Gabriel the German shepherd has a fighting spirit just like that of the soldiers he was born to serve.
His kidneys are diseased, threatening his life. But it was his heart that captivated the staff of North Country Animal Health Center, 16760 state Route 3, Watertown, when he was brought in by his concerned out-of-state owners in May.
Now, Gabriel is battling to recover at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Boston. A drive has been started to fund his expensive kidney treatment so he can return to his master in Texas, retired Army 1st Lt. Jake Murphy, a former Fort Drum soldier who lost his legs while fighting for his country in Afghanistan.
“Everybody at our clinic has been touched to see these two come in and to know how much they’ve gone through and what this dog really means,” said Dr. Shannon M. Vicario at the Animal Health Center. “It’s been very difficult.”
“The unconditional love of a dog is incredible,” said Lisa M. (Morgan) Murphy, Jake’s wife and a 2004 graduate of Sackets Harbor Central School. “They bonded really quickly.”
Gabriel was born three years ago at 4 Paws for Ability, a nonprofit organization in Ohio whose mission is to place service dogs with veterans who have lost use of their limbs or hearing and with disabled children.
Gabriel was in training to be placed with another Fort Drum soldier, Sgt. Derek T. McConnell of New Jersey. He died on March 18, 2013, at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., 20 months after suffering injuries in Kandahar, Afghanistan, when he stepped on an improvised explosive device that threw him onto a second IED.
Karen A. Shirk, 4 Paws founder, then began looking for another soldier for Gabriel to serve. Mrs. Murphy heard about 4 Paws through the Maryland-based Yellow Ribbon Fund, dedicated to helping injured soldiers with the recovery process, and contacted Ms. Shirk.
When Ms. Shirk talked to Lt. Murphy, she discovered that he and Sgt. McConnell had served in the same unit and were injured on the same July day in 2011, but at different times. Sgt. McConnell was injured only hours after assisting with Lt. Murphy’s medical evacuation. Lt. Murphy also was a victim of an IED.
The pair had done physical therapy together at Walter Reed. Gabriel, coincidentally, had become a special bond.
Mr. Murphy, a native of Wellesley, Mass., left the service several months after being wounded and moved to Flower Mound, Texas, with his wife after accepting a job at Verizon in Houston. He received Gabriel about a year ago. He said the dog has helped him physically and emotionally.
“He’s a great animal, has a great personality and is a great friend,” he said. “He was always willing to help me out whenever I needed it.”
It’s a relationship that hasn’t been the same since Mr. and Mrs. Murphy took a vacation in May to visit his family in Massachusetts and her family in Sackets Harbor.
While the couple was in Massachusetts and preparing to drive to New York state, they noticed that Gabriel didn’t seem to be feeling right.
“He started throwing up and wasn’t eating much,” Mrs. Murphy said.
They took him to a clinic in Massachusetts, near Mr. Murphy’s hometown, where tests were done. One was for leptospirosis, an infection caused by the leptospira bacteria, which Gabriel had been vaccinated against.
After the tests, the Murphys, with Gabriel, drove to Sackets Harbor to visit Lisa’s mom, Donna Finch. They had made an appointment at North Country Animal Health Center.
The center’s staff knew Gabriel. He had come in during the summer of 2013 in high spirits for a routine checkup. Everything checked out fine then.
“Gabriel is a very nice shepherd,” Dr. Vicario said.
But when he arrived at the center on May 14, it was a different situation. He was a patient at the center for five days, during which the positive test results came back. Gabriel had leptospirosis. The bacteria was attacking his kidneys and shutting them down.
“His values were slowly getting worse,” said Dr. Vicario. “Nothing was getting better.”
Despite his sickness, Gabriel showed strength and loyalty to his owners and the center’s staff, Dr. Vicario said.
“He was very interested in going for walks, and wanting to play with his tennis ball,” she said.
But as Gabriel’s kidney function declined further, there was nothing more they could do.
“We all still get a little teary-eyed thinking about it,” Dr. Vicario said. “I had a hard time. I was relieved when they decided to go to Tufts. If I would have been faced with euthanizing that dog myself, that would have been very difficult to do.”
The Murphys informed Ms. Shirk about Gabriel’s condition. She said Gabriel’s leptospirosis was a form not covered by his vaccination for the bacteria, which is a common situation. The vaccine does not cover all strains of the disease.
Dr. Vicario said the disease is carried by a bacteria carried by wild animals like deer, raccoons and rats.
“They spread it in their urine that can end up in the water,” Dr. Vicario said. “So, if your dog swims in the lake or drinks out of any puddles, streams or whatever, they can be exposed to this bacteria.”
Ms. Shirk said she and the Murphys did some research and found that Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University has a high success rate in treating Gabriel’s type of leptospirosis, which typically is fatal.
The treatment at Tufts involves kidney hemodialysis, in which a machine takes over the function of the kidneys and cleans the animal’s blood by circulating it through the machine.
