cultures, etc.  She also mentioned the possibility of something called SARD, and recommended that she see a pet opthamologist.  We took her to the recommended eye doctor later that day....between D's OB appointment and Willow's vet visits, we had three different doctors' appointments that day.  The opthamologist recommended an additional test, an electroretinograph (ERG), which would measure the electrical impulses from her retinas to her brain.  If confirmed, this would rule out a brain tumor, spinal tumor, and endocrine-related issues....and narrow it down to SARD.  Two days later, she had the test and it was positive, meaning she has zero activity between her eyes and her brain.

Willow is completely blind.  I know it took me a while to get here, but it's really not as bad as it sounds.  First, the alternatives were all pretty awful, and there's no shortened life span associated with this diagnosis.  Second, dogs don't have the same kind of psychological issues that would occur if a human were told in middle age that they've suddenly gone blind and there was nothing that could be done.  And third, dogs' other senses are strong enough that they can learn to adapt really quickly.  Willow has already demonstrated this fact, and she's doing quite well.  Though she occasionally runs into things, for the most part she can navigate around the house at full speed.  If you didn't know she was blind, it would probably take hours (if not days) to realize that she was having any issues at all.  Between a great sense of hearing and smell, and the sense memory she had from walking around our house for the last six months, she's pretty comfortable navigating around by herself.

The culprit is called Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome (SARDS), and though it's still very poorly understood, Willow's symptoms were dead-on.  Some researchers think it might be related to Cushing's (which we thought she had originally), but there's no known cause.  Essentially, over the course of days to weeks, dogs go from fully sighted to completely blind (that's the "sudden" part of the name).  It's generally believed to be an auto-immune issue, which means the rods and cones in her eyes were destroyed by her own immune system, leaving her with no sight at all.  There is no known cure and it's completely irreversible.  There is some research into potential ways to slow or stop the degeneration (mostly at Iowa State University), but it's all experimental and it's too late for Willow anyway.

Yes, this sucks.  However, I'd like to end on a positive note.  Willow is doing very well, and we're quite relieved that it wasn't a brain tumor or one of the other more lethal diagnoses.  As I wrote that last sentence, she walked down the stairs from the couch, walked into the kitchen for some water, and then headed down the hallway toward the front door.  Ninety-five percent of the time, there is literally zero difference in her behavior between now and a year ago.  Many of the associated symptoms like increased hunger and thirst have gotten better as she learns to adapt.  The few things that are still affecting her are perfectly manageable....for instance, she tends to sleep a little bit more and a little bit more deeply, and doesn't really show an interest in getting out of her dog bed at night to go upstairs and get in bed.  That just means we have to pick her up and carry her upstairs and into bed, which we're perfectly willing to do....it's good practice for carrying around the sack of potatoes that D will be delivering in August.  All in all, it's sad but okay, and we're moving on.


Tomorrow will complete Week 32 of 40.  At our last appointment two weeks ago, the baby was still measuring very large.  The ultrasound is pre-configured to estimate the birth date according to the size of various measurements.  After each reading (head circumference, femur length, etc), a new estimate will appear based on that body part.  The due date estimate based on femur length was August 2, and our actual due date is August 22, so she's almost three weeks larger than normal.  It's also based on a leg length, which hopefully means that she'll be tall!  The doctor may want to induce about a week early, since any longer could reduce the chance of avoiding a C-section.

Everything is still going well.  We had the doctor measure D's amniotic fluid again, since it had been high at our previous ultrasound.  With a normal range of 5-25, it had come up at a 25.8.  Fortunately, this most recent ultrasound showed that it has dropped back down to around 20, which is well within normal parameters.

We've gotten some great clothes and are filling in the age gaps in her wardrobe.  Fortunately (or unfortunately), the local outlet mall has a Baby Gap, a Carter's outlet, and an Osh Kosh B'Gosh outlet.  Those stores are now almost as dangerous as the Coach outlet we have to walk past on the way back to the car.

Jun 22, 2009

Father's Day

A quick nod to all the fathers out there.  I have a couple myself (and lots of grandfathers), so I understand how special they can be.  That said, it's been a bittersweet holiday the last two years.

