This year, we said goodbye to a dear patient that we had the honor of working with for 15 months. He and his family taught us about resilience, adaptation, creativity, empathy, and the incredible depth and beauty of the human-animal bond. His memory will live on in many, many hearts.
This story is dedicated to Ripley, the boy who never stopped adventuring.
“What do you think about the little one with the weird eye?”
Standing outside of a grocery store, Aaron Murray and Shannon Powers watched as a small brown puppy allowed his sisters to trounce him as they played. The couple had talked about adopting a dog and had decided they weren’t quite yet ready to commit. But as Shannon was driving to meet Aaron and noticed the puppies outside the store, she couldn’t stop herself from visiting the litter and calling Aaron to meet her there.
Shortly after the conversation where they chose the “one with the weird eye” who seemed laid back, Shannon and Aaron took home their new dog, who would soon be named Ripley. Sure, they hadn’t planned on adopting a dog yet, and they were on their way to a meetup and also had plans to attend the SXSW musical festival that week, even having out-of-town guests slated to stay with them, but one look at those big green eyes (which later turned a beautiful shade of brown) and that was it. While it was, in their words, “the worst possible time to get a dog,” they never regretted missing their favorite bands and canceling plans because it meant they had Ripley in their lives.
Once the couple brought Ripley home, they quickly realized a) he was not, in fact, laid back and b) he was also not a chocolate lab. But that didn’t matter to the couple because they’d fallen in love with him and the joy he brought to their lives.
“Later on, we found out he was pretty crazy,” said Shannon with a laugh. “But we didn’t mind that he didn’t turn out to be a full-bred chocolate lab because all the things that made Ripley perfect were thanks to his mix of breeds and the personality they gave him.”
Overcoming the Odds
For the first ten years of his life, Ripley was a happy, healthy boy with boundless energy. He had a few low-grade mast cell tumors removed, but no other major issues. That is, until the fall of 2017, when he was diagnosed with splenic hemangiosarcoma – spleen cancer. Expecting that Ripley had only months to live, Aaron and Shannon were determined to spoil him rotten.
Amazingly, a few months turned into a few years until 2019, when they were faced with Ripley’s second terminal cancer diagnosis. This time, it was histiocytic sarcoma, an incredibly rare and aggressive cancer that led to the amputation of his right forelimb, followed by a dose of chemo. Again, Ripley surprised everyone by going into remission, but his quality of life was severely impacted by trying to get around on three limbs with both hip and elbow dysplasia.
At this point, the couple was left with two choices: euthanasia due to poor quality of life from his pain and limited mobility, or elect a total hip replacement for Ripley. They chose the latter, and within a few months, his body was once again keeping up with his buoyant attitude.
In early 2020, he received the devastating diagnosis of another sarcoma, this time in his left forelimb. Surgery wasn’t an option, and a few months later the tumor had progressed despite treatment. They were once again faced with the decision about whether to let him go, but Aaron and Shannon knew their dog and his spirit, and they were not ready to give up.
“There were multiple points where we thought, Ripley would be so mad at us if we euthanized him right now,” said Aaron. “He was so adaptable and still had so much to do.”
Ripley’s Pet Hospice Journey
Ripley was transitioned to palliative care with a focus on comfort and quality of life and an expected prognosis of weeks to months. Aaron and Shannon dedicated every minute of every day to his comfort and enrichment. He had always been obsessed with toys and used them to communicate different moods or messages to his people. His collection was massive as each visit to his doctors was marked with a new toy. Ripley would grab his “anger frisbee” to let Aaron and Shannon know when he was feeling indignant, pick up his water toys when he wanted to go for a swim, or seek out his nibblers (including a hummingbird named Robin) when he was feeling feisty.
As the weeks turned into months, Aaron and Shannon were able to take him on several trips where he visited new beaches and swam in new bodies of water. They created lasting memories in Clearlake and in Mendocino, but he was also perfectly happy at home, where he loved to play hide and seek with his owners and watch TV.
“He helped us through his sickness,” Aaron and Shannon recalled. “He was so bright and full of life. He still had a lot of important things to do, like swimming, walks, park visits, and toys, so he just kept going. He didn’t care about his diagnoses, and since he didn’t care, we tried not to dwell on it too much. We wanted to be sure we engaged him as much as possible to give him the best life.”
