Throughout 2022 Pet Perennials will share information about organizations supporting the needs of animals and their pet families. This is a follow-up to our January blog on The Gwen Fund as Chris Olinger shares his backstory and how Gwen not only saved him, but set their team on the path to help fund veterinary care for those in financial need.
The Gwen Fund collaborates with local veterinarians to determine need and when appropriate, The Gwen Fund may step in to assist with all or some of the financial resources needed to provide these types of higher-level diagnostics, imaging and more.
Gwen, more than a dog, she was a blessing in my life that helped to heal my heart.
Being responsible for another living being changes everything. The knowledge that we have someone relying on us to provide for them or that we have made some commitment to changes the way we think about our day to day. For some, it gives us a reason to keep going.
Here I was, a poor college kid with a puppy. Although I had volunteered with several animal welfare organizations and helped at my grandma’s clinic cleaning kennels and the like, I knew nothing of having a dog on my own. I had never truly considered the work involved with having a pet. The training, entertaining, and the cost of having a dog is high. There are significant demands on your time such as wake up calls every 2 hours to go outside and special trips home during the workday for breaks and play time. It seemed like every moment was consumed by fulfilling one of my new pups needs – I was learning the hard way what it takes to have a pet. I would not let this deter me and while I was frustrated at times, seeing her sweet face made it all worthwhile.
Gwen and I settled into a routine and our potty-training efforts along with the mid-day office breaks became something that I looked forward to. We lived in an apartment complex a few blocks away from my job and campus was a short drive away – having everything so close by made it easy for me to make these quick trips home and facilitated Gwen’s quick learning. In a few short months Gwen was fully house, and crate trained. Our mid-day breaks went from rushing to take her outside and cleaning up any messes to enjoying some play time in the small dog park. Gwen took her retriever roots very seriously and she loved a rigorous game of fetch with her favorite toy – a tennis ball.
I was trying hard, but the truth is that my life at this stage was chaotic, at best. I worked during the day, class at night, I often worked odd jobs as well as serving and bartending, just trying to make a few extra bucks. The stress of all these things coupled with a complicated family history, feeling alone, and depressed made my daily grind even harder. Depression is a monster that lurked in the shadows for most of my life, but this stage of life was proving to be exceedingly more difficult. We scraped by and made things work but there were times when I did not have enough money to take care of both of us. Sometimes Gwen and I ate the same thing because I could not afford food for both of us. I recall over drawing my bank account to buy necessities, and had it not been for my connection to a certain veterinary clinic – I would not have been able to get her proper veterinary care. Things were extremely hard for the first year or so of Gwen’s life and I resented her a bit – why me!? Why did you pick me!? However, at the end of every hard day when we would go to bed, Gwen climbed up on me and would tuck her head into the space between my chin and shoulder to snuggle in and fall asleep. For the night, all was okay.
As the months ticked by Gwen and me both progressed. She grew like a weed, and I got promoted. Over the next few years, we lived a lot of life together. We moved from Ohio to California driving together for a little over three days in the car. We made so many great friends and had so many great experiences in California. She saw the Redwoods, The San Francisco Bay, and spent some time in L.A. We packed it up again and headed back east moving from California to Georgia. Gwen loved a car ride, although I think she may have been sick of cross-country road trips. On the surface things looked like they should – I was a normal guy in his twenties with a super cute pup. I had an education, learned a trade, held a good job and had an active social life and still volunteered regularly.
There are so many anecdotes that I could share about the time Gwen, and I shared together, so many that it makes telling this story difficult. During these first few years together, she had become my sidekick – it was Gwen and I against the world. We were a team, one that our friends and family had come to expect to always be as one. If I were coming, Gwen would be there too. If I were ever spotted without Gwen, the first question was “Where is Gwen?”
From the outside looking in, we seemed happy and healthy. In contrast, I was struggling. I had been struggling for a long time. A lifetime time of physical and emotional abuse had taken its toll. While I had confronted and escaped that environment, I dealt with the aftermath on my own, slipping into a deep depression. I used self-deprecating humor and kept myself busy with work to cover it up in my professional life and abused alcohol and recreational drugs to cope everywhere else. I was in the throws of a controlled tailspin, my nights ending with tearful thoughts of suicide. Sometimes I would sit outside with Gwen for hours, throwing her tennis ball while I smoked and stared into the darkness, other nights I would rub her ears until we fell asleep. While I struggled to hold myself together, Gwen was always there. She always knew what I needed, whether that was a cuddled on the couch or a buddy to go to go with me to our favorite neighborhood spot. To say that Gwen had become my best friend would not do our relationship justice. Gwen saved my life.
She stayed with me for over 15 years, and she was a fighter and my rock all the way through. She loved to swim, fetch, and most of all to be the center of attention at every social gathering. Gwen had a large circle of friends, loved by all.
By this time, we were in a loving home with my fiancé Jonathan and our family had grown to include a couple other rescues, Jackson, and Grant. At 14 Gwen suffered a devastating diagnosis of vestibular disorder which left her hospitalized for a few days before being able to come home. We had to work with her to help her walk and to eat – but she pulled through. I had asked her to hang on for me – I could not imagine my life without her. She rebounded as gracefully as she could, but it had taken a significant toll on her health. A year and a half would pass before health issues would resurface. Her entire demeanor had changed, she was lethargic and would barely eat. We had multiple trips to our veterinarian before getting an official diagnosis. It was cancer, and by the time we had discovered it the tumor had ruptured – she was bleeding internally. We had a day, at best. It was one of the hardest days of my life, but we had prepared, we knew it was coming, she was fifteen! The doctor stabilized her and made her comfortable enough for us to bring her home. We had a small celebration of her life; our closest friends came to see her. The next morning, we said goodbye to Gwen, peacefully in her own bed.
Gwen passed away one month before I would marry my fiancé, Jonathan. I am convinced that Gwen stayed until she knew I was okay, as Sipsey said, “A lady always knows when it’s time to leave.”
Gwen’s death was a devastating blow for our family and to this day, I struggle with it. There is not a day that passes that I do not think about her. She changed my life and my outlook on relationships between people and their pets. The day that Gwen died, as we drove away from the clinic, I could not help but to think about how different all of this could have been. I was sad and even a little angry that she was gone, but I was also so thankful to have had the opportunity to say goodbye. I held her as she passed away, rubbing her ears as I had so many nights before. I thought to myself how terrible it would have been if we had not known about her cancer. We would have lost Gwen in a terrible way – being whisked away from us during an emergency visit – never to be seen again. I would not have been able live with myself.
As the day’s passed by I started to think about people like me, pups like Gwen. It is highly likely that I would not be here today had it not been for Gwen. How many people like me are out there – that feel like their pet is all they have? How many people love their pets more than anything but are having a hard time – a string of bad luck, struggling with all the curveballs that life can throw at us. None of those things make us bad or irresponsible pet owners. Everyone deserves a Gwen, and every Gwen deserves the absolute best care. Their healthcare should not be reduced to the ability to pay.
We founded The Gwen Fund for this reason - To help families and their pets when they need it the most. The Gwen Fund provides financial aid for veterinary care. This grassroots nonprofit was founded in April of 2021. Named after Gwen, the organization hopes to offer piece of mind to struggling families, prevent premature euthanasia, reduce pet homelessness, as well as to help families cope with loss through building a community of bonded families.