Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What Epilepsy Means to Me: Mary and her Old English Sheepdog, Morgan

When I was a little girl, I wanted an Old English Sheepdog.  I loved their fluffiness and the idea of them trudging through the snow to save people.

(I obviously got them mixed up with St. Bernard’s).

We didn’t ever get an Old English Sheepdog but had other dogs (a crazy poodle and then a lovable Samoyed).

Animals touch our hearts in such permanent ways (even my crazy poodle) and the person we are interviewing today is no different.   Mary C. Russell shares what it was like caregiving for Morgan, the Old English Sheepdog who had epilepsy. 

Mary rented a room in a house in the late 1980s through the early 1990s and shared the house with the owner, four dogs and two cats. Morgan was one of those four dogs.

During the interviews this month, I’ve offered to let people use their own questions if it made it easier to tell their epilepsy story.  Mary has done just that and I am grateful to her for telling her story and for caring for Morgan.

Q:   Did Morgan already have epilepsy when you first moved into the house?

Mary C. Russell
Mary:   Yes.  At one time I was told that Old English Sheepdogs were the most abandoned dog.  I'm not sure if that's in the United States or in the world.  They are prone to epilepsy.  If they're going to get it, they get it when they're three.  Pretty much the day Morgan turned three, she had a seizure.

I think they tried her first on Dilantin and then it was Phenobarbitol by the time I was there.  Before the pills, Morgan had seizures several times a day.  On the pills, she had a seizure about once every three weeks.

I heard that she had been a happy, frisky, big dog before the pills, but then she became slow and logy, the opposite of energetic.

Q:  How did you feel when you saw that?

Mary:  I had never seen her when she was frisky.  I was sad to hear that she wasn't like that anymore. 

Q:  Were you Morgan's main caregiver?

Mary:    Not at first.  Morgan's owner was also the owner of the house and we both took care of her.  I fed Morgan her pills some of the time, three tiny pills twice a day.  Sometimes I would find some of them behind a couch.  She would get it into her cheeks and one would think the pill went down.  But it went behind the couch.

I was the main pooper scooper for the dogs.  I probably turned into being the main pill giver.

Q:  How long were you with Morgan?

Mary:    Six or seven years.

Q:  Did you have to clean up after her seizures?

Mary:    Yes.  Morgan would let go of solids, liquid, and drool.  We used a hand wet-vac to clean some of it out of the rug, and then the wet-vac had to be cleaned out.  I did some of that.  Sometimes when the rug was down to damp, we used vinegar as a disinfectant and deodorizer. 

After Morgan died, my landlady changed out the rug and the rug backing.  Liquid had gone through both layers and had soaked into the flooring.  You could see black marks on the wood.  My landlady got the floor sanded and polished, pretty much back to factory issue.

Q:  What was life with Morgan like between seizures?

Mary:    She didn't do much.  She mostly just slept.  She and the other dogs barked at passing cars and people.  Sometimes they would switch windows to follow the passersby going around the corners of the house.  I don't know if Morgan had much muscle strength, because she didn't get exercise.   After a seizure, she would bump around as though she couldn't see.  If that meant she got in the way of things, you could push her and she would bump somewhere else.  That could mean she ended up in a corner.  Nobody was around to push her away from that. 

She'd stand with her head against the wall for a few minutes and sleep afterwards.  It was moving and gushing and walking and bumping and standing in a corner, then sleeping half an hour or so.  If she slept on a wet spot, you didn't clean it during that time unless you could pull her off.  A large dog like that, you'd just have to cantilever your body at an angle, or maybe get another person to help you move her.

Q:  What was Morgan's relationship with the other three dogs and the two cats? 

Mary:    They got along.  Once Morgan stuck her nose too close to one of the cats and got a back-off swipe.  I never saw any torn flesh there.  But the cat never had trouble with the dog again.

Q:  How did the other animals act during a seizure?

Mary:    I didn't see other animals in Morgan's vicinity while she was having a seizure.  That would tend to imply they backed off.  Maybe the smells were a bit much for them, or they didn't want the wetness.  And Morgan made strange sounds.

Q:  Did they avoid her the rest of the time?

Mary:    No, not at all.  They just ambled around the house. 

Morgan paid attention when it was mealtime.  She didn't make herself scarce then.  For a while my landlady ran a dog-sitting business.  I think Morgan was around during part of that time.  She was amiable about having other people in her sphere. 

Sometimes Morgan would stand on my foot while I did the dishes or prepared food for the other animals.  She was interested in that food smell, so I guess the drugs didn't dampen her appetite or nose too much.  She wasn't trained about personal spaces.  Sometimes I shoved her off.  She weighed about 90 pounds, so if she stepped on you, you noticed.  Sometimes I felt sorry for her and didn't bump her away.

Q:  What was your attachment to Morgan like compared to the other animals?

Mary:    Combing took a lot of time and effort.  Sometimes I combed one of the cats, who was Persian and temperamental, but I combed Morgan more.  Her hair smelled.  Some of the smell may have been because she hadn't been shampooed, but Morgan also lay down in her moisture after a seizure.  I washed my hands every time after I combed her.  Sometimes the volume of the hair that I removed got to be about a quarter of the size of Morgan.  It was good upper body exercise.

Q:  Did you have any particular feelings concerned with taking care of Morgan?

Mary:    At least picking up poop, I was out in the yard and surrounded by trees.   Morgan liked going in the back yard if she could find shade near the wood fence.  She could even get to a cooler space by digging up the grass a bit and getting to the loam.  She was part of why the back yard was destroyed, for her getting to the cool dirt.

Also, Morgan would eat worms.  It might be that she wasn't just going for the cool dirt.  Maybe it was more interesting to sometimes eat worms, rather than just kibbles and table scraps.

Q:  Did she see the vet more often than the other animals did?

Mary:    No.  She just had the pills twice a day and a seizure about every three weeks.  I think my landlady noticed Morgan's distress when the hair built up.

Q:  Was Morgan licking the hair off and was that upsetting her stomach?

Mary:    I think it had to do more with heat.  I tried to comb her every week and I was also a student at the time, so there was not always an activity schedule match.

Thanks to Morgan, I felt quite at ease dealing with the seizure of one of the special needs people when I was driving them in a van, to and from their training center.

Q:   What was that like?

Mary:    Startling.  I didn't see the seizure as it was going on.  The man was slumped in his seat, still mildly seizing.  The other riders noticed it and told me.  I was driving down a pretty wide street in the middle of winter.  I pulled to the side, took off my coat, and laid it on the grass on the road verge.   I don't think it was very snowy. 

With help from others I maneuvered my passenger out of the van and onto the coat.  He finished having his seizure and maybe lay there for a few minutes, but then he was able to get up.  I asked him if he needed to change his clothes.  He said no.  His general activity level was no different from that of other people in the van.

Robert’s Sister:  Many thanks to Mary for telling us about Morgan. It sounds like Morgan helped spread epilepsy awareness and prepared Mary when her client had a seizure. 

Each day in November we will have a new story about someone affected by epilepsy telling us “What Epilepsy Means to Me.”  Tomorrow and Friday I will be sharing epilepsy facts to close out Epilepsy Awareness Month.   If you’re interested in telling your own story about epilepsy, you can still contact me at and I’ll be happy to share your story at any time.  After all, Epilepsy Awareness Month actually never ends!  


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