Written by Pamela Kent, Dakota’s Mom
Preface: We are grateful and honored that Pamela, Dakota’s mom was willing to share her story. Ethos Discovery is focused on finding curative outcomes for Hemangiosarcoma, a disease that is devastating for patients and their families.
Dakota – The Golden Retriever
Dakota was an energetic, majestically dark red-haired boy on the cusp of his seventh birthday. He was a proud member of our family since the day we brought him home at eight weeks old. On our wedding day, he wore a bandana that read, “I Do Too” and his initial is engraved in each of our wedding bands. He completed us. Just a few days prior to the tragic day that changed our lives forever, I was scrolling through Etsy for personalized dog birthday hats. On January 22nd, we would learn that the odds of Dakota making it to his seventh birthday were slim.
When I returned home from work that day, I gave Dakota and his brother Finn their dinner. Dakota excitedly ate his meal and was ready to head outside. We made it to the end of our street, when he decided to lay in the grass, unable to move. This behavior was very unusual. I tried to encourage him to stand, but ended up having to lift all 70+ lbs. of him into my arms. I carried him back to our yard as Finn jumped at my side with concern. I was hopeful Dakota would resume his normal behavior. Instead, he made his way back down to the ground. I called his veterinarian right away and carried him to my car. Finn was confused as I hurried him inside and rushed back out to get big brother to the doctor.
The 20-minute drive to the animal hospital in rush-hour traffic seemed to take forever. I think the speed cameras gave me a pass knowing that I was transporting my most precious cargo. Dakota jumped out of my car and was able to walk inside, but could not stand for long. His gums were pale and he was lethargic. Presenting with these symptoms allowed him to be seen immediately. I stood, alone in the waiting room, pacing and crying. We have all heard about soul mates and some of us are lucky enough to have one. Dakota was mine. I struggle to string together the words to describe the way in which our souls were intertwined. He was always with me and we understood each other’s emotions. If he was not laying in my lap, he was sitting by my side, or waiting outside of the sliding shower door. If he was not physically beside me, his hair was, or his favorite toy was. From time to time, my love for him would stop me in my tracks and I would cry because my devotion to him was so powerful.
A few minutes after I was taken to an exam room, my husband arrived and we anxiously sat together. Dakota’s primary veterinarian had left for the day, but the woman who was responsible for his care beamed with compassion. When she entered the exam room, she crouched down to our level and explained that Dakota’s bloodwork suggested he may be anemic. She recommended that we move forward with an ultrasound. The waiting continued and when she returned, we found out that Dakota had fluid around his heart. We were instructed to get him to an emergency clinic right away to drain the fluid. She knew the situation was grim, but I think she wanted us to stay positive. She helped to get Dakota into my husband’s car and consoled me as I got into mine.
We rushed from Baltimore to Annapolis, Maryland where the nearest emergency animal hospital is located. The staff were expecting him and he was again taken back immediately, while we found ourselves in a new exam room. The walls of the room were a sterile white, but there was a beautiful painting of a yellow lab shaking water off of his fur above the two chairs. As I admired the explosion of colors, I knew somehow that we would be losing our baby. Once the emergency veterinarian entered the room, I tried to find hope in her eyes. I saw none. She very matter-of-factly explained to us that Dakota had a 4 x 4.5 cm tumor on his heart that was causing fluid buildup and blood loss. She described this as classic Hemangiosarcoma. She went on to say that Dakota had a matter of days to live. When she shared her findings with us, I felt completely numb. Then I wanted to scream and destroy anything in the room that I could get my hands on. The rage and overwhelming devastation I felt was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I have lost other family members and that pain was also difficult, but Dakota is our baby. The boy who I would have given my life for if it meant I could have saved his. Dakota was perfect before this day. He was happy, he wrestled with Finn, and his irresistible snuggles made me late for work almost daily. Our lives together were beautiful.
We were led back to where Dakota was resting and we stayed with him for a while. He was weak and tired, but he was so happy to be with mom and dad. We put down soft blankets and held and kissed him. He needed to spend the night so that the fluid around his heart could be drained. By midnight, we received a call saying that about a soda can of fluid had been drained and that the procedure went very well. We were told that he would see a Cardiologist in the morning and that we could come see him. We each felt some relief, but our home and our bed were not the same without Dakota in it. Collectively, we slept a handful of minutes that night.
