A second chance at life: Local couple goes to great lengths to help their beloved pet
When Malcolm turned 3, he received his first chemotherapy treatment. He was diagnosed with lymphoma cancer in October 2009 after Jeanne Elswick had a sense something might be wrong.
"I just had a feeling he needed a checkup. My husband had felt lumps," she said.
It was a scary time for Elswick and her husband, Dallas, of Marietta, and they wanted to help their baby by whatever means necessary.
Malcolm is a Shiloh shepherd, and for the couple who have no children, he is a beloved member of their family.
"(Pets) are like our children and some people will go to any lengths to help them," Jeanne Elswick said.
With assistance from local veterinarian Dr. Lori Lutz, regular trips to The Ohio State University and the Internet, the Elswicks were connected to North Carolina State University - the first university in the nation to offer canine bone marrow transplants in a clinical setting - and Dr. Steven Suter.
"We opened the Canine Bone Marrow Transplant Unit in October 2008, treating our first patient in November," Suter said.
"North Carolina State Vet Hospital is the world's only veterinary academic institution that offers peripheral blood stem cell transplantation for the treatment of canine lymphoma.
"The procedure has been performed in a research setting for close to 20 years or so - dogs have been a model for human stem cell transplantation for many years. We are the first vet school to perform this on client-owned dogs.
"So, the procedure itself is not new - using it to treat client-owned dogs in a clinical setting is new," Suter said.
Currently, a transplant is performed every three weeks by the staff at NCSU and so far, 24 dogs have undergone the procedure and 22 of those were successful.
During the three-week process, the Elswicks were not allowed to be with Malcolm for fear he might contract an illness from the outside.
For Dallas Elswick, placing his dog in the capable hands of Suter and his team was a relief.
"Dr. Suter spent so much one-on-one time with (Malcolm) during the three weeks he was there, making sure he was as comfortable as can be. That was so very important to us," he said.
According to North Carolina State, the procedure involves the use of leukaphoresis machines, designed to harvest healthy stem cells from the peripheral blood. The machines are used in conjunction with drug therapy to harvest stem cells that have left the patient's bone marrow and entered the bloodstream.
The harvested cancer-free cells are then reintroduced into the patient after total body radiation is used to kill residual cancer cells left in the body. This treatment is called peripheral blood stem cell transplantation.
The harvesting procedure takes six hours and the patient remains in the hospital for two weeks following the procedure.
The bone marrow transplant process is completely painless for dogs, although the dogs do experience some gastrointestinal distress, manifested mainly as diarrhea, from the total body radiation.
"Malcolm did excellent while he was here," said Suter. "He tolerated the procedure quite well and had minimal toxicities.
"His transplant worked beautifully and when he went home (after three weeks) his blood counts were almost completely normal."
The prognosis for Malcolm, while not without concerns, seems to be good.
"All of the dogs that relapsed with disease after the transplant (there were three), did so within about three to three-and-a-half months after the procedure," said Suter.
"So my impression is that if a dog makes it past this point, he/she may be a long term survivor."
Not everyone might benefit from or even be able to afford this procedure, however.
According to Suter, the procedure roughly costs between $13,000 and $15,000.
"The average cost is $14,500. Our lowest bill is $13,000, while our highest is $24,000," he said.
There is no financial aid available for families; however, Suter said local care assistance providers might be able to help.
Also, not all patients are accepted and the waiting list is quite long.
"It's difficult to transplant small dogs less than 10 kg. The dogs have to be in clinical remission (no evidence of disease). We would prefer dogs with B cell lymphoma, but will transplant dogs with T cell lymphoma," Suter said.
"We are booked well into November of this year right now ... although the schedule can change quite a bit."
For Dallas Elswick, getting the word out about this life-saving treatment is important and a way to let other dog owners know that there are options. Cancer is not a death sentence.
"My hope is that people will read about Malcolm and realize that when you are a dog lover and are faced with something like this, there are opportunities out there being developed in conjunction with human treatments that are progressing the treatments of cancers," he said.
And through it all, Malcolm remains a fighter.
"He has no appetite and he is still weak," said Jeanne Elswick, "but he is playing. He's a real trooper."