In March 2020, most of the United States was in shutdown from the COVID 19 virus and Dave and Deliena Chell brought their six-week-old Irish Red and White Setter puppy Cullen in to the VCA Emergency Animal Hospital and Referral Center in San Diego for an assessment.

The couple had delivered Cullen and his litter mates as part of their first experience breeding their dog Sizzle. When doctors found a heart murmur, they were understandably worried. Cullen was one of the two litter mates the couple had decided to keep as a family pet.

“We were pretty attached,” Dave said of Cullen.

Associates and doctors adjusted to meet the needs of their patients, finding ways to care and still respect social distancing and other COVID protocols. For this reason, the Chells could not accompany Cullen in to his appointment, and instead communicated with staff by phone from the parking lot. But they knew Cullen was in good hands.

The VCA Emergency Animal Hospital and Referral Center in San Diego not only has the latest state of the art equipment and technology, but has consistently earned the top rating from the American Animal Hospital Association. The referral center also boasts top veterinarians such as Dr. Adonia Hsu, the board-certified veterinary cardiologist who saw Cullen.

Cullen was diagnosed with patent ductus arteriosus, or PDA - the most common congenital heart defect in dogs - which can cause a puppy’s heart to enlarge. Dogs with this condition who go undiagnosed can die of heart failure. But with proper treatment, dogs with this condition can live a normal and healthy life.

Dr. Hsu determined immediate surgery was Cullen’s only chance for survival.

“Cullen was already in heart failure. The younger they are when failure occurs means the malformation is that much worse and this requires immediate attention. In order to perform an interventional procedure via a catheter in the leg, he had to be big enough and we could not wait for him to get bigger,” Dr. Hsu says.

Deliena and Dave received this news via telephone from their vehicle. Deliena says they wanted to give him the best chance at a good life, so they decided to do the surgery.

“This was not a business for us, this was just people who love animals trying to do what was best and right for our animals,” she says of Cullen and his litter.

Prior to surgery, Cullen was transferred to the Emergency Department to be stabilized overnight. He was placed in an oxygen cage and received intravenous medications to help remove fluid so that he would ready for the surgical team the next morning.

The surgery itself was successful, says Dr. Holly Mullen, the board-certified veterinary surgeon who performed the surgery.

Just as the surgical team was closing, Cullen went into cardiac and respiratory arrest. Dr. Hsu was on the phone with Dr. Mullen in another part of the building when she heard about Cullen’s distress. She quickly joined Dr. Mullen in the operating room to assist in treatment.

For nearly an hour, the team worked to bring Cullen back and were able to resuscitate him.

“He continued to stabilize more and more, we were just thrilled and slightly surprised to see him get stronger and stronger and pull through,” Dr. Mullen says. “It’s very rare for me as a surgeon to see a patient have a cardiac arrest after a successful ligation.”

While the reason for Cullen’s cardiac and respiratory arrest remains unknown, the team knows it was a recovery they will all remember.

“It was kind of miraculous that he recovered to live a full, normal life,” Dr. Mullen says.

During the time of Cullen’s surgery, Cardiac Facilitator Bridget Flannery said protocols were in place to keep departments and teams within the department separate. Appointments and consultations took place by phone, setting a new normal at the time for COVID. Cullen, however, created a situation where the teams had to come together for the well-being of their patient. Flannery says all team members were wearing PPE and there were no negative impacts from the need to come together.

“We put our patients first, so our teams came together for the benefit of our patient,” Flannery says of Cullen’s emergency at the end of his surgery.

The success of the surgery and Cullen’s subsequent return from cardiac and respiratory arrest gave the team hope during a difficult time.

Now, almost three years later, Cullen is a healthy and happy full-grown Irish Red and White Setter.

Whenever Cullen comes for a check-up, Bridget brings him around to see the team that saved his life.

“It feels good seeing him grow into a full-grown dog and not having issues that we know of after having to bring him back to life essentially,” Bridget says.

At home, Deliena says Cullen acts like every day is his best day.

“He runs everywhere,” she says. “He doesn’t know slow. It’s been an incredible journey but the happiest part is that when we brought him in this year, they said his heart is now a normal size.”

Although Cullen never has to see cardiology again unless he shows symptoms, Deliena and Dave plan to make social visits.

“We could not ask for a happier ending to this story,” Deliena Chell says. “It’s a miracle in all kinds of ways.”

If your pet exhibits signs of respiratory distress or has a change in their normal behavior, bring them to the experts at VCA Animal Hospitals. Find a location near you at