Last Monday was Andrew's birthday, and trying to picture him at two years old just makes me miss him that much more.  I've lived the last two years in a strange, sad limbo between fatherhood and nothinghood.  If Andrew had been 10, or 5, or even 2 years old when he had passed away, there'd be no doubt in anyone's mind whether I was a father.  But we were never able to bring him home, never able to show him off....never able to do more than visit him....unfortunately, the nurses were as much of a father to him as I was.  I was there every single day, and I changed his diapers and kissed his forehead and stroked his beautiful skin.....but how unfair is it to tell a father that he'll only hold his son a handful of times?  How can I claim to be a father with only five months of memories and pictures and videos to show for it?

Someone at a wedding last night asked us if D's pregnancy was going to be our first child, and we said yes.  We did it because it's easier than explaining the whole situation, and in the end it's the answer they were looking for.  What they were really asking is whether we have kids at home, and the answer that shouts loudly from our empty nursery is a resounding No.  Perhaps we should go through the whole story with anyone that asks about kids, but that would be a total downer....especially at a wedding.  Essentially denying Andrew's existence is just as unfair to him as denying my fatherhood is to me, but I'm taking the easy way out for now.

I suspect that the circumstances will be quite different next year, and I probably won't get quite as many questions.  With a 10-month old little girl at home, I'll also feel more like a father.  But until she's born, there's an emptiness that reminds me of everything I'm missing out on.  Crying babies?  I'd love one.  Sleepless nights?  Totally worth it.  Terrible twos?  Better than nothing.  This Father's Day, when dads across the country were getting their tacky ties, sappy shirts, and corny cards, I hope they realized just how lucky they were.


It's been a busy week.  D's last day of school was last Friday, and we've been on the go ever since.  Most revolved around a visit from our relatives in Texas....we had ten people staying with us all week.  I'll be posting more about each of the activities, but here's a quick recap:

  • Friday- D's last day of school
  • Saturday- my cousin Vinnie's graduation from UCLA (& party)
  • Sunday- my grandpa's 80th birthday party
  • Monday- three doctor/vet visits, plus family arrival
  • Tuesday- San Diego County Fair
  • Wednesday- Legoland Park (& Aquarium)
  • Thursday- beach
  • Friday- San Diego Zoo
  • Saturday- family departure, and a wedding
On top of a full schedule, I was working full-time, which meant late nights, taking calls from beach parking lots, and driving straight from customer demos to various tourist destinations.

More on the baby, Willow, and our visitors to come.....

Jun 12, 2009

Almost Done

The only really major project left was the lawn, and the crew took care of that in record time. They flattened and compacted the topsoil, then added the sod and cut it to fit the space.

It looks like it's all ready to go, but we won't be able to walk on it for a couple of weeks. No football games yet!

Willow really enjoys the new yard, especially since she hasn't been allowed out there for the last two weeks.

All that's left are a couple of touch-up items that should be done by the end of today. They're installing a few lights around the yard, mostly up-lighting to illuminate the trees. They're also finalizing the sprinkler program and cleaning up a couple of drainage issues in the concrete. We're almost done!

Take a look at the rest of the pictures on the photo site, I've added a movie of Willow's first exploration. Being able to see it on video also gives a better indication of scale.
UPDATE: Here's the video of Willow exploring the yard....for some reason the Blogger video upload didn't work:

Jun 9, 2009


There was an amazing amount of progress made today, all around planting. First they dug trenches and laid pipe for the sprinklers, both in the planters and behind the wall. They used a saw to clean up the ends of the scored concrete, so that water will freely flow from the patio into the lawn area, where the drains are. They finalized the last locations for the drains and then moved on to the planting.

I told them where we wanted all the plants that had been delivered, and they dug the appropriate holes in the planters (with the help of jackhammers, picks, and sledgehammers). They also laid topsoil on the planted areas (including the lawn).

All of our plants are in the ground and ready to grow. They're all a little small for their spaces, but they should fill out quickly.

D is really happy with the way everything has turned out so far....I had trouble getting her to come back inside the house. The wall was meant to be useful for seating and it turned out great; she just sat there and admired everything for quite a while.

