“Hymie has never spent the night away from home! Can’t you just give him a shot of something?” Mrs. O’Malley peered anxiously at me over the rims of her bifocals.
I would have loved to give Hymie an injection of antibiotics and send the pair on their way. With the arrival of Mrs. O’Malley and the belligerent Hymie, movement in and out of my exam room had stalled. As reception filled with waiting clients, the occasional throat-clearing had progressed to a lively chorus of coughs, wailing babies, and scraping chairs. Unfortunately, Hymie had a whopping abscess on his rear end, probably the result of being a Jewish cat in a Catholic neighbourhood. His attempt to trespass through the backyard of a little female tabby with an axe to grind had resulted in a swat to the backside. The wound would need to be surgically lanced and drained under anesthetic.
“Anesthetic? Oh, dear God.” Mrs. O’Malley clasped her hands and rolled her eyes heavenward. A faint sheen of perspiration glistened on her forehead and upper lip like sap oozing from a heated log. Leaning against the wall, she shifted her considerable bulk from one swollen foot to the other and, grabbing my copy of Emergency Veterinary Medicine, began to fan herself. Waves of mind-numbing perfume rolled my way. Mrs. O’Malley glanced at Hymie and wiggled her index finger, beckoning me closer.
“Dr. McBride,” she confided in a whisper, stealing a peek at Hymie, “sometimes doctors give too much anesthetic. It was on Oprah.” Assured the cat wasn’t listening, she continued, “Perhaps we should check with Dr. Doucette and see what he thinks. He just loves Hymie.”
After working two months for Dr. Hughie Doucette in a feline-only practice, I decided he had chosen his profession well. Ninety percent of our patients had female owners and Dr. Doucette loved them both. Among his loyal clientele he was the Cat Messiah. I suspected he was hovering around forty. Scattered threads of grey wove their way along his temples and made random appearances throughout the rest of his thick wavy hair. He had a lean build, a quick smile, and existed in a state of perpetual motion.
In a brisk voice, I explained that Dr. Doucette wasn’t at work today, but I was sure he would agree with my diagnosis.
Mrs. O’Malley stared blankly at me.
“In fact,” I added, “the longer we wait, the worse Hymie will feel. Trapped bacteria can spread through his bloodstream, causing all kinds of other problems.” I paused for effect. In the silence, Mrs. O’Malley’s eyelids fluttered wildly and her lower lip began to tremble. This was followed in short order by the rest of her body. I watched in horror as she dissolved into a quivering mass of lime green polyester. Sobbing, she wrapped billowy arms around an ungrateful Hymie and howled. Ears scrunched flat against his skull, Hymie howled right along with her. His tail slashed the air with single-minded intensity and his eyes narrowed to tiny slits as he considered his next move. Mrs. O’Malley reached into her pocket for a tissue. Hymie seized the opportunity, launching himself off the exam table into the air. The plum-sized abscess ruptured, releasing a stream of foul-smelling, creamy-coloured goo. I was directly in its wake.
Dr. Doucette’s receptionist, Althea, chose this moment to knock politely on the gateway to hell. I opened the door a crack.
“Oooh, Dr. McBride,” she whispered, fascinated by the string of slime that dangled from my glasses and clung to my hair. The pungent mix of perfume and pus forced her to take a step back.
“Oooh, Dr. McBride,” she repeated in awe.
I squinted in her direction. “Yes?”
Peeking over my shoulder, Althea stammered and cleared her throat. “Uh…you have a pregnant cat coming in that’s been locked in a suitcase for five hours.”
“What! How did that happen?” Sighing, I glanced at the armada of cat carriers in the reception area and then at my watch. “Is the cat going into labour?”
Althea hesitated. “Well, the owner wasn’t very clear.”
I sighed again. This was one of those rare days when I wished I had chosen another career. Telephone psychic, maybe. I could sleep till ten, hang out in my pyjamas, and avoid pus altogether.
“See if you can reach Dr. Doucette.” I turned back to Mrs. O’Malley, who had collapsed in a chair, and handed her a box of fresh tissues. An unconcerned Hymie lay sprawled on the floor, washing his face.
“Thank you, dear,” she sniffed, hauling several out of the box and blowing vigorously.
