When Henry, a 7-year-old rescue Mastiff, finished his final round of chemotherapy at the Texas A&M Small Animal Teaching Hospital (SATH), he became the first patient to celebrate his achievement with the hospital’s new “BTHO Cancer” bell.
The bell, which was installed in April, is used to signify a patient’s completion of either chemotherapy or radiation treatment—a significant milestone in their fight against cancer. It’s modeled after similar cancer bells at human medical institutions and was built by SATH veterinary technician Julio Peraza.
“The completion of therapy is always the most emotional day for our owners,” said Jaclyn Christensen, a veterinary technician in the SATH’s Oncology Service. “The bell signifies that they’ve done it, they’ve hit this milestone and started a new chapter. Most owners feel pretty defeated by the cancer diagnosis, so this is an opportunity for us to turn their mindset around.”
As Oncology is the second busiest service at the hospital, the bell generally will be rung about once a week at the SATH. The Oncology Service is home to the leading veterinary cancer specialists in Texas, with the majority of its cancer patients receiving chemotherapy like Henry.
A Massive Battle
In October 2021, Henry’s owners, Robin and Derrick Newkirk, noticed that the 210-pound dog’s lymph nodes felt swollen, which prompted a trip to the SATH.
“We didn’t think the swelling was anything at first because he had just gone to the veterinarian in August and his bloodwork looked perfect,” Robin said. “But we ended up getting an appointment to get more work done at Texas A&M, and two weeks later, they confirmed that he had multicentric lymphoma.”
Already feeling shocked by the diagnosis, the Newkirks were hit even harder when they learned that the cancer was most likely stage five, giving Henry only four to six weeks to live if he didn’t have treatment.
“We just sat there and couldn’t even talk for a minute,” Robin said. “We were listening to the doctor but I think I just blanked it all out because afterwards, I’m like, ‘I have no idea what just happened.’ I don’t really remember the rest of that day.”
The Newkirks chose to pursue treatment and brought Henry to Texas A&M for his first round of chemotherapy on Nov. 1. They continued to make the drive from Magnolia to College Station at least once a week for the next six months.
Unfortunately, Henry was one of a small percentage of dogs to experience several side effects from the treatment, including infections and gastrointestinal problems. Throughout it all, however, he remained happy and friendly both at the hospital and at home.
“If he was suffering or not doing well with chemo, we would’ve stopped to preserve his quality of life, but he stayed happy, loving, and sweet,” Robin said. “Even though he had a lot of side effects, they were short—just a day or two. There were only a couple days in the past six months when he didn’t feel well enough to play.”
Despite all of the side effects, the chemotherapy was a success; Henry’s lymphoma vanished in December after only a few treatments and has not returned.
Ringing In The Good News
After Henry finished his last treatment on April 6, he and his care team joined the Newkirks in the SATH Lobby to celebrate.
“Ringing that bell was like, ‘OK, now Henry gets to be Henry without any side effects and without having to travel every week,’” Robin said. “I just couldn’t believe he made it. I think he’s going to be really happy, and hopefully, the cancer stays away as long as it can. Henry’s not ready to go anywhere.”
Ringing the bell meant a lot to the Newkirks not only because it marked the end of chemotherapy, but also because it was a chance to celebrate with the many hospital employees who had grown to love the giant dog.
“They love him so much there, truly love him. They have tears in their eyes when they talk about him,” Robin said. “I know that when he goes there, Ashley’s (Wiley) going to sit with him on the floor and clean his ears at least every other week. And my husband says that the way Liz (Wood) puts her face up to his and nuzzles his forehead is just like what I do, even though she’s never seen me do it.
“They know Henry, and they know us,” she said. “I didn’t feel bad bringing him there and leaving him there all day because I knew someone was always with him.”
For Christensen and others at the hospital who love Henry, watching his family ring the bell is a moment of joy tinged with heartache.
“It’s bittersweet for us because all of a sudden we’re not going to see this patient that we built a relationship with as often,” Christensen said. “But this is exactly what we want, to be able to finish treatment and send them off to live their lives as they did before chemo.”
Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of VMBS Communications, Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; firstname.lastname@example.org; 979-862-4216