WSU Veterinary Cardiologist Performs Uncommon Surgery in Time for Christmas

PULLMAN, Wash. — Christmas came early this week for the Smith family of Burbank, Wash., thanks to Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and its extraordinary cardiac care capabilities.

The family’s soul mate, a 12-year-old golden retriever named “Ginger,” had been suffering from a pericardial effusion. This is a condition where fluid accumulates in the sac surrounding the heart, gradually increasing and progressively compressing the chambers of the heart. When the pericardium fills with fluid like this, the heart’s function is compromised.

Although Ginger has suffered since September, she is now home for the holidays and returning to her happy-go-lucky self.

For almost 2 1/2 months, one or more of the members of the Smith family — Jim, Janie, daughter Cherie, 16, or son, Brad, 21 — have transported Ginger from home near the Tri-Cities to the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital for treatment every 10-12 days. The procedure involved inserting a needle through the chest cavity and into the pericardial sac and draining the fluid buildup.

Lynne Nelson, a WSU assistant professor and one of less than 100 board-certified veterinary cardiologists in the world, says, “The problem was caused by an aggressive tumor, and unfortunately the relief we were able to provide was only short term.”

On Dec. 4, Dr. Nelson and the family elected to perform a somewhat-rare-for-veterinary-medicine two-hour procedure designed to provide Ginger with a proverbial breath of fresh air and quality of life, possibly for several months. Equally important, it will alleviate the fluid taps every seven to 10 days. Dr. Nelson had previously performed five of this particular surgery successfully and was confident in the procedure’s ability to help Ginger.

Pericardial effusion is uncommon compared with other acquired heart diseases, but is not rare, says Dr. Nelson. Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and boxers are the most commonly affected breeds. Advanced cardiac care for companion animals is often difficult to find in many parts of the United States and throughout the world.

Dr. Nelson and a WSU surgical team carefully inserted a needle with a balloon on the end into the pericardial sac. As it was inflated, it eventually created a hole in the sac, allowing the fluid to slowly trickle into the chest cavity, where the body will reabsorb it naturally. The hole acts as a sort of relief valve with no other ill effects.

“As long as the fluid doesn’t move into the chest cavity quickly, Ginger should be fine,” says Dr. Nelson. “We kept her here for several days to monitor the flow and check her condition. Her spirits are good, and I’m confident she has some good days ahead. My chief concern now is the aggressiveness of the tumor that led to this problem.”

Two months ago, Ginger received two chemotherapy treatments at the WSU hospital designed to slow or halt the tumor growth and relieve the fluid buildup. They proved unsuccessful and necessitated the surgery.

“Having Ginger home is the best Christmas present we could have,” said a beaming Janie Smith, as Cherie and Brad took turns hugging Ginger Dec. 7 beside the giant Christmas tree in the lobby of the WSU veterinary teaching hospital.

“We got her as a puppy,” recalls Brad Smith, a WSU junior. “She was the runt of the litter and has been like my best friend as I grew up. She’s been healthy all her life, so seeing her ill the past few months has been tough.”

She accompanies the farming family everywhere, even occasionally on short trips in its small plane.

One of the free-spirited dog’s buzzwords is “mouse,” says Cherie Smith. “She’s a great mouser. In fact, she does such a great job we don’t even have a cat. But as she’s grown older and slowed down, her catch numbers are down a bit.”

Ginger’s favorite toy is a 3-foot-long green and yellow stuffed snake. “That’s waiting for her when she comes home,” added Cherie Smith.

“We are grateful to Dr. Nelson and everyone at the WSU veterinary hospital for their candidness, honesty and making us comfortable through all of our visits,” says Janie Smith. “We understand Ginger won’t be with us for a long time, but we’re cherishing one day at a time.”