“Mrs. O’Malley?” I pulled up a chair and sat down beside her.
“Yes, dear?” she hiccupped.
“I have a possible emergency coming in. Susan, our head technician, is going to look after you and Hymie. And I’ll be in touch as soon as I can.”
Hands folded around the crumpled carcass of a tissue, Mrs. O’Malley nodded. “My late husband, Bertram, God rest his soul,” she sighed, placing a hand over her ample bosom. “He was so much better at this sort of thing. The man was a saint. Mind you,” she added after a moment, “a saint that always left the toilet seat up. And did he wash a dish one day in his life? No!” Mrs. O’Malley ripped another tissue from the box and dabbed her eyes.
I patted her hand then eased myself out the back door of the exam room. High above me on a decorative border, Sylvester chased Tweety Bird ad infinitum. Secretly, I sympathized with Sylvester who never seemed able to catch up with the sanctimonious little yellow bird.
I hated to call Dr. Doucette. I didn’t want him to think I couldn’t handle the pace. But the waiting room was full and half the surgical ward held patients waiting for surgery, recovering from surgery, or plotting revenge. In isolation, an introspective Siamese named Belafonte stared at the stainless steel wall. One claw pinned the head of his favourite toy, a catnip-filled veterinarian, to the floor. His owners thought the toy hilarious but a headache had been gnawing at me all day. Feline voodoo? I shuddered.
Tossing my soiled lab coat into the laundry basket, I grabbed a fresh one off the shelf. Hilary, one of the veterinary technicians, looked up as I rushed past. She and Tanya were drawing blood from Eugene, an obese black and white diabetic. In reception, I could hear Althea’s calm voice as she offered coffee and donuts to the waiting clients. A reverent hush fell over the crowd when she added that Dr. Doucette would be arriving shortly.
I had just entered the bathroom, a female oasis of scented candles and Chatelaines, when Althea burst through the treatment room door.
“Dr. McBride, the pregnant cat is here!” she announced breathlessly.
Ripping a piece of toilet paper off the roll, I cleaned my glasses then hurried to the exam room. A young woman in tight jeans cast a long, sour look my way, then a long, sour look at her four-year-old daughter. Bleached blonde hair stuck out from her head like dried hay stubble.
“Hi, Mrs. Martell,” I began. “I’m Dr. McBride.”
Unimpressed, Mrs. Martell stared at me. “It’s Ms. Martell.”
“Oh, sorry.” I felt myself shrivelling under her caustic glare.
“You’re a real doctor, right? I mean, you’re not a…student, or something?” Ms. Martell grimaced.
“Actually I graduated three years ago.”
Ms. Martell folded her arms across her chest. Bored, her little girl had begun opening and closing the door with annoying precision.
“So…,” I began, “Jenny’s having some trouble, is she?”
“Yeah, thanks to this one!” She nodded at her daughter, who had stopped to look at us and pick her nose. “Jill, what did I tell you about boogers?”
I looked down at my notes. “She’s pregnant and was locked in a suitcase for five hours?”
“That’s right.” Ms. Martell glared defiantly at me.
“Do you know when she was bred?”
“No! How would I know?” Ms. Martell was incredulous. “She didn’t rush home to tell me when she got knocked up!”
I paused. Among my clients who loved to “talk cats,” Ms. Martell was a tight-lipped maverick.
“Okay,” I said, rubbing my hands together and grinning foolishly. “Let’s have a peek at Jenny.”
Ms. Martell bent down to pick up the sturdy pink kennel.
“I can do it!” Jill’s chubby hand grabbed the handle of the carrier.
“Go sit down,” her mother ordered. “Now!”
Pouting, the little girl retreated to the chair in the corner. She watched in silence as her mother lifted the gaily decorated kennel onto the exam table and unhooked the latch. Scrawled above the door in childish letters was the warning “Jenny’s Place. No Boys Allowed.” I stifled a smile as a petite Himalayan with an enormous belly waddled through the entrance. Someone had clearly not read the sign.
Ms. Martell leaned closer. Cigarette smoke clung to her clothes like cellophane wrap on yesterday’s leftovers. Ignoring her daughter, who was busy vandalizing my exam room, she gently kissed Jenny’s forehead. Uncomfortable, but trying her best to be friendly, the gracious little cat began to purr.
