Harris waits to see the surgeon at Angell
In the cats-only seating area, we chose one of the long, hard wooden benches. A TV at low volume flashed across the way and a few dogs barked their heads off at a short distance. I pulled out my phone; I find Instagram comforting. My husband set up his laptop, and then he unzipped most of the top of Harris's carrier to pet him. I watched in horror as Harris's head and shoulders emerged. He looked around, wide-eyed and scared. I had a vision of him leaping from us in a panic and getting caught in the jaws of one of the big dogs that are always roaming the place, dragging their owners behind.
"Ohmygod, what are you DOING?" I said, rather loudly, in shock. I grabbed Harris with one hand, pushing him down as swiftly and gently as I could, struggling to place his splint comfortably and struggling further to close the carrier. "He could escape! What were you thinking?" I unzipped the front panel just enough for a hand to reach in to pet Harris. "Do it this way!" My husband sat wordless, miserable. This experience has taken a toll on him. I don't think even he was aware of what he had been doing.
A theatrical-looking older woman, dressed in black with a white cowboy hat, sat alone at the other end of the bench. We couldn't help overhearing the conversation when her vet arrived. Her cat was still in the treatment area. He'd been given oxygen and had perked up. She asked if she should let him die now or take him home to see how he was doing. She said she was doing a play [aha] and had to travel some distance to the theater. They decided he'd go home with her, perhaps for the last time.
At about 9 o'clock, it was our turn. A very young student vet quietly ushered us into an exam room, saying she had seen Harris's records. She listened attentively to our story. I told her we hoped to see one of the two orthopedic surgeons and that I was willing to stay all day if necessary. She said she'd try her best and left us to wait. My husband had to leave for school shortly, and we were still figuring out the best time for me to call him when she returned with a surgeon.
Have you ever met someone for the first time, looked at their face, and knew you could trust them? I looked into the surgeon's wise, candid blue eyes and knew. I didn't know if she would tell us good or terrible things about Harris, but I knew they would be true.
She examined Harris and I felt better. I liked the way she handled him. She pulled off the splint before we had a chance to wince. Harris didn't care, nor did he mind as she felt his broken toes and studied the reddened, bare patches of dermatitis on his foot and leg. She asked how he got injured and I said we had no idea. Then she sat down near him to talk to us.
I remember feeling like I was inhaling wisdom, as I often do when my own long-time vet shares her knowledge with me on topics I know next to nothing about. Everything she said sounded right to me. I didn't feel that way listening to any of the vets at the local clinic. They'd been very nice, but . . . .
She told us that cats' toes are different from other bones. She said Harris's X-ray did show more space between the broken bones, and that this was normal and a good sign. (The vet we'd been seeing told me it was bad.) The increased separation meant that new soft tissue was forming around the breaks as the toes were healing. This tissue doesn't show up on radiographs, but the increased separation indicates that it's growing.
She told us that splints should be used only for the cat's comfort — to make walking easier. The other vet had made the splints huge and awkward, partly to help them stay on but also to make it harder for Harris to walk. It was difficult to watch him stumping around. The splint was so hard for him to maneuver that we worried about him dislocating his elbow.
No more splints, the surgeon said. Toes heal best when they are left on their own and used. (No more crate, either.) Surgery to realign the bones, which are about as slender as a toothpick, tends to damage the foot's blood supply, so it's more trouble than it's worth. And surgeons never, ever, amputate a cat's leg because of broken toes. (We were so happy to hear this.) It was likely that Harris's toes would be fine in a few weeks. Toe amputation was unlikely, too. As our own vet had said, "Cats' bones will heal as long as they are in the same room."
We were told to watch him to make sure he was putting weight on that foot. He'd probably lick his paw because of the sore patches from the dermatitis, so he'd need an Elizabethan collar for a couple of days. The young vet, who'd been listening silently the whole time, went to get us a little one, and fastened it on Harris's head. It barely came beyond his ears and seemed manageable. The surgeon told us to check in with her in a few days, and left.
I felt like a load had been lifted from my heart and brain. My husband raced off to teach (he confessed later that he dashed out before he began weeping from relief). I thanked the young vet, who said she hadn't really done anything. I told her she had done everything, and thanked her again. I picked up Harris's antibiotics and paid the bill, which was less than it usually was at the local vet.
At home, Harris limped about, looking embarrassed in his collar. The other cats welcomed him quietly, as usual, especially Possum and Toffee, who had been waiting at the door for him. Possy kept an eye on Harris as he ate a late breakfast, then helpfully assisted him in finishing it:
We could have removed the collar for meals but it seemed easier to just wipe it afterwards.
Harris stayed quiet for the rest of that day and the next. He limped and didn't use the leg. We took off the collar on Friday morning. He kept licking his paw, so we put it back. He still wanted to be brushed, and for us to rub his neck, scratch around his head, and smooth the fur under the collar. He loved all that and kept asking for more.
We noticed he was bending his bad paw and didn't mind lying on it. On Friday night, the collar came off for good. He was still subdued. I suspect he was/is plotting elaborate revenge for the indignity of the collar plus the weeks of being in a splint. We may be in trouble when he's fully back in business. We should change our passwords, hide our credit cards, and maybe cover the new leather chair in plastic . . . except Harris loves to eat plastic.
On Saturday morning, our cat suddenly came back. We first noticed him putting weight on the foot as he walked and we were ecstatic. Then he began scratching the Bergan Star Chaser Turbo Scratcher with both paws. We cheered silently as he went on to claw a low wooden chest that we aren't fond of. He romped briefly from room to room, and tried and failed to get over the pumpkin barrier I'd set up on the mantel. He leaped into my lap to lean against me, nuzzle my neck, and be praised. He was back.
Since then he's had his ups and down, using the leg and limping, having active spurts followed by long periods of lounging in his little cardboard
box apartment. We must wait and see if he recovers completely, but since he can already walk without limping, we are optimistic.
Thank you to everyone who joined us in worrying about him and wished him well!
* * * * *
I've been asking myself what I learned from this experience. What will I do differently next time? (And that means "when" not "if.")
1. I need to pay attention to my instincts about people. My first impressions tend to be sound. But I can think of many times in my life when I ran into problems because I decided to be nice and trust someone when I actually knew better. Usually these people have credentials and authority — like my first allergist, but that's another story. (Do you want to hear it?)
2. The next time we have a cat emergency and our own vet isn't around, we'll go to Angell's emergency center and do all the follow-up there, too. It's inconvenient, it can be painful to witness the heartbreaking dramas that unfold daily in the waiting area, and the student vets running the place often look like undergrads. But the level of expertise that's right behind their front line is superb, and one can ask for it and get it. It's worth it.
3. We must continue to try to be eternally vigilant: if there's any kind of hazard in our apartment, one of our cats will find it. My husband needs to keep his little office tidier. We'll probably never know what happened to Harris in there.
4. Cat medications should always be followed by treats. Harris forgot his misery as soon as his mouth was full of chicken or turkey. He never struggled when my husband carried him into the kitchen. And the food helps move pills down the esophagus, just as a syringe of water does. (I do that, too, to be on the safe side.)