She’s a sweet, sweet, sweet PUPPY!
–“Quick Lorraine,” The B-52’s
Lulu-Belle in my room at the St. James Royal Palm in South Beach.
My veterinarian friend Jon arranged for Lulu-Belle to be seen by the highly sought Dr. Danielle James in South Beach the morning after my triathlon. I couldn’t have gotten her to a veterinary dermatologist any sooner even had I stayed in Manhattan. They’re in crazy demand here, too, it turns out.
So I would be going to Florida after all. I would compete in the South Beach Triathlon with my team. I would go to Rick’s fan getaway—Lulu-Belle in tow.
I have long been a competitive runner and triathlete.
Running is the perfect antidote to the vagaries of life.
There is a starting line. There is a finish line. On a command, you take off. You cover the distance. You get a time.
There is nothing extraneous.
What matters matters. What doesn’t doesn’t.
It’s very clarifying.
There is an adage among distance runners: whoever can suffer the most wins.
Triathlons are more like life. So much about them is unfair. You can buy a more expensive bike or wheels or helmet that will make you faster. Your tire can flat. You can crash. You can have a panic attack in the water. You can get penalties—fairly or unfairly—for drafting, for blocking, for mounting your bike too soon or getting off it too late.
Triathlon mishaps tend to be the most memorable of my racing experiences. In an instant I’ve had to decide: Can I handle this? Am I in or out?
In triathlons I have flatted and double-flatted (one pothole, two flats). I’ve leaned down onto my aero-bars only to have them swing to a forty-five degree angle (neglected to tighten two critical screws while reassembling my bike after an out-of-town race). I’ve crashed hard after hitting a cone while cycling twenty-five miles per hour. The strap to my goggles broke just as I tried to put them on less than thirty seconds before the start of my wave. I’ve been stung by jellyfish on the swim. The battery in my fancy electronic derailleur has run out of juice, locking me in a low gear just as I hit the downhill half of the course. I’ve shown up to my swim-bike-run event only to find that the swim was cancelled (due to rough water or pollution or, in one case, the unrecovered body of a triathlete who’d died in the sprint race the day before).
I don’t court these snafus but they have afforded me opportunities to learn more about myself than the sheer suffering of running has.
Sort of the way my rescue dog’s unexpected catastrophic illness has.
Or the way the unexpected implosion of my long-term relationship has.
Of all those tri mishaps only the lone flat stopped me.
I’ve committed to going the veterinary distance with Lulu-Belle come what may.
It remains to be seen how I handle being unexpectedly single.
It feels uncomfortably akin to that lone flat: it’s the one that could stop me.
I had started to walk Lulu-Belle only early in the morning or late at night—always under cover of darkness. I was worn out by having to explain why she looked the way she did to every passerby. In New York City doing just a simple circumnavigation of my block I’d typically run across a dozen fellow dog walkers and a dozen dogless pedestrians. I might have to explain the whole sorry tale two dozen times on a single walk.
Everyone assumed that Lulu-Belle had been abused, more specifically, that she had been used as bait in training dogs for fights.
Maybe I should have stayed quiet. Let people think what they were tending to think. But I hated to lie, even by omission. And I could tell that people thought highly of me for rescuing a dog that looked so bad, when of course that hadn’t been the case. I didn’t want the undeserved credit even in strangers’ minds. So I would explain that she’d been born blind but had looked fine when I’d adopted her, well, except for that one whited eye. That the very day after I got her I took her to my vet like the responsible owner I hoped to be. That a common vaccine had triggered all this.
It was a hard conversation to have so many times on an otherwise leisurely stroll. Even though the story wasn’t news to me it hurt to repeat it. And every time I got to the part about taking her to my vet I felt something near my heart go cold. I had to wonder: Was there anything I could have done to prevent this? Why did I have to be so damn efficient and take her to my vet right away? If I’d taken her another time might we have gotten a different outcome?
Most people were sympathetic. But outlier reactions to the sight of Lulu-Belle ranged from a woman who started to cry inconsolably to a guy who began reciting Hail Mary’s in Spanish to a grumpy old man who muttered, “Your dog needs plastic surgery.”
He might have been joking but as far as Lulu-Belle’s appearance was concerned I had no sense of humor.