I checked her vital signs and palpated her swollen belly. Her sides rippled as the kittens twisted and wriggled, anxious to meet mama face to face. Under Ms. Martell’s vigilant scowl, I lifted Jenny’s tail. A small bit of blood-tinged fluid oozed from her vulva. Using sterile lubricant, I inserted a gloved baby finger and probed gently.
Jenny glanced back at me in concern. Her memories of mating weren’t preceded by an expensive dinner and flowers, nor did they include whispered endearments and a leisurely cigarette in bed afterwards. Around a female in heat, the male cat has but one thought. In addition, the male cat’s erect penis is armed with barbs to stimulate ovulation in the female. No doubt if the human male was so equipped, world overpopulation wouldn’t be an issue.
Ms. Martell had remained silent during the physical exam. Now her chilling, green eyes wanted answers. I peeled off the glove and cleared my throat.
“Well,” I began, “Jenny’s ready to give birth right now, but she can’t.”
“Why not? Can’t you just induce her like they do with people?” Ms. Martell demanded.
“Normally, that’s exactly what we would do. But her cervix isn’t dilated. I’d like to do X-rays but there just isn’t time. We need to do a C-section right away. The longer we wait, the greater the risk to the kittens.”
Ms. Martell regarded me for a moment then began rummaging through her bag. I had visions of her pulling out a pearl-handled automatic with a comfortable grip. Instead she withdrew a tube of lipstick. Disgusted, she tossed it back like a fish that was too small and continued her frantic search. Her hand finally closed upon a slender container. Opening it, she removed a single cigarette and raised it to her lips.
“Mommy!” Jill declared. “You’re supposed to be quitting!”
“There’s a no-smoking policy in the hospital,” I added, siding with Jill.
Without a word, Ms. Martell slowly lowered the cigarette with her right hand. The red-capped fingers of her left pounded a jagged rhythm on the table. Jill had grabbed the edges of her seat and kicking her legs into the air, hammered the chair against the wall. Delighted, she repeated the procedure several times until, inevitably, both child and chair crashed to the floor. My thoughts drifted to the locked drug cabinet. I wanted to slap a narcotic patch on both mother and offspring.
“Fine!” Ms. Martell finally sputtered as she tried to comfort her howling daughter. “Just do whatever you have to. That cat’s worth a lot of money.” She turned to her daughter. “Jill, get your coat on. We have to go.”
I scooped Jenny into my arms. Still sniffling, Jill grabbed her coat and stormed out of the exam room. At the door, her mother paused. The cat clock on the wall marked each long second with a slow blink and a mechanical click of its tail. Ms. Martell looked at me. Her body sagged, softening the hard edges.
“Take good care of her,” she whispered. Then she was gone.
In anticipation of a C-section, Hilary had laid out the autoclaved surgical pack, gown, and drape as well as the prep solutions. She checked the anesthesia and oxygen levels and prepared the gas induction box. Rather than the usual pre-op sedative followed by barbiturate and then gas anesthesia, the safest approach for Jenny and her kittens was gas induction. She would wake up quickly and be able to look after her family.
I placed Jenny on a blanket inside the plexiglass box and closed the lid. As the oxygen and isoflurane mix flowed into the box, she sank lower and lower until she was asleep. I lifted her out and slipped an endotracheal tube down her throat.
“You start an IV line,” I instructed Hilary, reconnecting the anesthetic line. “That’ll keep her blood pressure up and her fluid levels good.”
Hilary nodded. Her fingers, long and slender, worked together like a well-coached team. Within minutes, Jenny lay on her back in the V-shaped surgical trough. Overhead, an IV line dripped silently into her vein at four-second intervals. The rebreathing bag attached to the endotracheal tube swelled and contracted in the relaxed pattern of normal respiration. In the background, the heart monitor beeped with comforting regularity. These were the rhythms of life in an operating room.
While Hilary shaved and prepped Jenny’s abdomen, I stepped outside to prepare for surgery.
“Vegetables or teddy bears?” Tanya asked, holding up two surgical caps. Dr. Doucette had charmed a new drug rep into leaving an assortment of designer surgical caps along with the usual pens and glossy brochures.
