"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Blog Hop: Things I've Learned from Bloggers

Sara started this with this post and we've all turned into a blog hop. While in my "old age" (I turned 39 this year) I have reverted to my childhood behavior of deliberately avoiding everything the cool kids do because I'd rather dance to my own tune...I wanted to participate in this one. :) I'm expanding the subject though: this is beyond just what I've learned in relation to horses. It's also about how others' blogs have changed me and my own writing in this space.

My blogging companion...

1. I owe blogging and owning mares 100% to Stacey's old blog, The Jumping Percheron. The old blog doesn't exist anymore but you can follow her new blog here. Her old one told the tale of how she started Klein under saddle and over fences and explained in detail the successful training and conditioning of a baby horse for a sport they weren't originally bred for. That original blog also took place in Hawaii, where she was stationed at the time through the Air Force, and her stories of riding through the tropical jungle brought back aching memories of riding in Puerto Rico. I can assure you that I would not be blogging today nor would I have bought Lily which in turn led me Gracie, had it not been for Stacey.

And that fact right there is why I wanted to participate in this hop. Because I would not be who I am today if it weren't for the blogging community.

Stacey and a baby Klein Mare from back in the day in Hawaii. <3
Photo from Eventing Nation.

2. Andrea's old blog Eventing A-Go-Go was the second blog that I ever followed after Stacey's, and it is 100% responsible for my decision to trim my own horses' feet. Andrea gets all the credit for that. Her blog also made me hugely aware of tendon and ligament injuries and much more careful about the health of my horses' legs when it came to conditioning, injury prevention and protection. It also further reinforced my desire to own a mare.

Andrea and the bestest mare, Go-Go Fatale.

3. Dom's blog, A Collection of Madcap Escapades, was the first blog I started reading once we moved to the Northeast and it was deeply influential in my choosing to venture out on trail here with Lily for the first time. I implemented some of Dom's training techniques with Lily, learned to read the trails here from Dom's experiences in the region (the trails here are SO different and so much more technical than the flat sandy trails we were used to from FL!), and her journey with Ozzy in endurance helped tremendously in guiding me when starting out with Lily's conditioning and competing in endurance. I could write an entire book about my takeaways from her blog alone: elyting non-Arabs; when to clip a non-Arab before a ride; when is the best time to shoe an otherwise barefoot horse before competition; I basically memorized her Foxcatcher ride stories at Fair Hill to the point where, when I first competed there on Lily with Gail and Nimo, it felt like I had been there a million times before; I applied some of her training methods with Booger to what I was doing with Gracie with incredible success (I have a soft spot for Booger because of that), and I could go on and on. I've been reading Dom's blog for 6 years now and it is still one of my all-time favorites. She is gifted both in her writing and her photography, and I will read anything she writes regardless of subject because I always get something out of her stories. I was so ridiculously overjoyed the first time she commented on my blog because I was already such an enormous fan...and it was even more wonderful to get to meet her in person while competing in endurance! Talk about meeting one of your idols. <3 If you're not following her already, you should check her out.

Dom and Oz the Great. <3

4. Gail's blog, The Journey to 100 Miles, was also transcendental in my riding history. Gail took a Friesian, of all things, and decided to compete him in endurance. The difference between Gail and your average endurance rider is that Gail is the most methodical, thoughtful, conscientious rider and horse owner that I have ever had the privilege to come across. Her blog validated the lengths that I went to to ensure that my own non-Arabs could safely compete in a sport not tailored for them, and I always came away with some new fact or concept learned thanks to Gail's own research while she learned the ropes as well. Her dressage lesson write-ups were my favorites though: I can't tell you how many times I'd turn the computer off after one of her lesson posts so I could rush to the barn to try out what she'd written about because I'd be that motivated by her!

