It started out as a wonderful evening. Our 13-year-old French bulldog Algernon had just won first place in the Best Old Timer’s division at Wagapalooza. As the shadows lengthened on the ball field in Cruz Bay, I held Algernon up in the middle of the roaring crowd and posed for pictures. Algernon was perfect; he had let me lead him around the ring without once digging his back feet in and refusing to move, and now he was miraculously continent in my arms. Pee-free, I carried him back to where my girlfriend and our other French bulldog Wembley were sitting and watching the event.
As Wagapalooza continued, it became clear we should leave while we were ahead – especially after Wembley took an obsessive interest in eating a nearby toddler’s collection of toy cars. So we bundled our champion and his wayward brother into the car and got take-out to celebrate after our long ride back across the island. We were just in the door, take-out still warm on the kitchen counter, Algernon’s blue ribbon being artfully arranged on a shelf, when I noticed Wembley out on the porch shaking his head back and forth. When I went to bring him inside, I saw a funny shape protruding from his mouth. A second later, I realized what it was.
“Oh no!” I screamed. “He’s got a frog!”
This has been a fear of ours since my girlfriend had read horror stories of dogs dying after eating or even licking frogs. In the dim light from the porch, I could make out the tensed arm and leg of the creature and its bumpy back. Wembley has a ginormous mouth and, once clamped down, his jaws are almost impossible to open. We screamed, clapped, stamped, and threw water on his face, but he held on. Finally, by chance, he opened his jaws a little and the horrendous thing hopped away, a long dent down its back.
Within seconds, Wembley was shaking his head back and forth and something long and white was coming out of his mouth. At first, I thought it was a leg he had bitten off but more and more white, stringy particles went flying. We realized he was foaming.
My girlfriend jumped on the computer and Googled dog frog foaming. Immediately, information on the Cane Toad came up. Wembley continued to produce copious amounts of foam, spraying it all over the floor. My girlfriend read out loud, scanning the information as quickly as she could. Meanwhile, I tried to clean up the mess on the floor, asking again and again, “What does it say to do?”
Finally, she looked up and said we needed to wash out his mouth and get immediate veterinary attention because this toad carried the bufotoxin that could kill Wembley. There were no alternative therapies. This was 9 o’clock on a Saturday night on a tiny island in the middle of the Caribbean. Where were we going to get immediate vet attention? There was one clinic on the island, but it was almost all the way on the other side and definitely not open this late.
“Call the number to the clinic!” I yelled.
While we waited for the clinic’s message to play, we tried to wash out his mouth and rub his gums with a wet paper towel. He was frantically running around the room pawing at his tongue as if he felt a terrible pain in his mouth. And then he stopped. He sat right by Algernon, his tongue out panting madly, his eyes wide and staring. It looked like he was trying to move, but he would only scoot backward every so often. There was no foaming now, just strands and strands of saliva dripping from his open mouth. We tried the emergency number the clinic gave. No answer. We left a message.
My girlfriend continued to read about the side effects of bufotoxin: neurotoxicity causing seizing, cardio-toxicity causing arrhythmias – all eventually leading to death. Seek immediate treatment, it said again and again. We left another message for the emergency number. Then we called the veterinary clinic on the neighboring island of St. Thomas.
“Just get into the car,” my girlfriend said, helpless and desperate as she punched in the emergency number given by the clinic on St. Thomas. “We can start driving…”
To where, I didn’t know but it was something to do, so I grabbed a blanket and picked up Wembley. He was completely limp in my arms. Out on the porch, I heard my girlfriend finally get through to someone. I waited, laying Wembley down. He could not even sit up. His eyes were still open, and he was still panting, but he was staring as if he could not see me and no more saliva dripped from his jaws.
“He’s getting worse! He’s not responsive!”
My girlfriend was answering another call. It was the St. John vet on-call who the St. Thomas vet on-call had finally been able to locate. I could hear her describing the situation and then long pauses.
“What’s happening?!” I screamed.
“She’s looking it up. She doesn’t know what it is. Her computer is slow.”
And then Wembley’s head rolled back, and I stopped hearing him breath. I rolled him onto his back, shouted into his ears, and snapped at his eyes. One eye blinked. I put my fingers up to his nose and could feel soft, shallow breaths still going in and out.
“He’s breathing is shallow. He’s getting worse!”
My girlfriend ran out to the porch and put the phone up to my ear.
“He’s getting worse, he’s not responsive,” I said.
A woman’s voice answered firmly back, “Bring him to clinic.”
That harrowing ride, speeding down Centerline road with its hairpin turns while I cradled Wembley’s limp body in my arms, my hand shoved down his mouth to keep his tongue from choking him, was measured in the soft, warm breaths I continued to feel on my fingers. We talked to him, kissed him, kept his face close to the window so he could feel the night’s breeze. We had never driven Centerline so fast, and yet the drive had never taken so long. A few miles before the clinic, I felt him swallow, twice. Then I felt his back leg twitch. And then we saw the clinic lights.
The door was immediately opened by a man with a worried face who I recognized from earlier, walking around Wagapalooza with a red-haired woman. This woman was the vet on-call. We rushed Wembley back to the treatment room as the vet and another young woman I recognized from the clinic started to work on him immediately, getting an IV in, drawing blood. I watched these two young women, both in shorts and casual tops, both wrenched away from whatever their Saturday night was going to be, concentrating on Wembley as if nothing else in the world mattered. And that brought me the greatest relief.
Wembley survived. After IV fluids, anti-seizure meds, and a lot of attention, he started to come around. Within an hour, he was responding to his name, sitting on his own, and his heart rate had come down from 190 to 100. The vet continued to look up information on bufotoxin while she worked, and I shared as much as I’d just learned. She was amazingly caring and competent, even under the pressure of treating an unfamiliar illness, even without a heart monitor or blood pressure machine that a heavily-equipped veterinary clinic would have in the States. The woman assisting her was the same. I am so thankful they were the emergency staff that night.
In the short time I’ve lived on St. John, one thing keeps becoming clear: overall, the people here are an asset, not a liability. I went from completely helpless as I watched my dog near dying to completely relieved due solely to the efforts of two people who interrupted their lives to do whatever it took to save my dog. There was nowhere else to go, no one else to turn to. So they took charge, figuring things out as they went. I see this happening everywhere – from a group of bystanders working together to pull a car out of a ditch, to passengers kicking a man off a bus who was harassing children. We have only ourselves to help ourselves. This is community like I never experienced in the States.
We took a stumbling, slightly dazed Wembley home that night to finally celebrate his brother’s championship. And although Algernon greeted us at the door with a Really guys, on my big night? expression, and our take-out was ice cold, I was as happy as I’ve ever been.