A Dog Named George: Rx for Recovery

Contemporary Oncology, Fall 2011, Volume 3, Issue 3

While she attributes her survival to her oncologists and the care they provided, Maryclaire is quick to stress the difference between surviving and living, noting that it was her friends and family who gave her what she needed to truly recover.

Maryclaire Moroney and her beloved dog and “healer” George.

Maryclaire Moroney was just a teenager when she came across a half-starved, mostly frozen tiny dog huddled outside the public library in her North Virginia town. She scooped the terrified dog into her arms and headed for home, all the while plotting her strategy for convincing her mother to let her keep the little orphan. Fortunately for Maryclaire—and especially for the foundling she named Dinah—her mother took very little convincing once she saw the pathetic dog with matted fur, and Dinah became the latest in a long line of pampered canine family members.

Dinah wasn’t the first animal to find a hero in Maryclaire and would be far from the last. But of all the pets in her life, it’s that tiny abandoned poodle whose memory brings tears to her eyes. “When I think of Dinah I think of my mom,” she said. “That dog was so devoted to her.”

That devotion was never as apparent as when, 8 years later, Maryclaire was called home from her graduate studies at Harvard when her mother was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. She died only 9 weeks later, never returning home from the hospital. Dinah spent each day camped out at the back door, waiting in vain for her favorite person to come home. At night, she burrowed into a pile of unwashed laundry to surround herself with the scent and feel of the person she loved most. “It’s funny,” said Maryclaire, “but the thought of someone loving you so completely is both comforting and heartbreaking.”

Though Maryclaire’s mother wasn’t there to witness her beloved dog’s vigil, to Maryclaire, Dinah’s unwavering devotion was a comforting reminder of just how much her mother was loved. “Holding Dinah in my arms gave me a sense of connection to my mom,” she said.

Fast-forward 23 years, and Maryclaire would experience that kind of extraordinary love firsthand, and under similar circumstances. This time, the diagnosis was Hodgkin lymphoma and the purveyor of unconditional devotion was a shepherd-mix named George.

Maryclaire's Confidant

It was the fall of 2008 when an enlarged lymph node sent Maryclaire to her primary care physician. After a failed course of antibiotics she was referred to a head and neck surgeon for an excisional biopsy. Maryclaire was still groggy from the anesthesia when she heard a surgical resident comment that it “looks like Hodgkin lymphoma,” but it would be 9 long days before that diagnosis would be confirmed.

The then-48-year-old single mother of 2 made a deliberate decision not to tell her children—at least, not yet. “I knew there was a chance that I could die,” she said. “My kids weren’t ready to hear that and I certainly wasn’t ready to tell them.” Indeed, Maryclaire’s adopted children, who were then 14 and 16 years old, had already experienced more than their share of pain and loss. “It had been only 7 years since they’d come to me, and we were only just beginning to work through all that had happened to them. I was terrified that I’d be taken from them before I’d had the chance to finish the task at hand.”

Like so many women, Maryclaire was the consummate caregiver. She had a solid support system of family, friends, and colleagues, but didn’t want to worry them prematurely. And she was far from ready to open the floodgates to well-intended expressions of sympathy and concern. Even so, Maryclaire needed to talk to someone, and she found a willing volunteer in George.

Maryclaire had adopted George in the summer of 2005 when he was just 7 weeks old. The puppy had been abandoned as a newborn and had just recovered from the highly contagious, often-fatal parvovirus. With her children at her side, Maryclaire cared for the frail pup, and George grew into a big, silly, loving family companion. Three short years later, George would return the favor a thousandfold—and would do so over and over again.

“I was walking on eggshells around my family and friends,” Maryclaire recalled. “For their sake, I felt the need to be strong and cheerful.” For her own sake, however, Maryclaire needed someone to give her permission to fall apart, and to do so without worrying about anyone else’s feelings. Not surprisingly, George was the perfect candidate for the job. For the first of what would be many times, she buried her face in George’s fur and let the tears come. “He had no fears or expectations. He just let me feel what I was feeling. It was exactly what I needed and it was something I couldn’t have gotten from anyone else.”

