The staff at the veterinary hospital braced themselves behind the desk. Across the lobby they watched as a couple scrutinized the invoice’s contents for their dog’s medical treatment. Their dog, who had been diagnosed with renal cancer, had just undergone a successful yet grueling surgical procedure to remove her cancerous kidney, and part of her adrenal gland. She was still in recovery, under close watch. The office manager was prepared to explain the bill, but Dr. Nick Bacon, the surgical oncologist, walked towards Lisa and Harry Posin instead. As Harry pointed to the bill, he remarked, “Dr. Bacon, I think there must be some mistake with the bill.” So Dr. Bacon graciously began the task of going over each item on the bill, line by line. Afterwards, Harry pressed on, “But doctor, the bill is too low. Is your fee in here? Dr. Bacon exhaled. Suddenly, the weariness from the surgery washed away, as he assured Harry that indeed his fee was part of the bill. Thus began a warm and mutually rewarding relationship between Dr. Bacon, the Posins, Olive, their beloved Maltese, and the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine.
Olive’s Way. A Love Story. Olive was three when Lisa and Harry noticed something was not right. Their always alert and energetic dog had been lethargic for several days, and her eyes appeared puffy. They took her to their family veterinary clinic in Boca Raton where she was diagnosed with conjunctivitis, and subsequently treated with steroids. But Olive’s condition wasn’t improving. In fact, while Lisa’s mom, Marie McCarron was babysitting Olive, she observed that Olive seemed to be getting worse. Marie drove Olive to the veterinary clinic, stormed the office and firmly requested, “I want to see the records for my granddaughter.”
It turns out, no blood work had ever been done on Olive to confirm, or pinpoint the origin of her illness. Lisa flew back from New York immediately, and took Olive to her mother’s veterinarian in Boynton Beach. “When the doctor came out of the exam room, holding Olive in his arms, I knew right away by the look on his face that something was terribly wrong,”said Lisa. “I called Harry and asked him to please come over, right away. And then, for some reason, when I hung up the phone, I just walked out of the clinic’s lobby, holding tightly onto Olive’s little sweater. I just walked and walked for, I don’t know how many miles. When a car pulled up alongside me, I turned to see it was Harry. He was holding Olive, and I could tell he had been crying.”
“Olive has cancer,” Harry told Lisa. “We’ll get her the best treatment available,” he assured her.
The Posins immediately took Olive to a specialty hospital in Coral Springs to see Dr. Morales. From what she had been told by Marie’s veterinarian, Dr. Morales initially thought to herself that there was little hope for Olive. She would make sure Olive was comfortable until the Posins were ready to let her go.
But the tests that Dr. Morales ran revealed a glimmer of hope. The cancer was encapsulated, and if removed immediately, Olive might stand a good chance of living. When the Posins asked Dr. Morales where they should go for the surgery, she immediately recommended the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. Lisa looked at Harry, and then at Dr. Morales and said, “I don’t think you understand, Dr. Morales. We’ll take Olive anywhere in the world to ensure that she receives the best possible treatment and care.” Without a blink of an eye, Dr. Morales gently answered, “Well, then, you’ll be taking Olive to the University of Florida, of course.”
While Lisa, her mom and Olive traveled to Gainesville by plane that same afternoon, Dr. Morales was already on the phone with Dr. Nick Bacon, head of the Oncology Unit at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. Harry would fly up later that evening.
What makes the UF College of Veterinary Medicine so special is the team approach taken with each patient to reach a diagnosis and recommend the subsequent care. For one consultation fee, the patient is seen by an entire team of specialists in one location. It is often a profound savings in cost, and certainly a savings in time, as all tests, procedures and specialists are contained on one campus. Once in the system, a family is gently guided throughout the various processes by the team, while being provided thorough explanations and assurances along the way.
Dr. Bacon explained the bell curve of Olive’s diagnosis and prognosis to Lisa and Marie. She could live another 16 months if the surgery was successful, he told them. As reassuring as the entire team in the room was being, Lisa was still consumed with fear and utter sadness at the realization that Olive could actually die. A young woman on Olive’s team, sitting next to Lisa, took her hand and said, “We’re here to help you, any way we can.” Suddenly, Lisa looked around and became acutely aware of her surroundings. “I felt as if I was in the most amazing place, with the most amazing people,” said Lisa. “The positive energy within that whole environment made me feel hopeful, and I realized at that moment, anything was possible.”
Several times during the nearly six hour surgery the following morning, the Posin’s were given updates on Olive’s condition. Afterwards, Dr. Bacon, who had performed the surgery, sat with the Posins for about an hour to further discuss Olive’s condition with them. 24 hours after the surgery, the Posins were able to peek in on Olive. “It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen in my life,” said Lisa, “She was swaddled up, and with her pretty bright eyes looking at me, I just knew she was going to be okay.”
Convinced that the bill was correct, but not completely satisfied, Harry asked Dr. Bacon, “How much money is raised each year for the oncology unit?” Surprisingly, on average, only $10,000 in donations came in sporadically each year by humans whose animals’ lives had been touched by the College of Veterinary Medicine. “They were making due with what they had,” said Lisa.
The Posins, who had together already decided they would make a donation to the oncology unit for their efforts in having saved Olive’s life, decided that they also wanted to create a vehicle to raise even more money specifically for the Oncology Unit. Through this foundation, all of the money raised would go to help develop more research programs, purchase state-of-the-art equipment and fund in whole or part, an internship, a residency in medical oncology, and a fellowship in surgical oncology.
“Harry named the foundation Olive’s Way to show that this would be the way, a beacon of hope for those pets suffering with cancer. Because with hope, as I already know, anything is possible,” said Lisa. In 2008, a year after Olive’s surgery, the first fundraiser was held at the Boca Raton Resort and Club, raising an astounding $320,000. Olive attended, as did Dr. Bacon. “Once people knew of the wonderful work taking place at the University, they immediately wanted to help by making donations to the foundation. They had just never realized that their help was needed to keep the College of Veterinary Medicine viable and growing,” said Lisa. “Due to the severity of Olive’s illness and the complex nature of the surgery,” Harry strongly believes, “had it not been for the skilled oncology team at the University of Florida, we would likely have lost Olive on the operating table.”
The oncology service at the College of Veterinary Medicine has grown from a single clinician in 2002 to the largest training center for veterinary oncologists in the Southeastern United States. In 2010, the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida opened a new hospital with 100,000 square feet dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of veterinary patients. Today, the University of Florida is one of only two centers in the world to train veterinarians in cancer surgery in a post-residency program. Olive’s Way has helped to make all of this possible. Olive defied the odds and lived another four years after her surgery. “They were four good years too,” said Lisa, who can still vividly recall the day it was time to let Olive go. “I was lying in bed with her face on my face. Harry was looking at us with tears in his eyes, waiting to take her. That precise moment in time always comes back to me whenever I see anyone else in pain. I still miss her dearly, and telling her story allows me to get back in touch with her. I never want to lose sight of her, and I can be completely re-charged just by seeing a picture of her.” Dr. Bacon changed the Posin’s lives, and they changed his. As a result, he has changed the whole landscape of the oncology department at the University. “Even though cancer is such a horrible subject, we are on the hopeful side of it, thanks to Olive’s Way, and the Oncology Department at the University of Florida,” said Lisa.