In this season when we hang our memories with the ornaments and celebrate them in stories, this story about a boy and a dog who shared the same neurosurgeon has a new ending every time it's told. It began in 1997, when I first met the three principal participants during a stressful holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The boy, Jerry Martin, is a teenager today. He was 5 years old when the story began, had a high-pitched voice, an infectious smile and a head that appeared slightly too big for his body, possibly because he had not grown as quickly as other children his age. He lived in a rural area of Pennsylvania, where his father worked as an independent logger.
The dog, a pug named Tucket, was a natural clown who regularly entertained his affluent family at its home in Philadelphia.
And the doctor, Fred Epstein, was a world-famous pediatric neurosurgeon in New York.
Their lives all changed in profound ways.
It started with Tucket. He was 8 years old in 1997 and lived with Bonnie and Peter McCausland, and two of his fellow pugs, Nannie and Crosby. Bonnie McCausland was the one who chose Tucket from his litter. "He was so cute I couldn't not hold him," she said. "And he had a particularly lively personality."
Tucket began to develop problems in 1997. He had serious trouble walking. His hind legs dragged behind him. "He was losing his balance," said Peter McCausland. "He had difficulty getting up steps. It looked like he had been injured -- hit by a car or something."
The McCauslands could afford good care for Tucket because Peter is president and chief executive officer of a successful industrial gas company. Tucket's veterinarian, Nancy Brown, ordered X-rays and myleograms to try to pinpoint the troubles with his hind legs. "The pattern of disease didn't typify anything we knew of," she said.
So Brown took a chance and consulted a friend of hers on the human side of medicine -- Dr. Fred Epstein, a world-famous pediatric neurosurgeon at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. Epstein took care of children, not dogs. But he agreed to look at scans of Tucket's spine and believed he saw an abnormality that could cause the dog to lose the use of his legs. He got a group of other high-priced hospital specialists to take a look at the scans.
Epstein was well-known for an unconventional approach to his work that led to breakthroughs in the treatment of spinal tumors. He had an exuberant personality, a mellow voice and an expressive face with a high forehead topped by an unruly shock of white hair. The nameplate on his office door read, simply, "Fred."
At the time, he recalled that his head nurse stood up at the conference he had called to look at Tucket's scans. "She says, 'Fred, I've got one thing to say to you.' And I said, 'What?' She said, 'This dog is not coming here.' And she sat down."
But the wheels in Epstein's brain were spinning because he knew there was the possibility that the dog could help his favorite cause. Epstein was the founder of the "Save One Child" fund, which brought children from around the world to Beth Israel for spinal and neurosurgery that their families couldn't otherwise afford.
He proposed a bargain: If the McCauslands made a donation that was large enough to pay for a child's surgery, Epstein would perform spinal surgery on their dog.