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Animal Care

Coat of Excellence: Gratitude for Following the Biology for Blu

To veterinarians at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine, Blu the English Labrador retriever is a medical anomaly, and Blu’s owners, Beth and Steve Fowler, of Jupiter, Florida, couldn’t be happier about it.

“He is very loyal and loving and has a great sense of the personalities around him,” Beth Fowler says of her 9-year-old Blu. “If you cry, he comes to comfort you. If you are excited, he is happy.”

Being an anomaly has turned out so well for Blu, a sensitive and intuitive dog, that the Fowlers recently presented a member of his medical team, Gabrielle Paul-McKenzie, with a Coat of Excellence award.

The Coat of Excellence program is a special way clients can recognize a faculty clinician, intern, resident or staff member who has touched their lives and the lives of their animals. The $10,000 donation helps support veterinary hospital services and includes a white lab coat embroidered with the name of the honoree and, in this case, the name of the donor.

The Fowlers regard their three dogs – including Blu’s mother and sister –  as family, and one thing they do for them is take them to their primary care veterinarian every six months for routine checkups, including blood tests. In December 2019, Blu’s test results indicated leukemia, and the Fowlers immediately turned to the NC State Veterinary Hospital for help.

Originally from Raleigh, the Fowlers were well aware of the advanced care available at NC State. Steve Fowler is an NC State alumnus who had aspired to a career in veterinary medicine before there was a vet school at the university. He planned to attend the college of veterinary medicine at the University of Georgia, but then his father passed away unexpectedly at age 49.

Fowler instead took over the family business, but he has never lost his interest in the well-being of animals or his affection for his alma mater, one of the few veterinary sources that offer bone marrow transplants for animals. 

Paul-McKenzie gives Blu some love pats.

The Fowlers met with Steven Suter, professor of medical oncology and medical director of the hospital’s canine bone marrow transplant unit, and Paul-McKenzie, a bone marrow transplant fellow, about Blu’s diagnosis. 

The first task was to try to find a transplant donor whose cells matched Blu’s, and the search proved to be difficult. Even Blu’s mother and siblings, who also live with the Fowlers, didn’t provide a perfect match. In the meantime, Blu began conventional chemotherapy treatment to begin to battle his cancer. 

To everyone’s surprise, the chemotherapy proved to be incredibly effective. Blu’s test results showed that his condition was improving rapidly – so much so that Paul-McKenzie, the primary contact with the Fowlers, and Suter began to rethink their approach. 

Although Blu was thought to have an especially aggressive form of leukemia, the medical team began to question whether a transplant would be necessary after all. They opted to stick with what was working for as long as it remained effective. 

Follow the biology.

As Suter puts it, “Follow the biology.”

Following the biology has worked out extraordinarily well in Blu’s case. Beth Fowler says they were told when they received Blu’s original prognosis that, if his treatments were successful, they could expect him to survive one to three years. 

Three and a half years later, Blu’s test results are so good that his medical team says he wouldn’t even be diagnosed with cancer today if his medical history weren’t known. 

Paul-McKenzie has been with Blu and the Fowlers throughout this remarkable journey, and the Coat of Excellence is just one example of their gratitude for her patience, guidance and compassion. 

“We can’t say enough about her,” Beth Fowler says. “Everyone here has been wonderful, but she’s someone who exceeds expectations. We just fit together really well. Blu even likes coming here.”

During the Coat of Excellence ceremony, Paul-McKenzie thanked her colleagues as well.

“It really takes a village, and everyone here from the lab to the hospital has been a part of this,” she said. 

Suter said Blu’s situation has been a fantastic learning case for everyone involved in oncology.

“There has been no transplant, and yet we talk about Blu’s case more than any other,” he said.

As for Beth Fowler, she couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome.

“We’ve been able to have Blu with us much longer than I ever thought we would,” she said. “And that just means so much.”