The heart of a survivor

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Young bulldog survives potentially fatal defect - with help of local vet

By Emile Hallez


Jackson was only a few weeks old when his guardian, Connie Rivera, noticed something peculiar about him.

Just like other bulldog puppies, he would snort, chew and run amok — but Jackson would curiously flop over, winded, after only a few rambunctious minutes.

“The way he ran around … we thought he was healthy,” said Rivera, who took home the wrinkly white-and-brown puppy after her son, Tony, dabbled for his first and apparently last time as a dog breeder. “He’d run a little bit and sit. It’s like he knew his limitations from the start.”

A visit to a veterinarian made Rivera’s heart sink. Jackson had a rare condition — a tiny blood vessel connecting his pulmonary artery and aorta had failed to close after he was born. Though the particular vessel is essential to puppies prior to birth, its continued existence is most often fatal outside the womb. Jackson’s heart was essentially leaking blood, failing to adequately pump fresh, oxygenated blood to the rest of his body.

An expensive operation — costing at least several thousand dollars — was the only option that could save his life. But Rivera and her husband, Gilbert, a construction superintendent, could not foot the bill, she said.

“We didn’t have the money to do anything,” said Rivera, an insurance agent. “It’s my understanding that that could kill him.”

In fact, Jackson, then about 3 months old, was lucky to be alive in the first place.

Dr. Lee Bregitzer, founder of South Jeffco’s Columbine Animal Hospital, agreed to handle the case pro bono, hoping, he said, to catalyze a benevolent chain of deeds and inspire others to “pay it forward” in their own ways.

“Every now and then, you just have to give something back to the world,” said Bregitzer, with whom Rivera was connected via one of the hospital’s veterinary technicians — a friend of Tony. “(Jackson) was going into congestive heart failure at 3 to 4 months of age, and these people didn’t have any money.”

Following the two-hour thoracic surgery, one Bregitzer has performed a handful of times in his 41-year career, the hole in Jackson’s heart was closed.

“Over time, technologies have changed, but the anatomy stays the same,” said Bregitzer, a clean-cut 64-year-old with a gold-plated stethoscope. “The surgery was successful. Immediately, his circulation returned to normal.”

To ensure that Jackson recovered smoothly, Bregitzer stayed the night in the clinic, keeping track of the puppy via a video feed.

“I stayed the night here with him,” he said. “He was on closed-circuit TV — puppy cam.”

On Sept. 23, two weeks later, Jackson lay on a table, wiggling and snorting anxiously as Bregitzer and technician Tracy Tuttle, Tony’s friend, removed the remnants of the dog’s operation. One by one, Bregitzer pulled 45 surgical staples from a long incision behind the 19-pound pup’s left front leg.

Despite the young dog’s appetite for play, a prescription for restricted activity will help his wounds heal swiftly. And that means wrestling matches with Harley the beagle, Rivera’s other dog, will have to wait.

“He’s just been a fighter. He’s been one who’s going to beat the odds,” Rivera said. “We’ll see how he overcomes the beagle,” she added, grinning.

Seeing his patient energetic and blissfully unaware of his brush with mortality, Bregitzer said the case exemplifies the necessity of charity.

“It’s a warm fuzzy feeling,” he said. “There is too much nastiness in the world. We need to practice random acts of kindness.”

And, consequently, the clinic has all but a contract with a bulldog who is unlikely to ever be seen by another veterinarian.

“I really cannot express my gratitude,” Rivera said. “I tell all my friends about Dr. Lee.”


Contact Emile Hallez Williams at emile@evergreenco.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22. For updates, check www.ColumbineCourier.com.