Remembering 2 furry companions who were my ‘best medicine’

Blaze and Bella helped me through my worst times with cystic fibrosis

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by Jennifer Bleecher |

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Last week, I had to say goodbye to my best friend, my 11-year-old dog, Blaze.

He had been battling a mast cell cancer tumor on his jaw. As pet owners know, making the decision for this final act of love is the hardest and most heartbreaking thing we have to do.

Ten years ago, my husband and I wanted a second dog to befriend our very active German shepherd, Bella. I am technically allergic to dogs, but I’ve always had them. I knew then my cystic fibrosis (CF) was slowly getting worse, as climbing steps, walking the dog, and carrying heavy items took my breath away like never before. But our home had a large fenced-in yard, so we went to the local rescue and came home with Blaze, a 1-year-old shepherd mix. The two dogs got along famously from their first meeting.

I worked from home at the time, so I was with them every day and the three of us quickly formed a strong bond. I was consistent with my daily routine of work and treatments, and they obediently fell into a routine of watching out the window or napping around my schedule.

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A black-and-white close-up photo shows a woman kissing the muzzle of her German shepherd. Her eyes are closed, but the dog is looking up at her with love.

Jennifer Bleecher snuggles with her 11-year-old German shepherd, Blaze, who passed away last week. (Courtesy of Jennifer Bleecher)

Bella was the protector who stood strong next to me, many times letting me lean on her when I was weak or would lose my balance. Blaze was the best snuggler and lay close to me when I wasn’t feeling well, which had become more and more often. They would both watch me when I took my pills or during my nebulizer breathing treatments, seemingly knowing these were helping sustain me.

Both dogs were observant of my decreasing speed and abilities, and adjusted themselves to match me. I became oxygen dependent and had long tubing that let me walk the length of the house. The dogs knew to be careful and step over it. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I had stopped working and had been on the transplant waiting list for two new lungs for almost two years. Many of my doctor visits were now virtual, so I wasn’t leaving the house much at all.

And then I received the call for my new lungs. I didn’t return home for five weeks as I recovered. My husband and daughter would FaceTime me so the dogs could hear my voice and know I hadn’t left them. Once I was back home, they never left my side.

Like many German shepherds, Bella’s hips started to fail. With my new lungs, I was able to care for her and help with her decreased mobility until she passed away. Blaze stopped eating and became less active for a few months, depressed without her. He lost weight, and then his cancer diagnosis came. I was so thankful I had the physical strength and endurance to stay by his side, snuggle him, administer his medications, and take him to his veterinary appointments.

Two German shepherds lie on a brown couch, both looking off to something on their left. The one in front is tan and black with a green collar, and is lying on a red towel draped over the sofa's ottoman. Directly behind him on the seat of the couch is a light-colored shepherd whose ears are sticking up.

Jennifer Bleecher counted German shepherds Blaze, front, and Bella as family. They helped her through her long battle with cystic fibrosis. (Courtesy of Jennifer Bleecher)

Over the last year, the bond between Blaze and I grew stronger. My daughter moved into a place of her own. My husband works long hours. It was just Blaze and I, day in and day out. His health was slowly failing, but I saw him push himself, not wanting to leave my side.

The pure love and unwavering support I got from these animals was some of the best medicine I’ve ever received. However I was feeling each day, they met me where I was. Their calm presence kept me calm. They woke up happy each day for another day together and filled my own with joy and laughter. They remained stoic in the midst of their own battles and still would come be at my side, ready to comfort me instead. If I had to leave the house, no matter how long, they’d wait patiently for my return. Their love was unconditional. They were family.

As someone with CF, I can empathize with shorter-than-expected life spans and progressive health declines. I feel so blessed to have received my double-lung transplant and to have been able to return the care, love, and comfort my dogs gave me for so many years when I needed it.

I wouldn’t change one moment I had with them; the love and care we shared were extraordinary. Their time in my life was medicine for my soul that I couldn’t have received anywhere else.

Note: Cystic Fibrosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cystic Fibrosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cystic fibrosis.


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