WASHINGTON — Renowned D.C. Cardiologist Jonathan Reiner thanked George Washington Hospital for the care given to a terminally ill patient on Sunday night. My colleague Janice Park saw Reiner's Tweet and told the morning staff meeting about it.
"So grateful to the @GWHospital staff for the remarkable care they provided to a patient in his final days this week," the tweet read. "He died peacefully today amidst family and friends, and a little dog who stayed with him on his ICU bed and licked his face as he died."
Searching for a headline for a possible story about dogs being a part of the hospice process, someone cleverly came up with, "Dogspice."
When I called GW Hospital to inquire whether this was a special request granted or hospital policy, a nice woman from the medical staff office named Larissa Neils answered the phone. "No, it wasn't special at all," she said. "We're fine with dogs here. I mean, they're part of the family, right?"
I thanked her and hung up and looked outside the window by my desk.
It was late afternoon Monday, Jan. 28, sunny and cold, with temperatures expected to plummet by midweek. Might as well go for a run before the arctic blast hits.
It was 2008, 11 years ago tonight, and Looly, my golden lab, had a look of fear and desperation I'd never seen in the 18 months I'd known her, pacing back and forth above a frozen-over canal, almost a knowing instinct: she could do nothing to help on the night we almost died together.
I should explain.
I had dogs growing up, but after the death of Queenie, the family’s Collie mix that lived for 17 years, I waited for 12 years. Finally, in the summer of 2006, when my friend and I pulled up to a breeder's home in Poolesville -- after I had searched every shelter within a 40-mile radius of the District for six months -- I couldn't wait any longer.
Looly came home with me. I was single and had more issues than a bond measure, if I'm honest. Unable to vet me on an online dating site or Google, Looly had no idea the storm that awaited. See, I'd blown an engagement and was probably at my personal and professional nadir. In mental-health speak, I had something called an attachment disorder, whereby I was unable to authentically connect with other people in my life for any long period of time. I feared abandonment so much, I was told, that I found ways to detonate every meaningful relationship.
An amateur-psychologist friend even took me aside and "congratulated" me. "You've done a great job for many years of protecting yourself from ever getting too close to someone," he began. "So that way you never get hurt again like that 6-year-old boy whose mother left."
"Thanks — I guess," I think I said.
Then he dropped an emotional bomb. "Actually, I set you up," he explained. "See, by putting up walls and sabotaging relationships before you get left first, that's what you might think you've done. Maybe that's what you needed to feel safe all these years. But you haven't actually protected yourself from ever getting hurt again. The truth is, you've prevented yourself from ever again receiving the love you deserve."
I welled up. Within two months, I got a dog. I deserved Looly. I would love her like nothing in this world, I decided. And I did.
We ran together. We sledded in the snow together. However gross this sounds, we actually ate salmon together. Other times, she would just steal it off the countertop.
We took a cross-country trip by ourselves in the summer of 2007. We took the northern route, through South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Nevada and, finally, California, to my sister's house.
Timid at first around the water, she learned to swim and then swan-dive that summer -- into the roiling Gallatin and Madison rivers in Montana. She loved going after sticks. She leaped into small rapids in the Colorado and Snake rivers, sometimes being taken by the current a quarter-mile downstream but always returning with her wooden treasure.
At night, she slept with me in my motel bed. If you're not a dog person, you might not understand. But just think of the stuffed animal that became your security blanket from about age 6 months to 8.
Now imagine that animal coming to life and never asking you for anything but food, companionship and shelter.
If you came home at 1 a.m., she never asked where you were; she was just overjoyed you showed up at all. Oh, and if she was allowed to go with you on a run? Absolute hysteria.
It was maybe 6 p.m., dark and quiet on the C&O Canal when we started by Georgetown. Within 30 minutes, I was in the middle of the ice, less than a quarter-mile south of the Chain Bridge, unable to get out.
While we were jogging, I stupidly threw a stick near the canal as I was stretching. Looly went out onto the ice and fell through --Sploosh! After several panicked minutes, I went in after her. And immediately fell through. At some point I managed to put my arm under her abdomen, like a large fishing hook, and jerk her up onto a solid piece of ice. But I couldn’t touch bottom, and by then I could barely move. My body was shutting down.
Out of the darkness, as I finally screamed for help like I'd never screamed before -- a guttural shrill really -- a figure appeared. He lowered his body into the freezing water as far he could without losing his balance. He reached.
I lunged, finally touching the bottom, knowing for the first time I would not drown or freeze to death. He grabbed my hand, pulled me out and we went up the bank together.
In the water for almost 10 minutes, I was in shock from hypothermia. Before the man who saved my life left, I asked his name as my teeth chattered and I got into a fetal position.
“Jason. Jason Coates,” he said. "Where do you work?" I asked. “I’m in law school at GW.”
I found him through his university email, thanked him again and again. And again. Always paid for wood-fired thin crust pizza over the years, wherever Jason wanted to eat. Over the years, I've written about the event for the Washington Post and talked about it on radio, once bringing Jason in for an anniversary. It gets sappier.
He asked me to become a minister for a day and marry him and his wife, Alexandra, in Miami five years ago. They had twins, and the day last year they came over and played with Looly was one of the happiest afternoons of my life.
I wish I could end the story here, but of course that's not how life works.
Looly had a mass cell cancerous tumor removed last February. The vet told us even chemotherapy wouldn’t guarantee her lasting more than four months. But she rallied. She always rallied. Gave us almost another six months of unconditional, squirrel-chasing, tail-wagging love.
In early July, she stopped eating her regular dog food and looked bloated in the belly. When I took her to the ER vet after she vomited twice, the vet all but confirmed the fluid on her abdomen was mass cell metastasis.
She probably could have been put down the day I found out; I had to carry her to get her outside that afternoon. But I wanted to spend one last night sleeping next to her, pushing my face into her white mane, listening to her heart. Positioning my head on her chest while her right paw was draped over me.
I never took her back to the vet. We did our version of "dogspice" in the living room with her head in my lap.
She was euthanized at our home by a woman who was as kind and loving as you would want someone to be in that moment. I think her name was Naina. She had driven down from near Baltimore. After my wife and I said our goodbyes — our young boys said theirs that morning — she was intravenously given a sedative that had her snoring within minutes before the euthanasia.
I can't explain why the greatest living being I ever knew could only be on this earth for but a little more than a decade of my life. But I remembered this from a pet online journal I read. It came from a boy named Shane, 6, who lost his 10-year-old Irish Wolf to cancer some years back.
His parents were okay with him witnessing the euthanasia process, thinking he could learn from the experience. When his dog had died, the vet, the parents and the boy stood around the dog sadly, having the same conversation about why dogs don't live that long.
"I know why," the 6-year-old said, piping up. "People are born so that they can learn how to live a good life - - like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right? Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don't have to stay as long."
I have yet to come up with anything more true or better. Anyhow, in August, Jason and me and our families drove out to the same spot he pulled me out. We spread Looly's ashes, took a few pictures and walked back to our cars.
I write this now because I am so glad I was able to be there for her in the end. If I were dying, I would have wanted her with me at the end. Not all hospitals allow it. But they should.
I needed that last moment, to remember all the days we had after that night in the canal, and all the days before. I needed to remember the biting cold and frost-bitten hands and that sensation of my heart trying to pound through my chest.
I needed to say goodbye to my sweet girl. Wherever Looly is now, they can't believe their luck.