She wasn't about to let her girl die without a fight, says Jennifer O'Brien Pheiffer, who so far has spent $20,000 to save the life of Zansi, her 14-month-old bullterrier.
Late last week Zansi returned home to St. Petersburg after a kidney transplant, a rare procedure for dogs. Monday afternoon, she ate ravenously.
"We're not out of the woods by any means. There are still risks, but I'm very optimistic with her immediate response,'' said O'Brien at her Maximo Moorings home.
"I feel this absolutely was the right thing to do. If it had cost me twice as much, I would have done it.''
Besides having the resources to spend on the puppy, O'Brien had something else in her favor. For the surgery, Zansi needed a related donor. It just happened that O'Brien also owns one of Zansi's sisters, Toni.
As O'Brien tells it, when she traveled to South Africa last year, she was looking for only one female bullterrier. It was a breed she and her late husband, South Africa-born Mark Pheiffer, had always wanted.
"I set out to get one girl, and by a strange twist of fate, I took the two, because I fell in love with both. I imported the girls a couple of months later and picked them up in Miami. They were about 16 weeks old,'' O'Brien said.
The dogs, born on June 30, 2007, were not only sisters; they were from the same litter.
O'Brien, 50, began seeing signs of Zansi's illness in April.
A specialist diagnosed a kidney disease and said Zansi would be lucky if she survived to be a year old.
"He told me the transplant surgery wasn't worth it,'' O'Brien said.
"That's a value judgment. The truth is, if it were $50,000, I would probably do it if there's the potential for good quality of life.''
O'Brien decided to do her own research.
"Basically, I didn't give up. It is like human health care. I think you have to be in charge of a pet's health care the same way you would be with your family's health care,'' she said.
"I spent a lot of time scratching and clawing and pounding the pavement."
Breeders and friends recommended Dr. Shawna Green at Medicine River Animal Hospital in Pinellas Park. Green saw Zansi for the first time in May,
"She came to my clinic because she was looking for other alternatives,'' said Green, who practices both traditional and alternative medicine including acupuncture and herbal treatments.
"I just tried to keep her stabilized. When I first saw her, she looked like a pretty healthy puppy, but she had these episodes where she would crash, get very lethargic and stop eating,'' Green said.
"Really, there was nothing other than a kidney transplant that would save her. She got very sick several times. Finally, at the end of July, she was getting very sick. It was really kind of touch and go. She started having seizures.''
Green and O'Brien found out about the University of Florida's Veterinary Medical Center's hemodialysis program. The puppy was taken there for dialysis in preparation for the transplant.
"I got up at 4:30 in the morning to try to get to Gainesville at 8,'' recalled O'Brien, an artist and designer, who once chaired the St. Petersburg Historic Preservation Commission.
Dr. Carsten Bandt, clinical assistant professor and emergency and critical care specialist at UF's Veterinary Medical Center, said he put the dog on dialysis for six weeks.
"When I saw her initially, they couldn't do the surgery at that point,'' he said, explaining that hemodialysis consisted of hooking Zansi up to a machine that does the filtering normally done by the kidneys.
The hemodialysis helped to stabilize Zansi for surgery.
"She was gaining weight. She started playing again. She was a completely different dog,'' Bandt said.
"Her mom hadn't seen her that way for months and months and months.''
Zansi's last hemodialysis treatment took place on the Sunday before her Aug. 4 transplant at the Veterinary Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Heidi Phillips, who performed the surgery with Dr. Lillian Aronson, said transplants are not recommended for all dogs with kidney disease. Animals with infections or recurring infections or that have cancer are not good candidates for kidney transplants, she said.
"It is a rare procedure in dogs. We can only use dogs that are related to each other at this time. In cats we can use unrelated donors, because they are able to suppress their immune system with medication. They respond to the immune suppression medication better than dogs do.''
The surgery began at 8:30 a.m. with Toni, as the doctors prepared her kidney to be transplanted.
"For a time, we actually have both dogs under anesthesia,'' Phillips said.
"Zansi's operation began around 11 and ended about 5 p.m.''
The prognosis for Zansi is good, she said.
"We're optimistic that she could have a fairly normal life,'' she said. Zansi had her first checkup at Medicine River in Pinellas Park on Saturday.
"It's so amazing to see her doing so well,'' Green said.
"I have always had a level of confidence that we could do this and get through it,'' O'Brien said.
"The cards have been right for us. I feel very lucky.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727 )892-2283.