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Parker—Our Golden Hero

A few months back, we noticed Parker had a distended abdomen and had developed a cough, so we made an appointment with our veterinarian. They took x-rays, and  found a large tumor sitting on top of his heart, and fluid in both his chest and abdominal cavities. The tumor in his chest was obvious, and was pushing against Parker's windpipe (which was causing the coughing). The fluid in his abdomen led our vet to believe cancer had likely spread to his abdomen too, meaning the prognosis was bleak, and his time with us was very short. Needless to say, Trinh and I cried an awful lot that day.

One of the tough things about it was that Parker didn't look like he was ready to go at all. He was as vibrant as he'd ever been--mouthy when he wanted food, always ready to play with his brother and sister, and loved going for car rides and walks. He was just so full of life, and not ready to quit at all!

We weren't ready to give up on Parker either, and decided we'd do whatever was necessary to prolong his life, as long as he was happy and feeling good. Fortunately Trinh had the forethought to get health insurance for Parker long before, so much of the treatment costs were going to be covered moving forward. We highly recommend getting pet insurance, so there's not a choice between money and your loved one's life!

Our biggest concern was whether Parker was in pain or suffering. All of his doctors assured us he was not, and that any treatment he received he'd handle comfortably, as dogs tolerate cancer treatment better than humans do.  Our first priority was to maintain a high quality of life for him, prolonging his time with us for as long as he was vibrant and happy, and we could be absolutely sure he was not suffering.

The first set of appointments we did were at South Paws Veterinary Center in Fairfax, but all of the oncologists were unavailable, so we only got to see an emergency veterinarian, Unfortunately, without being a cancer specialist, these vets couldn't provide more detail or treatment options than our primary vet could.


But we didn't want to wait. Wanting to see a good oncologist as soon as possible, we decided to head down to Virginia Tech, known as a fantastic teaching veterinary  hospital, and made an appointment for the next day. That afternoon our family was kind enough to host a birthday party for Parker, not knowing if his cancer was so severe that we wouldn't have much time left. Parker's grandparents, uncles, aunts, and 2-legged cousins were all so sweet, and got to enjoy a little more time with him. Late that night we left Tiger and Maisey in the care of Aunt Jen, and drove Parker the 4.5 hours down to Blacksburg, and admitted him to Virginia Tech.

Knowing he was in the best hands possible, we went to a hotel and got a few hours of fitful sleep until our appointment the next morning. The next day, that conversation with one of the Virginia Tech Oncologists was the first time we had hope since the entire ordeal started. The doctor, who worked as a team with the entire Oncology staff since it was a teaching hospital, told us it looked like Parker's tumor was a chemo-dectoma, which usually are slow-growing and don't tend to metastacize. The staff felt that the fluid in Parker's abdomen was because of the way the tumor was obstructing some tubes near his heart, and once the tumor shrank that would go away. The thinking was if we treat the tumor near his heart with radiation and then chemotherapy, the prognosis would be very strong, and he could live for several months to years still.

We were absolutely elated that there was a path in front of us, and treatment options for our sweet little boy. That afternoon, after we left Virginia Tech, we drove a short way down I-81 to Claytor Lake State Park, which was one of our favorite spots to go as a family. We spent a little time looking at the water together, and promised Parker we would savor every moment we had with him, no matter how short or long that may be.


It turned out that one of the really good veterinary cancer centers in Virginia was about 5 minutes from our home, right in Leesburg. They specialized in both radiation and chemical therapies, so we'd be able to work with them for Parker's entire treatment over the coming months. We first worked with a Radiation Oncologist to set up Parker's radiation therapy. The doctor concurred with what we'd been told at Virginia Tech, that they thought Parker's tumor was not malignant (i.e. not spreading), and we could hit it with radiation which should shrink it over time. Once that was finished, we'd then put Parker on chemotherapy.

The week we were scheduled to start radiation we had planned to go as a family to the beach, but that was obviously not an option now. We were so grateful that the beach house owners allowed us to switch our reservation to the week of Thanksgiving so our little boy could start treatment, with a nice vacation to look forward to afterwards.

