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The Incredible Story of Blackjack


© 2016 Kerry Blue Terrier Foundation

Miracles, we all know, happen with amazing frequency in Kerries. But tragedies occur, too. In the story of Blackjack, both collided in a powerful and extraordinary way. The miracle was way beyond anyone's dreams, and the tragedy far worse than anyone could possibly imagine. His is not just the story of a rescue, though it was a stunning rescue at that. It is a story of what happens when rescue and science converge, when all the precepts of rescue get turned upside down, and when the solution, if there is one, lies only in the realm of science.


The Makings of a Rescue


Blackjack's story began as a rescue, but it was different right from the start. His description was first given to me by a Kerry breeder who learned of him, and then by the owner herself, who had purchased her puppy from a pet store 2 months earlier. Even at 11 weeks old, it was obvious Blackjack was no ordinary puppy. Now, at 5 months old, he had been diagnosed by his vet as having an incurable nonprogressive neurological problem that affected his fine motor skills. He was a "clumsy" puppy who could not maintain his balance on the owner's tile floor. He ran into things, lacked coordination, could not chase a ball without falling, and, alas, was not the puppy the family had envisioned for their toddler to play with. Blackjack needed a new home.


If you have been in Kerries for even a little while, you may be thinking what I was thinking then. I worried that the puppy had PNA, a fatal, genetic, neurological disease known in our breed. It became critical to find out. There were medical questions to answer, and there were ethical questions--rescuing and trying to place a dog with a crippling disease was one thing, but doing so for a dog with a fatal disease was another. Later, there was the moral question of letting the puppy be humanely euthanized, or be allowed to advance PNA research--if that is what he had--so that other puppies would not face a future as grim as Blackjack's, whatever it was. Rescue and Health & Genetics were on a collision course, and the way ahead was soon to be shattered into multiple divergent paths with multiple options and multiple outcomes.


In Search of a Diagnosis


In addition to Blackjack's vet, I consulted the two people who were to guide me throughout what became an incredible odyssey to learn the truth, and to do the right thing. Jana Deaton, Kerry breeder and the driving force behind PNA research in Kerries, provided me with detailed information on symptoms, prognosis, and the progress of the disease. Daryl Enstone, known for her formidable knowledge of medical issues in Kerries and her professional science background, educated me on the process and proper procedures for diagnosis. From them both, I learned that all roads led to Dr. Dennis O'Brien, head of the research team studying degenerative neurological diseases at the University of Missouri-Columbia. It was Dr. O'Brien, a man of science but also compassion, who became the keystone to everything that happened next.


Unfortunately for us, Dr. O'Brien was in Missouri, and our puppy was in Arizona. We were facing a remote diagnosis problem. As events unfolded, geography became a formidable obstacle.


Initially we had explored ways to obtain an MRI on little Blackjack to help diagnose his condition. We attempted to locate the equipment to do it, and identify funding sources, such as grants from universities and corporations. All this work came to standstill when we learned from Dr. O'Brien that the puppy was too young for an MRI to confirm a diagnosis. We opted instead to obtain a video of Blackjack to send to him for his professional opinion. But the owner was unable to do that. She was also unwilling to provide a blood sample for DNA storage and research at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She had decided to euthanize Blackjack.


The owner now described Blackjack's condition as "severe," and it had progressed rapidly. He could no longer get out of his crate under his own power. He could no longer stand to eat his dinner or drink, and he had to be carried outside to potty. If we were going to rescue little Blackjack, it would have to be before a diagnosis.


Rescue and Health & Genetics Converge


Rescuing a dog with a potentially fatal disease was against all the principles of Rescue. He could not be placed in a permanent home, only in foster care, and only if quality of life was still possible. But who would be willing to foster a dog with such special needs? Were we to put him down before his time simply for lack of a home? If quality of life was not possible, it would be on us to have him humanely euthanized. But it also guaranteed us an opportunity to contribute to research. We would be able to provide researchers with his pedigree, his DNA sample, and the autopsy needed to provide the frozen tissue sample required for a definitive diagnosis. The possibility also existed, however slim, that Blackjack did NOT have an incurable disease; that with the right specialists, proper treatment, and enough money, he could live a normal life.


