Millie Harman walks again after disc repair at Veterinary Teaching Hospital

Millie receiving a follow-up neurology exam
Millie, an 8-year-old Lhasa apso, showed signs of significant recovery during a follow-up exam with her surgeon and neurologist Theresa Pancotto (right) and neurology technician Maureen Sroufe (left). Millie is now walking again after surgical treatment for a herniated cervical disc, which had left her completely paralyzed in all four limbs.

From her very first visit to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, Millie Harman’s sweet, spunky personality captured the hearts of everyone around her. “Millie is a firecracker,” explained her owner Sandra Harman, a retired school administrator from Bland County, Virginia. “Everyone there at the hospital truly fell in love with Millie.”

On Mother’s Day, Millie, an 8-year-old Lhasa apso, was on the arm of the sofa where she routinely perched to gaze out the window, Harman explained. “She fell asleep and fell from her perch…and the fall caused disc damage in the cervical area of her spinal cord.” When Harman got to her, Millie was completely paralyzed in all four limbs.

Harman immediately rushed Millie to her local veterinarian, Deidre Crutchfield at the Veterinary Associates of Princeton and the Bluefields in Bluefield, West Virginia, who in turn referred Millie to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital. “Establishing trust between [a referring veterinarian and a specialist] helps facilitate prompt and emergency care when needed,” explained Theresa Pancotto, clinical assistant professor of neurology in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences and Millie’s surgeon. “It also improves overall patient care when we can work as a team and bring wellness care and disease care together for the best treatment of the patient.”

Millie and her owner Sandra Harman
Millie and her owner Sandra Harman spent time with the hospital's physical therapy team during Millie's recovery period. Being involved in rehab sessions, owners gain confidence to work with their dog at home and often develop a deeper human-animal bond.

When she arrived at the hospital, Harman’s first contact was with Ashley Moye, a fourth-year veterinary student from Chesapeake, Virginia, and Dottie Williams, a former intern of small animal medicine and surgery in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, who ordered an MRI to confirm that Millie needed C2-3 ventral slot surgery for a herniated cervical disc. The surgery, Pancotto explained, is “one of the most common procedures we do,” and is typically performed at the veterinary hospital several times a week, though the procedure carries risks, including severe bleeding, spinal luxation, and pain.

During the surgery, Pancotto operated near vital structures necessary for normal breathing and respiratory centers of the brain stem. “If those are damaged, the patient dies,” Pancotto said.

As a recent widow who had lost her husband during a similar surgery, Harman was understandably devastated by the prognosis, but comforted by her contacts at the hospital. “I have never been surrounded by such a team of professional people,” said Harman. She described Moye as a “blessing” who would call Harman day and night to inform her of Millie’s progress. Thankfully, the surgery went as planned and Millie was ambulatory two weeks later.

Then began the next journey — physical therapy with Flori Sforza, a veterinary technician and certified canine rehabilitation practitioner. Sforza, who completed the Canine Rehabilitation Certificate Program at the University of Tennessee in 2011, works regularly with rehabilitation patients like Millie at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital. She uses some of the same equipment used in human physical therapy, such as yoga balls and balance boards, as well as an underwater treadmill.

“When you have a dedicated owner like Mrs. Harman and a determined dog, the outcome is usually good. When patients go home after surgery, owners often feel overwhelmed with information, the new responsibilities, and overall adjustments to their lifestyle,” Sforza explained. “When they take the time to come back for rehab, they are usually grateful to get more hands-on experience and some clarity on what goals they really want to achieve. Being involved in the rehab sessions, owners become confident working with their dog at home and often build a deeper human-animal bond. Sometimes that is success within itself.”

Millie during a rehab session
Millie practices balance during a rehab session with Sarah Spangler (left), surgery and rehab technician, and Flori Sforza (right), certified canine rehabilitation practitioner.

Both Millie and her owner excelled during physical therapy and Millie was released to return to normal activity. “She was a fun patient to work with and her case clearly shows how beneficial physical rehabilitation is in the post-operative period,” said Pancotto.

Harman added, “That was a wonderful team that I had. They not only worked with Millie but they worked with me as well.”

Moye, who is tracking small animal, enjoyed working with Millie so much that she made sure to revisit her at future physical therapy sessions, even when she had moved on to a different clinical rotation. “Millie’s case was helpful for my future career goals because I am very likely to see a similar case again,” Moye said. Another fourth-year student, Matthew Kemper, whose hometown is Washington, D.C. and is also tracking small animal, assisted Pancotto with Millie’s follow-up neurological exam. “I had not worked with Millie before, but it was exciting, nonetheless, to see how much progress she was able to make in six short weeks following surgery,” explained Kemper. “Knowing that Millie was non-ambulatory when she first came to us, watching her walk down the hallway was inspiring. We were able to have a positive impact not just on Millie, but on her owner as well, and support that bond between owner and pet.”

Since the Harmans live in a small town, Millie became a “community icon,” explained Harman. While she was recovering, community members at church, at the grocery store, and about town would inquire about Millie’s progress. “We were all just so celebratory at the end of her journey,” said Harman.

Millie with her care team
Millie poses with members of her care team (left to right) Maureen Sroufe, neurology technician; Flori Sforza, certified canine rehabilitation practitioner; Ashley Moye, fourth-year veterinary student from Chesapeake, Virginia; Matthew Kemper, fourth-year veterinary student from Washington, D.C.; Sarah Spangler, surgery and rehab technician; and Theresa Pancotto, clinical assistant professor of neurology.