Almost every day for four weeks, Trinh and Parker went to his radiation appointments. While this wasn't exactly an enjoyable outing, Parker and his mom did use the time to bond as she would sing songs to her son both to and from the vet (mostly Phil Collins' Groovy Kind of Love), and enjoy looking at the explosion of colors as the fall trees were in their full autumn glory. Even though we didn't expect the radiation therapy to actually shrink the size of the tumor for a couple of months, Parker did show signs of improving pretty soon. His breathing was much better, he was eating pretty well, and his abdominal distention ebbed substantially. 

Before the radiation was even fully completed, we started one type of mild chemotherapy. Parker seemed to do fairly well with the chemo, though it did make him a little nauseous sometimes. Overall he was showing good progress and we were very hopeful we'd have months, and maybe even years, left with our sweet little boy. The week of Thanksgiving came and we packed up and headed down to the Outer Banks. It was an absolutely wonderful week and Parker had a fantastic vacation. We spent plenty of time with the entire family together. But Trinh, Jason and Parker took some special outings on their own as well, including a day excursion to Ocracoke Island.

When we got back from the beach, we went back to see the Chemical Oncologist again, and this time got the stronger chemotherapy drugs to alternate with what Parker was already receiving. So now Parker was getting chemo every day, but never the same 2 days in a row.

After a couple of weeks fully on the chemo treatment we were supposed to take Parker in to get his blood levels checked (which would tell us how we was handing the chemo).  That morning Trinh noticed Parker's heart was beating really fast, so took him to the vet early. The doctors realized there Parker had pericardial effusion, meaning there was fluid around Parker's heart, making it harder for it to beat properly. The pericardial sac had gotten thicker over time, and the doctors recommended removing the sac so nothing would restrict the heart's function. The operation worked, and we got to see a groggy but bright little boy that evening in the recovery room.


While Parker was recovering, however, the doctors found bacteria in his abdominal fluid, showing he had sepsis. The vets were very surprised to see this, and didn't know what had caused the infection. Unfortunately the only option at that point was to do a second surgery (on our already weakened son) to clear out all of the infected fluids from his abdominal cavity.


The doctors went back in and washed the infection out. After the operation, the surgeon told us everything went well, but Parker wasn't out of the woods for at least 24-48 hours. They were hopeful that this would give his body a good chance to get through the infection, but even then we were told it was so serious there was about a 40% chance his body wouldn't be able to fight off the infection. Further, he told us that when they went in to his abdomen, they found small white nodules all over the abdominal cavity, and had taken biopsies to test if they were cancerous. While our focus was just on parker making it through the sepsis, the presence of white nodules meant there was a possibility his cancer had spread through his body, though we wouldn't know for sure until biopsy results came back. Everything seemed to be stacked against Parker at this point.

That night was really hard to sleep, not knowing if Parker would pull through the sepsis. Every hour that passed seemed like a victory, and we dreaded the sound of the phone ringing. In the middle of the night the hospital did call, letting us know Parker's heart rate had spiked, but they were able to get it under control with additional fluids. We decided to go see our little boy even though it was 2 in the morning, believing that seeing his parents would remind  him why it was so important to get through this and come home. When we arrived, his energy level was pretty low from the surgeries, strong painkillers, and the sickness in his body. But it was good to see and kiss him, and it was obvious he was happy to see us too.

We went home for a few more hours of sleep, then woke up and went back the next morning. Parker had a bit more energy, even trying to climb into Trinh's arms as if to say "Please take me home, mommy!" It was simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. We just wanted him to keep fighting, get through the infection, and come home for Christmas with his family.

The doctor said they would retest his blood levels and call us with the results around n0on, hoping his body was responding to fight off the sepsis.

About 12:30pm, the vet called. She started by saying it was bad news, and then told us they had lost Parker. His sweet, furry little body that had always been so stout and strong, just couldn't fight off the infection, and his precious heart finally gave up the fight.

There were no words we could say to each other.

After just over 8 years with us, our little boy, Parker-Poo, was gone. He was far too young to go, had far too much life left in his eyes, and was far too sweet to suffer such a horrible ending to his story. Yet he also gifted 8 of the best years a dog ever gave to his family. He made us better, happier, and more fulfilled. His love for us was deeper and purer than any we've experienced from another living being.

It is our dearest hope that he felt the same about our love for him.

Rest in peace, sweet little Parker.

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