When Austin, Texas, doctorate student Cerrah Lill adopted an adorable Catahoula leopard puppy at Austin Pets Alive, she knew Aki, which means brilliant in Japanese, was a parvo survivor. What she didn’t know was that Aki also had a life-threatening heart issue that would require cardiac surgery at VCA Tanglewood Animal Hospital in Austin.

It all began with a puppy well check

Austin Pets Alive and VCA Tanglewood Animal Hospital enjoy a partnership where every pet adopted at the shelter receives a voucher for a complimentary pet exam called an FFE (Free First Exam). That’s why Cerrah first brought Aki into VCA on June 13, 2022, when they saw Janine Chapman, DVM, staff veterinarian, at VCA Tanglewood.

“Aki had just recovered from parvovirus and developed a respiratory infection,” states Dr. Chapman. “During his exam, I noted a severe heart murmur—grade V out of VI heart murmur—the kind you only hear a few times in your career. This heart murmur was continuous, meaning it existed throughout all phases of the cardiac cycle and was likely present since birth.”

Dr. Chapman also knew that waiting for Aki to grow up a bit more and recover from his current troubles was not an option—he needed help right away. “I referred Cerrah and Aki to a local cardiologist at CVCA in Austin who performed an ultrasound of his heart called an echocardiogram. This confirmed our suspicion. A blood vessel that’s normal in the womb but is supposed to close shortly after birth was still shunting blood away from Aki’s lungs. This is called a patent ductus arteriosus and requires surgery to close off the vessel.”

A time of crisis for Cerrah and Aki

Understandably, this was difficult news for Cerrah to absorb. The young pup—who had just entered her life—needed major surgery.

“At this point, VCA Tanglewood Animal Hospital’s manager Caroll Mays stepped in and worked tirelessly with the VCA Charities HOPE Funds to help pay for Aki’s his life-saving surgery that would be performed by our colleague Dr. Kelly Might and assisted Cerrah in applying for the Susan Crews Veterinary Assistance Grant,” explains Dr. Chapman.

Cerrah had purchased pet insurance for Aki but unfortunately, it wouldn’t cover anything in the first 30 days. So, she immediately began a GoFundMe campaign because the costs were going to be significant. Cerrah had just six weeks until the scheduled surgery to gather the necessary funds to cover the total cost for Aki’s heart care.

“Because I adopted Aki at Austin Pets Alive, the shelter immediately raised $4,000 from its donors to help cover surgery costs,” explains Cerrah. “My GoFundMe raised $550, and with the generous VCA Charities HOPE Funds and the Susan Crews Veterinary Assistance Grant—I had the needed funds for all Aki’s cardiac appointments and surgery.”

Repairing a broken heart

Kelly Might, DVM, DACVS-SA, from Violet Crown Veterinary Specialists performed the cardiac surgery on Aki to fix his heart.

“The surgery is relatively straightforward in that the goal is simply to put a ligature on the vessel, stopping the blood flow through it,” says Dr. Might. “However, there are significant potential risks with the surgery. Anesthesia is more complicated than a regular surgery because we have to go into the chest cavity. Once we opened his chest, Aki was unable to breathe on his own, so the anesthetist must breathe for him the entire time the chest is open.”

Dr. Might says he was thankful to work with Dr. Chapman and the VCA Tanglewood team at the helm for managing anesthesia, assisting in surgery and overseeing Aki’s postoperative recovery.

“Aki came through the procedure beautifully and should have no further issues with his heart or lasting effects from the surgery,” notes Dr. Chapman. “While no one wishes for a sick puppy, finding a fixable problem like his is exhilarating and reminds all of us why we entered this field!”

Aki was discharged the same day after surgery, and he was his normal, playful self within just a few days, according to Cerrah. “My dog had his follow-up appointment at VCA Tanglewood 14 days after surgery to have his sutures removed. VCA has wonderful doctors, and Carroll played a very important role in his care. He’s a fighter, a tough cookie for sure.”

Inspired to achieve a certificate in canine rehabilitation

Originally from Illinois, Cerrah has now lived in Austin for eight years. Currently, she’s a third-year doctorate student studying physical therapy at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences in Austin. “My love of animals and this experience has inspired me to get a certificate in the canine rehabilitation program,” notes Cerrah. “And I just applied to work at VCA Tanglewood where the staff will help by providing training and credentialing.”

Aki is thriving and turns one year old on March 27, and is incredibly lucky to have a dog mom like Cerrah—willing to go any length to get him the surgical repair desperately needed to live a normal life.

“Today, Aki is wonderful and loves playing with his brother, Jax, a Texas Blue Lacy and Australian Kelpie mix, and my cat Prince,” exclaims Cerrah. “He’s now the life of the party—so trusting and happy—always giving kisses.” Cerrah says she would adopt all the animals if she could!

“I would like to graciously thank Drs. Might and Chapman, and Caroll Mays, as well as VCA Charities HOPE Funds and Susan Crews Veterinary Assistance—and the entire staff at VCA Tanglewood Animal Hospital, CVCA and Austin Pets Alive,” concludes Cerrah. “Plus, I want to thank all those who generously donated to Aki’s GoFundMe, especially Devin Carter and her Austin Starbucks staff who spread the word—and all whose who made my sweet pup’s heart surgery PAWsible!”

If you’d like a compassionate VCA veterinarian to care for your pet, find one here. And visit here to donate funds to VCA Charities HOPE Fund.