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A therapy dog with wheels

Posted August 13, 2011

Young Lisvette Granda lies in her hospital bed at the Miami Children’s Hospital. Balloons and flowers fill the room, her parents, friends, and relatives are by her side. Still, it is far from a happy place, and Lisvette is having a hard time feeling anything but down.

That is, until Caio Stinchi brings Lance, his 7-year old dachshund into the room, and Lisvette suddenly breaks into the broadest of smiles. The routine is repeated, with the same smiles and encouraging results througout an entire wing at the hospital.

Therapy dogs to brighten the day and help to speed the recovery of hospital patients both young and old are not new. However, there is something quite unique about Lance that puts maybe a little extra sparkle into the smiles he creates. Lance is not only a therapy dog; he is paralyzed in his hindquarters, and gets around by way of specialized “wheelchair.”

“The results of a wheelchair dog coming to see these kids, it’s just phenomenal,” says Caio. “They are sick, so they can relate when they see that even a disabled little dog can do well, can perform well, can do a job, and be happy.”

Caio leaves behind a sticker, and a comic book of his own design featuring “Lance the Super Dog.” The pamphlet-sized book relates in a kid friendly way how Lance was once sick like they are. But since being fitted for his special “bicycle”, he became a super-dog who conquers the world. Seeing how Lance has thrived despite his injury and subsequent handicap, the children he visits can’t help but feel, “if he can do it – I can do it.”

“Lance and Caio are an amazing team,” says, MCH’s Lynn Heyman, Director of Community and Volunteer Services. “The two of them take the hospital by storm. They cannot get far without being stopped by children and their families wanting to take a moment to pet Lance and chat with Caio. The two are so friendly and sweet, and truly bring a wonderful positive energy to their volunteer work.”

The origin

Lance was not always a super-dog, in fact he was very much an ordinary, if extraordinarily loved, house pet. But as is often the case with comic-book heroes, fate dealt Lance and Caio a cruel blow, one that put them on a new, if unexpected path.

“We always knew, ever since we got Lance,” says his owner Caio, “that this breed had a tendency towards spinal chord problems. And we purposely got new beds, new couches in the house; because we felt they were too high, [for lance to jump down from].”

Caio also says that he worked Lance out every day. “I tried to make him very strong, I thought by building muscle I could avoid a paralyzing injury. But at four years old, I was away in Brazil on business, when my wife called to tell me that Lance was down and he couldn’t move his back legs.”

Claudia, Caio’s wife knew that Lance’s injuries required intervention that was beyond the capabilities of their local vet. She was told by a friend to get him to the Knowles Animal Clinic, known for specializing in surgery to correct dysplasia and lameness.

At the time he was rushed to Knowles, Lance could not move at all, not even by dragging himself forward using his forepaws. But putting him down was never an option for Claudia and Caio. The couple had been struggling with infertility, for them Lance filled a need that no injury, now matter how severe, could take away.

The doctors at Knowles told Claudia “It’s a ruptured disc pressing on the spinal cord, a common condition with dachshunds, usually correctable with surgery. The sooner we do it, the better his chances will be.” Surgery was performed on Lance that day. Caio rushed home from Brazil, arriving in Miami the next day. Lance remained in the hospital for three more days, then returned home, but had to be crated for 50 days.

Lance soon regained the use of his front paws, and seemed to return to his happy self, despite the need to drag himself around. He couldn’t wag his tail, but Claudia and Caio learned to read the expressions in his eyes and his ears. They could tell he was their same old Lance, and the two were determined to do all they could to return him to full mobility.

However after two months of many failed treatments from herbal therapies to acupuncture, Lance saw no improvement in the use of his hindquarters. Caio had learned of renowned veterinary neurosurgeon, Dr. Roger Clemmons, at the University of Florida in Gainesville. They managed to get an appointment to see Dr. Clemmons, and made the nearly six-hour drive north to the University.

Unfortunately, the news they received from Dr. Clemmons and his staff was not what they had hoped to hear. The doctor told them, “The spinal cord is severed. I’m sorry, but your dog is permanently paralyzed.”

