Bedridden with Crohn’s disease, Alexis Fleming felt so bad that at times she wanted to end her life.
However, her beloved dog Maggie was constantly by her side, giving her the will to carry on – even when doctors gave her six weeks to live.
Incredibly, Alexis fought her way back to health, only for her rescue dog to die of lung cancer two years later on a vet’s operating table.
Devastated that she could not be with Maggie when she died, Alexis decided to set up an animal hospice in her name to help ensure other animals would not have to die alone.
Six months later, a dilapidated farm in rural Scotland was transformed into the Maggie Fleming Animal Hospice – a haven for all kinds of animals to live out their last days in comfort and peace.
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Here she tells the heartbreaking stories of Maggie and George – a 14-year-old labrador rescued from a shed, after his elderly, dementia-suffering owner abandoned him.
A surgeon in blue scrubs was standing in the doorway of the consulting room.Cheerful as ever, Maggie trotted in and went off to introduce herself to the consultant and nurse.
I could take Mags anywhere and, within seconds, she’d make new friends. The thought of her being cut open was too much to bear.
“Right, you – listen to me. It’s going to be OK. I’m so sorry. There was nothing else I could do, sweetheart. I’ll see you soon. Please be OK. I love you, Magpie.”
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Crouching beside Mags, holding her tightly against me, I tried to take in what the surgeon was telling me: what they were going to do, how long it would take.
As the door closed behind me, I turned and looked back through the glass pane.
She was looking back over her shoulder for me, and for a moment our eyes met as the nurse gently coaxed her through another door. Then she was gone.
Just after 2.30pm, my phone rang. Maggie had made it through surgery, and the vet was confident they’d got the tumour.
The surgeon called me twice a day. She knew how much I missed her.
She reassured me that she was getting plenty of love and affection, and she’d be home soon.
Four days later my mobile rang. It was the vet hospital. “There’s nothing we can do… I’m so sorry.”
Please, no. This can’t be happening. Maggie had been given one last feed before her tube was due to be taken out for good.
Somehow, it accidentally slipped out of place, causing what the surgeon called “the worst case of peritonitis I’ve ever seen”.
Nurses found her in her kennel in septic shock, heart racing and in agony.
She had been rushed to theatre, but there was too much damage. I pleaded to see her, but it would be too late by the time I got there.
There was nothing I could do. “But I promised her..”
Just before 8pm on October 24, 2015, I gave permission to end her life, and, 100 miles away, Maggie died. The world I knew ended.
Thoughts circled of my broken promise, of Maggie dying alone,. I relived the last moment we saw each other.
Then I remembered the countless faces I’d seen looking out from dog pounds or factory farms, ill and dying, the lost, desperate, hopeless souls, broken spirits, tortured by loneliness.
They’d never known love like Maggie had. They had truly died alone. And, in that moment, a thought found me: The Maggie Fleming Animal Hospice.
I brushed the snow from George’s coat and felt shoulder blades far less padded than they should be. His fur was thick with grime and calloused skin had formed.
I sipped tea and watched from the sofa as Maggie cheerfully welcomed George to her home.
They sniffed around the living room, George following behind her. When he was bathed and dried, I could see he was delighted to be clean. It took four shampoos.
“Look at you, mister!” I said, admiring him. He walked over and rested his chin on my knee, looking up at me, wagging his tail.
He sighed and closed his eyes. I could feel tears well. He’d wanted for so much – food, a bed, a home – but what he really wanted was love.
After years of sadness and loneliness, he was desperate to love someone back.
I made a bed of thick fleece blankets for him, next to Mags’ duvet, in front of the heater in the living room, and left a dog treat on his pillow.
For the first time in a long time, George drifted to sleep in a warm bed, with a full belly and a friend by his side. The next day I called Mags’s vet, Gaby.
His X-rays showed years of arthritis had fused his spine, his hips were disintegrating and his organs had begun to fail. He was dying when we met. He’d been in a lot of pain for a long time.
“How long does he have?” “Maybe a couple of weeks. Maybe less.”
For years he’d waited, and now he was only going to have days to know what it was like to be loved. It couldn’t be this unfair.
Mags and George became good friends. George was basking in the relief provided by a lot of pain medication.
By Christmas Eve, he looked more padded and his eyes were brighter. We spent Christmas with Mum and Dad, and the five of us gathered round the tree.
We’ got him squeaky toys, chew bones, biscuits and a stylish new winter coat. Mum made them a Christmas dinner, and they stood, side by side at their bowls, wearing paper hats. George licked his bowl clean, except for a Brussels sprout.
On New Year’s Eve, I knelt in front of him His tired eyes met mine and I saw. His light had gone out. He was too weak to walk, by the time we got to the vet’s. “I’m here, son, I’m here,” I said to George. “I love you so much, darling man.” The needle emptied into his vein and seconds later, he was gone.
As the bells rang in new year, I was lying in bed. Twelve days. He’d waited so long for them. Had I made his final days good enough?
I replayed them in my mind. He’d been really happy. He’d had 12 days of pottering, sniffing and friendship. I couldn’t change what he’d gone through before, but right at the end, he’d known 12 days of love.
- Extracted by Amanda Killelea from No Life Too Small: Love and Loss at the World’s First Animal Hospice by Alexis Fleming, out now in hardback, Quercus.