Feelings of Hope
We did our best to eat breakfast the next morning and then we set off for the emergency clinic. A few minutes after we were seated in new room, we met with the attending emergency veterinarian and he again explained how poor Dakota’s prognosis was. A little while later, Dakota was brought in. He was bouncing, he was barking, he was just perfect. Aside from his newly shaved belly and arms, he was our happy boy. We kissed him and cried. We were told that we could take him home. My husband and I both wanted to learn about treatment options, but were told by two Oncologists that surgery to remove the sac of fluid around his heart and chemotherapy to fight the tumor would detract from Dakota’s quality of life and would not add much time. Likely the cancer had metastasized. Instead, we were advised to try Yunnan Baiyao and I’m-Yunity, two types of homeopathic treatment based on Traditional Chinese Medicine. The first can help to slow bleeding and the second has been found to slow tumor progression. We purchased both and prayed for a miracle.
Dakota was home for six days. Jeremy and I researched any other options until we had uncovered all we could find about the disease. Dakota’s primary veterinarian called us and asked that we make a bucket list for him. I could not fathom the reality that we were losing him. It seemed impossible. I informed my boss that I would not be coming into work. My job was to stay by Dakota’s side. To memorize the crease in his smile, the smell of his neck, and how the rise and fall of his belly felt while he was in my lap. All I cared to do was hold my boy and ensure I did not miss any subtle sign of his potential discomfort. We wanted to make every single moment special. His appetite was strong and he seemed to enjoy the Chinese herbs. After each meal, he conducted his usual roll around the living room post-meal celebration. The four of us took walks in the evening and made extra time for play. For the first time, Dakota had filet mignon and he LOVED it! He slept well, but the irritation of the clipper burn on his forearms intensified at night. Our immediate family members booked flights from New England to Maryland as soon as they knew he was sick, but unfortunately, they were all too late.
The Rapid Decline and Heartbreak
On the evening of January 28th, all four of us took a family walk. Dakota led the way. His tail flowing in the air and his sweet smile looking back at us when he turned to ensure we were all still behind him. When we got home, he curled up on his favorite couch. He seemed content. A few minutes after, he jumped down, raised a back leg up in the air, lost his balance, and collapsed. Just days before, I had reached out to Dr. Samuel Stewart with Ethos Discovery and his explanation of what we could expect to happen at the end was precisely what happened. Dakota was fine one minute and collapsing in the next. Finn looked so worried as we rushed out the door with big brother in my husband’s arms. Shortly after we arrived back at the emergency clinic, Dakota had another ultrasound. The fluid drained just days before had come back. We were told that we could drain it again, but that it would just keep coming back, and that he was suffering. There was nothing we could do. My husband and I knew we had to let Dakota go. Before we did, the veterinarian gave us time alone. We called our family and on speaker phone, they were able to tell Dakota how much they loved him. If we had it our way, we would still be standing beside him now. We knew we had to be ready and asked the emergency veterinarian to come back in. With one of my hands on her forearm and the other on Dakota’s side, he slipped away from us. A very big part of my husband and I died that day too. We stayed with him for as long as we could. Touching his fur and kissing his face.
Just like that, our world was turned completely upside down. There was still so much left to show him. I wanted him to have his own big yard, to further enhance his ability to unwrap a gift in seconds, and to see new places. Seeing the world through his eyes was spiritual. When Dakota saw the ocean for the first time, I saw it for the first time too. When he heard a new sound that I had heard countless times before, I heard the sound in a new way. When he tasted something new, I had a fresh appreciation for the food and the joy it brought to him. We wanted to watch the white on his face continue to travel up his snout as he aged alongside us. Unfortunately, Hemangiosarcoma took all of those possibilities from us.
Hope for the Future
We hope that Dakota’s story helps those who are unfamiliar with the rapid progression of Hemangiosarcoma to better understand it. We are tremendously grateful to everyone who is investing the resources into understanding canine cancer and to Ethos Discovery for giving us the opportunity to share Dakota’s story. I pray that we eventually live in a time where effective prevention, treatments, and cures of Hemangiosarcoma exist.