Canine cop gets arthritis treatment

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ROCK SPRINGS, Wyo. (AP) — Blitz is an emphatic and petite Labrador with more than four years on the Sweetwater County force. Instead of a badge, she has a sheriff's collar. Instead of a gun, she has a nose that can smell what humans can't: concealed drugs.

She's trained to seek the four flavors: heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine. Blitz is great at finding the vacuum-sealed and hidden contraband that's so hard for law enforcement to uncover.

"If she knew how to drive, I'd be out of a job," says Matt Bartolotta, a corporal with the Sweetwater County Sheriff's Department.

Blitz underwent stem cell therapy last month — the first canine cop to do so in Wyoming — because of persistent pain resulting from a torn cruciate ligament in her knee.

On the day of the surgery, Bartolotta is with Blitz in the parking lot of the Desert View Animal Hospital in Rock Springs. The 10-year-old lab is on the hunt, but drags her hind leg. It's been lame for more than a year. The traditional surgery to repair her ligament didn't work as well as hoped — they never do. Even with the pain, all she wants to do is work. She receives medication to relieve the pain. But the drugs only mask it. The cost is more than $700 per year. Another medication, costing hundreds more, temporarily alleviates her inflamed joints. Stem cells are her only hope.

"I wish half the people in the world had half the excitement she has for going to work," Bartolotta says.

Bartolotta is brawny. His arms are the size of legs. His chest is the size of a table. His dream was to work with a K-9 unit. He left his native New York to do so. He's animated, laughing and telling tales about his companion's decorated career. When Sweetwater deputies had a warrant to search a local restaurant, the police couldn't find a thing. They brought in Blitz. She uncovered large quantities of cocaine between sheetrock and a wall.

Blitz gets most of the attention around town. But Bartolotta does receive some acknowledgement.

"When we take her into schools for the kids, they all ask me, 'Are you Blitz's dad?'"

He is. They live together with Bartolotta's wife, kids and two other dogs. When veterinarian Stephanie Wallendorff walks outside and says, "I am ready when you are," the seven-year veteran of the force demurs. His face turns red and he gulps a nervous breath. It's the face of a worried father.

Bartolotta unhooks the leash and removes Blitz's sheriff collar. He doesn't want to watch the procedure. He "has the stomach" to handle the blood. That's not what's keeping him from sticking around.

"It's like my child is being operated on."

Wollendorff injects Blitz with anesthesia.

"Give me a kiss," Bartolotta says to Blitz. She licks his face. He walks out the door gripping her leash and collar. It takes a while for the anesthesia to kick in. Her tail, moving like a metronome, begins to diminish its beats per minute. Her tempo finally reaches lethargy. The vet techs hoist her onto the prep table.

Wallendorff and her team prepare to extract the 30 milliliters of blood necessary for processing the stem cells. Blitz's head is tucked under the arm of vet tech Tracey Hennings. She cradles the sedated dog like a baby as Wollendorf injects a syringe into the Labrador. Blitz's red tongue sticks out ever so slightly. Someone walks in with a basket of fall flowers. "It's for you, Dr. Wollendorff."

She opens the card: "Congratulations on your big day. Love Brad." This is Wollendorff's first stem cell procedure without assistance from MediVet, the company that sold the clinic the equipment to perform the procedure.

"You'll have to go home and spank him for spending that much money," Hennings says with a laugh.

An electric razor buzzes the hair off Blitz's left shoulder. Wallendorff will go under the first layer of muscle to extract the 20 grams of fat needed to process the stem cells. The contrast of shaved skin and golden hair are like fields of wheat next to a desert. Birth marks dot the basin between Blitz's shoulder and her rib cage. The dog's bare skin resembles a human's. Hennings carries Blitz into the operating room and lays her on the table. There's a crash a few rooms down the hall. A 120-pound lab needs X-rays. He's still a puppy and already showing early signs of joint inflammation. Arthritis is an inherent flaw in the breed's genetics thanks to inbreeding.

Wallendorff dresses in her scrubs and begins the surgery to the tune of John Mellencamp's "Small Town." Desert View Animal Hospital is the only clinic in the state to have one-day stem cell treatments. It was a $10,000 investment to buy the equipment — a financial risk for any small-town vet. Procedures cost about $1,800.

She makes the first incision and blood stains Blitz's skin. The ECG respirator makes a cacophony — the overtones to what is now Rod Stewart's "Maggie May."

"If we didn't have music we'd probably kill each other," Hennings says.

Wallendorff drops the first shaving of fat into a container. Forty minutes later it's full of flaccid, bloody strips. The vet weaves Blitz with stitches and closes her chest with staples. They use a silver spray to prevent seepage. The seam looks like tin train tracks running across the desert that is Blitz's bare chest. The first part of the procedure is complete.

Vet Tech Justin Booth carries the test tubes of blood and the container of fat into a lab for processing. Booth compares part of the process to chemical mining. A number of solutions and enzymes are poured atop the chopped fat and blood to disintegrate what's not useful. Then the mix goes into a hot-water bath. It's used to separate the stem cells from the plasma and fat. Once divided, the fusion of Blitz's fat and blood go into a centrifuge to further the separation. When the centrifuge is through spinning, there are the 40 million to 60 million stem cells necessary for the injection. They go under LED lighting, which activates them. Now they're ready for Blitz. Their function is to replicate and mimic the healthy cells in the affected area. When injected, they enter the joint and "say, 'This is what we need to be,'" Booth says.

After Wallendorff injects Blitz with the cells, the dog is able to go home. The procedure is flawless. Ninety-five percent of the cells are viable and an extra 90 million are extracted for later procedures if Blitz needs them. It's not a panacea for Blitz's pain. But Wallendorff hopes the procedure will vanquish Blitz's need for costly medicine. MediVet claims a 94 percent success rate on its more than 3,000 treatments in the past two years. Blitz should be back fighting crime in 40 days.

"We're hoping to buy Blitz three or four more years of service that she wouldn't have got otherwise," Wallendorff says.

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Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

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