An Ill Partner, an Ailing Pet: When the Tables Are Turned

This article first appeared on, Canada's Online HIV Magazine, on Feb. 5, 2014.

Last time I wrote on this topic I expressed the thought that with many HIVers now living long and productive lives they would increasingly be required to be caregivers rather than recipients of care. My partner is undergoing treatment for prostate cancer, after all. and while the prognosis is pretty good, the balance of who needs help in our relationship, physical and emotional, and who doesn't, has shifted.

It takes a bit of getting used to. It also exposes one to how other disease groups besides those affected by HIV operate. It's a bit of an eye-opener.

And then there's the issue of our sick dog whose illness has been all-consuming. More on that later. But I think you can see where this is heading, a taxing time for all in our little household, with HIV on the back burner, all played out against a wretched Canadian winter that is a challenge in itself. We live in the country, after all, in the middle of nowhere, and it's been a constant battle to even maintain access to our property amidst the ice, snowdrifts and general yuckiness.

Last time I wrote my partner was recovering from prostate removal surgery and I was in full Florence Nightingale mode. Since then he's made a nice recovery form the operation. But - and here's the rub -- he now requires radiation therapy -- every day for six weeks. In Oshawa, no less, which is over an hour's drive away, if he is even up to driving. How we will handle this I'm not sure, but clearly I am set to be his little helper for a few more months at least.

Not that it's all about hardship. There is nothing that gives life meaning as much as another depending on you. Really depending on you. So in a weird way, all this has been an affirming experience, something that has grown us more together, more dependent on each other -- and that's a good thing.

It's interesting to accompany him to some of his appointments and see inside the cancer treatment world. In his case, it's a world inhabited by scores of men of all stripes but of a certain age -- there are few in the waiting rooms under 40 and many much older. Many of them are accompanied by their wives or significant others, in fact consultations are usually joint ones. I'm treated respectfully as his spouse always, no problems there. But the service seems a little bit more impersonal than in the HIV world, with services a little less community-based than we are used to.

What strikes me most though is that all these 50-something men struggling with what is undeniably a major health issue -- no chronic manageable conditions here -- have more on their shoulders than most of us. True, cancer doesn't have quite the stigma associated with HIV but it certainly isn't stigma-free and it comes with a prognosis that makes HIV in 2014 look like a walk in the park. It's hard to say that simple truth without seeming like a traitor to the HIV cause, but I challenge anybody to argue the point. We must acknowledge the reality that there are worse diseases out there than HIV. or we as a community lose all credibility.

So thoughts like "maybe we HIVers 'doth protest too much'" fill my head as I watch the parade of 50-somethings stoically going through their paces at the cancer clinic. Unsettling thoughts indeed for a long time AIDS activist.


In recent days, partner and I have had another challenge to deal with, a dog who hasn't been well. (Damn those health issues intruding into our cosy rural lives. And it's cancer again!). Our happily active ten-year old basset hound Peggy, the love of my life, the one whom I cuddle at night, stopped eating towards the end of January and only a week later was struggling to breathe normally. Harrowing discussions with the vet lead to a decision to quickly put her down to stop the pain from fluid fast invading her lungs. And so we did last week, partner and I lying on the vet's floor with her, stroking her ears and comforting her body as the needle went in and she became limp in our grip, amidst floods of tears.

The death of a pet is of course a harrowing experience. I know; this is the third dog thats been a big part of my life I've seen go down. This time, because I was so close to Peggy I told my partner, I just couldn't do it, couldn't take her on that final trip to the vet, couldn't bear it. But we chatted and he told me, calmly and kindly, that it was the right thing to do, that Peggy would want me there and I should go with him. He was right of course, and I did. I'm glad I did too. God, how I owed it to her. How could I be so selfish and place my discomfort before her pain?

So she's gone now. But we have two other dogs to love -- another basset and a chocolate lab - and love them we will.

This can't be a very unique experience though. Given how we so often advocate for pets as lovable walking support systems for people living with HIV, it's another example of how HIVers must summon strength at those times when the roles are reversed and we become the caregivers.

I'll say it again, it's arguably a neglected area of support that people living with HIV, increasingly dealing with aging partners and pets, need. Or is it? Do we expect too much? Have we become pampered? Are there some battles we just have to deal with alone, as best as we can?

I don't know. What do you think?

Post script: Just two days after losing Peggy, the uncommonly strong urge to love and be loved overtook our grief - and now we have three dogs again.

Meet Ruby, another basset, eleven weeks old and destined to become the most beautiful dog in the world.


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