Ripley’s hospice veterinarian, Audra Pompeani, wasn’t able to see him or his family in person for a few months due to COVID-19 safety precautions. That didn’t impede Ripley’s care, though. They had a virtual face-to-face consultation call that majorly impressed Aaron and Shannon. Despite Ripley’s massive medical file, Audra was well-versed in his case and extremely thorough when it came to his care. Shortly after the first virtual meeting, they had a COVID-safe in-person nursing visit with vet tech Barb St. Amant, who coached them on things like understanding Ripley’s comfort and wellness, symptoms to watch for and more.
It didn’t take too long, but when Audra finally got to meet Ripley in person, she was shocked. Expecting to meet a disabled, geriatric dog, dependent on his mobility aids and his owners for support, what she found instead was a joyful and exuberant boy. As she approached them outside their home, Ripley broke away from Shannon to run toward her, and when Audra crouched to greet him, Ripley actually knocked her over with his excitement and momentum.
“He had several cancers which brought discomfort, but he was also the embodiment of pure happiness,” said Audra.
Luckily for the family, Ripley was easy to medicate because he was a great eater, and he ate better than most humans (including, often, his people). What started as special occasion meals to celebrate his milestones turned into the norm as he continued to outlive everyone’s expectations. Never one to pass on dessert, he would show his zest for eating by not only finishing his froyo but also destroying the edges of the cup with more nibbles.
Eventually, Ripley had to lean on Aaron more and more for support on his walks, but that didn’t stop him from adoring his time outside hitting the pavement. His owners would hide toys for him to find along the route, keeping his mind engaged on his outings. Gradually, as his mobility continued to decline, his activities turned into “mini fetch” in their apartment and wagon walks so that he could feel the breeze on his face.
Even as his body failed him, Ripley’s spirit was undeniable, and he was able to show his family that he was getting joy out of each day. At a certain point, Ripley’s loss of mobility meant they had to put an end to games of fetch out of fear he’d hurt himself. This brought about a new phase of Ripley’s life where he got to discover something new: being a social butterfly with other dogs.
“It was delightful to watch,” said Aaron. “Since he was new at it, he sometimes seemed like an awkward teenager or an old geezer with the other dogs.” Even though Ripley enjoyed his physicality so much, his ability to adapt and keep thriving never stopped him from living life to the fullest.
Staying Positive Amid Sickness – and a Pandemic
Much of Ripley’s illness progressed during the pandemic. During a turbulent time for the entire world, Aaron and Shannon took advantage of the lockdowns and reduced social opportunities to focus even more on Ripley and giving him entertainment and enrichment. They simply had to treat every day like it was a “rain day.” For example, Shannon and Aaron organized a “Christmas in July” party thinking Ripley’s time was close to being up. However, not one to let something like a terminal diagnosis stop him, Ripley stuck around to celebrate actual Christmas day in December.
Ripley’s infectious spirit helped the couple through a time when many struggled with isolation.
“We never felt lonely. The biggest frustration was not being able to do as many things for him,” Shannon and Aaron said. “We never felt particularly lacking, he was a bright spot. He was very funny, very present. We never felt alone.”
In his last week, it became clear to Shannon and Aaron that his spark was fading, and he was ready to let go. Together with the people who loved him most, Audra helped Ripley pass peacefully at home in his own bed, surrounded by all of his favorite toys.
Thinking about their experience with the BluePearl Pet Hospice team, Shannon said, “It wasn’t just Ripley who was being looked after. We were being looked after, too. I felt like there wasn’t anything that the hospice team didn’t consider.”
Aaron agreed, saying, “We had a ‘best of both worlds’ situation [with telemedicine] where we knew at any time we could have a nurse come to our house if we needed hands-on help with something. The peace of mind that brought was immeasurable.”
“When we celebrated milestones, they did too,” Shannon added of the hospice team. “Right after our trip to Mendocino, Audra surprised us for Ripley’s birthday by bringing a card, cake, balloons and a sign to celebrate.”
Knowing and caring for Ripley taught Aaron, Shannon, and his care team a great deal – about his conditions and his treatments, but also about resilience, adaptation, empathy, and the incredible depth and beauty of the human-animal bond.
According to Shannon and Aaron, if Ripley could leave the world with one thought, it would be this: Onward and upward. Keep looking for what’s next and keep living life to the fullest.