By Sarah Carey
By Sarah Carey
Twenty-four vials of antivenin, 14 days in the UF Small Animal Hospital’s intensive care unit, countless hugs, kisses and Facebook shares later, Cali, a 3-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever mix, is home with her family in Tavares, living the life of Riley.
A YouTube video and Facebook page the family created to solicit donations to help pay Cali’s medical bills went viral, resulting in more than $19,000 being raised to cover her care, and in the process turning Cali into a celebrity among dog lovers from as far away as China and the United Kingdom.
“I expect you guys to treat her like Queen Elizabeth,” Dr. Michael Schaer, an emergency and critical care specialist, told Connie Schmitt’s sons Michael,15; twins Daniel and Jacob,13; and Zach,8, when they came with their mother to visit Cali on July 17, her last week in the hospital. It was one of several visits the family made to see Cali during her recovery from a bite likely inflicted by an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake.
Schaer explained to the Schmitts that once Cali left the hospital, it would take her awhile to regain her strength and to return to life as a normal dog. However, the Schmitts will tell you the gentle brown dog they rescued two years ago has never been a normal dog at all.
Cali entered the Schmitts’ lives when she showed up in their yard, looking sad and lethargic. A family friend and neighbor, a veterinarian, came over and treated Cali minimally, then subsequently at her clinic for infections in both eyes and ears, as well as for fleas and worms. The family posted a notice on Petfinder to see if anyone would claim Cali, who was thought to be about 1 year old. No one did.
“Her condition clearly indicated that she had been neglected for awhile, but she was housebroken and very obedient,” Schmitt said. “It took her about a month to heal to the point where she would even run with the boys outside.”
Two years passed, and Cali’s life evolved to one of chasing lizards, geckos and squirrels on the family’s one-acre lot. She had an unusually gentle personality, her family said, given the neglect she had experienced in her first year of life.
“We weren’t pet people, and although the kids had wanted a dog for a long time, Mike and I didn’t,” Schmitt said. “We used the fact that Mike is allergic to say no. But Cali changed all that. We fell in love with her, and even Mike was not reacting to her like he had to other dogs. She seemed so appreciative to us for taking her in and nursing her back to health and immediately took to us as we did to her.”
Schmitt’s son, Michael, once saw Cali tear off part of a dog treat and give it to another dog.
“One time I saw her take a biscuit over to a little baby in a stroller and drop it at her feet,” he said.
But on July 5 around 6 p.m., family members found Cali collapsed in their yard, foaming at the mouth and not moving. They then saw blood on Cali’s neck and immediately suspected snake bite. The Schmitts immediately took Cali to their local emergency veterinary clinic in Leesburg. Despite two vials of antivenin, however, Cali did not improve, so the next morning the family brought Cali to UF for continued treatment.
From July 6, when Cali arrived, to her discharge on July 20, she experienced a series of medical crises that included three episodes of re-envenomation; heart arrhythmias; an allergic reaction to the antivenin; and serum sickness, not to mention infection with high levels of E-coli bacteria. She also had three surgical procedures to remove dead tissue around her bite wound.
UF’s emergency and critical care team kept the family updated at every turn. In the first five days, whenever another two-vial treatment of antivenin was needed, the family would hope it was the last one. But then Cali would regress again.
“At that point, the stress of the surmounting bill was overwhelming, but we kept thinking that we had gone so far and we couldn’t let her die now,” Schmitt said. “So, with blind faith, we continued to agree to whatever she needed, knowing that we just couldn’t give up on her and that we would find a way to come up with the money to pay for her care.”
The family got busy thinking of ways to contribute to Cali’s bill. The family’s sons decided to donate everything they made in their summer jobs of mowing lawns and weeding to Cali’s care, and Schmitt picked up extra shifts at Disney World, where she works as a seasonal cast member.
“By Monday (July 9), Dr. Schaer spoke to us and said Cali’s bill was quickly approaching $7,000 and that she continued to need antivenin,” Schmitt said. “He wanted to prepare us for the fact that at the end of the day, we might not have a live dog. We asked him if there would be a point where he would know that more antivenin was pointless, and it would be best to put her down. He said he wanted to try two more vials, and that we might have to have that conversation later that afternoon.”
At that point, the family was desperate and their YouTube video was born.
“The boys all got together and started pulling all the pictures they’ve taken of Cali since we got her,” Schmitt said. “We know that times are tough, and we thought that by asking people for $1 donations and asking for them to share our post, if we could spread the word far enough, we could raise enough funds to help offset the balance that we owed. We were nowhere near prepared for what happened as a result of the video.”
As the video and word of Cali’s plight spread, the family navigated through Cali’s medical rollercoaster with the support of what soon became hundreds of virtual friends and fans, some known to the family and many more, complete strangers. Their Chip-in online account for donations kept growing and growing, as more became aware of Cali’s situation and contributed to help her.
“I’ve seen a lot of snake bite victims, and some pretty bad cases, but this was the worst because of all the unexpected complications that were the result of the amount of venom Cali received and her reaction to it,” Schaer said. “Usually it takes a couple of vials of antivenin and a couple of days to turn an animal around, but in Cali’s case it was 24 vials of antivenin and two full weeks of constant care. That’s unheard of.”
UF veterinarians knew they had turned a corner in Cali’s care when, following a surgical procedure July 16 to remove additional dead tissue from the bite area, she showed no sign of re-envenomation. At that point, 22 vials of antivenin had been administered to Cali during her stay, and she had begun showing signs of an allergic reaction.
The medical team knew they could not give any more antivenin due to the risk of Cali going into shock. Had Cali shown further signs of re-envenomation, there would have been no way to reverse the effects of venom in her system. Cali almost certainly would have died.
But three hours postoperatively, Schaer was grinning ear to ear.
“Judging from the way she looks now, compared to how she appeared soon after the previous surgery, when the last re-envenomation occurred, I am almost ready to pronounce her out of the woods,” Schaer said at the time.
The next day, UF veterinarians told the Schmitts that Cali just continued to improve and that they were feeling much better about her overall prognosis. At that time, one final surgery remained to close the wound, but Cali came through the procedure with flying colors.
On July 20 her family came to Gainesville to take their beloved Cali home. Her family has continued to post updates about her progress on the Facebook page they set up for Cali, www.facebook.com/pleasehelpcali.
Schmitt says Cali has received many visitors and is being pampered at home every day. She is eating well, drinking a lot and getting lots of rest. Meanwhile, donations continue to pour into the Chip-in online account the family established when they first turned to social media for help.
Schmitt said any overage would be given back to UF to support help other animals. She said she and her family were “humbled and honored” to have been able to witness “the great things that happen at the UF Small Animal Hospital.”
“From the girls at the front desk to the technicians, the doctors and even the administrative staff, each and every person we have had contact with has been amazing, Schmitt said. “The love, caring and compassion in every person there is evident in the way they treat their patients and their families.”