Faith was important not just because we loved her but because she taught valuable lessons. She has long since passed but the memory of what she did for us has never faded.
Martha had been in the office only ten minutes when she heard banging on the front door. Holding a cardboard box and shifting her weight from one foot to the other, a nervous young woman waited as Martha unlocked the door. Then things happened fast. Only half way through her well-practiced “Can I help you?” the box was pushed into Martha’s arms. Inside was a shorthaired brown tabby cat with a mangled and bleeding lower jaw. Somehow this sad kitty managed a weak cry. When Martha looked up, the woman was gone.
I’ve always believed that those who anonymously deliver unwanted and sometimes badly injured creatures to us are doing the best they can. It would be easy to default to a bad attitude but our job is to work with whatever we are given.
My staff was the best anywhere. When I arrived ten minutes later, our first patient was already getting generous doses of I.V. fluids, warmth from a hot water blanket, and some much needed TLC.
This homeless cat had severe injuries to her head, her lower lip, and her jaw. When she struggled to her feet she staggered. But with generous doses of pain control and medications to counter her brain trauma she began to calm down and rest. I don’t remember which of us heaved that first sigh of relief.
By noon the kitty with no name was stable. She still looked rough, but her injuries appeared manageable. Success would be about more than skill and experience; our work is part of something much bigger. Anyway, you can’t do much good with trauma cases if you’re not an optimist.
This little waif was a beauty. Once you accepted her as she was at that moment, you could see her lovely feline form, her fine coat, and best of all, her own optimism. I was on-board with her and so was everybody else.
The injured homeless cat, we later named Faith, had already became special to us. Dr. Melanie Gilman was on-duty with me that day. As soon as she laid eyes on this kitty she insisted on being part of her care. Our patient didn’t carry a credit card (no wallet, no ID), so the time and skill to make her well, not to mention costs of medications and supplies, were on the house.
Dr. Gilman already had a few orthopedic cases under her belt. I gave her the instructions she needed and a promise to mentor her through the operation. With our patient’s vital signs stable, little “No Name” was started on oxygen and anesthesia by mask. Gently she went unconscious as our staff started to prep her for surgery.
Anesthesia is a serious business that nearly always goes well. But for the battered brown kitty, things went wrong. Suddenly her breathing and heart beat stopped. In seconds Dr. Gilman was giving life saving drugs and closed heart massage. But the response didn’t come. When they called me in, I saw fear and disappointment written on every face in the room.
Anesthetic death just wasn’t an option. We renewed our efforts and continued oxygen, cardiac stimulants, and more heart massage. That little pink heart restarted its work.
No Name really was a tough cat. In a few minutes the color in her gums came back to pink and she was stable again. A few of our folks lobbied me to wake her up and forego surgery. No one wanted a replay of her near-death experience. But she couldn’t get well without our help. I repeated our commitment to this cat – out loud, like a mantra. We took her to surgery.
The operations on her jaws and face went well. When the last stitch was placed, our patient looked like a winner. We transferred her to our oxygen cage for monitoring as she regained consciousness. Ten minutes later, as she exhaled the anesthetic, she got suddenly frantic. What followed was, by far, the worst part of her whole ordeal.
A moral dilemma
Without warning our homeless cat went crashing, mouth wide open, into the cage door. She clamped her freshly operated jaws around the bars and howled. It was horrible. In the blink of an eye, she had not only completely undone the surgery; she had created yet one more jaw fracture.
Veterinary hospitals are staffed by good people with generous hearts. But tragedy can be frightening. I untangled our painful, agitated, and delirious patient from the cage door. Doing my best to comfort her, I looked up at what seemed like a hundred glares. Our attempts at helping this injured homeless cat had gone badly. I championed her cause and I was being held responsible for the failure. Later that afternoon, aided by more pain medicine and sedation, our kitty slept-but she looked worse than ever.
Among the young and passionate members of our nursing staff was Bruce. A natural leader, this tall handsome fellow had just finished his undergraduate degree and had recently been accepted to veterinary school. As I was charting “No Name’s” most recent calamity, I looked up to see Bruce, Martha, and a cadre of six other staff members standing in front of me-confrontation style. Dr. Gilman, who had also worked hard for this cat, was in the background. Clearly, they’d been struggling. They hadn’t signed on for this kind of duty. And in no uncertain terms, they demanded euthanasia. Nobody was having a good time.
Despite our cat’s compounded problems, I still knew we had a winner. The unknown was the staff. Half of our group was united by the strength of their own convictions. They were threatening to walk out rather than stand by as I made the case, again, for turning this disaster into a success.
I told my people that our work was not finished. Fear and pain were clear realities, but those were not good enough excuses to quit. I’d been patching broken pets together for as long as some of my staff had been alive. I told them that I needed them to have faith.
In the End, Faith Wins
Doing the right thing for our injured stray cat would take courage-and faith. She needed a name and I really needed to unite my team. I told my compassionate but frightened staff that our struggling patient would be named Faith.
Pets can be powerful teachers. Each of them has a spirit. Most are more pure and uncluttered than ours. They share our lives to help us learn the real meaning of being.
The next morning with bright lights, a magnifying loop, and our tiniest instruments, I carefully re-repaired Faith’s jaw fractures. I did the first of three skin grafts on her lower lip. She and I became close in the weeks that followed-but so did everybody in our group.
Faith got well and became our staff’s pet for the rest of her life. She was a happy, shiny, beautiful cat. She would proudly saunter through the hospital reminding us that life can be simpler and that you don’t really have to do a lot to be loved and valued; you can just be. Our cat Faith was a living, breathing reminder that short-term pain, however intense, can give way to healthy change.
We needed a kitty at our work because veterinary medicine can be stressful and, well, we just love pets. Faith often camped out on the reception counter, greeting our patients and their people near the front door where we first met her. A few times she used a potted plant in my office as a lavatory. Bad Faith!