Know when to fold ’em

Last Friday we said goodbye to our little Tope. This might come as a shock given my hopeful post in early March. 

It turned out to be Valley Fever that was eating away at her bones and this, at first, gave us hope. (It wasn’t cancer – hurrah!) Valley Fever is a fungus that lives in the dirt and gets kicked up by the desert winds that sweep across the southwestern states. Typically it’s inhaled and, if not treated, destroys the lungs. In Tope’s case, the fungus took a different turn and attacked her bones instead. I read an article that said that this type of Valley Fever is so expensive to treat that most people leave their dogs on the side of the road. Had some former owner done that to Tope?

The vet warned us that her fungal loads were acute and that her prognosis was “poor to guarded”. If she responded well to the meds, we would need to do monthly blood tests with x-rays every three months to make sure her bones were healing. Even if all went well, Tope would probably be on the meds the rest of her life. The vet also recommended that we get in touch with an expert on Valley Fever located in Tuscon. We got off the phone in a hopeful mood (hopeful, but guarded). We agreed to give it our best shot. 

I initially only bought a week’s worth of the anitfungal meds, because we weren’t sure how she would respond. After a week, she seemed okay, if not better, so I bought the rest of the month’s supply.

The ship of sunken costs

In my previous post I mentioned how you should sometimes sell investments that you don’t think will rebound soon. Of course, there are schools that would say you should always hold on to stock of a good company. The problem is, if it takes too long to come back, wouldn’t your money be better off earning a return elsewhere?

I recently explained to someone how an investment that is down 15% actually has to come back by more than that. She looked at me, confused. It’s simple math and yet the brain easily stumbles on this idea. 

If I have a bushel of 100 apples and you take 15% of them, now I only have 85. Sure, 15 apples would get me back to 100, but if you gave me 15% of 85, that’s only 12.75 apples.  Here’s a nice explanation on the topic on Investopedia with a handy graph.  

We human beings tend to have a problem cutting losses. We wait too long, hoping for a recovery. Or worse, double-down without evaluating the investment.

Sure, you can choose optimism, but hope alone will not keep a dying a dog alive.

You’ve probably heard of the sunk cost fallacy – the idea that once we have invested a lot in something, we must keep at it. We don’t even realize that we have imprisoned ourselves – to an idea, or a relationship or a belonging. We do this with careers, marriages, stocks, cryptocurrencies… pets.  People stay in unfulfilling marriages not because they see a future where it will turn around, but because they have already put so much into it. Wouldn’t it be a waste, they ask? What about all the time I’ve put in? The past becomes a shackle attached to a chain of sunken costs. If the weight is big enough, it can sink us. Sometimes, you have to listen to the gambler, and walk away.

For love or money

When the vet told us about Tope’s chances, we’d already paid $250 to her rescuers, $1570 on the urgent care appointment, and at least a few hundred on food, dog beds, leashes, toys, poop bags, a tag and a FURminator. Now we were committing to $85 a month on meds, plus monthly blood tests and quarterly x-rays. It wasn’t even a question.

You would have done it, too. We were in deep, and I don’t just mean economically. We only had her seven weeks in total, but we had put all our love into that dog, and I’m pretty sure she felt the same about us. Even though she was hurting all over and could barely walk three houses down the block, if the front door opened, Tope hurried to it. As I sat putting on my shoes she nipped at my laces, and made this forlorn and adorable sounding howl. When one of us went to the car, her long tail would flap back and worth, whacking anything in its circumference, and she would barely let you get the car door open. She couldn’t climb in, but she’d stick her head into the seat, to make sure you understood that, by god, she was not being left behind. When one of us left the house she would go to the door and wait for us to return.

But hope is a thing with feathers, and sore was the storm. One week after I filled the rest of the anti-fungal prescription, Tope started to decline. She started sleeping most of the day, and no longer raised her legs for a tummy rub. She was in so much pain that when we picked her up, she shrieked. When before she had tilted her head to look up at us, now she could only raise it up a little to the side, and painfully. When she sat down, it was with less and less help from her front legs. We could hear her hipbones hit the tile. 

After five days of her barely getting up except to eat and do her duties, my husband and I were a mess. I came home after a walk one night, sobbing. We hated to see her in so much pain, and there were now far more bad days than good. Was it time to give up? We made an appointment with the expert.

