David and Vernie Greenhalgh of British
Columbia, Canada with Mr. Bear at WSU.
Meet Mr. Bear
Mr. Bear is one of thousands of patients who has been helped because of an MRI
In the spring of 2013, Joel Greenhalgh of British Columbia, Canada noticed an odd lump on the top of his dog's head. He took "Mr. Bear," a then 11-year-old Australian Shepherd-Rottweiler mix, to his local veterinarian. At first the advice was to watch and see, but when it didn't go away, his veterinarian took a biopsy. Mr. Bear had cancer.
Because of the location of the tumor, local specialists were hesitant to perform surgery. Joel had heard about teaching hospitals from a family friend and began doing some research.
"Our oncologist recommended WSU and told us that it is one of the best facilities in the world," said Joel.
Unable to get away from work to make the 400-mile trip to Pullman, Joel's parents, Vernie and David Greenhalgh, offered to drive Mr. Bear to WSU for treatment. "Time was of the essence," said Joel.
Joel and Mr. Bear are an improbable pair. When he first met Mr. Bear at a local shelter, Joel was positive he did not want a dog. But his girlfriend at the time did. So, Joel looked at a few dogs and picked then 6-year-old Mr. Bear. He made it clear it would be her dog. But, as the years went by, the girlfriend left and Mr. Bear stayed. Joel had grown very attached to him. Because of Mr. Bear's age, some people discouraged Joel from bringing him to WSU and suggested maybe he should consider letting Mr. Bear go. That wasn't a thought Joel was ready to consider.
"He was full of energy and happy," said Greenhalgh. "I wanted to do something."
So, Joel got online and started a fund to raise money for what they expected to be a simple surgery to remove the lump. Joel's parents drove Mr. Bear to Pullman.
"We didn't know what to expect," said Vernie Greenhalgh, Joel's mother. "But we were immediately impressed. It was very welcoming and pet friendly. We felt secure that we would get the best care."
From the parking right outside the hospital, to the kindness extended to Mr. Bear, Vernie and her husband, David, knew they had made the right decision to bring him to WSU.
They met with neurologist Dr. Annie Chen and fourth-year veterinary student, Beryl Swanson. "They were so kind to him and so patient and gracious with us," said Vernie. But they also didn't waste any time getting the needed tests right away, she said.
Mr. Bear was sent for an MRI scan to assess the tumor. That's when they received the devastating news.
"After seeing the results of the scans, we realized the situation was much worse than what we had originally thought," said Vernie.
The Greenhalghs had believed Mr. Bear just had a lump on the outside of the skull. But the MRI results showed the cancerous skull tumor was growing into the skull and pressing on the brain. Dr. Chen and her team took MRI scans from several different angles and used different techniques to see the exact location of the tumor and where the blood vessels were.
"MRI is the best way for us to evaluate the brain," says Dr. Chen. "We needed to know how far the tumor had extended. To know up to the millimeter is very important."
And by knowing where the edges of the tumor were, they could better explain to Joel and his parents what the benefits and risks of the surgery were going to be. The tumor was also growing very close to a major blood vessel, which added to the risk.
"By having the images, we felt confident we could approach that area and do the surgery," said Dr. Chen.
What Joel and his parents had anticipated would be a smaller surgery, was now going to be a much more complicated one. And more expensive.
"It was a very difficult decision," said Vernie. Joel had been raising money but now he realized he's need to raise even more. In the end, Joel raised over $4000 from generous friends and strangers to save Mr. Bear.
After long and very delicate surgery, Dr. Chen and her team were able to remove more than 90% of the tumor. Because she knew where the vessel was from the MRI scan, Dr. Chen was able to tease the tumor away from the vessel and not tear it.
"Dr. Chen did a miraculous job," said Vernie. WSU oncologists followed up with radiation treatment to kill the remainder of the cancer cells.
After Mr. Bear's recovery, Joel's father, David, was himself diagnosed with cancer. Joel brought Mr. Bear to visit him at the hospital.
"He had helped the dog and now the dog was there to help him," said Joel.
David walked with Mr. Bear at the hospital. It brightened his mood and those of fellow patients. Seeing the happiness Mr. Bear brought gave Joel an idea. He decided to submit an application for Mr. Bear to become a therapy dog. They hope Mr. Bear will soon be visiting senior homes and hospitals.
"As a cancer survivor himself, Mr. Bear can bring comfort and joy," said Joel.
Whether it was WSU student Beryl Swanson housing Mr. Bear while he needed to stay in Pullman, Joel's parents driving Mr. Bear more than 400 miles to WSU, or strangers and friends donating whatever they could, every piece mattered, said Joel.
WSU veterinary student, Beryl Swanson
('14 DVM) with Mr. Bear after surgery.
"Part of the healing they received is all the love they get from the staff, students and doctors," said Vernie. "Animals can sense an environment where there is that kindness and love. It gives the animal the will to live."
This spring, they will follow up and have another MRI to see whether the tumor has returned. "It is a slow growing cancer, so the surgery bought him some time," said Dr. Chen. "The hope is it will bring him a few good years."
"WSU saved my dog's life," said Joel.
Coda: Joel's ex-girlfriend, Amanda, returned from London last August after Mr. Bear's recovery. The two of them had stayed in touch over the years because of Mr. Bear. Now Joel, Amanda and Mr. Bear are happily back together.