A Titanium Spine and Hearts of Gold: How NC State Got a Great Dane Back on His Feet
Bentley’s family worried he might never walk again after a car accident, but an innovative surgery at the NC State Veterinary Hospital started him on the right foot.
The car accident is a blur.
But what the Sikich family knows for sure is that their 1-year-old Great Dane, Bentley, somehow wiggled out of their crashed car on I-95 in Johnston County and was found a distance outside the vehicle by state troopers that afternoon.
He managed that with a broken back and internal bleeding from the accident’s impact, a feat that still astounds his family three months after the May 15 collision.
In the hectic hours following the accident, Bentley was transferred from an animal control facility to two other veterinary hospitals before landing at NC State Veterinary Hospital because of his severe injuries.
Now, because of an innovative spinal surgery, 115-pound bionic Bentley is four titanium rods and several metal screws heavier, but the gentle giant is confidently stepping back into his role as an emotional support animal for 23-year-old Karlee Sikich back home in Florida.
“He’s just a hero — the miracle dog,” says Stacey Sikich, Bentley’s grandma. “We have such love and gratitude for Bentley’s care team. We keep telling them, ‘You are forever going to be in our hearts.’”
‘A race against time’
Because of the accident, Bentley had spinal fractures and a hemoabdomen, or blood in his abdomen from a ruptured spleen, says Dr. Heather Rhoden, an emergency veterinarian with NC State Veterinary Hospital.
“He was in very, very critical condition,” she says. “I would say his chances of recovery were guarded.”
Rhoden ordered a trauma CT scan, which showed spinal fractures on two of his vertebrae and a spleen that was ruptured nearly in half. Veterinarians determined Bentley needed spinal surgery, but through monitoring his vitals closely and a series of point-of-care ultrasounds over two days discovered his spleen was clotting on its own.
“That was one of the luckiest things that could have happened to him,” Rhoden says. “We were very worried that an abdominal surgery might pose a big risk to his spine because of the way patients have to be positioned in the operating room. They are often required to be in positions that, for Bentley, would have compromised and put more pressure on his spine.”
Throughout Bentley’s hospitalization, his ICU and general hospital technicians went to great lengths to move the Great Dane as delicately as possible, given his large size and acute injuries.
“We would have to very, very carefully lift him in the straightest, most stable way we could,” recalls ICU technician Lynne Babineau. “He was a rock star for it, though.”
Bentley’s neurology team had to work quickly on his spinal surgery. The fracture was pushing against Bentley’s spinal cord, risking nerve damage, and his mobility had worsened since he arrived at the hospital.
“There’s a window where we have to intervene before animals with this type of injury lose all their sensation in their toes,” says Dr. Gilad Fefer, a neurology resident. “We go in there and try to, one, stabilize the fracture and, two, try to decompress it as much as possible. We were in a race against time.”
Fefer and Dr. Peter Early used a new system of six pedicle screws — three on each side — to anchor two titanium stabilizing rods on either side of Bentley’s spine. A similar procedure is used in humans, Fefer says.
The rod and screw technique gives Bentley’s spine a scaffolding to heal itself. It replaces an older system of using screws and bone cement to anchor the spine, which Fefer says is more complex and harder to correct if complications arise.
Bentley will keep his new hardware for life, since his spine is at its full adult size. Learning how to walk with it presented his next challenge.
Step by step
The first sign Bentley had regained mobility post-surgery was a happy tail wag two days later.
“Then we started noticing some movement in his back legs,” Fefer says. “Within a week, he was trying to place weight on them. He was still very weak, because it takes a long time to rebuild that strength, but he was moving his legs very well soon after surgery.”
Fefer, like other members of Bentley’s NC State care team, formed a strong bond with Bentley during his time at the hospital.
Everyone called him “Benny boy” and showered him with affection. Babineau was so charmed by the gentle giant that she visited him every workday, even after he left the ICU.
“We get invested in our patients,” Babineau says. “Making them feel comfortable, happy, supported and loved is a huge part of their recovery.”
Bentley turned a year old in the hospital and staff threw him a party, complete with a birthday hat and gifts. Rhoden bought Bentley an NC State collar to replace one he lost in the accident.
“He’s part of the Pack now,” she says.
The Sikiches visited Bentley when they could. After the family returned to Florida, hospital staff kept them updated through photos, videos and calls.
“I’m so thankful for all the people that took care of Bentley, the team that worked on him and treated him like he was their own,” Karlee Sikich says. “It made me very happy to know he was getting taken care of how I would take care of him.”
Bentley was transferred to a rehabilitation center, Carolina Ranch Animal Hospital in Garner, six days after his surgery to relearn how to walk. Rhoden visited him there in June and was thrilled to see his progress.
“The last time I had seen him, he was sitting in a cage unable to stand by himself,” she says. “When I went into Carolina Ranch, he stood up in his kennel a little awkwardly, but he recognized me and wagged his tail. By the end of our 20-minute visit, he was pushing me around his cage, playing with me. I took him a little toy hedgehog that made a funny noise, and he was playing with it like any other puppy would.”
Bentley was discharged from Carolina Ranch on June 30. He and his family stopped by the NC State Veterinary Hospital on their way home to thank everyone and show off his progress.
“It was incredible to watch him walk for the first time,” Fefer says. “Seeing Bentley and his family again and recognizing how we were able to support them by helping him, that’s the best feeling in the world. That’s why we do what we do.”
Bentley’s new groove
Bentley has learned a few new dance moves in Florida as he regains his strength through physical therapy.
“It’s almost like he’s doing the rumba or the hula when he walks,” Stacey Sikich says. “His legs swing out to the side.”
“He kind of starts to do the salsa,” Karlee Sikich adds.
Bentley has put a new pep in the steps of NC State Veterinary Hospital staff, too.
“Bentley’s case helped me regain that appreciation that it takes a community, and every member of it is important,” Rhoden says, mentioning Bentley’s pre-NC State care and Carolina Ranch. “It was very powerful seeing everyone come together to help him and his family.”
And the Sikiches won’t forget their compassion anytime soon.
“I will forever be grateful to everybody at NC State and Carolina Ranch for everything they have done for Bentley and all the love they showed him when we couldn’t be there,” Stacey Sikich says. “It’s just amazing.”