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Veterinary Medicine

Vet hospital, author write a happy ending to story

April 20, 2009

When best-selling author Sara Gruen learned her German shepherd puppy had a fatal heart defect, she turned to the experts at CSU to repair it.

By Sara B. HansenThe Coloradoan

Best-seller's puppy gets a new heart valve at CSU 

Gruen, the New York Times best-selling author of Water for Elephants, got the puppy, whose parents are a therapy dog and a police dog, after the family's 14-year-old dog died of lymphoma.

The puppy's heart defect, a leaky valve, was discovered as a heart murmur during a routine wellness check when Sophie was getting some of her puppy shots.

At first it didn't seem serious, but by the time the puppy went in for her final set of shots, the ultrasound results were grim. The right side of Sophie's heart was four times the size of the left, and the vet gave her two months to live.

"It was a sucker punch," Gruen said. "We'd just lost a dog. I didn't think we and the kids could go through that again."

Turned to the Internet

She turned to the Internet and quickly learned that not only is the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital one of the few places in the country to get a heart valve replacement surgery, but Dr. Chris Orton (pictured below) has one of the highest success rates with open-heart surgeries to replace faulty valves.

Orton has been performing open-heart surgeries on dogs since 1991, and started replacing canine heart valves in 1996. He's performed more than 100 such surgeries, including a 2005 heart valve replacement on a nine-month old yellow Labrador who belonged to seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong.

The demand for the surgeries is high, but Colorado State University now does only one or two per year. "We've scaled back. We just don't have the resources to run a national referral service," Orton said.

The surgeries are labor intensive for Orton, the anesthesiologists and the critical care team. "I wish we had more resources," Orton said. "I get weekly e-mails from people asking me about the possibility of doing the surgery." Neither Orton nor Gruen would say how much Sophie's surgery cost.

Relentless appeals to save Sophie

Gruen was relentless in her appeals to Orton. She bombarded him with tearful voice mail messages begging him to save Sophie.  "I can be very persuasive," she said. "I was begging, crying, pleading on his voice mail. She had one valve that was wrong. Otherwise she was perfectly healthy."

Orton hoped to do Sophie's surgery in July when she was older, but her heart deteriorated too quickly.  He replaced her leaky valve with a porcine bio plastic heart valve. The body is less likely to reject the pig valves, which last 10 to 15 years in people.

Sophie has new porcine bio plastic heart valve

"I hope in this case, it will last a lifetime," Orton said. "This will significantly extend her life. She wouldn't have made it to a year without the surgery."

Sophie will be on blood thinners for three months to make sure she doesn't develop any clots, but then should live a normal life.

"She's got a few things on her side," Orton said. "She's young and she's a dog. She can handle it."

Astonishing changes

Sophie had her surgery April 7 and by the next weekend was able to leave the hospital and stay at a Fort Collins hotel with Gruen. She's been coming to the vet hospital for daily blood tests.

On Friday, she had another blood test and a final heart ultrasound. The comparison between her pre-surgery ultrasound and her Friday ultrasound were dramatic.

"I'm seeing astonishing changes," Gruen said. "At first she was sleeping a lot, but now she wants to play." Sophie, who is underweight, is getting her appetite back. On Thursday, she ate 1¼ chicken and two cans of dog food.

Author made local appearance to read from "Water for Elephants"

During her stay in Fort Collins, Gruen stopped into Reader's Cove book store, 1001 E. Harmony Road, unit C. "I love indie book stores. The indies made my career," she said.

Gruen walked in and introduced herself and asked what she could do to help the store. Owner Charles Kaine said, "I need to shake your hand. You helped me sell a lot of books." On Friday night, Gruen read from "Water for Elephants" and autographed books at Readers Cove.

Sunday, Gruen and Sophie flew home to North Carolina, where they rejoined the rest of the family: Gruen's husband, three children, two goats, two horses, four cats and another dog.


Story and photos reprinted with permission from the Coloradoan. Originally published in the Coloradoan, Sunday, April 19, 2009.