By Mark Preston
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, has won acclaim for her work on the show and for her ability to develop a character, originally slated for just a handful of episodes, into a prominent and popular member of the cast. 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.
“My boyfriend Chris and I were heartbroken, but we were also determined to do everything we could to help Hugo,” Smith says. “But 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.
“I contacted Dr. Post and explained everything to him and he advised me that Hugo needed a shunt put in place, basically a tube which runs from the top of his head to his abdomen under his skin to help relieve the brain of some of the fluid buildup and relieve the pressure.” With that, Dr. Post connected Renee and Hugo with the neurology department at UC Davis.
“We contacted them, sent Hugo’s MRI images along, and a day later we were heading to UC Davis where they performed the 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.
“They expected that he’d be in ICU for seven days. But the first day after his surgery, he stood up in his cage. So they called and said, ‘You should come and take him home for the weekend. They said the best thing for him would be to walk so that it will be clear if the surgery had helped. I remember the first thing he did was walk backward; just moonwalked across the lawn. Chris and I looked at each other and said, ‘Well, maybe they rewired him!”
But even if his wires were originally crossed, it was clear that Hugo was finally on the mend. There was finally a glimmer of light at the end of a long, agonizing journey for both Hugo and mom.
“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
From there, a combination of Chinese herbs, and a new, organic diet have helped Hugo regain his trademark feistiness and fervor.
“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.
And he’s soon to be a character in his own book. Smith, who had been working on a children’s book featuring Hugo before he’d gotten sick, is picking up the project again now that her “fur baby” is healthy and happy again.
“The story has changed a bit, now that he’s a survivor,” says Smith. “We’re calling the book, ‘Hugo and
the Impossible Thing.’ Obviously, the impossible thing was his illness, but it’s more a book about
overcoming challenges and the fact that it often takes so many people along the way to help in
overcoming those challenges.”
Smith appreciates the fact that she—and Hugo—were lucky. She understands how many other stories like Hugo’s don’t have happy endings. “ACF was there for us with support and guidance,” she says. “This was all uncharted territory; Knock on wood, I’d never had any experience in my own life dealing with serious illness with pets or family. Dr. Post and his team definitely helped to guide us and were very gracious with their time and advice, lending a helping hand when we needed it most.
“I’m happy to support ACF so that it can continue its important work in funding the types of research that will someday help find a cure for cancer. Hugo and I were lucky; not everyone is. It’s an awful feeling when you don’t know where to turn for answers, and I know ACF is working hard to provide more resources for more patients and to provide those answers so that more pets—and people—can win their fights against cancer.”