From a Rescue viewpoint, it was a no-win situation. Either he was permanently severely handicapped and unadoptable, would die within months, or his treatment would cost far more money than the Foundation had. From a Health & Genetics viewpoint, something positive could result, but it would be post-humously. The goals of Rescue--saving a dog and providing all the conditions for a happy life--clashed with those of medical science--researching a disease to help not this dog or even one dog or one breed, but potentially an entire species and even beyond. The small picture that is Rescue suddenly exploded into the big picture of medical science. And the two converged inexorably on little Blackjack.


The Tragedy


With conflicting opinions on our best course of action, with much agonizing and a sense of foreboding, we rescued Blackjack. The die was cast. Whatever his future held, full responsibility for his welfare and medical care landed squarely on us.


Blackjack was boarded at his local vet's for lack of a foster home. There, he endeared himself to everyone there who cared for him. He was a sweet, friendly, exuberant puppy, bursting with life. Although the disease was slowly robbing him of mobility, this little puppy had spirit, and he wasn't going to give up easily. We immediately had a videotape made of Blackjack's movements, and sent it to Dr. O'Brien, who was knowledgeable about not only PNA but other degenerative neurological conditions. In his guarded opinion, based only on viewing the tape, it appeared to him that Blackjack most likely had PNA. We were devastated.


We had gone as far as we could in obtaining a diagnosis. There were no tests, no MRI, no more consultations that could bring us closer to the truth while the puppy was still alive. From this point on, we had to proceed as if Blackjack had PNA.



An Angel Appears


We were now faced with three options, all of which we pursued simultaneously. We could euthanize Blackjack now, and provide Dr. O'Brien's team with the DNA for research, and the tissue samples for a firm diagnosis. But the more I learned about the collection, preparation, and shipping of tissue samples, which required the services of a nearby university, the less I wanted to do it. (I am a queasy Rescue Director, not a medical scientist.) I also didn't want to put a dog down before his time, and by all reports, Blackjack was a lively, happy little guy. The odds were completely against him, though, and I considered the humanity of releasing a dying dog from a life of immobility, which was sure to be short. This option remained viable until the end.


The second option was to find a foster home willing to take a severely disabled dog, provide the specialized care he needed, in an environment that would extend his quality of life. It had to be someone willing to cooperate with Dr. O'Brien's research team, someone who preferably lived near the university in Columbia. And it had to be someone willing to euthanize a puppy they were sure to love and become attached to, and they had to decide when to do it. In short, it had to be an angel.


The third option was to try to get Blackjack straight to the University of Missouri-Columbia where he would offer the most information on his disease to the researchers there. It also offered the best hope of ruling out PNA, and diagnosing the disease. But I could not send Blackjack to a lab--that was my line in the sand between Rescue and medical science. He needed to be in a loving home environment with someone who could manage his care. It was this unlikely option that saved Blackjack from premature death. One of Dr. O'Brien's researchers--someone who had fostered a PNA Kerry in her home before--was willing to take Blackjack. I had found my angel.


The Miracle


All energy was put into getting Blackjack across the country to Columbia, MO. Air shipping was immediately ruled out, because of the risk of injury. Blackjack didn't have the balance or coordination to withstand being man-handled in a crate as airline cargo. We'd have to bring him overland--all 1500 miles of it.


Putting together an "underground railroad" for this distance proved daunting. We worked with multiple routes, multiple volunteers willing to drive, and multiple timeframes. At one point, we had an offer for more than half the journey, if only we could get him to the rendezvous point in time. We couldn't. Each of the four possible scenarios we worked out had gaps--either lack of a driver, or long stays with people on the route before the next driver could pick him up. I began to worry that a trip like this would take its toll on Blackjack, and I had no way of knowing if every driver would understand Blackjack's special needs, and have the compassion and patience to keep him safe and comfortable on this long journey. Although we had addressed Blackjack's medical and foster needs, we could not solve the transportation problem. I was told by one of my Rescue mentors that euthanasia would be more humane that putting this puppy on such a strenuous journey. Hope and time were draining away.