And of course everyone wanted to hear that she was okay. That she was going to make it. But her future was uncertain at best. Of all the veterinarians familiar with her case, Jon was the only optimist. Yet everyone wanted that happy ending. And they wanted it to be right now.
Join the club, I found myself wanting to say.
I was nervous to fly with Lulu-Belle. She easily made weight; at ten pounds she was half the animal maximum for in-cabin flight. But as our Florida trip approached, her face was getting worse by the day. She looked more like Zombie Dog than ever—or maybe a canine leper.
She looked like she had a lethal, communicable disease—the kind that might jump to humans and spark a global epidemic. Take out half the planet in a matter of days.
Okay, maybe I was getting carried away. But with good reason. I had to ask myself: Would I want to sit next to Lulu-Belle looking the way she looked knowing that she was suffering from a little understood auto-immune disease? No. But as a forlorn rescue escaping Michael-Vick levels of abuse? That dog could sit in my lap all the way to Miami.
I decided to work the assumption of abuse to my advantage. On the day of our departure I walked Lulu-Belle all the way to the gate and put her in her carrier only at the last minute. The few people we encountered—at check-in, at security, on our way to the gate—all tsk-tsked about her dog fighting history. Most didn’t pose a single question, so confident were they that they already knew what her story was. But for those rare few who put a quizzical lilt to their laconic guesses—Abused? Fights?—I found myself slowly nodding my head in a pattern that resembled the number four: up, then not quite down so much as a quick zig to the left, then a zag to the right for a vaguer, not-quite lie-confirming answer.
My triathlon went off almost without a hitch. I won my age group for the sixth consecutive year. Jon was in Miami at the time. He treated me to a celebratory dinner that night at a fabulous South Beach restaurant run by Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Everyone on staff knew Jon by name. He was evidently a regular.
Top of the podium at the South Beach Triathlon.
It felt glamorous to be at his table. The food was scrumptious. The wait staff: attentive, but not distractingly so. The setting: casually palatial. I probably still had elating endorphins from my race coursing through my system. We never ran out of anything to talk about. For almost an hour I forgot that back in my hotel room I had an unhousebroken puppy with a ruined face that needed to be walked—soon. I was Cinderella with a canine twist. Lulu-Belle: my pumpkin.
Of course it wasn’t quite as bad as all that. This wasn’t Cinderella. Jon was the genie who’d granted my dearest wish (short of a cure): the very next morning Lulu-Belle and I were set to see the ridiculously inaccessible, highly recommended Dr. Danielle James. It truly was like a fairy tale. Could a happy ending be that far off?
Nestling with Lulu-Belle after my triathlon. She seemed tired, too.
Lulu-Belle and I spent the entire morning at Jon’s Alton Road Animal Hospital. I’d forwarded her medical records ahead of time. For such a young puppy, they were absurdly long—over fifty pages.
Dr. James was prepared. She was well versed in Lulu-Belle’s history but wasn’t taking anything at face value. She ran tests of her own, including a full blood panel and urinalysis. Even a layman like me found her physical exam report disturbing:
“3 month Puppy with severe erosive lesions—with scabs overlying the erosive lesions just above both eyelids, at temoral region and bridge of the nose. Purulent discharge with severe swelling over the left eyelid and cannot observe the cornea due to severe swelling. The right lateral upper lip margin has defect with loss of tissue which has necrosed off with surrounding swelling mild. Thick adherent crust at convex pinnae 3cm and at base of ears. 1cm ulcerations of multiple pawpads on digital pawpad. No other lesions noted in oral cavity.”
Dr. James switched Lulu-Belle from one steroid to another—prednisone to triamcinolone—and added cyclosporine, an immunosuppressant used in chemotherapy. She kept her on pentoxyfyline and clavamox, an antibiotic, but upped the doses of both. She prescribed an antibiotic ointment for Lulu-Belle’s eyes. Also in the mix: an over-the-counter anti-acid medication. Lulu-Belle was on so many medications; her stomach was bound to be upset.
But Dr. James’s most urgent prescription was to find a veterinary dermatologist in Manhattan as soon as I got home to manage the long-term care that Lulu-Belle would require if she was ever to get well. And that was still the big question: Would Lulu-Belle ever get past this? Dr. James was noncommittal. One thing was certain: for the foreseeable future she would remain on a boatload of medication and she would need to be seen by a veterinary dermatologist once a week.
