In Praise of Angelina

I have always been one of Angelina Jolie’s biggest fans.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences saw fit to reward her 1999 performance in “Girl Interrupted” with an Oscar, but I wasn’t well and truly smitten until the second Lara Croft Tombraider movie was released in 2003.  In that film, Jolie, who performs her own stunts, is seen galloping on a dark horse while spinning a heavy shotgun from side to side to shoot alternating targets.  And she is riding SIDESADDLE.  If you don’t believe this, have a look here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tz1lCcs9tac  In the Lara Croft movies, she is the epitome of a strong, athletic, intelligent and self assured woman.  It may not seem like much, but I granted Miss Jolie a high honor indeed—in 2004 I named a dark, agile and fast deerhound puppy after her, the soon to be champion Caerwicce’s Lady Croft, aka “Angelina”.

 

In the years that followed the Lara Croft movies, Angelina Jolie went on to surprise her public in more ways than one.  The girl who initially achieved notoriety for wearing a vial of her second husband Billy Bob Thornton’s blood gained a different type of fame when she adopted a Cambodian child, and subsequently became a respected ambassador for the United Nations.  She has become well known for her humanitarian efforts, devoting as much time to improving the lives of refugee children as she does to her own career.  Recently, she has added the titles of author, director, and Mrs. Brad Pitt to an already impressive resume.

 

But perhaps the biggest surprise of all came two years ago, when she went public in the New York Times with the revelation that she is positive for the breast cancer gene BRCA1. In a moving statement, she wrote of her difficult decision, at age 37, to undergo bilateral prophylactic mastectomies and reconstructive surgeries in the hope of staving off the cancers that took her mother, her grandmother and her aunt.  She was clear and concise, reasonable and dispassionate in her account.   Not only did she raise awareness of the heritable form of breast cancer, she gave courage to all women facing the challenge of a mastectomy.  If one of the worlds most beautiful and sexy women could undergo such surgery in the glare of the celebrity spotlight and come out looking stronger and even more beautiful, so could some of the rest of us.

 

Today she has done it again.  In a New York Times article entitled “Diary of a Surgery” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/24/opinion/angelina-jolie-pitt-diary-of-a-surgery.html?ref=opinion&_r=0 ), she reveals that she has recently undergone removal of her ovaries and fallopian tubes to prevent ovarian cancer, the disease that killed her mother.  She describes precisely the terror she felt when informed that some recent blood tests were equivocal, the dreadful anticipation of the results of a PET/CT scan and the realization that now, at age 39, she has entered menopause.  But she also describes the relief she felt once she had made a decision to go ahead with the preventive surgery: “I know my children will never have to say, ‘Mom died of ovarian cancer’.”

There’s bravery and then there’s true courage and grit.  It’s one thing to perform gymnastics while swinging from the rafters of the Croft estate, or to shoot a rifle off the back of a galloping horse.  It’s quite another to write clearly and objectively the story of being diagnosed with a genetic mutation, and of the careful informed decisions she made to minimize her risks, while at the same time admitting that her decisions were not necessarily the right ones for everyone.  As Angelina says, “Knowledge is power.”  We owe her thanks for sharing hers with us.

 

For Lu

I am good at many things, but I have never been particularly good at training dogs.  Never saw much point in it really, since I love the laid back nature of hounds, deerhounds in particular.  Apart from occasionally eating all of the seatbelts and the bumpers off my Suburban, and removing saplings from the yard (we call this “landscraping”), they mostly lie around the house, preferably on the newly upholstered couch. No retrievers or terriers for me—they require intense supervision and effort.  Any dog that requires me to toss a stick or a ball endlessly is going to be very disappointed because I was always the last to be chosen for the softball team. I have no hand-eye coordination whatsoever.

Despite this, I believe strongly in the training of children, and so when in 1995 we acquired two new deerhound puppies, Timber and Valentine, I decided that it was time for my ten year old daughter Alex to learn to train a dog. I inquired at the veterinarian’s office and the local feed store as to who the best dog trainer was, and I was directed to Lu Meyer’s Obedience Academy.  Since there were two puppies and only one child old enough to handle a dog, I enrolled us both in our first obedience class.

