8 wheels, 1 heart
By Dana Standish
Special to The Seattle Times
There are a few things about Tom Tilden that you should know: He's not some sort of softie animal nut. He'd never even had a dog before Bernie, his 8-year-old Rottweiler. He realizes Bernie probably won't beat the bone cancer that led to the loss of a front leg in January. And he's not doing anything extraordinary by giving Bernie a custom-made wheelchair to help her get around after her surgery. He's just doing what anyone would do when faced with a loved one's serious illness: He's trying to buy more time.
Tilden can relate to Bernie's plight in a way that few others could. He's been in a wheelchair since 1986, when a training accident in the Army left him a paraplegic.
"Before my accident, I was talking to an Army buddy about people who were paralyzed, and I said to him, 'If that ever happens to me, I want to die.' One month later, my back was broken and I became a paraplegic. My first thought was, 'I want to live.' It's probably the same for Bernie."
The 40-year-old Tilden, a freelance editor who lives in North Seattle, grew up in Eastern Washington, the youngest of eight children of a farmer who didn't believe in having indoor animals.
Eight years ago, his future wife, Nancy, said to him, "I love dogs." Tilden figured they were having a hypothetical discussion, so he replied, "I love dogs, too." He soon found out that what this really meant was, "Let's get a dog together."
When the couple went on a fact-finding mission to a kennel, they vowed they would not come home with a puppy. Then 13-week-old Bernie, a gal with an eye on the future, crawled onto Tom's lap, and it was all over.
"I had no idea what I was in for," he says. "I didn't know how much Bernie was going to become a part of me. If I had, I probably wouldn't have gotten her."
From the outset, Tilden and Bernie were inseparable, spending "every waking hour within 10 feet of each other." They participated in competitive obedience training for two years, the major requirement for which is reciprocal trust and devotion.
Bernie was such a star that Tilden tried her at sheep herding, and she excelled. "She was gentle enough to herd ducks," he explains. More important was Bernie's skill with people. "When we went for a walk," says Tilden, "everyone would notice how well-behaved she was. I wouldn't know any of my neighbors if it weren't for Bernie."
Early last year, Tilden noticed that Bernie was tiring easily and that her enthusiasm for herding had waned. After having surgery to repair a torn ligament in her right hind leg, she was still limping.
The vet thought she had a sprain, but when it failed to heal, the Tildens got a grim diagnosis: Bernie had an aggressive type of bone cancer in her left front leg. Tilden knew he couldn't leave a fallen comrade. "Bernie never gave up on me, and I wasn't going to give up on her," he says.
The Tildens debated about how many extra miles they were willing to go with Bernie, and then decided that her best chance would be amputation of the cancerous limb, followed by chemotherapy. This could buy Bernie another 18 months. Without the amputation, she would have had three months at the most.
"My accident," Tilden says, "influenced me to believe that just because a dog doesn't have a leg doesn't mean she doesn't want to be alive."
The Tildens have been working to get Bernie accustomed to her wheelchair. She still yaws to one side, but Tom is confident she'll get the hang of it. It's a matter of getting the cart to bear enough weight, without taking so much weight off that she doesn't have good traction.
The custom-made wheelchair takes some of the weight off her remaining front leg, which will help to protect her from arthritis and other joint problems. The $1,100 chair was made by Doggon' Wheels, a custom canine-cart manufacturer in Bozeman, Mont.
Bernie will have to get over her prejudice against wheelchairs. "She's suspicious of everybody else in a wheelchair," says Tilden. "She even barks at them on TV."
So far, she's doing well. She is receiving a drug that was tested at the University of Wisconsin and found to extend cancer patients' lives by up to six months. She has finished her chemotherapy and still receives regular acupuncture, chiropractic care and treatment with Chinese herbs. She also goes swimming twice a week at Wellsprings, a canine hydrotherapy studio in West Seattle.
"The swimming optimizes what Bernie has left," says hydrotherapist Sheila Wells. "In the olden days, people would just shoot a dog if it got a broken leg. Now you can get them into the pool one week after surgery, or as soon as the stitches have healed."
Swimming provides Bernie with exercise, with relief from weight-bearing and with the chance to do a job.
One of Bernie's jobs is to continue to heal and adjust to her new wheels. But perhaps her biggest job is one that just comes naturally: not to give up. "The thing that makes Bernie happiest," says Tilden, "is a job well done."