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Hail Caesar...and the Surgery That Made Him Whole Again

By: Stephen Sawicki

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Caesar meant the world to Donna Frangiosa and her two young daughters. Just a year old, the bullmastiff was a part of the family, and when he started having trouble walking, Frangiosa took him to Boston's Angell Memorial Animal Hospital for a consult. "There was just no way," she says, "that we couldn't try to help him."

Doctors decided Caesar was suffering from wobbler syndrome, a malformation - probably inherited - that makes the vertebral column and spinal cord unstable. In its early stages, the condition causes a dog's hindquarters to sway or, as the name suggests, wobble.

Surgery was the only option for Caesar - a delicate operation with enormous risks for the dog and serious financial commitments for the owner. In the end, Caesar's surgery would cost several thousand dollars.
But the alternative was also disheartening. The prognosis, says Frangiosa, was that without the operation Caesar probably would have been crippled within six months. In fact, says Allen Sisson, a neurologist at the hospital who performed the surgery, the operation is so delicate, it rivals brain surgery. "I'd actually rather operate on the brain than the spine," he says, "because it's so much less tolerant of manipulation. If you damage any of it, it affects movement ability strikingly."

In for Delicate Surgery

So, in February of 2000, Caesar found himself anesthetized and laid on his back in the operating room. Sisson cut into the underside of the dog's neck and, guided by X-ray films, the neurologist pinpointed the faulty section of the spinal column. Then, with the fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae held apart, he drilled some bone from either side of the vertebrae and poured in a special cement to bind the two in place. Finally, Sisson grafted some bone from one of Caesar's legs and added it to the cemented area to help create what would eventually become a natural bone bridge. "Now, there's no longer a joint there," explains the neurologist. "It's just a fused segment that doesn't move and, therefore, doesn't hurt the neck."

The results were terrific. "It was amazing," Sisson says. "That dog was up and walking in about two hours. Of all the dogs I've ever operated on, it's like the surgery was made for Caesar."

For her part, Frangiosa reports that Caesar - once reluctant to even approach stairs - was soon up and down them like a rambunctious kid. "Within six weeks he was perfect," she says. "Now, he's not afraid to do anything."

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