Elizabeth R. Plumer, PhD, JD, is a biochemist and intellectual property attorney. She lives in Saco, ME.
When an MRI revealed that my four-year-old daughter’s brain cancer had returned, I took the only action possible: I bought a dog. I scoured the Sunday papers and found just the puppy I was looking for, a Rottweiler. No deep psychological analysis was necessary to decipher my choice. I wanted a dog to protect my daughter from external threats, even if it could not protect her from the one threat that mattered most.
We named our puppy, Maggie, after Rod Stewart’s Maggie May, because from the moment she entered our lives, she stole our hearts. Maggie whimpered through that first night until I fell asleep on the couch with her gently snoring on my chest.
It was like having a newborn in the house again, and just as I had filled photo albums of my daughters, I took pictures of Maggie and my girls together. In one, taken the first summer we had her, Maggie lies in the shade beneath the swing set as if on sentry duty for my four-year-old and her seven-year-old sister. My girls hold steady on their swings and smile into the camera. The younger one wears one of my husband’s T-shirts over her bathing suit and sports a pixie haircut, the short hair a legacy of her recent surgery and radiation treatments. In my mind, the still photograph morphs into action as my daughters jump off their swings and pounce on Maggie, who luxuriates in the attention and rolls over to request a belly rub.
My younger daughter was 18 months old when she was first diagnosed with brain cancer. Her tumor was an astrocytoma, named for the star-shaped cells from which it had originated. Her tumor was benign, a meaningless term since benign brain tumors can be just as deadly as malignant ones, if left untreated. The location of my daughter’s tumor made it impossible to completely excise without risking paralysis. Radiation treatments were not recommended for children under six because of their harmful effects on a child’s developing brain. The surgeon removed as much of the tumor as possible. The rest was left behind until a second operation became inevitable.
When my daughter turned four, an MRI showed that the tumor had increased in size, she underwent a second operation to reduce the mass as much as possible. This was followed by daily radiation therapy for eight weeks. The doctors gave my daughter a one in three chance of surviving five years.
A Rottweiler’s life expectancy is 10 to 13 years. I didn’t need a statistics course to understand that Maggie likely would outlive my younger daughter. Rottweilers are pack animals by nature, and Maggie treated my daughters as if they were her own. She ran along the inside perimeter of our fence and intimidated strangers who dared to approach her territory and threaten her family.
At 105 pounds, Maggie frightened strangers, but she was only ever loving to us. As she aged, her joints stiffened and she struggled to patrol our yard. Her symptoms of hip dysplasia, an inherited degenerative joint disorder, grew worse. At 10, her hind legs failed her and her brown eyes begged me to end her discomfort.
The girls stayed home on the day I brought Maggie to the vet for the last time. I cradled her head in my hands as he injected the overdose of anesthetic into a vein in her neck. I thanked her for having protected us. My daughters and I buried Maggie’s ashes next to the fence where she used to run back and forth. I planted a rose of Sharon bush nearby, and one year after her death, the bush blossomed for the first time.
In the years following Maggie’s death, my younger daughter struggled through public school. Her teachers taught her strategies to cope with the learning disabilities left behind by the radiation. She wrote notes to remind herself of assignments and created to do lists to organize her daily life. It was difficult for her to fit in socially. Other students spoke at too rapid a pace, often leaving my daughter behind as conversations moved forward. But when the time came, my daughter decided to apply to college, and when she was accepted, she left home to live on campus. Her medical history became invisible.
My daughter continues to meet annually with her medical team. Although many have moved on to other hospitals, a few original team members remain. Their joy in seeing her each year is palpable. A doctor once told me that having a patient who overcomes the odds is like experiencing the earth tilt.
My daughter’s petite appearance and soft-spoken nature belie her seismic abilities. She is the tilter of worlds, the shifter of galaxies. The one in three who nourishes hope.