CSU surgical team up against the odds

Dr. Christopher Orton, center, performs heart surgery on a beagle at the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital. (Joe A. Mendoza/CSU Photography)

By Libby James
North Forty News

“There are only two places in the world capable of helping Hershey,” animal cardiologist Dr. Jacques Sottiaux of Alta Vista Animal Hospital in Gloucester, Ontario, Canada told Karla Irwin. “One is in Japan, the other is in Colorado.”

Long-time animal lovers, Karla and her husband, Robert, live in the countryside near Ottawa, Ontario with a couple of cats and two Dobermans. Last summer Karla rescued eight-pound, eight-year-old Hershey, a “Minpin” or Miniature Pinscher, with a tragic history and added her to their menagerie.

Dr. Christopher Orton performs heart surgery on a beagle at the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital. (Joe A. Mendoza/CSU Photography)

Born in a puppy mill in Ohio, Hershey was crated and continuously bred for five years until she developed mammary tumors from overbreeding. No longer able to reproduce and therefore of no use to the mill, Hershey was turned over to a rescue and shipped off to Canada.

After several unsuccessful attempts at adoption, she was about to be euthanized when Karla agreed to foster her. The plan was for Karla to get her healthy—to rid her of the chronic diarrhea she suffered from—and to housebreak her so that she could begin a new life with caring owners. The Irwins’ daughter, Kayla, of Toronto, wanted to adopt her but understood when the Irwins made the decision to keep Hershey. In a short time she had become a member of their family, spreading joy wherever she went and interacting happily with their dogs and cats.

At last the little dog had found a welcoming home among people and other animals who loved her. One day, Robert took the three dogs for a walk in the woods. Hershey was thrilled to run free until the moment when she encountered a porcupine. The consequences were devastating. “Hershey and the porcupine were somersaulting over each other,” Karla said. The other dogs escaped with only a few quills embedded, but Hershey wasn’t as lucky.

Nicola Jeffs, the family’s veterinarian, and a team at Animal Emergency Ottawa spent three hours removing hundreds of quills from Hershey’s small body. Eventually the number would rise to between 400 and 500. In a few days Hershey became lethargic and quit eating. A quill had entered her kidney and caused an abscess. The kidney had to be removed. Another quill was extracted from her lung. Three surgeries later, Hershey seemed to be on the road to recovery and was about to be released from the hospital when a scan revealed a quill in her heart.

Dr. Marisa Ames evaluates a heart patient at the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital. (William A. Cotton/CSU Photography)

It was then that Sottiaux was consulted and told the Irwins that they had two choices, euthanasia or a trip to either Japan or Colorado State University Veterinary College at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the only two places in the world capable of performing canine open heart surgery.

At this point, the Irwins had already spent $25,000, but they were not about to let money stand in the way of allowing this little dog to survive. Karla did not have a valid passport, so she could not make the trip, but she did have an animal-loving sister, Debra Active, living in Nova Scotia, who volunteered to fly to Colorado with Hershey and stay with her during the surgery.

On the morning of October 31, cardiology professor Dr. Chris Orton and his team, assistant professor of cardiology Marisa Ames, interventional cardiology fellow, Lauren Markovic, and post-doctoral student Brianna Potter prepared to attempt a complicated procedure that had never been done before. The quill had pierced Hershey’s aorta, pulmonary ventricle and left chamber. Removing it and plugging the three small holes left by the surgery took three hours.

Sadly, Hershey did not survive. “If she had not been so weakened by three recent surgeries, and if the operation had taken less time, she would have made it,” Orton told Karla. “He and his team were broken up by the little dog’s death,” Karla said. “But he consoled me with the fact that they had learned so much during the operation that there would be great benefits for future canine heart surgeries.” Hershey had left a legacy.

All of this occurred long distance for the Irwins, but that didn’t mean they were any less overwhelmed by the degree of caring and commitment of the veterinary surgical team at Colorado State University.

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