By Alex Silverman
“When you save a dog’s life, the life you’re really saving is your own.”
– Julia Szabo
Medicine Dog (Lyons Press, 2014) by nationally acclaimed pet reporter Julia Szabo (ΦBK, Vassar College, 1987) is described by Booklist as a “memoir about medicine, dogs, and yes, poop.” Overwhelmingly praised by critics, Szabo’s story is at once a love letter to man’s (and Szabo’s) best friend and at the same time so much more. In her story, Szabo recounts her struggle with and triumph over chronic inflammatory bowel disease. Amidst her trials and tribulations, she credits her thirteen-year-old bit pull Sam—effectively her medicine dog—as the source of her strength and the inspiration for her recovery via stem cell regenerative therapy.
Medicine Dog is a moving tale (pun absolutely intended) of the bonds that sustain us. The indefinite and profound impact of a pet changes us in ways we could never imagine. Read Szabo’s memoir for a truly inspiring account of the effect of a Medicine Dog.
Your previous works have dealt more with the celebration of and care for pets. With that in mind, how was composing this memoir a different process? Was the transition difficult?
SZABO: You’re absolutely correct to say that my previous titles are more in the fun-lifestyle-illustrated-book category, and this one is different: a memoir with a more serious tone and topic. Still, it’s not that different. Besides being works of non-fiction, my books all have one important thing in common: they all celebrate animals (especially dogs), and the amazing ability of non-speaking creatures to communicate and teach us mere humans. Looking back on the process, I can really appreciate what the great John Steinbeck said about East of Eden: ‘I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.’ My goal with all of my books is, and always will be, to encourage readers to hightail it to their local animal shelter and adopt a companion. The appalling numbers of homeless dogs and cats killed in animal shelters every year in the United States causes me a lot of heartache and lost sleep, and I sincerely believe that it’s a serious problem in our culture, with serious ramifications. With every dog we allow to be needlessly killed, we lose more of our humanity. So I will do (and write) anything I can to help raise awareness of this tragic waste. In the case of my home-décor titles (Animal House Style, Pretty Pet-Friendly) I tried to prove that a house (or apartment) simply isn’t a home without at least one pet in residence. With Medicine Dog, I shared my story of illness and recovery to show readers that adopting a shelter dog is possibly the best thing you can do for your health and longevity. Perhaps because I’m such a ‘dog with a bone’, always keeping a single message top of mind – “please adopt” – the transition from light-hearted lifestyle books to hard-hitting memoir was very natural. To judge from a few Amazon customer reviews, it seems my story has struck a chord with people, especially those suffering from illness, who want to take charge of their health, and for that I’m very thankful.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing Medicine Dog? What was the most enjoyable one?
SZABO: I’ve jumped to tackle challenging topics ever since my college days, so I always enjoy a challenge, and Medicine Dog did present a few. The main challenge was conveying the events of fifteen years in a narrative that would keep readers engaged from beginning to end, and wouldn’t bore anyone into a coma. To do this, it made sense to begin in the present with a “happy ending,” then flash back to the beginning and work my way back up to today, chapter by chapter. I made the decision to throw caution to the wind, describing my personal life and physical problems in excruciatingly intimate detail, even if some (actually, several) people would think it was all “TMI.” Then, after overcoming my initial hesitation over spilling my guts about my personal life and chronic physical problems, I worried about alienating people with my brutal honesty, so I worked extra-hard to maintain a sense of humor about it all – and I now have a profound respect for authors who elicit their audience’s ‘horrid laughter’, from Thomas Middleton to Stephen King.
If there’s one moral you hope readers will take from your story, what would that be?
SZABO: As with all my books, I hope the takeaway will be: Let’s go to the local animal shelter and adopt a Medicine Dog, or two, pronto! In the end, it’s all about being reminded of what Kipling astutely called “the power of the dog.” Give your heart to a dog, you won’t regret it – your life will improve, and your heart and soul will grow stronger. A dog is the RX for most anything that could ail a person.
For anyone who wishes to support stem cell research either in America or Internationally, how would you suggest they best utilize their efforts to make a difference?
SZABO: What a great question; this is my personal and professional crusade. Internationally, adult stem cell therapy is well past the research stage and people are already benefiting from actual treatment. Here in America, sadly, we’re behind the medical curve. Mainstream medicine and the mainstream media continue to insist that embryonic cells are superior to adult cells and that stem cell therapy is “ten years in the future.” That’s simply not true, as my story makes clear. The doctors of the Cell Surgical Network are proving that adult stem cell therapy is happening right now, and no embryos are being harmed. You can achieve healing today, with your own, non-embryonic (adult) cells, because the stem cells in your belly fat have remarkable regenerative powers, whether you’re a person, a horse, or a dog. But, as Medicine Dog explains, American dogs and horses can have their own stem cells cultured and stored (cryopreserved) after just one liposuction, yet humans cannot due to FDA restrictions. Elsewhere in the world, doctors are culturing and storing patients’ cells for therapeutic purposes, and patients are getting booster shots of their own cells without undergoing additional liposuctions. Veterinary medicine is well ahead of human medicine in America today. Here, if you’re a human, you need to undergo a liposuction every time you need an injection of your own cells. So right now, I’m afraid the only way to make a difference is to undergo stem cell treatment and tell everybody about it. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to do this – I was obliged to take a loan to achieve my self-healing goal – and that really needs to change. Adult stem cell therapy needs to be affordable and available to everyone in America, and it needs to be covered by health insurance providers. For now, the more people who take the plunge and undergo stem cell regeneration therapy, the better off we all will eventually be. The high-profile athletes and celebrities, especially, owe it to their fellow Americans to speak up about how their lives changed for the better as a result of getting treated with their own adult stem cells. This will compel mainstream medicine and the mainstream media to sit up and take note – and frankly, that’s the only thing that will change people’s minds. Once the American public’s consciousness is sufficiently raised, the FDA will have to restrict its regulations preventing the storing and culturing of our own cells for therapeutic purposes.
For all the aspiring writers out there, can you offer any tips or advice regarding the writing process?
SZABO: I encourage all writers to adopt a shelter dog or two! My dogs are my guides in everything I do, especially writing. They are excellent literary coaches. They force me to stand up from my chair and walk them several times daily – and this gets the juices flowing, effectively preventing writer’s block. My dogs have also trained me to follow the movement of life, as they do; to be spontaneous rather than tightly controlling things. For example, in sketching out Medicine Dog, I envisioned 15 neat chapters, and tried hard to stick to that template … until it finally dawned on me that I had to add a sixteenth chapter, because that’s what the narrative needed. Following my dogs’ lead, I also discovered that once you start writing – even a difficult memoir filled with painful episodes – the ideas just flow naturally. If you’ll pardon the analogy, writing this book was like achieving a successful, healthy bowel movement – and considering how terribly I used to suffer on the toilet, that’s no small milestone!
Do you have any plans for your next book or project?
SZABO: I do, but all I can reveal about it right now is that my dogs are actively dictating that story also.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
SZABO: I would like to reiterate that there’s an amazing wealth of love on offer at your local animal shelter – please go out and give a dog a home. When you save a dog’s life, the life you’re really saving is your own. And please remember that pit bulls are incredibly loving, loyal companions and make wonderful family pets. It was a pit bull named Sam who started me on the path to healing, and I’m very lucky to have followed his lead.
Medicine Dog is available from Amazon, Barnes & Nobel, and local booksellers.
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Alex Silverman is a recent graduate of Wofford College in humanities and German. He became a member of Phi Beta Kappa in his senior year. Wofford College is home to the Beta of South Carolina Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.