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Newtown resident Laura Becker traveled halfway across the world to save her dog’s life and would do it again in a heartbeat.
The heart, ironically, is just what brought her and her 9-year-old Yorkshire terrier, Oliver, to Japan in the first place.
“I’ve had him since he was a baby,” Ms Becker said about the pair’s undeniable bond. “He was a healthy dog up until three years ago when he was diagnosed with mitral valve disease.”
The degenerative disease is common in small dog breeds and affects the closure of the mitral valve in the heart, which leads to abnormal blood flow. Symptoms mainly include coughing and lethargy, with the disease worsening over time at a rate that differs for each dog.
When Ms Becker’s vet at Mill Plain Veterinary Clinic in Danbury told her that Oliver had a heart murmur, she immediately began researching ways to help him. She found the condition could be controlled through prescribed medication, but that the disease would still eventually lead to heart failure.
In July 2017, when Oliver’s heart began to rapidly worsen, he was put on the necessary medications, but Ms Becker wanted to be proactive and do more.
Oliver had reached what the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine calls Stage B2, which is halfway through the five stages that indicate the disease’s progression. She could not stand to sit idly by and watch her beloved companion reach the final phase knowing there was another possible option that could save him.
“There’s one doctor in the world who does this surgery,” Ms Becker prefaced.
Through her research, she found Dr Masami Uechi of the Jasmine Clinic in Yokohama, Japan, who not only performs mitral valve repair surgery, but has a more than 90 percent success rate. Dr Uechi has done the surgery on more than 600 dogs, and people travel from all over the world to have him perform this life-saving pet procedure.
“It was a long process to get [Oliver] there,” Ms Becker said about the preparations that had to be implemented before even leaving for the operation.
Oliver needed to receive two rabies shots and undergo extensive testing before being quarantined at home for six-months.
“The quarantine process is really difficult. You need to have a vet that knows about international quarantine,” she explained. Thankfully, her vet was certified, and after starting the quarantine process in November 2017, Oliver was cleared and finished in May 2018.
The trip to Japan would not only be Oliver’s first plane ride, but also Ms Becker’s first experience traveling on a plane with a dog.
“He was really good on the plane,” Ms Becker said. “He’s an emotional support dog, so he could be on my lap.”
After flying for 14 hours, Ms Becker, her mother, and Oliver landed in Japan and awaited his preoperative appointment the following day. Once that was completed, she said, the surgery was scheduled a week later to allow for his blood levels to normalize after flying.
When the big day finally arrived, Oliver was in surgery for six hours as Dr Uechi and his team worked to repair the compromised valve in heart.
Ms Becker said going into the procedure she knew the surgery was “risky,” but she was confident in Dr Uechi’s high success rate and knew it would go well.
After Oliver’s surgery, she explained, “He was in the hospital for a week and had to stay so they could monitor everything. He was really out of it the first day, but by the second day, his heart started to return to normal size.”
During the following two weeks, she was able to be with Oliver as he healed, and they stayed at an Airbnb. Once he was able to have his stitches removed, the two traveled back home to Newtown together.
The Cost Of Love
Ms Becker said the whole process was expensive, explaining, “The surgery itself was $17,000. Then you have pre-op costs, post-op costs, and travel costs — so [it was] about $25,000 total. I started saving years ago, once he got diagnosed, and then put [the rest] on credit cards. I’ll be paying those off forever, but I feel like it was worth it.”
She has already heard from people telling her she is “crazy to spend that much on a dog,” but she says people spend that much money on a car, and all the car owner hears is how beautiful the vehicle looks. To her, she has made the best decision with her money, in that it is investing in the life of her dog whom she loves.
Only about a month after surgery, Oliver has been back to acting like his normal self — excited for life, wagging his tail, and taking trips to Ferris Acres Creamery for a pup cup.
For his own safety, though, Ms Becker has to make sure he has time to properly heal, so as to not overexert himself and reverse the entire surgery.
“He can’t run or jump for six months. We’re sleeping on a mattress pad on the floor because he can’t jump up on the bed. When we can’t watch him completely, he’s in the bedroom with the baby gate up,” she explained. Oliver also now enjoys the family walks from the comfort of a stroller in order to not overdo it.
Ms Becker says he has been able to keep his normal diet, since it is already low-sodium, but continues to be on some medications.
After surgery, however, Oliver still is not quite considered cured. Ms Becker will have a better understanding of his condition after his cardiologist appointment on July 31 to check his heart.
“Every dog is different with what complications they experience,” Ms Becker said. “The right side of his heart got a little enlarged after surgery, which is a complication of it, so we are hoping on the 31st we will see that it has gone down a bit.”
If all goes well, Oliver will be expected to have a normal lifespan, which for a Yorkie is estimated to be around 13 to 16 years.
“He’s still got plenty of years to go,” she assured.
Ms Becker understands that surgery is not an option for every pet owner whose dog has mitral valve disease, but says it is important for owners to be educated about the resources that are available. She recommends people visit mightyheartsproject.org to learn more about the disease, surgery, traveling, and to ask any questions they may have.
Even if someone is considering surgery as an option, she emphasizes the importance of beginning the quarantine process as soon as possible. It is a precaution that can make all the difference if the disease progresses quickly.
Ultimately, after all the traveling, different expenses, and uncertainty of the results, when asked if she would chose to do it all over again, she does not hesitate, saying, “absolutely.”
“I can’t look at him and deny him something that I can give him,” Ms Becker said. “He’s my boy.”