I tucked my hair under a swarm of smiling chili peppers then began the six minute, self-inflicted torture known as scrubbing. This always left my hands in prickly, red ruins and the results had once cut a promising date short. I slipped into the autoclaved surgical gown and snapped on a pair of sterile gloves while Tanya tied the gown in back. Hands held above my waist and face mask in place, I entered surgery.
“Vitals are good,” Hilary reported. I double-checked all the monitors and listened to Jenny’s heart as Hilary held the stethoscope to my ears.
During Jenny’s physical exam, I could feel three kittens so Susan was standing by in the adjacent dental area which had hastily been converted into a nursery ICU. C-sections were rare in cats and this was my first. Scalpel poised, I pictured the colour-coded photos in my surgery text that made a C-section look like a Paint By Number kit any child could master. In the textbook photo, a happy veterinarian assisted by a happy technician performed surgery on a happy patient.
Humming along with Strauss’ Blue Danube, I made a long incision in her belly. The Y-shaped uterus, normally the thickness of a knitting needle, swells to the diameter of a broom handle during pregnancy. The kittens, each developing in its own amniotic sac, look like beads in a giant’s necklace. I quickly uncovered the huge organ and eased it onto the surgical drape. Then I froze.
“Oh my God!” Hilary breathed, her eyes wide above her face mask.
Together we stared at the accommodating uterus which sheltered not three, not four, but six kittens! Where had they all come from? Through the protective membranes, I could see a kaleidoscope of colours and patterns in the wet fur. Jenny had certainly made the most of her night on the town.
“Have you ever done a C-section where there were so many kittens?” Hilary’s voice seemed distant. “Dr. McBride?”
“Dr. McBride?” she repeated when I didn’t answer.
“Turn off the music,” I snapped, deciding to ignore Hilary’s question. “And tell Susan she’s going to need help.”
With six kittens, time became the critical factor affecting their survival. I made an incision in the main body of the uterus and removed the first kitten. Using a piece of gauze, I wiped away the placental membranes around his face, then clamped the umbilical cord. He was a beautiful mackerel tabby, with white toes and a white bib. As with all newborn kittens, his ears were flat against the side of his head, his eyes closed. One day he would be a big, strong boy but at this moment he was completely helpless. As I held the tiny body in my hand, he took his first breath. To be present at this moment of transformation, when a tiny being exists for the first time outside the shelter of its mother’s womb, always takes my own breath away. But I had little time to celebrate.
In the nursery, Susan began a gentle but vigorous towel massage, imitating the mother’s tongue. Puffs of hot air from a blow dryer warmed his damp body. The shivering ceased. Hilary held up six fingers and I heard Susan holler for back-up.
In the meantime, I “milked” the second kitten along the uterine horn to the same place where I had removed the first. With just one incision, Jenny would heal faster and feel less discomfort. I eased the tiny calico into the world and repeated the same procedure I had followed with her brother. Even so, her breathing was sporadic at best.
“We’ve got to get the fluid out of her lungs,” I told Hilary as she wrapped the fragile life in a warm cocoon of flannel. Nodding, she darted into the nursery.
I turned my attention to the next closest kitten. Only ten minutes had passed since we began, but this little fellow seemed quite sluggish. He was breathing, but his heartbeat was weak.
The surgery door opened. “We can’t seem to get her going.” Hilary’s voice was low and urgent.
“Here,” I said, handing her the third kitten. Although I had given them a brief rundown before surgery, none of the current staff had ever been involved in a C-section either. Hilary waited for direction, cradling the kitten close for warmth. In her silence, I heard the desperate appeal. Babies weren’t supposed to die before they lived.
“Did you try the respiratory stimulant?”
Hilary’s head bobbed up and down.
I reached for a pair of hemostats and knocked the suture material onto the floor. “Damn!”
Three kittens were still trapped inside Jenny, and every minute that passed reduced their chances for survival. Time was an enemy, not a healer. In frustration, I barked, “Try swinging her like I showed you!”
Outside my window, a crowd had gathered and I caught glimpses of their feverish attempts to revive the first three kittens. A waitress from Tim Hortons had taken over the hair dryer and I spied the parking lot attendant running with towels. I saw Susan sandwich one of the kittens firmly but tenderly between her hands, head facing outwards. Then she raised the kitten above her head and swung her in an arc. The centrifugal motion would help expel fluid from the lungs and stimulate breathing; too much could cause blood vessels in the brain to hemorrhage.