The sod should arrive tomorrow, and then it'll just be a few clean-up items left. How exciting!

More pictures and details about the process (and the plants) have been uploaded to the photo blog. Check it out.

Jun 6, 2009

We Have Concrete!

There wasn't a ton of progress made on Day 5, and I didn't get any pictures, so you'll have to take my word on that. They filled in the trench and got all the drainage in place, but still didn't finish all the concrete forms or the rebar.

Which meant that early on Day 6 (around 6:30am), there were fifteen workmen in our backyard, trying to get everything ready before the concrete showed up at 9am. They added a layer of compacted sub-base (the hard-packed stuff under the concrete) and finished the forms and rebar for the right patio and the right side walkway.

Then the concrete truck showed up and deposited its load into a big hopper in front of our house. This was connected to a high-pressure hose that they snaked all the way around the house. They started on the left side and worked their way across the back patios and down the right side of the house, so they weren't "painting themselves into a corner."

To begin, it just looked like a lake of mud in the backyard, but they quickly created the score lines and detailing to give each patio some definition. This picture shows how they would measure out the distance between the score lines, then snap a string across the patio to mark where each one should go. Then another guy came by and actually cut the grooves with a sharper tool on a long pole. Finally, they came out on their hands and knees, using special knee pads that held them from knee to toe and distributed their weight across a large surface. They touched up all the smooth surfaces and carefully carved the edges.

When it was done, they left it to dry. It will take a few days for us to be able to walk on it without worry, and it will dry quite a bit lighter than the color in these pictures. We think it looks great, though, and we can't wait to be able to use our beautiful new patios.

On Day 7, they just came and removed the forms around the concrete. On Monday they'll lay the irrigation for the lawn and planters, and then the sod will go in that afternoon or early on Tuesday. Planting and touch-ups will continue for a couple of days, so we should be done by Wednesday or Thursday of next week.

I took a lot of pictures during this portion of the job, mainly because I found the concrete process fascinating, and they were doing such a great job turning a river of mud into a great patio. I've posted some of the pictures on our photo site, along with descriptions of what was happening. If you're at all curious how all of this gets done, take a look.

Jun 4, 2009

Willow the brat

I promised J that I would pull my fair share of blogging, so here's my first entry on the new blog.

As most of you know, Willow has been a part of our lives for a little over six years now. Those of you who know her might have the opinion (albeit incorrect) that she is a bit, well, spoiled.

So maybe she sleeps under the covers with us every night. And, yes, her grandpa made her a ramp so that she can get up on the bed. I guess it is a bit unusual that we have to take her with us when we go away for the weekend- she doesn't really do the whole kennel thing.

Unfortunately, she seems to be taking the whole spoiled dog thing to a whole new extreme. Ever since we brought her home from her last surgery she has been a whiny, pain in the butt. She will sit on the floor, stare at us, and whine pitifully, nonstop. For awhile, we thought she was hungry, even though we were feeding her three times a day. She was devouring everything we put in front of her.

We think we might have figured out the issue last night and J put the theory to the test today. Apparently, Willow is only happy when she assumes this position on the couch.

I was sitting on the couch in the living room when we finally discovered the cause behind the whining. She kept coming in and crying at my feet. Since I had just fed her, I figured she wasn't hungry. It wasn't until I got up, found the white blanket that we use on our other couch, put her next to me on the living room couch, and allowed her to burrow under the blanket that she left me alone and went to sleep.

She did the same thing to J this morning. She whined at him until he grabbed the magic white blanket from the couch and let her sit next to him underneath it. I don't know what we did to encourage this behavior, but apparently Willow is only happy when she has her blankie to sleep under.

Fortunately, she hasn't gone completely princess yet. Here she is sunbathing in the dirt amongst the weeds before we started construction on the back yard.

As I type right now she is curled up next to me fully engulfed in the white blanket. I guess it could be worse!?!?