Gail and Nimo at Fort Valley

5. Mel's blog, Dr. Mel Newton, was another crucial part of my endurance foundation. Her old posts about her Standardbred Minx and their struggles when starting out in the sport helped me feel so much better about my own initial struggles with Lily's metabolics. Mel's ultra running posts have been the most influential: they motivated me when it came to running and also when venturing into the strength sports. She is such a badass that she inspired me to find my own badassery. Now that I'm thinking about it, Mel's deviation from strictly horses in her blog content to include posts about running, her own personal conditioning and other life situations, was one of the main driving forces behind me deciding to expand my own blog subject matter to include my adventures in the strength sports (bodybuilding and now CrossFit and powerlifting.)

Mel and her Arabian Farley, conquering Cougar Rock on the Tevis 100.

6. Aarene Storm's Haiku Farm gets a mention for several reasons: Aarene is a librarian that lives in the PNW and competes a very tall dark bay Standardbred mare named Fiddle in endurance. Her blog is a lesson in positivity while still keeping it real in the most matter-of-fact way. The woman competed in distance riding with a hip so bad that she needed a total hip replacement...and she bounced back from it to continue riding with nary a hitch. Her post about Fiddle's elyting protocol was what ultimately made Lily as an endurance horse: I finally started elyting my own dark bay non-Arab competing in humid weather the way you should elyte a non-Arab in humid weather. Aka they should receive a shit-ton of electrolytes. It is thanks to the protocol that I came up with after reading Aarene's post that allowed Lily to complete the No Frills 55 with the ease that she did it.

Aarene and the lovely Fiddle, aka The Dragon, proving that dressage is the best cross-training discipline for just about any other equestrian sport.
Fun fact: Fiddle is the only mare that I know of in Blogland who is spayed.

7. Karen's blog Thee Ashke led me to one of my now best friends IRL. I always loved her trail ride write-ups, but it was her series "Truth or Tall Tale" that I identified with the most: there was so much that was magical and unexplainable about my own childhood growing up in PR that this series both solidified my friendship with Karen into something beyond mere blog acquaintances, and led me to begin to expand my writing to include the more surreal aspects of my life, both past and present. The fact that these stories make some people uncomfortable was just more reason for me to continue writing about these experiences. ;) It's my reality. *shrug* Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the writer of 100 Years of Solitude, is considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and the inventor of magic realism in Spanish literature. In an interview he once stated that magic realism doesn't apply to Puerto Rico and the Caribbean because there, magic realism is real. If the greatest writer of the 20th century could recognize that, that's just more reason for me to write about my reality! :D And Karen was the one who inspired me to speak up about it. <3

7I discovered Jenny's The Bloggess a few years ago now. It was a slow winter evening  in the veterinary ER and we were all futzing on our phones because there was literally nothing to do: no patients to take care of, no chores left to complete. I was checking out the blogs that other bloggers read (I sometimes do that to find new blogs to follow) and that's how I discovered The Bloggess. At the time, she was on a roll with her taxidermied animal collection, which sounds really creepy in writing but you just have to read the way she talks about it to understand. Before I knew it I was chuckling as I read along. And then I was laughing. And then I was laughing so hard the tears were streaming down my face. And then everyone else in the ER was like, "What the hell are you reading?" So I read one post out loud. And another. And another. And it wasn't long before all of us weirdos that worked in that veterinary ER were laughing equally hard over the awesomely quirky uniqueness of The Bloggess and her vision of the world. I was hooked. The fact that she owns a cat named Ferris Mewler who likes to roll around on her computer keyboard for attention like a certain Aengus cat (you have to follow me on IG to know about that) and a long-haired Chihuahua that she likes to dress up named Dolly Barker, were just the cherry on top. I love her blog because of her humor, but also because Jenny has a whole host of mental disorders that she openly talks about, including depression and a massive anxiety problem. She is so incredibly...human. And the fact that she can still laugh at the curveballs life throws at her is nothing short of admiring. I adore her and her blog is one of the things I turn to when I'm feeling down in the dumps.

