As an actress, Renee Felice Smith understands how to handle virtually any and every situation that a script presents. The 33-year- old Smith, who stars as Nell Jones on the hit TV show NCIS: Los Angeles. But real life seldom sticks to a script, and when Smith’s 7 ½-year-old French bulldog Hugo was diagnosed with a brain tumor early last year, she was devastated. The first dog she’d ever owned as an adult, the feisty Frenchie had long ago made his way deep into her heart. “I call Hugo my fur baby,” she says. “He is very much my son and the center of my world.”
Smith sensed something was wrong with Hugo when he began having trouble walking and experienced body tremors, but he was originally misdiagnosed as merely having back and joint problems. But as Hugo’s condition worsened, so did Smith’s fears, and after Hugo collapsed in the yard, an MRI confirmed that he had brain cancer. He was given just days to live.
“It’s such a helpless feeling because you don’t even know where to begin. We basically reached out to everyone we knew for advice, and a friend of a friend put us in touch with [ACF founder] Dr. [Gerald] Post.
One of only some 400 board-certified veterinary oncologists in the U.S., Dr. Post helped to steer Renee and Hugo into the radiation program at VCA West LA, where Hugo underwent 19 radiation sessions to shrink his tumor.
“We were very lucky,” Smith says. “Thanks to Dr. Post, we got Hugo in a radiation program right away. It was a long and difficult process and he had several bumps along the way. A couple of times we had to stop radiation because of inflammation…. It’s such a delicate balance; the radiation causes inflammation but you need the radiation to shrink the tumor.”
Those bumps—in greater and lesser scale—continued as Hugo fought bravely through the months of treatment, Smith never far from his side. At the conclusion of his radiation treatments, there was yet another setback. The intense radiation had caused hydrocephalus, a fluid buildup around the brain.
We then headed to UC Davis where they performed shunt surgery, basically draining whatever fluid was in there, and putting the shunt in. They told us there were no guarantees; obviously, they didn’t know if the brain had been damaged to the extent that there wasn’t any coming back from it. At this point, Smith hoped for the best but prepared herself for the worst.
And then, at long last, some good news.
“Hugo was walking two days after surgery,” Smith says, “which is pretty amazing, considering he hadn’t walked on his own for seven, eight months before that.
“It was a long process; pretty much eight months of nursing him back,” says Smith “It was tough, but he was the one who wanted to keep going. At several points, I said out loud ‘Hugo, if this is too much, you just let us know….’ But every step of the way he met us with energy and he just kept going. He’s a total fighter.”
“He’s so feisty now,” Smith says. “He’s playing like crazy he has so much energy. He’s running and jumping and doing things he probably shouldn’t do. He’s so funny because he really loves these squeaky stuffed animals now, which he never played with before. He’s back to being a real character.