“Unfortunately, it’s extremely expensive,” Ms. Shirk said. “I told Lisa, ‘Don’t worry about the funds. We’ll find the money. Take him to the best hospital. Give him a chance. If you don’t, he’s going to die.”
When Gabriel arrived at Tufts on May 19, his creatine (a chemical waste molecule) level was 17. The level for a healthy dog is 1.
The cost of hemodialysis is $1,500 a day. To cover it, Ms. Shirk and 4 Paws for Ability launched a “Help Save Gabriel” campaign on crowd-funding site Razoo. On May 19, the day the drive began, $20,000 was raised before midnight. As of Wednesday, $31,700 had been raised toward the goal of $45,000.
After Gabriel was admitted to Tufts, the Murphys stayed in Wellesley, about 50 miles away. They visited Gabriel daily. Mr. Murphy was able to stay for 3½ weeks, while Mrs. Murphy stayed for just over a month.
“For both of us, it was very difficult to leave and come back to a house without Gabriel,” said Mrs. Murphy, who is pregnant with a baby boy, who is scheduled to join the household in late summer.
Gabriel’s condition has improved from his dire original prognosis.
“Right when we were talking about having to make some hard decisions, all of a sudden, he started eating and his demeanor changed,” Ms. Shirk said.
She said that leptospirosis damages kidneys, but they could still potentially function with some damage.
“With leptospirosis, the kidneys go into failure, but they are not necessarily permanently damaged,” Ms. Shirk said. “So if you can take over with dialysis, and give the body time to heal, the kidney can often rebound.”
“An antibiotic will kill the bacteria, but the question is: Can you reverse the damage that’s been done to the kidney?” Dr. Vicario said. “That’s still sort of unknown.”
“Gabriel is fighting like there’s no tomorrow,” Ms. Shirk said. “And at this point, we’re not ready to stop. We are continuing to raise funds for treatment until we know that he’s better and can go back to Texas, or he’s not going to be able to ever come off of dialysis. That’s where we are right now. All we know is that Gabriel has turned a corner and Gabriel is fighting.”
A trip and hope
A little over a week ago, Gabriel was taken off dialysis for a few days. With his creatine level around 2.5, he spent some overnights at Mr. Murphy’s parents’ house in Wellesley.
“He’s eating, which is good,” Mrs. Murphy said. “But his kidneys are not where they need to be.”
She said the trips to Mr. Murphy’s parents’ home last week were an exercise in how Gabriel would do as an outpatient.
“Our goal, if all goes well, is to try to get him back to Texas next week and continue outpatient care here,” Mrs. Murphy said Wednesday. “Once he gets back here, we’re going to try to maintain his fluids with injections a couple times a day and see how he does with that.”
She holds out hope Gabriel’s kidneys will be able to work enough for him to survive on his own.
“At this point, we’re not really sure what his future looks like, but we want to give him as long and as good of a life as possible,” Mrs. Murphy said.
Gabriel is special to her because of the difference she has seen him make in her husband’s life.
“When we got Gabriel, it was such a crucial time of transitioning out of the military,” she said. “Jake was saying goodbye to a chapter of his life that he didn’t really say goodbye to on his own terms. He could have stayed in.”
But Mrs. Murphy said she and her husband decided it was time to move on to the civilian world.
“I think Gabriel helped him with that transition,” she said. “It gave him a focus, and just to have emotional support. … I don’t know for sure what it would have been like without Gabriel, but I think it made that transition a positive one.”
Ms. Shirk, who last year was named a CNN Hero for her work, said she has seen her share of heartbreak and diseases related to dogs. But she said it will be especially heartbreaking for her if Gabriel doesn’t pull through and go home to Texas.
“Normally, I can say, ‘Well, OK — You know, things happen and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ But in this case, it’s just not right,” she said, her voice breaking. “I just can’t wrap my head around it. This man already lost so much … I caught that dog when he was born. I handed him to that man, and to have Gabriel only work for him for a year … it’s just not right.”
Mrs. Murphy said she and her husband will know better after this weekend about Gabriel’s future. If things look good, the plan is for her husband to fly to Massachusetts and fly back home to Texas with Gabriel. On Wednesday, she said Gabriel would have at least one more dialysis treatment at Tufts.
Gabriel appears on the right track to get him and his fighting spirit back to Texas. But sometimes, a good fight isn’t good enough. Hopeful plans can crumble. Mr. Murphy was asked about the possibility of a future without Gabriel.
“I’m optimistic it will all work out, but at the same time, I’ll accept that it may not,” he said.
He realizes that sometimes, sadly, not all can make it home.
“Just like in war,” he said.
How to help Gabriel:
An online fund drive has been created by 4 Paws for Ability to assist in Gabriel’s treatment at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. The drive is through Razoo, a crowd-funding website for nonprofits.
TO DONATE: Visit http://wdt.me/LUZ8h2 or mail donations for Gabriel’s treatment to 4 Paws for Ability, 253 Dayton Ave., Xenia, OH 45385
MORE INFORMATION: 4pawsforability.org
By Chris Brock, Times Staff Writer