Life Goes On

Over the next 6 months, from January to June 2009, Maryclaire went into survival mode. All that was routine and normal about her life as a mother and professor of English literature at Cleveland’s John Carroll University took a backseat to a rigorous chemotherapy regimen of adriamycin-bleomycin-vinblastine-dacarbazine (ABVD). She recalled that her usual thirst for knowledge temporarily gave way to a strong desire to take in information on a strictly need-to-know basis, noting that information overload did little more than feed her anxiety. “My oncologist explained that the ABVD turned off the mechanism for lymphoma reproduction and did so with a 90% success rate. At that point, that was all I needed to know.” When it came to her children, Maryclaire gave them the information they asked for, which, she said, was relatively little. “I was all they had and dying simply wasn’t an option,” she noted. She was told there was a “Plan B” in the event of a relapse, but decided she would deal with the specifics only when and if that eventuality occurred.

What she couldn’t push to the background were the adverse effects of the ABVD regimen; every 2 weeks Maryclaire did her best to gear up for the relentless nausea and fatigue. She recalled a time in the spring, about halfway through her chemotherapy, when she was especially ill. “George was my ‘go-to guy’ when things got really tough,” she said. “When everyone else was out of the house, I could snuggle up with him and cry in peace. He didn’t care about my bald head, and no matter how hard I cried he never judged me or looked at me differently. George was just George. I felt free when I was alone with him.”

Healing as they were, Maryclaire’s respites with George were only sporadic and, as any cancer patient knows, life must go on even when coping seems nearly impossible.

As family, friends, and colleagues rallied to care for Maryclaire before and during each treatment, the care of her children, as well as that of George and Maryclaire’s 2 elderly cats, became part of her treatment plan. One friend would care for the cats, giving the older, diabetic Nina her insulin and scooping the litter, the one thing Maryclaire was advised against doing herself during treatment. Some coworkers organized meals and carpooling for the children, while others scheduled George’s walks and took him to DogTopia Daycare for Dogs, where he was accustomed to spending several days each week playing with his daycare dog-buddies. “George was active and playful and demanded an investment of positive energy. He needed to do what he’d always done,” said Maryclaire. “And while some people might have put doggie daycare in the ‘unnecessary column,’ to me it was a reminder of the few things that remained normal in my life. George was still George and that was one of the few realities that hadn’t changed.”

In fact, Maryclaire explained, the more these plans were incorporated into her routine, the less stress she experienced—a sentiment that seemed to be shared by her children, who pitched in to help care for George and the cats. “Caring for the animals gave my kids a sense of control and pride,” said Maryclaire, who noted that they were reassured when they realized that some things didn’t change, even in a time of crisis. “They didn’t want to lose their mother and they didn’t want to lose their pets, and helping out was their way of keeping loss at bay.”

In fact, Maryclaire is grateful that none of her physicians even hinted at the need to give up her animals, even temporarily—something she says would have been like asking her to give up her children. “That would have required a fight, and I needed all my energy to fight the cancer.”

George the Healer

A sense of normalcy began to return to Maryclaire’s life with the news of her remission in July 2009. As she began to feel better, George served as her “recovery barometer.” She said, “I would measure my progress by how long I could walk George without feeling tired or ill.” Today, with 27 months of remission under her belt, Maryclaire faces the next 3 years of follow-up with a sense of optimism, knowing that the greatest risk of relapse is behind her.

While she attributes her survival to her oncologists and the care they provided, Maryclaire is quick to stress the difference between surviving and living, noting that it was her friends and family who gave her what she needed to truly recover. And, to a large extent, it was George who gave her what she needed to heal and reclaim the joy and normalcy in her life.

“The humans who love us are a fragile bunch. In times of crisis they struggle with what to say and do,” said Maryclaire. “But our animals know us right down to the bare soul. They’re completely present with us; they know exactly how we feel and give us precisely what we need without expecting anything in return. They make us laugh and they let us cry.”

Today, as she looks back on where she’s been and how far she’s come, Maryclaire noted that her bond with George is stronger than ever. “People tell you that a rescued dog will always find a way to thank the person who gives him a loving home,” she noted. “There’s no doubt in my mind that George was waiting for his chance to do just that.”

Laura Bruck is a freelance writer based in Cleveland, Ohio. She has specialized in healthcare reporting since 1987.