Dorothy Barker <3

8. I don't remember how I found Girls Who Powerlift. I either clicked on someone's blog link on their IG profile or discovered it through a desperate search for other iron sisters who write. Girls Who Powerlift was exactly what I was looking for: it is written by a group of women who compete and train in the sport and it contains a wealth of information on training, developing the three lifts, and problems you'll only encounter as a female lifter. Their post on the detrimental effects of hormonal birth control on female strength athletes was one of the factors that led to me experimenting with this myself...the physical changes and strength gains have come about thanks to training and proper nutrition, yes, but I don't think they would have happened as quickly as they have had it not been for this specific change. I love this blog and my only complaint is that I wish they posted more often!

Photo from Girls Who Powerlift.

9. This isn't a blog, but finding this account on IG has been life-altering for me: @powerliftingwomen. The main focus is powerlifting female athletes, yes. But it is SO MUCH MORE. They talk about female issues when lifting and training (PCOS, endometriosis, how to fix incontinence urination while deadlifting super heavy weight (fyi: this is actually normal in women), pelvic floor health (your pelvic floor muscles get engaged when bracing for lifting), hormonal strength fluctuations (your strength will rise and decrease depending on where you are in your cycle!) and so much more), relationships with both women and men in and out of the gym, dealing with racial prejudice in and out of the gym, how to find a good coach, how to get rid of a bad one, how to fight back against fatphobia (your looks have nothing to do with how strong you are. Don't believe me? Check out this account. Really!), proper nutrition and finding balance in life, using lifting for coping with emotional/mental issues like stress, anxiety and depression, getting help on coping with injuries...I could go on and on. The account is run by a hetero couple and they have no issue with fighting against racism, bullying, harassment, and prejudice of any and all kinds. Not only are they outspoken about civil rights and fairness for all humans, they also have a fantastic snarky sense of humor that has me in stitches half the time. This account is a fabulous celebration of women's strength in every format, not just powerlifting, and it is single-handedly responsible for my active role in IG: I've found the strength community that I had been searching for in Blogland which means I post far more on IG nowadays than on FB and the blog. I have recently started typing out mini posts with quality material every once in a while to go along with the pictures I feature. Like I continue to say: if you really want to follow along in my adventures, the best place to do so now is my Instagram. :)

I am drawn to the "underdogs," to the blogs and IG accounts that are written by people who are honest and real, who have problems and emotions that they openly write about, that they then analyze and troubleshoot in order to achieve the goals that they set for themselves. They are the same qualities I try to express in my own writing because it is these qualities that make us human, that make us three-dimensional.

Moral of the story: pay attention to what you write. Be honest, be sincere, and be real. Reading about your journey just might change someone else's life. <3

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Owning It

I step up to the squat rack and slide under the barbell. I find my position, placing my hands on the bar snug against my shoulders, the cool smooth metal against the back of my traps.

I take a deep breath, straightening against the bar as I brace, and lifting it off of the rack in the process.

"Whoa that's heavy," slides through my mind before I can stop the thought.

I take an assertive step back, first with my right foot, then with my left foot, to give myself room away from the rack. Without moving my neck, my eyes look down to make sure my feet are even. I twitch my right heel first to get it into position, then my left heel so that it matches, a movement that almost every powerlifter I have ever watched also does when getting ready to squat.

It's cool to feel like I'm part of this club that I've been silently wanting to belong to for the last year.

The entire class has stopped to watch, including both of our head coaches. Coach A, who has been teaching me the Olympic lifts (if you follow on IG, I just posted about my lessons with her today), stands some 15' away in front of me to check my form, and her husband Coach D has stepped behind me to spot me. If I fail the lift, he is there to help catch the bar.

We are doing one-rep maxes for The Big Three aka powerlifts: squat, deadlift and bench press. Except I was the only one in the class that was cleared to attempt one-rep maxes. You have to have consistently good form with heavier weights in order to graduate to 1RM.

"You are ready," Coach A had declared with a smile. It is the biggest compliment of my hard work that I have received since joining this gym.