There was one last option that my husband John suggested. But it was a long shot. Perhaps Blackjack could get a ride on one of the planes our friend flew for a private corporation. Maybe the company would be interested in a tax-free donation like this. The very idea showed our state of desperation. The chances of that working were one in a million. That's why, when the call came several days later, I was filled with wonder, disbelief, and awe. Yes, we had a ride for Blackjack--on a multimillion dollar private intercontinental jet. The company's Falcon 900 would be flying from California to Chicago in 3 days, and Blackjack could come. While my mind was reeling on how to get him to California, and then from Chicago to Columbia (surely I could do that?), I received another jolt. The pilot had permission, and volunteered his time, to fly Blackjack all the way to Columbia. Blackjack was going straight to the doorstep of the University of Missouri-Columbia. And he was going to do it in more comfort, safety, and style than anyone could have dreamed of. It was, beyond any doubt, an astonishing miracle.


Falcon 900


Falcon 900: John Van den Bergh left, Captain Will Noll right.


Meeting Blackjack


When news of our plans hit Blackjack's veterinary office, the joy was palpable. The staff there who had cared for him these past 9 days were dreading the expected euthanasia decision. They were jubilant that this sweet little puppy, who had charmed them all, would not have to die before his time.


We now had to get Blackjack across the desert from Phoenix to California, and we had no time to lose. Any glitch or delay now would ruin everything. His life depended on it. Three volunteers drove the 550 miles, meeting at prearranged rendezvous points and communicating by cell phone to make everything work. Blackjack arrived at my house the same evening, and when I held him in my arms, it became immensely clear that every ounce of effort, every minute of our time, every phone call, email, and plea for help could not have been put to better use. Blackjack turned out to be the sweetest thing on the face of this earth. He was utterly adorable, and perfect in every way but one. His condition would squeeze the hardest heart.


It is one thing to hear about Blackjack's condition, and quite another to witness it. He could hardly stand at all he was so wobbly, and his body swayed in a circular motion. His legs were stiff--all of them, and they went in all directions. He had almost no control at all, but plenty of will to move. He sometimes swung his head back and forth involuntarily, and he had head tremors as well. What I didn't expect was how spastic he was--almost like he was being shocked with electricity, though I had been assured he was not in pain. Spasms prevented him from from properly aiming his head toward his water bowl or food bowl. I held him up for eating and drinking, and he did much better. He also banged into the sides of an ex-pen, falling head-first to the ground. And even when resting (or possibly asleep), he would involuntarily bang on his crate. It was as if Blackjack's mind and body were completely out of synch. Whether this was PNA or something else, I knew one thing: no dog should ever have to suffer in this way. It was a sad, cruel fate that had befallen little Blackjack.


Godspeed, Little One


When we arrived at the airport at 5:00 am on that dark misty morning, the 3-engine jet stood alone in the bright lights of the tarmac. There was something dream-like about that gleaming airplane, something almost surrealistic. Everything else had failed for Blackjack, and now this miracle had happened. This plane was Blackjack's last hope to get the help he needed, and it was the best possible way to get him there.


The flight engineer loaded Blackjack and his crate onto the plane, and I got to sit with our little puppy those final minutes. I could tell by his eyes he was frightened, and I wanted so badly to hold him. As I tried to reassure him above the whine of the engines, I felt an overpowering urge to pull him out of his carefully padded crate, put him under my arm, walk down those stairs, and keep going! Everything I had been through for this puppy, from hope to despair, from grief to elation, and the crushing responsibility I felt for his well-being suddenly came together at that moment in time. How could I possibly leave him now?


Not a minute too soon, I came to my senses. It nearly tore my heart apart, but I knew I had to let him go. There was someone waiting for him who could care for him better than I could, someone who would make sure his short life would not be meaningless. And there was divine intervention to make sure that happened. At the last possible minute, I exited the plane and stood on the tarmac until the plane was but a speck of light in the early morning sky. Godspeed, little one.




