In the kitchen, Willy Hale is always at your feet, waiting for food. The black American shorthair feline has polydactyl paws wide enough to pick up almost anything that accidentally hits the floor.
But retired doctors Zoey and Mahlon Hale only smile at his antics. After all, Zoey says, “he’s a grand cat.” For 14 years, Willy has lounged and lazed through their lives, even occasionally scampering through the yard of their Connecticut home on warm afternoons. When he comes back inside, he always “kisses” his five-year-old feline sister Cleo hello.
Two years ago, Willy’s charmed life seemed threatened when the Hales found a growth on his chest between his front legs. They took him to their family veterinarian, who removed it. But the tumor grew back, and a biopsy showed cancer. The Hales were devastated. Willy was operated on again, but the veterinarian recommended that the Hales seek a veterinary oncologist.
“Of course we came to Tufts,” Zoey says of the Foster Hospital for Small Animals at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. “Everyone knows about Tufts, because it’s the best hospital in the area.”
Soft-tissue surgeon Dr. John Berg assessed very quickly that while this was not a rare nor uncommon case the large mass required additional surgery as soon as possible. “We removed the previous scar widely and deeply,” he says. “Fibrosarcoma is the kind of cancer that usually isn’t located next to any vital organs, so generally it isn’t fatal. But cancers like this on the surface of the body, if left untreated, can grow beyond what we can surgically remove.” There is also a 20 percent chance that fibrosarcoma can spread far from the original tumor to distant sites in the body.
The fact that the mass had been completely removed previously made this a more serious case for Dr. Berg, because, he says, “if it grew back locally, it could require a surgery that would force us to remove a part of his chest wall, sternum, or breast bone, possibly part of his ribs”—even all of those parts at once. “When cancer is at a reasonably early stage we try to treat it as aggressively as we can to avoid worst case scenarios.”
Fortunately, Willy was treated at an early stage. More than a year down the road, there is no sign of a recurrence and he’s back to waiting patiently by the fridge for his daily bite of turkey. “The odds are very strong that he will be fine,” reports Dr. Berg. Willy’s post-op treatment did not include radiation, due to Dr. Berg’s high level of confidence that they had fully removed the mass. Willy returned home with pain medication and wearing a toddler-sized T-shirt with the arms cut off, in lieu of the common, less comfortable neck cone.
Dr. Berg has been at Tufts Foster Hospital for nearly 30 years. He describes himself as a typical kid who got into college and had no idea what he wanted to do after graduation. “But I did love animals,” he says, “and there was a vet school at my university in Colorado. I’m very glad I made the decision to go.”
The appeal of the Cummings School for Berg: teaching students and residents, and the wide variety of surgeries and research that will make an impact on the lives of animals and humans. “Our case load is very high because we live in a densely populated area, which keeps things fresh,” he says. “Working in a place like this, you become very experienced because of the quantity of animals that come through the door. After thirty years, I still see new cases and tackle new medical challenges.”
Berg also appreciates veterinary medicine because he isn’t performing the same procedure over and over again, as is the case for many doctors in human medicine who become experts in a specific surgery. “This is a much smaller profession, meaning someone like me who does soft tissue surgery gets to work on every body part and sees a wide variety of odd diseases.”
The Hales are thrilled with Willy’s prognosis, not to mention the care provided by the entire care team led by Dr. Berg.
“We loved seeing all of the other patients,” Mahlon said. “Most importantly, we appreciated how timely and thorough were and how they constantly kept us in the loop. Because of all this wonderful care, we feel very grateful.”
To say thank you, the Hales have given $100,000 to establish the Willy Hale Fund. The fund will support research by faculty, house officers, and students at the Cummings School. Every student who receives Willy Hale research funding also gets a picture of the fund’s namesake, the cat named Willy, born on Leap Day, who is four going on 14—and many more years, thanks to the Cummings School.