I Gave Up a Doctor’s Salary to Keep My Sanity — and My Dog

My Chihuahua Rico stood by me through a divorce and a personal tragedy -- and even saved my life.


Editor’s Note: This is Dr. Sue Nielsen’s story, as told to Angie Bailey.

From the outside, my life looked pretty ideal: I was a successful family physician who’d held a variety of leadership positions. I was married and loved to spend my vacations traveling and taking photographs. What most people didn’t know was that my relationship of more than 18 years was crumbling and the stress of my job was catching up with me.

Before my husband and I divorced, Rico and I found each other. No, Rico wasn’t another man — he was a tiny 8-week-old Chihuahua puppy, which one of my patients snuck into the clinic to show me. I resisted; after all, I had always been a cat person. My kitty of 18 years, Hobbes, was independent, which was perfect for my hectic lifestyle. I was not looking to add a little dog into the picture. Plus, with my relationship’s chaos, I didn’t know if I could be completely present with the little guy, who would need lots of attention.

Rico’s sister poked her head out of the patient’s purse, and she was adorable, but when Rico popped up, I was instantly smitten. His long brown fur and white chest and toes were just too much to handle. He looked directly at me, and I completely melted. He snuggled into my lap during the rest of the visit and then I promptly handed him back to the patient. Seriously … I did not need a dog. The truth is, I had no idea just how much I needed Rico.

For the next couple of weeks, I thought nonstop about the tiny brown dog. I researched Chihuahuas and talked to my vet, family, and friends about Rico. Most of them thought I was crazy to even consider bringing a puppy into my life. Since he consumed nearly every one of my thoughts, I decided to “borrow” him for a weekend and see what life would be like with the puppy. Even with the frequent nighttime wakings for potty breaks, I found myself completely attached to Rico. The insanely inexplicable connection and overwhelming maternal instincts were things I absolutely did not expect to feel. And honestly, with all the depression and anxiety I’d been feeling, they were welcome feelings.

Against the advice of friends and family and my own sense of logic, I brought Rico into my life. During the divorce, he was my constant companion. I hadn’t realized how desperately I’d need that support and unconditional love, and how much my care and love of Rico would keep me going, even on days when I didn’t even feel like getting out of bed. I had a purpose, someone who loved and depended on me. I wasn’t just taking care of him — he was taking care of me.

After the divorce, I became involved in another relationship and, just as things were going well, my boyfriend’s mother was murdered by her husband of 20 years. As expected, my boyfriend sunk into profound depression and isolated himself from everyone around him, including me. Just as I felt like my life was back on track, I quickly returned to that deep void of darkness. At one time, I even considered ending my life — I felt completely overwhelmed and helpless.

But then I looked at Rico, gazing up at me with those warm brown eyes, assuring me that everything would be all right and that I was never really alone. He was there right beside me, all the way. We’d been through tough times in the past, and we could get through this as well.

Soon after, I decided my life needed a makeover. I quit my high-stress job and Rico and I moved from Minnesota to Florida. Again, my family and friends disagreed with my decision, but I knew I wanted more peace for Rico and me. I moved into the condo to which I’d been escaping now and again for eight years, and spent lots of time soul searching and playing with Rico in our home by the coast. Running on the beach quickly became one of Rico’s favorite activities. I felt like a new person, and we both loved our new surroundings.

Before I moved, I decided I didn’t love the work I’d been doing at the clinic and secured a job doing some online medical work. It was about a quarter of what I was making, but it paid the bills and afforded me the time to do what I really love to do. Animals have always been my primary passion, and I wanted to do more to help animals of all kinds.

Since then, I’ve connected with Chihuahua meet-up groups in the area and started writing for SarasotaDog.com. I love it, and it’s a great way to stay in touch with what’s going on in the local canine community. Additionally, I started volunteering with Wildlife Center of Venice, an organization that rescues, rehabilitates, and releases local wildlife.

And Rico and I are always on the go. He’s learning agility and joins me while hiking, biking, kayaking (he wears a little life vest and is tethered to me), and enjoying a plethora of Florida adventures.

I shudder to think about the turns my life might have taken if Rico hadn’t shown up when he did. He taught me about unconditional love and healing, and he gave me the strength to carry on when I was a shell of a person just trying to survive each day. He helped me realize how valuable animals are to our physical and emotional health. Now my boyfriend and I are in a great place, and while I still sometimes struggle, I’m more strong, balanced, and happier than I’ve ever been.

I can never express enough gratitude for the day his little brown head popped out of that bag.

Read more posts by Angie Bailey:

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