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Summer 2003
Dr. Sarah Payne, clinical faculty member (left), and Patty Morrissey, senior technician, administer maintenance chemotheraphy to Lucy, a Bernese Mountain dog in remission from lymphoma.
(photo by Richard Howard)

The Hospitals: Compassion Unbound

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This morning finds Georgia curled up on a bed of soft blue towels, oblivious to the muted bustle of the Intensive Care Unit. She’ll be groggy for a good hour or two; the two-year-old cat has just been operated on for a peritoneal-pericardial diaphragmatic hernia. “Essentially, her gut scooted up in between the heart and pericardial cavity,” explains Diane Welsh, veterinary technician. “It’s always congenital, but there is surgery to repair the defect.”

For the veterinarians, students, and technicians, it’s business as usual as they keep a close eye on the animals that have been referred by veterinary practitioners across New England. For patients like Tyler, a Yorkshire terrier whose trachea collapsed, or Hercules, a Doberman with a slipped disc, Tufts veterinarians and staff can provide the skills, equipment, and postoperative expertise.

More than 6,000 animals, critically injured and fighting for life, are treated annually at Tufts emergency rooms, where distress situations range from kidney failure in an aging cat to a fishhook snagged in a dog’s paw.

Tufts animal hospitals and clinics provide care to more than 27,500 animals a year, using a host of diagnostic tools and the most progressive therapies: ultrasound, CT and MRI imaging, chemotherapy and radiation therapy for tumors, kidney dialysis, open-heart and brain surgery—most of the sophisticated procedures and treatments that can be found in any major hospital for people.

Tufts established the emergency and critical care service in 1985. “When we built the hospital, veterinarians in the area urged us to establish an emergency service,” recalls Dr. James Ross. As the specialty has grown, so has Tufts’ commitment; the school now has 12 medical residents in emergency and critical care, more than any other program in the country

Some of the credit goes to pet owners. According to the Pet Food Institute, there are more than 75 million pet cats and 60 million pet dogs in the United States, and more than 50 percent of American households own at least one pet dog or cat. Consumer spending power, says Ross, in part, drives the trend toward sophisticated medical care. “People are willing to pay more for pets and their well-being,” says Ross. “But I also see them as becoming more responsible owners. They want this dog, not a dog. There has emerged a closer relationship, a stronger human animal bond in the past 20 years, and certainly that has had a big influence on the kinds of services that we provide.”

That bond builds on deep unconditional love; it’s not uncommon to hear pet owners talk about their dogs or cats as members of the family, or to cheerfully confess that it’s actually the pet that owns them.

“If you have ever loved an animal you feel an unspoken commitment between you and your pet,” says Dorothy Melanson, who was in the waiting room with her Newfoundland, Jetta, referred to Tufts for severe arthritis. “I’ve had five dogs, and I couldn’t say I’ve had a favorite. They never get mad at you, they’re always happy to see you, and, as most people know, a wag of the tail can make your day.”

That’s also certainly true for clients like John Woschenko, of Glastonbury, Connecticut, and Lucy, his Bernese Mountain dog. A year ago, Woschenko discovered golf-ball size lumps on Lucy’s neck that led to a discouraging diagnosis of lymphoma. Lucy was given six months to live.

It didn’t take Woschenko long to find the highly touted pioneering chemotherapy services at Tufts. He estimates he averaged a road trip a week for a year so Lucy could fight the disease. The commitment—in time, money, emotions—was never an issue. “I said that if I would do it for myself, then I’d do it—that’s how I made my decision.”

Lucy, now receiving maintenance chemotherapy, is in remission. “I’ve never seen a more caring group of people than I have at Tufts—from the technicians to the doctors, they truly care about animals,” says Woschenko. “Dr. [Sarah] Payne has an attachment to each of her patients, she takes her job seriously and personally—you feel like they’re part of your family.”