Clinic Stories

A Lingering Odor

Penny Gioia, a 90 pound German Shepherd, developed a large mass on her spleen. She was bleeding internally, which combined with arthritis, made it difficult for Miss Gioia to bring her to the office. Miss Gioia asked if I could come to her apartment to take care of Penny, and I visited several times before Penny died. Her apartment was so remarkable I brought my children, who were about 8 or 9 at the time, to witness it first hand. She lived on the third floor of a building in Paterson that should have been condemned. Many of the window panes in her apartment were broken out and there was a hole in the kitchen floor that Penny could have fallen through. Because she was delinquent on her electric bill, her power had been cut off and candles provided the only light.

Penny languished for a few months and one winter evening Miss Gioia made the tearful call that Penny had died. "Can you come out to get her?" "Yes, I’ll be there tomorrow." "No, I can’t sleep in the apartment with her there and I have nowhere else to go. Can’t you come tonight?" Very reluctantly - "OK. I’ll come out." "I don’t get off of work until 11 PM. I can meet you there at midnight." !?!?!?! Why would someone agree to travel to a dangerous neighborhood in the night to remove a dead dog with little hope of getting paid? Perhaps it was compassion, sympathy for Miss Gioia, or the knowledge that she had no one else to help. More than likely it was poor judgment.

When I arrived it was 15 degrees and the building was completely dark. I opened the door to the foyer, only a lit cigarette was visible. "Whose there?" a gruff voice demanded from the stairs. "I’m a vet. Darlene Gioia’s dog died and I came to get her." With genuine sympathy and much to my relief, "Oh, that sucks." I climbed the stairs without ever seeing him. Miss Gioia’s apartment was lit by a single candle. "Penny is in the bedroom." I fumbled around and when I grabbed her leg, fluid oozed out. The odor of decaying flesh was overpowering. She had been dead for days. "Do you have a sheet I can wrap her in?" While I waited, I mindlessly place my hand on the dresser. A cockroach ran over it, causing me to shake my hand violently. I wrapped Penny and took her to the door, exchanging a few words of condolence before I left. Again my hand wandered to a bookcase and again a cockroach scampered over it. It was time to go. I struggled down the two flights of stairs in the dark holding my breath from the smell, the smoker now gone. I placed Penny in the trunk and raced off in the cold, windows open to stem the stench. As a police car pulled behind me I had a vivid image of being pulled over for speeding, then forced at gunpoint to lie on the road as he investigated the smell of death. I slowed and gagged with the windows closed. He followed for a few blocks, turned off and again I sped away. I left Penny at the office to be cremated and after several days the smell dissipated from my car. First impressions are supposed to be lasting, but in this case, my final memories are the strongest.

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