An exhausted Noel is pushed to the limit when an emergency case is rushed in late at night. Willow the rescue deerhound has broken her neck and is brought in by owners Graham and Noreen and their ten year-old son Lev. The break is so serious that nobody at the practice but Noel can deal with it, and only a handful of surgeons in the world would even attempt this surgery. But Noel is close to tears. He’s had several late nights in the operating theatre including back-to-back operations amounting to 11 hours that very day, and doesn’t know if he can even muster the strength to do the operation. With the stakes so high, the family must decide if they want Noel to go ahead and try to save Willow.
One does not need medical experience to appreciate the seriousness and life changing implications a fractured neck can cause to any living creature. It is an injury that strikes fear into all medical professionals, and particularly in surgeons, who have the mighty task of undergoing the lifesaving surgery necessary to prevent inevitable death.
Deerhound Willow came to Noel with this very challenge. After accidently running into a tree, it was apparent that Willow had seriously damaged her neck as a result. When she arrived at Fitzpatrick Referrals she was paralysed and without doubt in severe pain. The team immediately sprang into action to do what they could to help this very much loved dog.
Hanging in the balance
Willow was immobilised to prevent further damage to her neck and carefully put under anaesthetic. X-rays revealed a very serious implosion fracture of her second cervical vertebrae; the second bone of her neck. Noel had a long chat with Willow’s family to go through the options, whether to go ahead with surgery or allow her to pass away peacefully. The odds were stacked against her and the stakes could not have been higher.
The family were not ready to say goodbye to Willow and wanted to proceed with the surgery that might allow Willow to survive.
With Willow’s life hanging in the balance she was taken to the operating theatre. With the perilous possibility of copious blood loss, permanent paralysis and even death – Noel took a moment to focus before beginning.
At this point it was 1am, and tired after an already long day of surgery, Noel was acutely aware that Willow’s very existence relied on him.
Noel began the operation, and slowly exposed Willow’s fractured neck bones. It became clear the fracture had damaged a major blood vessel within Willow’s neck and with every manipulation of the fracture, Willow was losing precious blood.
Noel and the team did everything they could to stem the haemorrhage as Noel placed metal pins in the fractured bones. Noel knew he was going to have to realign the fractured bones at some point in the surgery – but he also knew that this was going to lead to further blood loss and in order to be successful, it would have to be done very quickly.
With a deep breath, Noel commenced realigning the bones. With speed and skill Noel poured orthopaedic cement over the metal pins to hold the realigned fracture in place. This quickly stemmed the bleeding from the fracture site and Noel and the team breathed a sigh of relief.
Although the bleeding had been serious – it was not enough to compromise Willow’s life.
Postoperative imaging revealed successful alignment and stability of the fractured neck bones. Willow was recovered from anaesthesia at 5:30am and a tired team handed Willow over to the day shift team. With lots of pain relief to hand, Willow had a very quiet day and slept peacefully with the ward team offering comfort and keeping a close eye on her.
A remarkable recovery
An unbelievable surprise was awaiting an emotionally and physically drained Noel the next day. Incredibly, Willow was able to stand and take her first few steps, and Noel and the team were blown away by her progress and determination.
Willow continued to improve day by day and with the tireless work of the Fitzpatrick Referrals ward and rehabilitation teams she was soon ready to go home to her awaiting family.
Willow went home with the strict instructions that she needed to rest and recuperate over the following weeks. As an enthusiastic dog with a clear zest for life, she would need to be kept very calm to ensure no accidental damage was done with her exuberance!
Six weeks later and she was back to her bouncy and loveable self, with her family struggling to keep her calm and quiet most days!
In Noel’s words
I can honestly say that Willow has given more to me than I could ever give to her. Every now and then an animal comes along that reminds me to pick myself up no matter how tired or how fearful of failure I am.
That night I was both very tired and very fearful. I think it’s easy to assume that surgeons remember their successes and become insular and arrogant, when in actual fact, I think the best surgeons always remember that biology will always humble you and you need to leave your ego at the door for every operation.
It’s true to say that inside all surgeons there is a graveyard of regret and sadness for all of the patients you would have hoped to have helped but failed – and I really feared that this particular night I wouldn’t win. It was after midnight when I was having the conversation with Willow’s family, but there were only two choices. Immediate euthanasia or try my very best. The surgery would be very challenging. I still get scared from time to time, and this was one of those times.
I was low, I was fearful, and I was thinking of Lev, Willow’s little boy companion. He was adopted too and throughout the surgery, in the back of my head, I was thinking of him and of all of the love he could share with his “hairy sister” for many years to come – IF she made it through.
The surgery was a tough one, but when Willow could stand and walk within 24 hours… I can’t really find the words to describe how I felt. It was one of those moments where the clouds opened and the sun shone in. In my career I have had as much criticism for trying to move things forward, as I have had praise, and I try hard not to listen to either, because it detracts from the heart and soul you need to allow you to dedicate your life to the greater good of animals. However, sometimes things do hurt, failure does hurt, what people say does hurt.
I will never forget that I am only as good as my next operation, and whenever a client is difficult in spite of us doing our very best, or whenever someone says something hurtful to me or others about my motives, I shall think of Willow – and the wonderful ray of light she has shone into my life.
Thank you Willow for sharing your light with me and for allowing me personally some hope and redemption in a world where sometimes everything can seem somewhat cloudy and grey.