The Toki Poki team sat down recently to talk to our friend Kyle Ann Stevenson, a veterinarian in New York. When she lost her beloved dog “Potter” to cancer, her journey led her to “Paws 4 Potter” to raise awareness about canine cancer. Here is her story.
Ms. Stevenson, we know that you are a respected veterinarian in New York. What lead you on your path to be an animal doctor?
I’ve wanted to be a veterinarian for as long as I can remember. I always enjoyed science, especially biology, in school. I surprisingly didn’t have a lot of pets growing up – a couple of hamsters, some goldfish. I tried to save a baby bird by bringing it home in a shoe box when I was in elementary school.
Your sweet and handsome dog, Potter, changed your life in a big way. How did you both find each other? Tell us a little about your boy.
Potter and I “adopted” each other in November of 2005 on Prince Edward Island, Canada, where I was in my third year of veterinary school at the Atlantic Veterinary College. He had been a stray from the Moncton, NB SPCA and was my junior surgery patient for neutering. Even though I was not planning on acquiring a pet during veterinary school, this 1-year-old Doberman/Shepherd Mix weaseled his way into my heart and never left. He became what many of us refer to as a “heart dog.” And he became my “soul dog” through and through.
Potter accompanied me on walks and other outdoor adventures through all types of weather. He loved riding in the car, tearing up tennis balls, going to the beach (especially the red sand beaches of PEI), and taking afternoon naps on my bed. Pizza crust was his favorite treat (shhh – don’t tell the vet). He had to have a couple of orthopedic surgeries when I first adopted him to fix an angular deformity in his right front leg. Thus, he always walked with a slight limp.
In the spring of 2015, Potter started slowing down. I attributed it to his arthritis, the consequence of years of wear and tear on that right front leg. He was constantly getting check-ups, blood work, and x-rays, me being the paranoid “vet mom.” I always panicked that he would end up with osteosarcoma (bone cancer), partially because of the years of chronic inflammation in that right front leg. But, nothing could have prepared me for what was really going on. One evening at the end of May, I found him hiding behind a chair in the living room. When I hauled him up onto my lap for a pretend snuggle before bed (he did NOT like siting on my lap . . . he just liked sitting NEXT to me or against me), I could feel his heart racing. He had developed a significant heart murmur and arrhythmia that had not been present just 2 weeks before. X-rays revealed nothing, but an echo cardiogram (ultrasound of the heart) at Cornell University revealed a very large mass invading the free wall of his left ventricle. It was partially obstructing the flow of blood through his aorta. It was suspected that he had hemangiosarcoma (HSA). But, it couldn’t be confirmed, and it was an unusual spot in the heart for it to be found. I was told that his heart could literally “burst” if the mass continued to invade through the heart wall. It was one of the most humbling and devastating experiences of my entire life, being on the opposite side of that dreaded phone call that we unfortunately as vets have to make so frequently. “I have some really bad news. Your dog has cancer.” – those words still haunt my mind. Those words came on the 8-year anniversary of me beginning private practice.
Despite a valiant attempt at chemotherapy to slow down the growth of the tumor, I only got to spend two more weeks with him. On June 12, 2015, Potter just stopped walking with me. It had been a roller coaster ride for two weeks, trying to get him to eat anything at all – our local butcher felt bad and even gave us some free beef liver (which he did love, despite the smell). When he just stopped walking and looked at me, not willing to walk any further (we had been taking really short trips around the block, etc.), I knew that he wasn’t my Potter anymore. I was so very lucky to have the amazing support of my coworkers, family, and friends while I made the unthinkable decision to say goodbye to him. I felt like an absolute failure – me, being a vet and not being able to do anything to help him. The only thing that I was able to give him was peace without suffering, which in hindsight is the most precious gift I think that we can give to our four-footed companions.
It was, unfortunately, well after I lost Potter that I realized two very important things . . .
Dogs always live in the moment. They don’t fret about tomorrow or weeks/months/years from now. They care about what’s going on at this very moment . . . it’s all about the here and now. I should have spent the last two weeks of Potter’s life just enjoying him and not worrying and fretting about what could and would happen.
Grief doesn’t really leave us when we lose someone so special. It might be dull at some moments and razor sharp at others. It might come in slow trickles or rage in like a hurricane, but it’s always there. Maybe that is the price that we pay for opening our souls up to unconditional love. But, I wouldn’t trade any day – good or bad – that I had with Potter. Each day was special in its very own way.
Potter lost his battle to cancer and we are so, so sorry. He touched the lives of many and he was destined to live on with your non-profit organization, “Paws 4 Potter.” How do you spread the message about canine cancer?
Our mission is to raise awareness about pet cancer in our communities and raise funds for the National Canine Cancer Foundation. We have a website (paws4potter.com) and Facebook page (Paws4Potter) where people can visit to learn more about pet cancer, what financial assistance may be available, and where people can go to for oncology referrals in NY. We currently have an annual dog-walking event – Making A Mark On K9 Cancer – that we put on in the fall to raise awareness in our local communities, and we have also hosted Dr. Sue Cancer Vet in our area to speak on early cancer detection in pets with her ‘See Something, Do Something’ campaign.
We’re sure Potter is so very proud of your mission to educate pet parents about canine cancer. What do you think he would want people to know about his life with you?
I hope that he had a good life with me. We spent a great deal of time walking together (everywhere!). I think that he would want me to keep on walking . . . and maybe walking daily is a good way to continue honoring his memory. I think he would want everyone to slow down and just enjoy the day. And have some pizza crust, because that’s the best food ever.
Potter has his own Toki Poki pet trading cards. How do you share them?
I share them at all of our local events to help spread the word about K9 cancer awareness.
“Do The Toki Poki” is our motto — meaning we celebrate our pets as they show their unconditional love & whimsy spirit, do you agree?
There is nothing more special than their unconditional love.
How can we support Paws 4 Potter?
Just helping to get the word out that we exist is awesome . . . it’s such a small organization at this point. I’m trying to get people to share it on Facebook so that more people know that it exists.