I thought of that scene in Karate Kid when he's finally finished waxing the car:

Miyagi: "Now ready?"
Daniel: "Yeah, I guess so."
Miyagi: *sighs* "Daniel-san, we must talk."
Both of them kneel.
Miyagi: "Walk on road, hm? Walk right side: safe. Walk left side: safe. Walk middle: sooner or later *squish*" Get squished just like grape. Here karate, same thing. Either you karate do "yes" or karate do "no." You karate do "guess so": *squish* Just like grape. Understand?"
Daniel: "Yeah, I understand."
Miyagi: "Now, ready?"
Daniel: "Yeah, I'm ready."

That conversation translates directly to lifting. You either do the lift or you don't. If you do "guess so" when lifting, you can quite literally get squished.

"Now ready?"
"Yeah, I'm ready."

I contract my abs, bracing, and step into a slightly wider stance. I take a deep breath, turning my core into a solid trunk that will stay upright and firm under the weight of the barbell...and slowly sink.

Down, down, down, into the deep dark depths of the hole.

Pause at the bottom. The bottom of the squat, also known as 'the hole,' is the part that will make or break you: you have to be able to come back out of it.

Hanging out in the hole in a different squat on a different day with 155 lbs on the bar.

"Own it," I tell myself.

"You've got this!" Coach D says behind me.

I slowly invoke every muscle in my glutes, quads and hamstrings to engage and force my knees out as I start to grind back up, pushing against the weight of the barbell like a diver struggling to reach the surface of the water from the darkest depths of the sea, exhaling my breath in a hiss between my teeth.

"Go go go go!" both coaches say in unison.

I straighten up all the way. "GOOD JOB!" Coach D places his hands on the bar to help steady it as I walk it back into the rack. I slide out from underneath the bar and lean against the now warm iron. My heart is pounding and I'm breathing hard.

And I have the most enormous grin on my face. I just stand there grinning like an idiot because there isn't enough happy jumping in the world to show how I feel right then. Coach A and Coach D see my expression and laugh.

I had just squatted 185 lbs, almost exactly 1.5 times my body weight, to correct depth, which used to be my biggest struggle last year when I did the powerlifting block with Trainer: I could never hit depth.

Well, I had just changed that.

And everyone was celebrating for me and with me.

Guys. It was amazing.

"Was that good?" I ask the coaches.
"Yes!" Coach A says. "Except that you felt the heavier weight and went into a wider stance than for your warm-up sets."

We discussed the cons of this. It was a bad habit I had developed with Trainer back when I tore my left glute last November: the wider stance under heavier weight used to allow me to guard the injury.
"Can I do it one more time to fix it?" I ask.
"Yes," Coach A says. "But take a couple of minutes resting first!"

The rest of the class goes back to working on their 5-rep maxes. Four minutes go by and Coach D returns to spot me.

I do everything exactly the same, except that this time I don't allow myself to have even the most fleeting thought about the weight of the barbell, and I don't take a wider stance before getting ready to squat.

Coach A was right: it was so much easier when I used my regular stance. With my current strength levels, a too-wide stance makes it more likely for my knees to cave in. (This is a HUGE no. Squatting enormous amounts of weight won't kill your knees. Allowing your knees to cave while squatting, will.) Having a slightly narrower squat stance (aka my normal) makes it easier to engage my glutes to keep my knees from caving in.

Granted, "easy" is a relative term when you're squatting 185 lbs for the first time in almost a year.

We moved on into the deadlift.

Just like with the squat, I had three opportunities to go up in weight before hitting my goal for the one-rep max. Once I had that goal weight, I had one attempt to complete the lift.

A month prior, I had set a one-rep max of 185 lbs during a deadlift WOD in the gym. For the past month, I've been doing a deadlift protocol with Hybrid Performance Method that is intended to make your deadlift stronger. In my case, it's a double whammy: all of the accessory work for deadlifts in this particular program strengthens the entire posterior chain (back, rear shoulders, glutes and hamstrings), which is my weakest link. A lot of the accessory work is also exactly what I would be doing if I was training to graduate to unassisted pull-ups (another goal of mine.) I've honestly been thrilled with this program so far...and I had recently turned 185 lbs into my bitch by pulling it for reps!