The end of the line

Were we throwing good money after bad, as they say? Maybe. But sometimes you need someone else to help you make a painful decision. You need to know whether there’s hope or not. I know we needed it. Of course, we wanted the expert to say that if we held out a little longer she would respond to the meds. I would have jumped with glee if she’d told us she had seen a recovery in just one case as far gone as Tope’s. “Well, there’s Lucy,” she said. Lucy, who had undergone more than $10,000 in thrice weekly vet visits to receive injections of a fungicide. Lucy, who did not have Tope’s injuries. It was unlikely that even after $10,000 in treatments, Tope would have the same outcome.

Then she told us the other thing we needed to hear. “No one will blame you if you decide on euthanasia.” In fact, she said, this may be the kindest option. I called our vet and, between sobs, made an appointment for Friday.

That was on Tuesday. On Wednesday night a cat crept in through the open back door, and made its way through the house. We heard the rattling of the front blinds and assumed it was the wind. Then the cat entered the kitchen and jumped down off the counter. We’d never seen Tope move so fast. She was out the door and on its heels, chasing it across the yard. But when she came back inside, hobbling, she plunked right down again and was out for the night. On Thursday I increased her painkillers and didn’t give her the antifungal medication. Sometime in mid-afternoon she grabbed her toy for the first time in more than a week, took it outside and started throwing it in the air and catching it. The gods are cruel.

My husband worries that I am trivializing Tope’s death by connecting it to economics, but to me everything is economics, even matters of the heart. We attach value to everything, and certainly, the 10K figure was not insignificant. That’s roughly what I thought we’d spend over the lifetime of a dog, not three months. If it had been a stock, I would have sold after I saw the x-rays. The sunken cost of love, in this case, was pain – hers and ours. We kept paying it because we hoped things would turn around, but the payments were getting bigger and the projected outcomes kept getting worse.

You can’t keep a good dog down

When my sister was visiting a few weeks ago, she took me to visit a former patient. She’s a speech pathologist and he was a special case. He had worked as a Los Angeles district attorney for 27 years and was a voracious reader. After undergoing heart surgery, he suffered cerebral hemorrhage, and had to have a craniotomy. My sister spends most of her time teaching stroke patients to swallow and eat. In this case, she taught him to read again.

Now, he said proudly pointing to the volumes piled up on the table, he was reading at least a book a day. “Have you read Murakami?” he asked. “In his memoir he quotes a marathon runner who told him, ‘Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.'”

On Friday, as we walked Tope down the driveway one last time, she stopped to smell the amaryllis that had bloomed during the day. She wagged her tail like crazy when we put her in the car. At the hospital, one of the technicians came out and escorted Tope in ahead of us to get her IV set up. Tope happily hobbled along, looking back to make sure we were coming.

They led us to a room where Top sat waiting on an old baby blanket. She kept wagging her tail and playfully gnawing at our hands, which just made it all so much harder. I am pretty sure that dog was in pain every day she spent with us, but even on her worst days, she rallied. Tears streamed down our faces as we petted her. After a few minutes, she relaxed, laid down and closed her eyes. We kept petting her and I held her face in my hand as the anesthesia took hold and she feel asleep.

“It was tough,” I overheard my husband telling his mother on the phone later that day. “Her body was ready, but her spirit was not.”

It’s one week later and we are finally getting to the point where we make it through the day without crying. She wasn’t with us long, but she was ours and we loved her. She taught me that I really don’t care about having to vacuum more because there’s dog hair all over the house; that if I walk slowly, I will see more, and that when you have a dog, you actually meet your neighbors. I learned that I might not be stopping to smell the flowers enough. And now that she has left this Tope-shaped hole in our hearts, I’ve learned one last thing: we have room in our lives and hearts to do it again. Although next time, I’d like better odds, please.

When we left the animal hospital, and the guy at the desk said he was sorry for our loss, all I could think of was that loss is just… inevitable. “Thank you,” I said. “I’m sure we’ll see you again, as soon as we’re ready.”

Tope with Doc, my sister’s puppy

PS

In researching this post, I found some good advice from Schwab on how to avoid sunk costs in investing. Curious about how sunk costs keep people invested in cryptocurrencies? See this op-ed in Quartz or this one in the WSJ.

Also, much thanks to the SPCA in Palm Desert and Dr. Butkiewicz at the Veterinary Specialty Center in Tucson for their compassion.

2 Comments

  1. Dad and I are bawling. That was a difficult blog to read.

    1. Author

      Sorry. I initially made it less difficult by skipping the part where we put her down. I was a hard time writing it through the tears. But Greg said I didn’t do justice to her, so I went back and hammered it out. xoxo

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