Stray pup in Afghanistan captures soldier’s heart

Local veterinary hospital asks community to help raise money for dog’s medical condition

BY JENNIFER KOHLHEPP Staff Writer

 Above: Bonnie Assanowicz and Sultan (center) visit with Vet-I-Care Director Eileen Schuck and staff surgeon Garrett Levin at NorthStar Vets in Millstone on Jan. 20. Left: While serving in Afghanistan, Sgt. 1st Class Brian Assanowicz rescued this abandoned Anatolian shepherd. He and his wife, Bonnie, would later have the pup shipped to America to be adopted into their home. Above: Bonnie Assanowicz and Sultan (center) visit with Vet-I-Care Director Eileen Schuck and staff surgeon Garrett Levin at NorthStar Vets in Millstone on Jan. 20. Left: While serving in Afghanistan, Sgt. 1st Class Brian Assanowicz rescued this abandoned Anatolian shepherd. He and his wife, Bonnie, would later have the pup shipped to America to be adopted into their home. War can’t harden a big heart. While serving his fifth tour of duty in Afghanistan, Pennsylvania Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Brian Assanowicz discovered two abandoned puppies on the side of the road near the Bagram Airfield Base. He started to care for the cuddly 6-week-old brothers and became heartbroken at the thought of having to leave them behind when his tour ended.

The Anatolian shepherds were only a few months old when someone shot and killed one of them. Devastated by the loss, Assanowicz started a mission to save the other. He didn’t know that he would wind up saving his new companion’s life twice.

Adopting the dog, that would come to be known as Sultan, into their home in Bensalem, Pa., was the least Bonnie Assanowicz felt she could do for her husband.

“My husband gives so much to me, my son and the country and doesn’t ask for much in return at all,” she said. “Sultan got him through some long, lonely nights and now he gives me the opportunity to have somebody close to me that was close to Brian,” she said.

Rescuing Sultan from Afghanistan took two months. The family partnered with SPCA International’s Operation Baghdad Pups for his safe removal. The nonprofit charitable organization picked the pooch up, gave him shots and quarantined him in Kabul before flying him to his new home in the United States. The Assanowiczes raised one-third of the $3,000 adoption cost with the help of family and friends, and used their savings to pay the rest.

Sultan had just begun to settle into his new home when Brian received two weeks’ leave. Upon reuniting with his four-legged friend, he immediately noticed something wrong. The couple took the lethargic, dazed and confused pooch to a veterinarian who conducted a series of tests. After a week of waiting, they learned that Sultan had a birth defect that would kill him by his first birthday if left untreated.

“He came to the United States when he was 9 months old, so my husband saved his life in more ways than one,” Bonnie said.

NorthStar Vets staff surgeon Garrett Levin and internist Kimberly Hammer diagnosed Sultan with intrahepatic portosystemic liver shunt, a congenital defect in the liver.

“An abnormal vessel causes blood to bypass the liver, and what it does is then it takes dirty blood and puts it into circulation without being cleaned by the liver,” Levin said.

Brian’s two-week leave ended and he returned to Afghanistan. Having witnessed the strong human/animal bond between her husband and the pooch, Bonnie elected to proceed with costly corrective surgery for Sultan. NorthStar Vets is one of few veterinary centers in America that has the capability to successfully perform what was once a highly complicated surgery with a high failure and death rate, according to Levin. With the use of fluoroscopy (liveX-ray), the surgeon threaded a wire and catheter from Sultan’s right jugular vein down through his heart into the caudal vena cava and then into the liver shunt vessel. A stint and multiple coils were placed in the vessel to shut down its use, according to Levin. “It’s all made from an incision one millimeter in size in the neck,” Levin said. The procedure cost $6,785 and the family had spent the majority of their savings getting Sultan to America. Recognizing their plight, NorthStar Vets discounted the cost to $5,453 and referred Bonnie to the Vet-I-Care foundation, a nonprofit committed to helping families secure the resources required to provide much-needed specialty and emergency care for their pets.

Vet-I-Care has organized a fundraiser to cover Sultan’s medical expenses. “The Heart of a Soldier” will be held at 7 p.m. Feb. 25 at Tommy’s Inn in Millstone. Tickets are available for $30 per person and include a buffet, beverages and entertainment. A 50/50 and silent auction will also take place at the event.

The staff at NorthStar Vets started Vet-I-Care in 2005, according to Director Eileen Schuck.

“The staff at this hospital recognized the need when they saw so many pets euthanized due to economic reasons,” Schuck said. “When you work in a facility like this, it’s very sad, and they came up with a plan to do something about it.”

Thankful for the support Sultan and her family received from NorthStar Vets and Vet-I-Care, Bonnie said she would like to spread the word about their services to help other families.

“The amount of support and caring everyone has given us is overwhelming,” she said. “If more people knew that there is a resource for people with sick pets who can’t afford surgery, more families could keep their loved ones.”

When Sultan visited NorthStar Vets for his one-week postoperation checkup on Jan. 20, Levin commented on his excellent progress.

“We expect him to have full 100 percent recovery with an excellent quality of life,” Levin said. “This should in no way hinder his longevity. He will have a normal lifespan.”

In just seven days after the surgery, Sultan went from a depressed, clumsy and weak 74- pound pooch to a playful pup weighing in at 107 pounds. The average weight of an Anatolian shepherd is 150 pounds.

“He’s doing great,” Bonnie said. “He seems more attentive and he’s processing things a little better.”

Sultan has been resting healthfully at home while waiting for his best friend to return. Brian has been moved from Kabul to the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan where he is helping police hold back the Taliban. He may not get another military leave until the fall and his current tour is not expected to end until 2012, according to his wife.

The heart of a soldier reached out to one tiny life during wartime and in return received unconditional love through many difficult days and nights. He and his family are thankful for all that transpired to give them their new companion for life.

“Sultan is a beautiful dog, who is kind, loving (especially to children) and the one thing that made my husband get through some tough days,” Bonnie said. “He has helped me through some lonely, worried days, and has changed my life forever.”

For more information about Vet-I-Care or to purchase tickets to the fundraiser for Sultan, contact Eileen Schuck at 609-259-2230 or email eschuck@vet-i-care.org.