Tracy Gulling-Leftwich, DO, remembers Chewy very well. He was a 70-pound English bulldog she was caring for last year on behalf of the Rescue Ohio English Bulldogs, an English bulldog rescue group.
She soon learned that Chewy was anemic and suffered from bone cancer of the jaw. Ironically, considering his name, he could barely chew, so Dr. Gulling-Leftwich and her husband, Samuel Leftwich, pureed his food, spoon-fed the animal, and administered around-the-clock pain medications for roughly two weeks. But his pain grew too intense, and Chewy had to be euthanized.
For many people, that would end their experience with an animal organization. People typically compare the heartbreaking experience to losing a beloved family member or friend. But as an animal lover and hospitalist at the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Gulling-Leftwich has no intentions of looking the other way whenever an animal—or human—is in need. Ever since she was in college, she has been rescuing lab rats and dogs, trying to keep them happy, healthy, and loved throughout their relatively short lives.
Dr. Gulling-Leftwich graduated from the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Erie, Penn., in 2007. The following year, she pursued an osteopathic rotating internship at the University of Connecticut. While attending the same university from 2008 to 2010, she completed a traditional, categorical, allopathic medicine residency.
After completing her medical education, she held several positions. She worked as a teaching hospitalist at the Hartford Hospital for one year, served as a primary-care physician for the next three years at The Hospital of Central Connecticut, and then joined the Cleveland Clinic as a hospitalist in 2014.
Her involvement in animal rescue began many years earlier while attending undergraduate school at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Penn. She tells the story how one student at the college kidnapped a rat from the school’s neuroscience lab just before Christmas break.
Since the student’s mother would not allow her to bring a rat home over the six-week holiday, Dr. Gulling-Leftwich babysat him until she returned. However, the student intended on releasing him into the wild. Fearing the worst, that the rat could not fend for itself since it had been caged and fed for many months, Dr. Gulling-Leftwich convinced the student to relinquish custody of the rat to her.
That’s how it all began. Dr. Gulling-Leftwich named the rat Templeton. She suspects he died of a pituitary tumor four years later; still, that’s a long life for a rat. Most live just two years. Just shows what a little love can do.
Since then, she has rescued approximately 21 rats from Kentucky and Connecticut. Years ago, she says, there were multiple Yahoo chat groups of people involved in an underground railroad of sorts for rescued lab rats. People would often drive the rats to different cities, even across state borders, so these rats could enjoy a permanent home.
While she has never broken into a research lab, her opinion is torn on animal research. She believes it is not necessary for consumer products, such as makeup, but can see its value in other fields of science like the development of new medications.
“What I can hope for is that we work toward finding a way of not requiring animals for research in the future,” she says.
After getting married in 2013, Dr. Gulling-Leftwich told her husband she wanted a dog. But because of their hectic schedules, no one would be home to care for the animal, so the couple waited another two years to adopt a rescue animal.
In 2015, they had purchased a house in Cleveland when they adopted Boomer, a pug and beagle designer breed, as their family pet.
“I had really wanted an English bulldog. They’re just cute, their face is squishy,” she says, adding she had been monitoring English bulldog rescue websites. “I won’t buy a puppy. I will only get a dog that needs a home.”
In September that year, the rescue organization emailed a desperate plea to its followers. Can anyone rescue an English bulldog named Chewy? Dr. Gulling-Leftwich immediately filled out the paperwork and adopted him. But Chewy only stayed with them for two weeks before he was euthanized. She brought him to the vet after he attacked Boomer.
“Chewy wasn’t being a jerk,” she says. “His attacking behavior had to do with his pain and discomfort. He had blood everywhere around his mouth. We had a hard time letting him go.”
One month later, another English bulldog named Olive joined their family. She’s roughly two years old and weighs only 30 pounds mainly because of her disease: congenital cardiomyopathy. They plan to care for Olive until she dies.
She says Olive takes six pills a day for her condition and occasionally receives nitroglycerin when she overexerts herself and passes out.
Meanwhile, Dr. Gulling-Leftwich and her husband care for one rat named Harvey and a cat called Lily in addition to the two dogs. Boomer doesn’t like Olive. Olive doesn’t like the cat. And both dogs and the cat pay no attention to the rat.
“My husband says rescuing animals and taking care of people is one of my more endearing qualities,” she says. “Then he follows it up with, ‘No, you can’t have that bunny that needs a home.’”
She believes caring for these animals balances her work in hospital medicine. While hospital patients often are in pain, act grouchy, and appear unappreciative, she says her four-legged family members are always excited to see her and routinely demonstrate unconditional love.
“You definitely have to be open-minded because you never know what you’ll be walking into when you rescue an animal,” she says, adding that rescue groups tend to pay for vet bills and medicine. “You have to be prepared for what potentially could be the worst.”
Carol Patton is a freelance writer in Las Vegas.