To say that Lu was one “tough cookie” was to make a serious understatement.  She was extremely fit, had ramrod straight posture and a demeanor worth of a Marine Corps drill sergeant.  Fairly early in life she discovered two things– that she did not want to be married to a jerk, and that she was very good at training dogs.  She divorced her husband, raised her son by herself (and did a fine job of it), and started her obedience academy. By the time she got hold of me, my daughter and the deerhound pups, she had 30 years of experience and by golly she was going to show us how it was done.   And show us she did.

I don’t remember anymore which of us had Timber and which of us had Valentine.  I do remember that we worked hard in class, and we worked hard at home.  We did not want to fail in front of Lu, who would dismiss us with a characteristic “sniff” of her nose.  I later learned that this was related to a sinus condition, but at the time that haughty sniff was the penultimate sign of disapproval, sending us head down and home in shame. It seemed we could do nothing right, however by 1996, Valentine had earned her AKC conformation championship, handled in the ring by Lu, the “lowly” obedience trainer who managed to beat several professional handlers and several of the top dogs of the time.  Timber was another story.  Born with a short kinked tail, he was never going to win a conformation title. Deerhounds are not known for their affinity for obedience, but he wanted to please Lu, at least for a while.  She put two legs of an obedience title on him, but the third leg proved elusive.  Timber was smart and bored and tired of the game.  On the third or fourth attempt at that final leg of the Companion Dog title, he calmly turned to her in the ring and lifted his leg on her skirt.  She exited the ring, handed me the leash, and commanded “Neuter this dog IMMEDIATELY!”  And so I did.

Lu was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer in 2007.  It never occurred to her not to fight, and she fought hard.  When I was a medical student and resident, this diagnosis was a near immediate death sentence.  But the discovery of Taxol, a chemotherapy drug initially derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree and later synthesized, changed all that.  Ovarian cancer became treatable, and Lu responded beautifully to treatment.  She would go to chemotherapy, and come home to hold back to back obedience and agility classes. Her upright posture and her characteristic sniff never changed—she was in command and dogs and humans alike knew it.  Even dog whisperer Cesar Milan would have yielded to her “calm assertive leadership.”  And so did her physicians, giving her second line chemotherapy when she failed Taxol, and third line therapy after that, and in the end, experimental drugs.  That is exactly what she wanted, and she got it.

Over the years, I became a decent hand with a dog in the show ring but decent does not equal grace or fluid movement.  By 2010, with Timber and Val long gone, I had my two Q’s, Queen and Quicksilver, and I did not want to embarrass myself or their breeder by stumbling around the ring.  I called Lu, who was still teaching despite being oxygen dependent.  She was eager to help me.  She had her oxygen in a backpack on her back.  Even though she was visibly short of breath, she was as strict and demanding as ever.  When I gaited a dog down and back, she got exasperated with my hackneyed knee action.  She grabbed the leash out of my hand and took off at a run down her lawn matching Queen stride for stride as she shouted, “THIS IS HOW IT IS DONE!!!”  The following weekend I did not win, but I did take reserve at the Western Regional specialty.  I know that Lu was smiling her approval from her hospital bed.

Today my daughter is a great hand with a dog, thanks to Lu.  As for Lu, she passed in August of 2010, a month after my last lesson, dedicated to the end to her son Victor, her clients and her dogs who were carefully placed with her closest friends. Her personal service dog Whisper, a beautiful Doberman, was by her side at the very end.  When Victor went to make arrangements at the funeral home, he took Whisper with him, since she had never been alone. It was warm that day, and the funeral directors, a young couple, asked Victor to bring the dog inside.  There was an immediate and surprising attraction between the bereft dog, and the couple whose job it was to comfort the bereft, and who were looking for a dog to help families through those most difficult times.  After careful consideration and time, Whisper became theirs.

Today Whisper continues her life as a service dog, doing what Lu trained her to do, but in a capacity that Lu never anticipated.  There could not have been a better outcome for this perfect dog if Lu had orchestrated it herself.  But then again, perhaps she did.