Stroke of Luck


A boost from alternative medicines, acupuncture and chiropractic, helped a stricken dog recover and frolic again. 
by KL Snyder  |  Photography by Kelvin Andow

When a stroke crippled Kate Herness’ 12-year-old Chocolate Lab, Berit, euthanasia loomed as a logical option. Kate thought otherwise.

In March 2016, two months before Berit’s collapse, Kate herself, at 51, had suffered a major stroke. She’d lost the use of the left side of her body and was told the paralysis was permanent. The day after learning the grim prognosis, she began to recover. If she could get better, maybe Berit could, too.

Kate gave Berit water in a straw, pulled her around in a wagon and, to bolster traditional veterinary treatment, sought help from adjunct therapies.

Acupuncture: From wagon to paws

Nine days after Berit’s stroke, Kate brought her to The Bluffs Pet Clinic in Red Wing. Darlene Cook, D.V.M., opened her patient’s case notes: “Berit presented in a red Radio Flyer wagon.”

Cook treated the dog with acupuncture that day; within hours, Kate noticed a positive reaction. Berit’s first two sessions, four days apart, addressed the paralysis in her legs. “The third treatment a week later added acupuncture points to help her heart work better,” Cook said.

Although Berit had shown no pre-stroke symptoms, x-rays revealed she had a chronic heart disease, cardiomyopathy, that led to her stroke. In eerie coincidence, cardiomyopathy had also caused Kate’s stroke. She, too, had been symptomless. Both had been sprinting around—Kate in a half-marathon—quite comfortably. “We kind of recovered together,” she said.

When Berit arrived at The Bluffs for her fourth acupuncture session, she presented on four paws. That won a “wow!” from Cook.

“Berit loved her acupuncture,” Cook said, “and when the needles were in, she relaxed. Most patients lie down and take a little nap.” An acupuncture session lasts 15 to 20 minutes. “Often just before their treatment is scheduled to end, they’ll stand up and shake. It’s like, OK, I’m done now.”

Chiropractic: Part of treating the whole patient

About that shimmy, Laurel Bjornson, D.V.M., of Broadway Veterinary Hospital in Rochester, likes it a lot. “One of the most satisfying things we see with chiropractic is when a dog comes in uncomfortable and not moving well and in pain and then after the adjustment, gives a big doggy shake. They don’t make that up. It’s real.”

When Berit presented in her red wagon for her first chiropractic appointment, “she had multiple problems going on with her spine, as well as heart disease,” Bjornson said. “She had twitching and spasms, and she was uncoordinated. She had dyskinesia.”

Bjornson defines dyskinesia as “an abnormality or impairment of voluntary movement that can be caused by either abnormal processing of signals by the nervous system or circulatory system or both.”

It can result in weakness and paralysis, she said. “Misalignment and the signal-processing by the nervous system are what chiropractic treats. You have to treat the primary problem as well, and chiropractic is a good adjunct therapy. If you’re not moving, degenerative problems develop over time. Chiropractic is part of treating the whole patient.”

“I could see that chiropractic was helping Berit’s day-to-day life,” Kate said.

Three-vet effort

Berit’s regimen and recovery combined traditional and adjunct veterinary practices. Her treatment “was kind of a massive coordination among Heritage Pet Hospital [Berit’s regular provider] and Bluffs and here,” Bjornson said. “Three kinds of medical treatment modalities all connected. It’s awesome that we can collaborate.”

“Without Dr. Bjornson and Dr. Cook, I think Berit would not have survived,” Kate said. “I believe they gave Berit and me the extra time we had together. It took her a couple of months to recover, and then she spent her last 14 months running and doing everything she wanted to do. At that point in life, you have to let them do what they want to do.”

Berit: Worth fighting for

Berit was a nine-month-old shelter pup when the Hernesses adopted her. She’d been so violently abused, the shelter wouldn’t show her until she’d had plastic surgery on her face. Her greeting was a growl, “but not a threatening growl,” Kate said. “She would wag her tail at the same time. I think growling was her defense mechanism because of the abuse.”

She loved exploring the Herness’ large acreage, racing and chasing through the fields. She’d go with Kate to the garden, and while Kate worked, would amble through the bean field to the creek to go for a dog paddle.

When Kate had her stroke, Berit was
there. When Kate was in the hospital, Berit refused to eat. She stayed by the door and cried. A neighbor told Kate, “Berit was
literally crying.”

When Berit had her stroke, Kate understood what her dog was going through. “We had some of the same meds,” she said, “and I wondered if what Mayo Clinic did for me would work for Berit. I wouldn’t give up. How could I give up on her? She never gave up on me.”

Berit was a perfect patient. “During her recovery, she never was unhappy or frustrated. She was smiling and happy; and after she got well, you could see that she was enjoying every day. It wasn’t just extending her life for me. It was extending her life for her.”

On September 1, 2017, on her way to the garden, Berit had a fatal stroke. “She died doing what she loved,” Cook said.

“Berit,” said Kate, “was a beautiful little girl.”

KL Snyder is a freelance writer based in Rochester.