Sorry that I had snapped at Hilary, I shouted to be heard in the ICU. “Hilary. Hilary!”
Hilary poked an anxious head back through the surgery door.
“Just remember, the kittens are anesthetized so it’s going to take them awhile to come round,” I explained as I clamped an oozing blood vessel.
“Right.” Hilary turned to leave.
“Reviving newborns can sometimes seem hopeless,” I continued in a rush. “The thing is…,” I looked up and, lowering my voice, added quietly, “the thing is don’t give up.”
Hilary’s nod was slight, almost imperceptible. A surgical mask and cap obscured most of her face. But her eyes, large and brown, held my own for a heartbeat of time. That was all we could spare.
I delivered the fourth and fifth kittens. They were orange tabbies, perfectly formed with miniature claws visible on their tiny toes. Neither was breathing.
The last kitten to leave her mother was the smallest. A miniature version of Jenny, she lay limply in my gloved hand, lost in its vastness. I strained to hear a heartbeat, willing myself to feel the faintest shudder as I began chest compressions. But there was nothing. Taking the kitten, Hilary left for the last time, leaving me alone to close the incision.
Jenny was doing well, oblivious to the chaos created by her promiscuity. I gave her an injection of pain-killer then mechanically began stitching, two layers for the uterus and three more layers through the body wall. The final layer of stitches I secured underneath the skin so nursing kittens wouldn’t harm the incision.
Stripping off my gloves, I reached for the switch, cutting the intense glare of the surgical lamp. The room dissolved into the grey pallor of stainless steel. The only sound was Jenny’s peaceful, regular respiration echoing against unyielding walls. In the wake of emergency surgery, bloodied gauze, ECG tracings and dirtied surgical instruments littered the room, washed up like flotsam after the storm. I turned off the anesthetic and waited for Jenny to wake up.
Activity in the ICU had slowed down. As Jenny began to shiver and paw the air, I removed the endotracheal tube. I listened to her chest once more, then wrapped her in a blanket and carried her to the recovery ward.
There I was met by an odd assortment of staff, clients, and employees from other businesses in the strip mall. Quietly proud, each member of the team held a mewling kitten. Ms. Martell and her daughter were nestled together in a chair. Under her mother’s hawk-like supervision, Jill gently massaged the last kitten to be born. It squawked in healthy protest.
“I was late for work anyway,” Ms. Martell shrugged.
Later that evening, I slipped back to check on my in-patients. The surgery ward at night was a peaceful haven, lit only by the warm blush of a table lamp. With satisfaction, I noticed Jenny had eaten a small meal. Her dozing family, nestled in the shelter of Jenny’s love, rose and fell rhythmically with each breath their mother took. Smiling, I gazed at the celebration of life in kennel number seven. This was why I had become a veterinarian.
The moment was shattered by a familiar, throaty growl and a bar-rattling lunge at the kennel door by my knees. Hymie O’Malley! His wound had been treated and a Penrose drain was in place. Silently, I blessed Dr. Doucette and turned to leave, tripping over a cat carrier in the dim light.
A primeval chorus of grunts followed by an authoritative snort rose from the far corner of the room. Head back, mouth open, Mrs. O’Malley was sprawled in an armchair with her knitting. Startled, I hurried out of the recovery ward and down the darkened hallway where a beam of light pooled at the far end.
Inside the office, Dr. Doucette slouched lazily in a reclining chair, legs stretched across his desk. In one arm he cradled a cat, in the other a textbook. A bag of jelly beans lay within easy reach.
“I’m going to wake her when I finish this article,” he grinned, seeing the look on my face. “Apparently she had an extra glass of sherry after supper to calm her nerves.” Then he nodded at the filing cabinet. An envelope addressed to Ocean View Cat Hospital was propped against a bottle of wine. The card inside said simply “Thank you” and was signed “Helen and Jill Martell.” Underneath, a child had drawn one large pink heart surrounded by six small ones.
As I held the card in my hand, Hughie reached for the bag of jelly beans. “Help yourself, Em. I always buy extra. You never know when one of your staff is going to pull off a miracle.”
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