For a little dog with so much wrong with her, Lulu-Belle didn’t seem troubled in the least. She wagged her tail like any happy puppy. Her appetite was huge. She never cried or whimpered. She’d look up at me with her signature head tilt in a way that spoke pure love and trust.
When that callous veterinarian at Penn had suggested distemper I did a thorough, sleepless-nights-inducing Google search. It turns out that a head tilt like Lulu’s is indication of the neurological damage associated with distemper. Diagnosis confirmed! But as the weeks went by I came to feel that Lulu-Belle’s head tilt wasn’t a symptom; it was simply the best way she could take advantage of what glimmer of vision she possessed.
My sweet, sweet, sweet, puppy.
As I was preparing to leave the animal hospital Dr. James snagged me on the way to reception. She leaned in and whispered: “Pitties are the best.”
“Really?” The Alton Road waiting room had included an immaculately groomed, pure white standard poodle, a golden retriever who could have done women’s shampoo commercials, and an admittedly trendy French Bulldog. As I might have expected in South Beach, Lulu-Belle was the lone mutt.
“Oh, definitely,” said Dr. James. “Pitties are so loving. So loyal.”
I could only agree. And I was determined to return those sentiments to Lulu-Belle in kind: match love with love, loyalty with loyalty.
As I walked out of reception and onto the street I wondered: Had I tried harder, paid more attention, had I brought more of these qualities to my relationship, might my ex have stayed with me?
Next stop, well in two days: the Port St. Lucie Club Med.
I had called ahead to get clearance for Lulu-Belle. I spoke to a manager—Jeff or John—and explained that I would be coming to his Club Med for four nights and was planning to bring my emotional support dog. My tone was half asking, half telling. I should have been more assertive, I’m sure. We left it that Jeff or John would check and get back to me. He did but it took him four days. He caught me with an armload of groceries in the Pathmark parking lot near by Philly house. When I saw the 772 area code I realized that he might be the one calling so I picked up even though I barely had a hand free. It was worth the effort. He had good news: as long as I had the proper documentation Lulu-Belle was a go.
But when I tried to check into the Club Med I was met with a very icy reception. The staff person assisting me immediately called the manager on duty, a rather elegant if stern woman with thick black hair tied back in a no-nonsense ponytail that was apropos: she was all business.
She informed me that Club Med was not pet friendly. I said that I knew but that Lulu-Belle was an emotional support dog (by this point she truly was) and that I’d called ahead and had gotten the okay from another manager—Jeff or John. Well, there was no manager at this Club Med named Jeff or John. There may not even have been anyone named Jeff or John on staff. Clearly I wasn’t remembering correctly. And of course I hadn’t written the name down, hadn’t taken the number for future corroboration. Couldn’t I have seen this coming?
I could always pull the Rick Card. Rick Springfield was the headliner for this Club Med event. He was the draw. The Talent. He is the biggest dog lover I know and he’s my friend. One text to Rick and Lulu-Belle would be admitted. I was sure of it. But I didn’t want to take that route. Didn’t want to pull the favor. Didn’t want to put Rick on the spot before his fan getaway had even begun. Besides, what if Lulu-Belle got into trouble sometime over the next five days? Then I’d really need him to bail her out. If I had to ask for a favor, I wanted to ask only once. So I didn’t mention Rick, didn’t indicate that I knew him any better than any other fan.
Instead, I leaned in hard. I had the required paperwork. Emotional support animals are covered by federal law. Admission is not left to an establishment’s discretion. Club Med had to take her in.
But the manager was equally firm. She disputed my documentation. The dog had to go. She did not leave a millimeter of leeway.
People in the lobby were starting to listen. Other conversations stopped. What moments ago had been almost a party atmosphere turned as grim as a wake.
Everyone seemed to be thinking the same thing: How ugly was this going to get?
That was when Lulu-Belle, mischievous imp that she is, decided to cut the tension by emptying her bladder in the Club Med lobby on a spot roughly equidistant between me and the manager who was refusing to let her in. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes I would never have believed that so much liquid could have come out of a thing so tiny.