The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A boy with a skull condition gets a puppy. When he learns the dog has a similar issue, hundreds come to his aid.

Branson Figueroa, 2, and his dog, Thanos, have done everything together since Branson's parents brought Thanos home in February. (Heather Figueroa)
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Branson Figueroa, 2, had surgery on his skull last year to relieve pressure on his brain after a diagnosis of craniosynostosis, a birth defect. The surgery was a success, and his parents brought home a puppy as a reward for his bravery.

Branson promptly named the Boston terrier Thanos, after his favorite character in “The Avengers” movies, and the two became inseparable: wrestling on the rug, playing tug of war with a sock and snuggling together at their home in Nottingham, N.H.

A few days into the bonding between the toddler and his dog, Heather and Erik Figueroa noticed something peculiar about their family’s new pet, which they bought at a pet store in Manchester, N.H.

“Thanos was sleeping a lot and was a little unsteady; sometimes he’d fall down while walking,” said Heather Figueroa, 31, a biological science student at the University of New Hampshire. “He didn’t like lying flat or tilting his head back, and my husband thought his eyes looked a little funny. So I took him to the vet.”

After some tests in February, Figueroa and her husband were shocked to learn that their veterinarian suspected Thanos might have a genetic disorder or fluid on the brain and might require some of the same treatments their son had, including an MRI and surgery to relieve pressure on his brain.

“I felt awful,” Figueroa said. “What were the odds?”

Test results for Thanos, who is 5 months old, are delayed as veterinary labs in the area are closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, said Figueroa, but the family is hopeful of receiving an official diagnosis sometime in May.

In the meantime, they are grateful to hundreds of friends, relatives and strangers who have donated to pay for Thanos’s potential surgery and future veterinary care.

“First our son and now his dog,” Figueroa said. “For so many people to chip in what they could to help has really brightened our lives during a dark time.”

A fundraiser was started by Rileigh Champagne, 22, a veterinary technician at Northwood Veterinary Hospital in Northwood, N.H., where the Figueroas took Thanos. She estimated that an MRI, genetic testing, appointments with a neurologist and surgery could end up costing close to $13,000.

“I could see that Heather wanted to fight for Thanos — there’s such a close relationship there between the puppy and her son,” Champagne said. “I realized that whatever the diagnosis was, Thanos would need some ongoing and extensive care, and that was going to cost a lot of money.”

People donated in amounts of $5 to $500, and notes of encouragement are still trickling in from across the country. The donations have already exceeded the fundraising goal of $10,000.

“Dogs are the best medicine and this little boy needs his pup!” wrote one woman who pitched in $50. “Best of luck and lots of prayers to them both!"

Figueroa, who has two other children, Jameson, 4, and Emberlynn, 3, said she and her husband, a car salesman, are very grateful. Like many people who are unemployed or underemployed, they are worried about paying for necessities during the public health crisis.

“You have no idea what this means to us,” she said. “We’re a family of five with one income. After what we’d been through with Branson, we were really worried how we were going to pay for our dog’s surgery.”

The emotional cost also has been great, she said.

It was about a year ago when Figueroa noticed that something didn't look right with her youngest son's head while she was giving him a haircut.

“The front of his head just looked different,” she said, “and the top of his head appeared higher than the back."

A scan one week later revealed that Branson had craniosynostosis, a “birth defect in which the bones in a baby’s skull join together too early,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Sometimes Branson would cry at night for no reason because it hurt to lie flat,” Figueroa said. “We’d have to elevate him so that he could sleep without putting pressure on his head.”

Since his surgery on Oct. 16 at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, her son no longer feels pain and insists on curling up with Thanos every night, she said.

“I feel like we ended up with this dog because he was meant to comfort my son,” Figueroa said. “He’s a part of our family — we all love him dearly. It was just meant to be.”

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