Lisa Fioretto: Organ donor and a best dog named Smokey

It was a particularly cold January for Toronto and on this evening, drifting snow had stiffened to concrete hardness on the stairs going down to the front entrance.  Moving into this apartment, I learned later, had been part of a necessary downsizing strategy for Lisa, a single mother.   After her surgery she encountered tough financial times, a roller coaster begun by her former employer who unexpectedly fired her during her recovery. Bedecked in tattoos, henna’d hair and eyes reflecting a complex life, Lisa greeted me warmly.

Lisa and Pug puppy

Lisa and Pug puppy

I met Lisa Fioretto and her daughter, Cheyne, in their Toronto Queen Street West basement apartment about eight months after Lisa’s kidney donation surgery.

While young Cheyne bounced back and forth between us and a reality program on t.v. in the next room, Lisa and I sat down in her artfully decorated kitchen. During my work as a realtor I see a lot of basement apartments and this was one of the coziest and most beautifully decorated I had ever come across. On Lisa’s lap sat a most adorable Pug puppy named Pollyanna.

Cheyne’s drawing, of a big black dog wrapped in blue wings, enveloped by a heart and punctuated by a scrawled ‘I remember you, Smokey!’ hung on the fridge.

“My mom originally found Smokey through the Humane Society,” Lisa told me. “Smokey returned the favour by saving my mom’s house from burning down. She’d been cooking, and when she went out she mistakenly left the oven on by, leaving the tea towel hanging over the stove. Stove heated up, towel caught on fire. Smokey barked and howled until my mom’s neighbours came over and saw the smoke and called the fire department.”

As Lisa’s story unfolds, she tells me that the summer of 2002 was a watershed time in her life. Toronto suffered a brutal heat wave and it was getting on her nerves. (hm….sounds familiar). On top of everything else, the city’s garbage workers were poised to go on strike. Cheyne, then nine, was old enough to have plans for most of the summer and would be staying with her dad, which left Lisa free for the first time in years to pursue her own needs. One of the music bands she’d been managing in Toronto relocated to California and she decided to visit them for short change of scene. Cheyne taken care of, Lisa left her beloved elderly Smokey, a Lab/Border Collie mix, in the care of her mother.

Lisa’s time in California led to an unanticipated resolve. “I came to the realization that if I were to continue to be in the music industry, I would surely become a liar and a cheat and a thief, all things the music industry can be. I didn’t want to become angry and bitter. So I made a decision to love myself and love the good parts of Toronto and make that big city into my real home instead of just the place where I live.”

To commemorate her chastened attitude, she decided to bring home a puppy for her daughter, a small dog that Cheyne would easily be able to take back and forth between her father’s and Lisa’s homes.

“I‘d done some research on Chihuahas and decided I wanted a dog from a Mexican breeder. Genuine Mexican Chihuahas are smaller and don’t have the American Chihuahuas’ domed foreheads. But I had a hard time figuring out how to get a puppy into the States. Mexican people prefer not to sell their dogs to white people and it gets dicey because it’s illegal to take livestock out of Mexico. While I was in Salinas I called around and found one breeder, but I didn’t like the feeling I got from that person on the phone. Eventually I came across this other place in San Jose. The man spoke broken English but he was very friendly on the phone and he invited me to his home. When I drove up to his place I saw it was all terra cotta tiles and inside the family was watching Mexican wrestling on television, the furniture was covered in plastic, and I said to myself, oh yeah, this is home. After talking for a while I got that the family had smuggled the dogs into the U.S. so I figured they would be authentic Mexican Chihuahuas.

I’d already picked out Salinas as the name for a puppy ‘cause I’d been staying in Salinas and reading a lot of John Steinbeck. First the wife brought the Chihuahua parents into the living room and then their three puppies. I got down and played with all three of them. I blew in all their little faces one by one to see which one would come. I didn’t like the look of the hips of one of the puppies, she looked like there was something wrong potentially and the second one was really frightened. But the third just stood there and looked at me. Then she walked right up to me. I said, okay, you’re Salinas and she put her head down on my arm. I placed a deposit on her right away and went back every week to see her.

Back in Toronto, when I brought Salinas home from her long plane ride, Smokey looked at her in a matter of fact sort of way and slowly wagged her tail almost as if he’d been expecting her. They became very close, those two, even slept together. Salinas learned how to be a big dog from Smokey which is good training for a small dog.”

Shortly after Lisa’s return to Toronto, her phone rang. It was her best friend, Karen. They caught up on recent events, talking quickly in their usual shorthand, including an unusual question: ‘Do you need my kidney?’

“We’d been joking around like that for a couple of years because Karen had serious and progressive kidney disease. I’d told her to call on me if she needed one of my kidneys and we had this ongoing patter about it. This time, though, it was no joke.” During the months of Lisa’s absence, Karen’s disease had progressed to end stage kidney failure. Lisa realized she was being offered the opportunity to do something of major importance and immediately stepped up to the plate. The bond between friends was soon to become permanent.

The organ donation operation itself was surprisingly simple according to Lisa and took only about an hour. After the extraction, Karen was rolled into Lisa’s room where Lisa’s kidney was waiting for her in a little bucket beside the bed. After the operation, there was initially a bit of a rejection problem but in the end the procedure was deemed a success. The women take pride in their medical adventure and they want others to know that you don’t need to be dead to donate an organ or part of one to save a life.

After the surgery
“Smokey wasn’t the only one who’d fallen in love with Salinas. Karen also went head over heels and Salinas loved her right back. Somebody with an immune system problem like Karen’s isn’t allowed to touch certain things, yet Karen would let our Chihiuhua pup lick her all over, which was supposed to be really bad for her. I was certainly freaked when it happened because I’d been told to expect immune system breakdown for someone who has kidney disease or for someone who’s just had a kidney transplant. But, after her recovery, Karen insisted on breaking through all the warnings and rules and she got her own Chihuahua, Chico, from a rescue organization. “Sometimes it’s better to ignore good advice and get what’s good for your heart,” she said.

In July 2003 Smokey died due to kidney failure (ironically) and canine geriatric vestibular disease. Everyone was upset, including Salinas who was despondent. As Christmas approached Lisa didn’t want to be without a black dog. “Cheyne had always had a black dog.” It had been a difficult year all round. “I checked out various breeds like Boston Terriers and French Bull Dogs; I guess I was looking at everything short and stout, kinda like my taste in men,” she smirks. “One of my friends had a black Pug and she was great company, great with kids, good for long walks or short. I didn’t see much wrong with the Pug. I also thought that a Pug would be good with Salinas. They’re both kind of ugly and they have to keep their tails held up high, which is a lot of work.” She laughs. “It gives them character.”

“Again, I made a lot of calls and found one lady who was really nice on the phone. I walked into her place and took one look at this Pug pup here”, pointing to the Pollyanna on her lap, ”and she walks right up to me , so I knew right away she was my Pollyanna. I had the name before I found her too. She was named after a song my friend in Edmonton plays. Only problem, she was fawn coloured, not black like I wanted. But it was meant to be.”

Before I left her cosy basement apartment that night I asked Lisa whether Smokey had been the best dog she had ever had. She answered my question by having to think for several minutes and saying “probably”. Good answer for someone who had always had dogs, many different breeds, and who at that moment cradled the loveliest puppy ever.

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