Jun 3, 2009

Baby Update

D's now at 28.5 weeks (out of 40) and everything's still on track. Almost two weeks ago we had our 27 week ultrasound, as a last minute check to make sure all the pieces we saw at 18 weeks are still there. Here's one of the ultrasound photos:

This might not be a surprise to many of you, but this baby is big. Chiquita was officially at 26 weeks, 6 days gestation, but she measured out at 28 weeks, 4 days on the ultrasound. That's almost two full weeks larger than "standard." She weighed in around 2 pounds, 12 ounces, and will continue to grow at about a half-pound per week for the rest of the pregnancy. So you don't have to do the math, that puts her around 9 pounds at full term, even if her growth tapers off in the last couple weeks.

We confirmed the gender, the presence of a diaphragm, and all the other basics. The one thing that was at all out of the ordinary was the amniotic fluid around the baby, which is measuring just at the high end of normal. Sometimes this can indicate gestational diabetes, especially with a big baby, but D was screened for that last week and passed with flying colors. That means it's likely nothing, since it was just barely remarkable and there usually ends up being no discernible cause. She'll get measured again in two weeks, and hopefully everything will be within parameters.

Chiquita's been moving around and kicking quite a bit recently, especially when D's trying to rest after a long day of work. I've felt several good kicks and a lot of movement....it's all fun but it doesn't help D with her already-sore muscles. Hopefully she'll be able to relax when school is over (in just over a week). Even though softball is done, D still hasn't been home before 5 or 6 in a long time. She has too many other commitments (and fun stuff) to take care of before coming home. A baby shower at school, a softball banquet, several meetings with next year's newspaper staff, a couple of doctor's appointments, and more....they're conspiring to keep her tired and worn out until the school year ends. Fortunately, she's still happy and healthy.

Backyard Day 4

Day 4 (Monday) brought a few changes, though many of them are not obvious. They laid rebar for the concrete patio on the left side of the house, as well as the walkway to the other side of the yard. They also put in a French drain behind the wall and completed a few more concrete forms. I've added a few new pictures to the photo blog.

Unfortunately there was no work on Tuesday because we had to wait for the city inspector to come out and approve a buried electrical conduit. That went well and the landscapers will continue working on Wednesday for a planned concrete pour on Thursday. Today we had someone from the local nursery come by the house to visualize the size and location of our planters, in order to give us recommendations on plants that might work in the space. We've picked out the majority of our plants and will have the landscapers plant them next week before they finish. Though everything will be small to start, the plants should all grow into their respective spots in the next six months to a year.

We also have to pick our concrete color tomorrow. Do you have any idea how hard it is to pick the color that will take up 1100 square feet of our yard (that's as big as our entire condo!) from two-inch pieces of paper on a concrete color sample chart? The colors are numerous and though there are a wide variety, there are also some with only subtle differences. Telling the difference between the Omaha Tan and the Sequoia Sand, and then visually projecting it onto the entire patio area, ties my mind in knots. D is better at that sort of visualization...I can picture the shapes and sizes, she can picture the colors. For a glimpse into what the choice is like, take a look at the Davis Colors website. We have to choose from these options....just about anything in the "Subtle" or "Standard" sections.

We'll see how everything looks when it's done, which could be as early as the middle of next week. We've already purchased patio furniture and a standalone gazebo that are ready to spruce up the yard, and we'll have about ten people staying with us within a week of finishing the work....just in time!

Jun 1, 2009

Backyard Renovations

We've been having work done on our backyard for a few days now, and there's really been some great progress. I've taken pictures at the end of each day, and I'll be adding to an album of the best shots. The whole album is available here, but I've also thrown a few pictures in to give you a good idea of the work being done.

Day 0- Before the work started, we had a large slope at the back of the yard (pictured here), a good-sized area of dirt between the slope and the house, a cut-out side patio (also dirt), and two narrow walkways down either side of the house. The only greenery was the ground cover on the slope (provided by the builders), and the soil is rocky and full of clay.

Day 1- The first day was mainly focused on excavation of the lower portion of the slope, plus a little bit of digging for trenches.

Day 2- The second day saw the wall footings poured and two layers of brick placed, as well as significantly more excavation and insertion of drainage.

Day 3- The wall was completed on the third day, and forms were placed for planters and concrete patios. The general shapes of the patios and walkways are now visible, and the ground is being prepared for concrete.

Here's the album with pictures from all different angles:
From Backyard