It has been 2 months since Blackjack's arrival in Columbia, which, I learned later, took place in a blinding thunderstorm in near minimum flight conditions. It was a dramatic ending to a remarkable rescue. Since then, Blackjack has been seen Dr. O'Brien and other experts of degenerative neurological diseases. It is their opinion that Blackjack is indeed suffering from PNA, though a definitive diagnosis can only come after his death. I've been informed by Dr. O'Brien that Blackjack did indeed play a role in the recent breakthrough of the discovery of the PNA gene. While far too late to save him, Blackjack did his part to help save another Kerry from the same fate.


Blackjack has continued to charm his way into everyone hearts. This is the effect he has on people. Dr. Joan Coates has made his days happy ones, and he follows her everywhere. He lives with 2 other dogs with neurologic issues, along with a healthy dog, and they are all his family. He has met other dogs, cats, and even horses, which he finds very exciting! Every effort has been made to extend his quality of life for as long as possible.


From left to right: Dr. Dennis O'Brien, Dr. Joan Coates, Dr. Gary Johnson; Foreground: Sri, Blackjack, Wolfman

Sadly, I've been told that his condition has continued to deteriorate, and it is nearly time to say our last goodbyes. I have asked that Blackjack be surrounded by those he loves when the time comes, so that he is not alone. And I ask you all to send up a prayer with his name on it. We have addressed the medical, ethical, and moral questions of little Blackjack's life. Now there is a spiritual one as well. May his transition be a wonderful release that brings him joy as he starts on his new journey.


If you want to make a donation through the Foundation to Dr. O'Brien's PNA research in Blackjack's name, click on "Donation" and enter "PNA" in the comment field.


Blackjack would like to thank the following people for helping him.


Dr. Dennis O'Brien, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Missouri-Columbia
Dr. Joan Coates (Foster Mom) , College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Missouri-Columbia
Dr. Liz Hansen , College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Missouri-Columbia
Dr. Jon Levine , College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Missouri-Columbia
Dr. Gary Johnson , College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Missouri-Columbia
Captain Will Noll, pilot
First Officer Wayne Mein
Flight Mechanic Sehon Powers
Oak Savanna Vineyard, owner of the Falcon 900 jet
Stephanie Eggen, driver
Judith Bruno, driver
John Van den Bergh, driver and flight logistics
Daryl Enstone, Health & Genetics advisor
Jana Deaton, Health & Genetics advisor
Dr. Cory Saunders, in Mesa, AZ
Jeannette, Dr. Saunders' assistant
Cindi Radamaker, Videotaper
Connie Dexter, Research Support
Janet Joers, (past) KBTF Rescue Director


October 5, 2004--Our Last Goodbye


by Janet Joers, Rescue Director



Blackjaack and friend
The last hours of Blackjack.


Today I received word that our little PNA puppy, Blackjack, will be euthanized this afternoon. Although not unexpected, it is impossible to prepare for something this sad. It is time to say goodbye.


Throughout his degenerative disease, Blackjack handled the blow that Fate had dealt him with the true spirit of a Kerry Blue Terrier. When he fell, he bounced back and tried again. When he couldn't walk, he crawled. He did not give up. He did not complain. He did not blame anybody. He kept going. And he remained a loving, sweet, affectionate puppy to this day.


But now, immobility has slowly overtaken him. He is falling more and more, and no longer bounces back with the enthusiasm he had. Dr. O'Brien reports, "Now he's more inclined to just stay down and not try to get up again. He continues to be the same happy, loving boy he's always been and is happy as a clam to lay in your lap and have his ears rubbed. But we don't want to wait until life is miserable for him."


This afternoon, Blackjack will pass with contentment and dignity into a better world. He will be surrounded by those he loves. His life had great meaning. He contributed a great deal to PNA research, and he contributed more than he will ever know to the lives of those he touched. I ask everyone reading this to send up a prayer today with his name on it.


Godspeed, little one.


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