When interviewed for this story, Dr. Clemmons was quick to point out, that Claudia and Caio absolutely did the right thing in seeking immediate treatment for Lance. He suggests however, that there is a chance that the outcome may have been different, if they were in a position to get Lance to facility such as the University for initial treatment. “We have great success in treating paralyzed patients early in their disease. This is not only because of the incredible sophistication we can bring to the technology of diagnosis and treatment, but also because we have very dedicated people who help make our job easy. That should still be the important take home message; there are options for dogs who are paralyzed to be completely restored to function, if they have the appropriate treatments very early within their disease. Using new medications like Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) and good surgical technique, we see about 90% of dogs like Lance recover completely.”

A new leash on life

Caio and Claudia, returned home, dejected. But not Lance. As always, he seemed to not complain and happily dragged himself along. Caio renewed physical therapy sessions for Lance to continue to strengthen his forequarters. Caio asked the therapist, Dr. Sanchez, if there was anything else they could do for Lance. She suggested Caio contact Eddie’s Wheels. Caio went to the website, put in Lance’s measurements, and ordered his custom wheelchair.

“ As soon as we received the cart we took him to Dr. Sanchez, who had to place him onto the cart and make sure it was measured correctly and he fit properly on it, or if it needed some adjustments. And as soon as she put him in, he took off like a shot.”

Caio was always an avid cyclist, in fact long before his injury, Lance was named for Lance Armstrong, and now he has a “bicycle” of his own.

Of course Caio and Claudia still have to face the daily challenges of dealing with a paralyzed dog. They needed to be trained to evacuate Lance, and there is always the risk of urinary tract infections.

UTI’s are almost a given with Lance’s paralysis. And that is what will often shorten the lifespan of a paralyzed dog, but Caio says that since Dr. Sanchez has made him so aware of how to detect the onset of a UTI, in the three years since his paralysis, Lance has never had an infection that has lasted beyond 15 days. As Dr. Sanchez explained it to him, “the problem really is when the infection goes untreated for 60, 90 days or more, than kidney, and liver damage can occur, and this is what shortens the lives of paralyzed dogs, but I just do not see that as a problem with Lance, given the level of care he receives from Caio and Claudia.”

From family dog, to therapy dog, to super dog

Despite the paralysis, in the months since his surgery, Lance had seemed to return to his former self in so many ways. Feeling blessed, with Lance on his way to making a recovery, Caio found a way to do something even more positive with the whole experience. He met with Lynn Heyman, to see about getting Lance involved in the therapy dog program at Miami Children’s Hospital.

It took about two and half months for Lance to be certified as a therapy dog. Then he and Caio needed to take a few workshops to learn the specifics of the program at MCH.

“When we started the therapy dog process,” recalls Caio, “it was as much for my wife and myself, as it was for the kids in the hospital. We were feeling horrible, especially Claudia. Although Lance seemed to be taking it in stride, she was devastated by his paralysis. I needed to find some way to turn this bad thing into a good thing. Especially for my wife.”

That was 3 years ago. Today, Lance is so loved at MCH, that there is even a mural of him in the lobby. “I have seen the children light up when Lance comes in,” says Director Heyman. “It means so much for the children to see Lance and his special wheelchair, many of them can relate to it. There is a special connection that Lance has in his wheelchair with the patients here. When Lance is at the bedside the smiles on the patients’ and their families’ faces is priceless.”

When asked “if there was some radical new procedure available that could return Lance the full use of his legs now, would he elect to have it done?” Caio replies with an immediate and resounding No! “We have done so much with this wheelchair dog. We have brought so much light into the lives of so many children and their families, that Claudia and I now believe that Lance’s injuries happened for a reason, and this was our purpose. We can offer so much, to so many with this dog and his wheelchair, we would never want to change that now.”

Lance continues to do well. He was just a featured guest at a special Heart Health Event at MCH. And now he even has a “baby brother”. In December Claudia and Caio adopted their infant son, Felipe. All three of them continue to bring smiles and inspiration to children, and pet owners throughout South Florida.

For more information about Lance log onto www.superlancedog.com. To learn more about the Pet Therapy Program at Miami Children’s Hospital visit www.mch.com. Eddie’s Wheels can be contacted at www.eddieswheels.com.

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