I had one drawback against me now: I had just done heavy squats, which had exhausted my lower body. BUT: this is the format for powerlifting competitions. This was my opportunity to really get a feel for it.

In light of where my strength felt to be at, I decided I would aim to repeat my 185 lb 1RM instead of trying to one-up it. I was given free rein to choose between sumo or conventional stance for pulling deadlift, and of course I chose sumo.

This was a huge argument back in the day with Trainer: to sumo or not. Bodybuilders think that pulling sumo (with your legs spread apart) is "cheating" because it shortens the distance that you have to pull the bar. The truth is: no. Anatomically it is easier for some people because the bar doesn't have to clear your knees as much as in conventional. For someone who is both short-waisted and long-legged like me, and who is also used to engaging quads with legs spread out for things like horseback riding, pulling sumo for deadlifts is a piece of cake compared to conventional.

Conventional setup on the left, sumo on the right. You can see what I mean about having to clear the knees with conventional.
Me pulling sumo. 145 lbs on the barbell.
I progressively went up in weight for my three opening sets, with the third set being at 175 lbs. My right quad was pissed by then. I bumped up the weight by 5 lbs, hoping to make it to at least 180. I positioned my feet so that they lined up with the marks on the barbell, squatted down and wrapped my hands around the knurled portion of the bar. I sat back, rolled my shoulders backwards to engage my lats, and gave a slight tug to pull the slack out of the bar. I then took a deep breath, braced, and pulled up.

The bar left the ground...all of two inches. My right quad went, "STOP!" and I obeyed: I dropped the barbell.

We called it then. My 1RM for this class was 175 lbs.

I was not upset at all though. I was simply glad that I had listened to my body: there was something tweaked in my right quad and it was better to rest it now while it was minor than try for a maximal effort and really injure myself in the process.

I didn't get to attempt bench press that day because by then we had run out of time for the Strength class. The WOD was coming up next and it was all snatch barbell complexes that I was super excited to work on as well. Again, not upset: my upper body strength for bench press is pretty wimpy right now and I'd rather build it up some more before truly attempting my 1RM for it again.

This all happened about a month ago.

Yesterday I pulled 190 lbs in the deadlift for reps...conventional.

190 lbs on the bar.
And so continues my journey with the barbell. :)

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Tales From the Trenches: "Caution"

"Don't touch me."

I looked at the old Golden Retriever curled up at the back of the run, his front legs tucked up underneath him and his head placed flat against the bedding, nose turned off to the side. The only thing that moved about him were his chest as he breathed and his white-rimmed eyes as he warily watched us while his overnight nurse rounded me on his story.

This expression.
Not the dog in the story; photo from the internet.
I quietly studied him as I listened, while being careful to avoid direct eye contact with him, because body language is such an important part of an initial assessment. Whose body language? Both yours and the patient's, of course. How you approach and present yourself to the patient can change the entire course of their hospitalization because with high-strung animals, it can determine whether they see you as yet another source of stress during their stay or as the caring entity that you want to be for them. And how accurately you read their body language is going to determine how you react to their behavior throughout their stay: it can make or break a patient-nurse relationship.

There are shades of gray in between these categories, and a friendly but insecure dog can go from green to red within seconds. Context is really, really important when observing a patient's behavior. For example, one of the biggest causes of confusion in canine body language is a wagging tail: friendly dogs will wag their tails, but anxious/tense dogs will sometimes oscillate their tails as well, and that's not even mentioned in this chart. An individual's body language can also have subtle personal variations. 
To a casual observer, Rambo was a large older dog resting comfortably in the back of his kennel. To me, there was nothing comfortable about him. I saw the defensiveness of his position in the cage, more sideways than forward with head further towards the front of the cage than his hindquarters. I saw the lines of tension etched across his shoulders, back and forehead, the muscle wasting of his hind legs that pointed at either long-term arthritis of his hips, back and/or stifles, or at some mild neurological issue that was limiting his mobility in his old age. And I saw the soft, fluffy, shiny coat that is so often an indicator of owners who pay attention to detail when it comes to the care of their pets, but is also a sign of a healthy digestive tract that allows the animal to absorb all the nutrients from the diet they are fed at home. I saw an old dog that was painful and afraid and that was deeply loved.

