Starving Kids, Pampered Pets

Susan Page
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Wednesday - August 24, 2005
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Being exposed to deep poverty makes one look at things differently. Folks I know who have been in the Peace Corps or have volunteered in poor, devastated regions of the world say they are changed forever.

It’s true with me, too. After Africa, I haven’t been able to spend money without calculating in my head how many children in Swaziland could go to school for what this or that costs. Each child there must pay about $70 for a year of public school, and only 50 percent of the children can afford to go.

I was barely back in the U.S. 72 hours before something happened that forced me to really think about how much we Americans have, spend, our priorities, and the world’s deep economic divide.

I love our dogs Lucy and Rufus. They’re like children to me. Like most dog owners, I’d do most anything to keep them healthy. I’m also crazy about my grand-dogs, a 9-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Scotty, and an 11-year-old, one-eyed, rescued cocker spaniel named Caroline. They belong to my daughter Joy, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Oddly, last spring both dogs contracted a common canine skin cancer, both on the same leg. The subsequent tumorremoval surgeries proved quite costly, and unfortunately, a few months later it was discovered that Caroline’s had spread. The vets were hopeful and recommended chemotherapy, which if successful could buy another few years of life. Certainly, of course, go ahead, Joy said, thinking of Caroline’s struggle to recover from a life of abuse, her wiggly little bobbed tail, and her one bright eye that sparkled with love.

Anyway, after Africa I decided to spend a week with my daughter in D.C. to wind down, reflect on the trip and, of course, visit with her before coming home to Hawaii.

“Mom, Scotty’s really sick,” she tells me right off. “I think it’s something he ate when he got into the garbage.” Joy had thrown a baby shower for a friend, and the wind had conspired to make available a Jack Russell’s dream — rotting sandwiches and chocolate cake.

After two weeks and two vet visits later, nothing was found by X-ray or examination. Since Scotty also has epilepsy and has — for the past five years — been on a pricey regimen of prescription medications, the vets were convinced it had something to do with a chemical imbalance. But he was getting worse and having a hard time walking.

So off to the emergency vet we rushed, convinced he had something “trashy” lodged inside.

Worried abouther finances, I volunteered to help pay the vet cost. She heaved a grateful sigh of relief. I had no idea what I was in for. Extensive blood work was ordered first. Ka-ching, ka-ching: $647. School for nearly 10 Swaziland children, I muttered to myself.

Nothing unusual was found in the blood, so the next day while Joy was at work, “grandmother” would drive Scotty back to the vet clinic for a sonogram: $495 — seven Swazi children to school.

“Mom, can you drop Caroline off for her “chemo” treatment on the way to Scotty’s appointment?” asked Joy apologetically. “Of course, honey,” I said.

“That will be $195. How would you like to pay?” said the clinic receptionist. That’s $195 per treatment times eight treatments Joy is paying. Kaching. $1,600 — 23 African children in a classroom.

To make this crazy dog story short, the sonogram revealed a four-inch-long sandwich skewer, perfectly intact, in Scotty’s intestines — he weighs all of 14 pounds. That’s right, and I have the skewer to prove it! It had gone down the esophagus (how?), into the stomach where it perforated the lining, turned itself around, and worked its way into the intestines where it couldn’t budge any farther. Cost of surgery, including removal, organ repair, and staples: kaching, ka-ching, ka-ching, kaching: $2,800. Forty children get educations.

Happily, both dogs are doing just fine. Scotty’s back to a high-energy normal. Caroline is cancer-free.

And I certainly don’t begrudge the money I spent (I only paid some) to help “family members” survive. What dog owner wouldn’t do the same if they could?

But the whole experience points out in a very personal way the inequities in the world. We Americans have so much that our pets are far better off than most children in the third world. It makes me immeasurably grateful that I was born here in the United States, and more committed than ever to help where there’s need. Money will forever be measured against a different standard.

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