Puccini’s Story

Yes, dogs get melanoma, too.

Puccini was three months old – already a handful — when he came into my life.

A world-renowned dog trainer told me to get a different dog; Puccini was untrainable. He was already showing the signs of being a puppy mill dog. Yet from the moment our eyes met, I knew we shared an unbreakable bond.

Puccini was clever, funny and simply brilliant. Yes, he did have some unappealing habits. For one, the only thing this cocker spaniel liked better than eating was eating food that wasn’t his.  One trainer tried to teach Puccini to stop taking food off the table by surrounding a tempting ham with mouse traps safely secured under newspaper.  While we waited in another room listening for telltale sounds that Puccini had tried to take the food, the noises never came.  Puccini had outsmarted the dog trainer; he had carefully removed and eaten the ham without setting off a single device!  How could I not love this dog?

Puccini loved to go to the beach, but he would run so fast and far that I had to get into my jeep to chase him. On too many occasions, my car got stuck in the sand, and the local towing company would only take cash to tow my car out. But I loved to see Puccini play. I couldn’t deny him his fun on the beach, so I learned to keep a lot of cash on hand (and my cellphone to call the towing company) whenever we went down to the water. Now that is unconditional love.
My friends thought of us as a unit:  Linda and Puccini, never one without the other.  If I had to leave the apartment without him, he would cry and scratch at the door. To help him with his separation issues, I adopted a companion for him: a female cocker-spaniel named Sparkle. Although she was as sweet as could be, she turned out to be as mischievous as he was (and his partner in crime). The two of them could open the freezer door to get to food! They were also bookends. Together, they were a handful, but I loved them more than anything.

When I started my real estate career, Puccini and Sparkle inspired me to specialize in pet friendly housing in New York City; the Discovery Channel even filmed a segment about the three of us and my real estate specialty.

The first promise.

I had promised Puccini and Sparkle that living with me, they would have a wonderful life free of pain. When I first noticed a bump beneath Puccini’s right eye, I thought it was an abscessed tooth and rushed him to a veterinary dentist. Hours later I received a horrible call. I never expected to hear the words. It was cancer. Melanoma, stage 3. Puccini might have only weeks to live. The doctor had removed as much of the tumor as possible, but the cancer had spread.

I couldn’t breathe. My life changed that day. It was May 24, 2006.

What now?  

I brought Puccini home after the surgery. Innocently unaware of his own illness, Puccini (along with Sparkle) seemed cheerful as always running to the kitchen and wanting to eat! It was hard keeping my feelings in check, but I understood that animals, like humans, can sense and respond to emotions. I needed to stay positive for them. I would leave the apartment to cry all alone.

I heard about a ground-breaking clinical trial collaboration by The Animal Medical Center and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York. They had developed a vaccine for Canine Malignant Melanoma that could possibly get a dog’s immune system to destroy the cancer. The vaccine had already achieved some success for late-stage cancer, and more trials were underway.  The process was minimally invasive with four vaccinations (one every other week), radiation treatments, and a lung x-ray and booster every six months. I didn’t want to prolong Puccini’s life if it would be painful, but I also didn’t want to look back on this time and think that I could have done something to help him and yet chose not to try.

We had a choice. I didn’t want to give up. I wanted to fight this cancer. I followed my heart and applied for the clinical trials. I was thrilled when we were accepted. I felt relieved. During the clinical trial, I found I was no longer counting the time Puccini had left but instead felt a freedom to simply enjoy being with him. The treatments were going well, Puccini seemed stronger and happy, and we had more time together, free of worry. Mostly, the treatments gave us hope.

At the six-month mark, just before Puccini’s 14th birthday, the clinical trial required him to have a lung x-ray. He seemed healthy, but I felt a nagging sense of dread. Sparkle and I walked Puccini to the hospital and waited in the examination room while he had the x-ray.

The cancer had spread to his lungs. It had become more than he could fight. My heart stopped. I sat on the floor and just hugged Puccini and Sparkle. We walked back home.

That night, I moved my mattress to the floor. I was devastated. I needed to be close to Puccini and Sparkle. With any terminal illness, the question is always when is it time? Pet owners often are told that if a dog eats, the dog is fine. I knew for Puccini that wasn’t true. Although Puccini continued to eat over the coming weeks, it was clear that he struggled.  But I knew he wouldn’t give up until I was ready to let go. I also remembered my promise: no pain.  I needed to keep my word. A month had already passed.

Good-bye.

Nights were the hardest. I couldn’t block out the sadness. I felt lost. Where would Puccini be when the day comes that he is not with me? As I held him, looking to the sky for an answer, I saw a crescent moon. I suddenly knew I would have a place to look for him…on every crescent moon.

It was time to let him go. I called the vet’s office at 2:00 a.m. and made an appointment for his final trip in just 6 hours. The Animal Medical Center had given me medication to relax Puccini, but he did not seem sedated. I called the vet to let them know, then I put him on the bed with Sparkle so she could say goodbye. I told him everything would be okay.

Puccini looked up at me during that forever cab ride to the vet. The doctor was ready with more sedation. I didn’t want him to know where we were. Even in his last moments, when the vet inserted the needle, he lifted his head and tried to bite her. Only Puccini… incorrigible Puccini. I didn’t cry. This was an incredibly sad time, yet, the vet and I had to laugh.  This was the Puccini everyone knew.  It was so typical of him to be defiant and spirited to the very end.

I didn’t tell many people about his passing because I could not bear the constant calls, even if my friends meant well. I scattered his ashes in the ocean in the Hamptons where he had loved to run. Sparkle, who used to bark and run alongside Puccini, has not uttered a sound since Puccini left us.

Around the time Puccini was diagnosed, Sparkle had been sniffing and licking the right side of Puccini’s face. It looked like she was giving him kisses; I thought it was cute. Now I think she was trying to tell me Puccini had cancer. I still feel guilt; could I have helped Puccini sooner had I recognized what Sparkle was trying to tell me?

The Puccini Foundation

Before we said good bye, I promised Puccini that whatever happened, I would find a way to support the pioneering doctors who had given us our extra, special time together. In 2007, the Puccini Foundation was born to help find cures for animal and human cancers.

I am so thankful to Dr. Philip Bergman and The Animal Medical Center for accepting Puccini into the clinical trial. I can’t imagine the regret I would have felt if I had kept Puccini out of the trial then learned how successful it had been.

Puccini’s spirit lives on in the Foundation. It is his legacy and the fulfillment of my promise to him. I channeled my pain and sadness into something positive — this foundation — and honored the strongest of human-animal bonds.  It’s my way giving thanks for the time, happiness, and hope.

The Puccini Foundation is dedicated to the promise of a future for pets and people…cancer free.