Noticing the orange "Caution" sticker on his cage card, I asked the overnight nurse, "How much of a caution is he?" "Caution" is relative in vet med and we place the stickers on cage cards when warranted as a safety precaution for coworkers: it just means you have to be extra careful with a patient because they have certain triggers. For some it's taking their temperatures or touching their paws or giving them oral medications. Discussing these triggers is a routine part of nurse rounds because we are the ones providing the majority of the hands-on care to the patients, so we need to know how to avoid upsetting the patient whenever possible.

In Rambo's case, he was cage aggressive to the point of lunging at his overnight nurse when she had reached into his run. The trigger was thought to be fear of pain because initially he had arrived at the hospital so painful in his belly from the tumor that was threatening to burst, that touching him anywhere had caused a reaction. He had been started on pain medication immediately and once his pain was under control, his behavior had improved significantly when handled outside of his run. I was told to still be very careful when going into his kennel though.

I looked at the old man who was watching us so warily and just had a feeling. "You and I are going to be okay," I thought.

We finished rounds on my other patients for the day and I started on their 8:00 am treatments, saving Rambo for last so that I could take my time with him. It was wonderfully quiet in the main part of the ICU. The only sound was the low voices of the doctors seated at their desks in the treatment area while they did rounds.

Rambo was housed in the Dog Ward adjacent to the main floor of the ICU. It has glass walls and a glass door through which we can see the patients from anywhere in the ICU, but when the door is closed we can't really hear much of what is happening in there. It has the largest runs in the hospital though, so our bigger patients get housed there for their stays so they can be more comfortable. When we have critical patients in there, the door gets propped open so that we can hear them as well as see them.

I walked into the ward, picked up Rambo's own leash that was hanging in front of his run, and quietly opened the door, talking to him gently. "Will you let me come in? I need to do a whole bunch of things with you, but I need you to help me." I watched his body language while avoiding direct eye contact. Life is much easier if you avoid direct eye contact with nervous/scared/potentially aggressive dogs, and it is something that is taught in basic behavior courses in both veterinary and tech school. I let him see the leash: most dogs associate their leashes (vs the hospital leashes) with going outside and I've had the most fear-aggressive dogs change their demeanor completely when they catch sight of something familiar from home that they associate with good things.

If you're thinking right about now that my job sounds pretty dangerous, you are absolutely 100% correct. Fear and pain are the #1 causes of aggression in the veterinary environment, so we deal with this on the daily in the veterinary ER.

His expression softened. I carefully stepped into the run, one foot at a time, watching Rambo's body language. Everything about him remained soft, though his eyes again became guarded as I got closer. I showed him the leash again and he turned his eyes away, expectantly waiting for me to clip it to his collar. I did.

Click went the snap on his collar ring. "Come on, handsome," I said quietly.

Rambo heaved his front end up into a sitting position and from there physically pulled his hind legs up underneath himself until he could stand on all four feet. It was painful to watch. I wanted to help him so badly but it would involve touching his belly and I wasn't sure yet how much it still did or didn't hurt. Starting off on the right foot with him would make everything so much less stressful for both of us for the rest of the day, and inciting pain from the get-go is not the way to do this.

So I helped him by moving one step at a time out of the run and onto the floor of the treatment area. Once out of the ward, he was fine as long as we stayed on the rubberized mats we have all over the ICU to help our canines have traction on the otherwise slippery floors.

I took him out into the middle of the ICU where I could easily ask for help if Rambo decided to misbehave because I was amidst the doctors and techs.

"Sit Rambo," I said.

He sat down next to me with obvious relief at not having to continue to stand. "Good boy. Down, Rambo."

He lay down. "Good boy. Now stay."

He stayed. Thank God for well-trained dogs, because they are not common in the veterinary ER. A dog might be well-trained at home, but it is rare that one encounters canine patients that are so well-trained and well-socialized that they will still obey in high-stress environments with strangers.

