7,700 Miles: The Journey of Maxi, Mike, and Dao

French bulldog with tongue out
Maxi’s owners traveled a third of the way around the world — from Hong Kong to Madison, Wis. — to get her the right treatment at UW Veterinary Care. (Photos: Nik Hawkins)

How far would you travel for a chance to give your sick dog a few more healthy years?

For Mike and Dao Vassilieff, the answer is 7,700 miles, or just under a third of the way around the globe. Their desire to spend as much quality time as possible with their French Bulldog, Maxi, brought them from Hong Kong to Madison, Wis.—and they would have gone farther if they had to.

It all began in early summer 2016, when Maxi began to show troubling signs. She refused food and was growing progressively thinner and more lethargic. At night, the Vassilieffs could hear her growl and whimper in pain.

For Dao, who is unable to have children, Maxi is her baby, and hearing the diagnosis was like dealing with a death sentence for her own daughter. “Maxi’s part of the family,” she says. “She has so much meaning to us.”After bringing Maxi to a primary care veterinarian, an ultrasound specialist, and a neurologist in Hong Kong, tests confirmed that she had a tumor on her pituitary gland called a macroadenoma. Although benign, it would continue to grow and cause complications. Without treatment, Maxi had only a couple of months left to live.

“We said ‘no, no—it’s too soon for us,’” says Mike. “We wanted to have more time with her.”

Man and woman holding French bulldog
Maxi with her owners, Dao and Mike Vassilieff

So they looked into other options. With no veterinary medical radiation oncologists in or near Hong Kong, the Vassilieffs were forced to look overseas, and Maxi’s neurologist suggested they see what was available in the United States. After contacting half a dozen clinics, they settled on UW Veterinary Care’s Radiation Oncology Service for its pricing and the comfort they felt in communicating with resident MacKenzie Pellin DVM’11.

Fortunately, prednisone treatments reduced the swelling caused by Maxi’s tumor, so her condition improved enough that she was fit for the 15-hour flight. Less than two weeks later, following a mad dash of travel-related paperwork and a frantic search for lodging, the Vassilieffs set out for America with renewed hope.

“This kind of tumor is very responsive to radiation therapy,” says Pellin. “The medical literature indicates prolonged survival, about 2 to 3 years in over 50% of cases.”

Maxi received radiation therapy five days a week for four weeks. Dao, who had quit her job as a veterinary technician in Hong Kong, stayed in a rented house in Madison for the entire month; and Mike, a commercial airline pilot, visited whenever his flight schedule allowed.

Midway through the treatments, Maxi already began to show signs of improvement. “When we arrived, she was half dead,” says Dao. “Now she’s eating, and her back legs are getting better. The sun has shined for me again.”

As of September, the Vassilieffs were planning to fulfill their dream of taking Maxi to see Mike’s native Australia. The animal quarantine process for traveling Down Under requires a good amount of paperwork, and Pellin was more than happy to assist them with it.

Nik Hawkins

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