I slowly sank down onto the floor next to him so that I was sitting right flush against his body. He was wearing a plastic cone for our own protection and being closer to him meant that I would be fully shielded by his cone if he decided to suddenly turn his head towards me.

Still talking to him and telling him what a good boy he was, I gently ran my hands all over his shoulders in a circular motion while watching his expression. He made no eye contact with me, but I saw when his eyes initially widened at being touched. He then blinked and visibly relaxed, "Petting is okay." I continued stroking his fur and slowly made my way down to his back leg, finding the shaved patch right above his big paw pad where I could place the Doppler probe to obtain his blood pressure. He objected to none of it: the cuff around his leg, the gel against the shaved spot, the pressure of the cuff. He just lay there quietly, seeming to be relieved at not having to do anything other than just rest, and closed his eyes.

Photo from here.
I continued to watch him carefully as I gently made my way over him, but he let me do everything to him by myself while napping peacefully in the middle of the ICU floor. I got a full set of vitals on him, including his temperature, and was able to obtain a small blood sample for the labwork his doctor wanted me to run. I needed no help whatsoever; nothing that I did disturbed him. I had somehow 100% earned his trust without really doing anything special at all.

While I had him out, I got up and fetched one of those Help 'Em Up harnesses that I've mentioned on here before. He continued to rest in his spot when I walked away. I returned and he continued to lie quietly while I fitted the harness to him. It would be so much easier to help him stand up and get going if I could have the extra assistance of one of those harnesses with the rigging around the hips.

His doctor came over to do his morning physical exam while I had Rambo out. Rambo continued to be compliant, not making a peep when we had him stand up again so the doctor could palpate his belly and check for more free fluid with the ultrasound probe. The vet wanted to switch our patient to oral pain medications and he wondered if I would be able to achieve this.

The challenge was that Rambo was not really interested in eating so I couldn't hide the pills in food or Pill Pockets. I would have to pill him, which meant having my hands around his mouth.

I had the distinct impression that Rambo would let me do it though. I slowly reached out to touch his head and he let me stroke his nose and muzzle without issue; his eyes continued to be soft as he looked at me.

The doctor saw my momentary hesitation though, and he changed his mind. "Don't worry about it; we'll continue to use injectables. It will be less stressful for him anyway."

The fluid in Rambo's belly had not worsened. All of his vital signs and blood work that morning indicated that he was stable. His owners did not want to take him to surgery to remove the bleeding tumor though: he was old and they didn't want to put him through such a rough recovery afterwards just to get a few more months of life out of him.

I called them later that morning to give them the nursing update on how Rambo was doing, and to set up a time for them to come pick him up that afternoon. Since he was stable, they would be taking him home to spend time.

I am an introvert that generally prefers to work silently over my patients to speaking with clients. When I'm focused on a pet in my care, the entire world ceases to exist and it's just me and that cat or dog, communicating back and forth with gestures and expressions that don't require verbal language. Words are used to express tone of voice that the animal can understand. But the brunt of communication does not really involve words. And so the ICU floor and the OR are my jam far more than the exam rooms. But time and experience have changed that to a degree. When I first started out as a tech, I had a hard time talking to clients because I wasn't always confident in what I could or could not share information-wise as the nurse, especially when dealing with defensive, worried, stressed pet owners that you want to reassure without creating false hope. Now? Now I enjoy it. Even when the news isn't the best, I try to reassure the owners that their pet is comfortable with us, that we are doing everything we can to ensure that, and go out of my way to mention little personality quirks that I discover about their pet during their stay with us. Most of the time, even when they know it might be a losing battle when it comes to saving them, knowing that their pet isn't stressed or in pain or suffering and that they are acting like their true selves with us is the greatest reassurance of all.

So that is what I gave Rambo's owners. And in exchange, I got to hear his story. It was a story like so many others, of a dog that had been owned since the time he was a puppy, of what a good dog he had always been, of how he lived on the owners' farm and had so much land to roam. He had always gotten along great despite having bad hips. In the story the dog ages and slows down and the owners assume that the slowing down is because of age. But then they realize he is slowing down a little too quickly and the dog gets brought into the vet and the cancer and the bleeding is discovered. A lot of times, the owners blame themselves. They think if they had brought the pet in sooner, the cancer could have been cured. Or if they hadn't walked the dog or let him jump into the car on x day, the bleeding wouldn't have started. Or if they had fed them differently or not gone on that trip they had been planning or if they had thought about it a little more, maybe their pet wouldn't be dying now.

Those are always so hard. Because no matter how much you reassure them that, most of the time, having done things differently would not have changed the outcome because you can't reverse age nor its biggest side effect: death...owners always blame themselves.

But these owners were different because they understood. They understood that this was the end of the road for Rambo. There was no guilt involved because they had done everything right. There was just sadness because a dog they loved so much would be missed once he was gone.

We set a time and I hung up the phone, and went over to Rambo's run. He looked up at me when I opened the run and I knelt on the floor. "Your owners love you," I told him. He made eye contact briefly and then looked away, closing his eyes. I stood up quietly and let him sleep.

The hours ticked by. It was an unusually quiet day in the ICU, which was good because it meant I could take my time with treatments. Rambo had to be taken out of his run every time I had to do things to him and it soon started to get old. He was tired and just wanted to rest. He never once growled at me though. He'd give me an initial hard look, then sigh and lurch to his feet. "Fine. I'll come with you." As he pushed himself up with his front legs, I'd catch the rear handle of the harness around his hips and we'd walk out of the run together.

And then he'd lie down on the ICU floor and patiently let me do whatever I had to do for his treatments before it was time to go back into his run.

His owners arrived in the afternoon. I went over their discharge instructions and the pain medications we were sending home. There were just enough to keep him comfortable over the weekend. Unless he got worse sooner, they would be taking him to their regular veterinarian on Monday morning to euthanize him. We all knew that that was what would happen, but we all skirted around it in conversation.

Rambo's doctor went in to touch base with them while I got the big Golden ready to go home. It involved coaxing him out of his run one more time. It was one time too many: as I reached for the handle on his harness to help him up, he finally protested with a deep rumbling growl. "I don't want to get up."

I stopped. "Rambo. You're going home. Please come with me. You won't have to stand up for me again," I said gently. He glared at me, then finally looked away. I reached down slowly and stroked his coat, then reached for the handle on the harness, which he now allowed me to do. With a groan he struggled to his feet and came with me.

I took him back out into the ICU and uneventfully removed his IV catheter, placing a bandage over the site. I then did what I had honestly been wanting to do all day, but had not been able to because we were respecting the fact that the dog was uncomfortable and could change his mind about us at any moment: I removed the darn cone from his head.

We walked across the ICU. Rambo came alive when he realized we were leaving the treatment area, suddenly gaining a new spring to his step. Like most dogs tend to do, it was him that led me to the room where his owners were, whom he greeted ecstatically.

His owners said hi to him with a mixture of happiness and sadness. They picked up their belongings to leave and Rambo, knowing what was coming next, came over to me, placed his head against my knees so that I could really pet him without the plastic cone in the way, and wagged his tail shyly at me. It was the first time he had wagged his tail at me. It is always such a special gift when they come over to say good-bye before they go. I rubbed his ears silently for a moment before he pulled away with a doggy grin and headed for the door. Smiling, I stepped back so the couple and their dog could leave.

Rambo's owners paused, teary-eyed, and thanked me for my help.  I told them they were very welcome. I stood for a second in the hallway watching them walk away, Rambo's plume of a tail held high over his back as he marched out of the hospital with his people, his age and weakness and pain forgotten.

I was watching an ending. His days were numbered but he didn't know that. All that mattered was that he got to go home to be on his farm with his family one more time. And that made his ending a happy one.

Like I've said before: in ICU and in Surgery, that is all that I ever want for them.

I turned around and walked back through the swinging doors of the ICU to take care of my other patients.