Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Journal of the Plague Year, 5

We all survived another round of lime-sulfur dips yesterday. Returning to the cat hospital in Brookline after a quick burrito lunch and some errands, we were hit by the stench of rotten eggs, only partially masked by the nauseatingly sweet, pie-scented candles they always burn at the reception desk, which are marketed to mask "pet odors." Why you'd want to mask pet odors with blueberry pie is beyond me; I think cleaning and airing the place out would do a better job. But even wet, stinky dog and bogus apple cobbler smell better together than lime-sulfur all by itself.

The cats were very happy to be home, and took long, restorative naps, stinking up the washable cover I put over the washable cover on our bed.

This Friday, we are going to take the cats for their first cultures before their trip to the dip. (We won't be seeing our regular vet, but this way, the cats have only one stressful car trip and our favorite vet doesn't risk getting felled by ringworm.)

Then we'll need to wait at least three weeks to see who's negative and who isn't. We'll do more cultures a week and two weeks after the first one. We should start getting the first results right after Christmas.

Which means we will still be in cleaning-and-treatment mode through the holidays. Which means the holiday decorating is going to be unusually sparse this year. I can't vacuum a Christmas tree. Plus, despite the fact that I've had both Christmas trees and cats for almost 30 years (yeah, ancient), I've been reading about the hazards of trees for cats and now I'm nervous about ever having one again.

Every year, in the second week of December, we bring in a huge, fresh tree, set it up in the Mother of All Tree Stands, and tie it to the window-frame with fishing line in case anyone decides to climb it. Then we wait for Snalbert and Snicky to eat needles and throw up. That always happens within the first hour we have the tree. It must be the feline traditional equivalent of kissing under the mistletoe. You don't necessarily want to do it, but you sort of have to.

Then it's just a matter of waiting to see how soon they get tired of eating needles and throwing up. Three or four days is typical. But recently I read that tree needles are very poisonous, as is the water in the tree stand. I knew that; we take precautions with the water. But dry or tough needles can puncture a cat's digestive organs. And then there are the light strings: they can strangle themselves, or swallow them, or electrocute themselves by chewing on them. If they break a glass ornament: lacerations, internal injuries, blah, blah, blah. Don't even think about tinsel. Some people can also get worked up about the hazards of ribbons and other decorations on wrapped presents. And, of course, we have two kittens who would certainly want to climb it and wrestle in its branches.

All in all, a Christmas tree is a deadly weapon. I should have just returned that tree last year and gotten a refund. All these years we've had magical trees and were unknowingly dancing with disaster.

But even this doesn't make me feel any better about not having a tree. No: I don't feel good about having a tree or not having a tree. I'm under stress, so I think I'm entitled to be ambivalent and childish about this. And even if I'm not entitled, that's just how it's going to be.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Gratitude List

There's plenty this year:

1. Practically everyone we know is healthy and surviving, with a roof over his/her head.

2. Good friends, old and new. This year, Facebook reconnected me to a lot of favorite people from my past. It's the reason I actually know how well everyone is doing for a change.

3. Two fabulous kittens. Plus a very clean house, and lots of weekly face time with our friends at two vet hospitals. (Do I know how to put a positive spin on ringworm now, or what?)

4. Bills are paid, there's money in the bank, we have no credit card debt, and there'll even be an IRA contribution at year's end.

5. I had some useful, interesting work projects. And there's finally a job prospect: a long shot, but something.

6. Spouse has had a rough time with work issues, but still loves what he does. Which is inspiring. And he's so good at it all. Plus, he finished volume 1 of a massive book he started back in 1925. Amazing!

7. We didn't give a penny to Bernard Madoff or know the Craigslist killer.

8. We ate a lot of cake. Really excellent cake. And cupcakes. Too bad we don't have any right now.

9. Two happy trips to Mt. Desert Island to hang out with our "other family."

10. October baseball. At least the Red Sox got that far.

11. Strength class at the gym. A year ago, I couldn't do a military push-up. Now I can do 14, and that's after I've been worn out by lifting a barbell. I'm in decent shape for an old lady.

12. There are still lunatics reading this boring blog. I promise to do my best to make 2010 more exciting than 2009. No skin diseases if I can help it, I swear! Thank you for your sympathy and support.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Journal of the Plague Year, 4

We met with our vet today. Seeing her these days is exciting, liking meeting with an oracle; usually I call and relay my questions through an assistant and then get a call back from the same person, repeating our vet's wisdom. When we actually see her, I come prepared, strive to communicate clearly, and listen intently. We discussed when to culture the cats, and how often. Ideally, all four cats are supposed to have three negative cultures in a row, done at intervals of one to three weeks. But cultures are $92 each, not including the office visit. (I comparison shopped and got a price of $127 per culture at another vet.)

Our vet had previously suggested lowering expenses by keeping the cultures in-house instead of sending them to a lab. Today she said, "But we can't, because we don't have an incubator. The cultures have to be kept between 75 and 85 degrees in a water bath."

"So we'll buy you an incubator," I said. She was startled: "How much are they?" "I don't know," I said, "but a small one can't cost $1,200!" (Later I found out that we could get one for about $300.)

Instead, our vet suggested culturing only the two kittens, twice. She had discussed this with the other two vets in the practice, who agreed. The older cats have no lesions, have been on oral medication, and are gettiing dips. They should be negative.

You'd think we'd be jumping for joy at this news. My husband brightened considerably. But I was troubled. I've read too many horror stories, related in real time, by people who stopped treatment too early, only to have the ringworm come back — worse — weeks or months later. That means treating everyone with the whole regimen, back to Square One.

Our vet's reasoning was that the treatment protocol was designed for shelters with rampant ringworm infestations. We're not so overwhelmed with it. But we are still dealing with four cats who aren't isolated from each other and who share everything. And the two adults are Persians, who are said to be more susceptible to ringworm than the general cat population.

Half of my brain was hollering, "What's WRONG with you? Do you WANT your cats STINKING for extra weeks and MONTHS, into 2010? Are YOU INSANE?" The quiet, reasonable half was saying, "This is very nice. But dead wrong."

For one thing, I pointed out, the lime-sulfur dips are ideally supposed to be given twice a week, and double the strength we're doing. We're only doing them once because we can't bear — or afford — to do them twice weekly. Also, the older cats are on a much lower dose of oral medication than is recommended (the vet seemed a bit stunned that I knew this) but, I continued, after all, they're elderly, fragile, and have no lesions. The vet nodded, a tad relieved, I think. So I suggested that we culture all four cats once, to be sure the older cats are negative. Then we'll do just the kittens twice more, to be sure — assuming the cultures are all negative. Our pet insurance should pay for all of the kittens' cultures. But we can't be sure until we get a reimbursement; with all the fine print in the policy, anything is possible.

I was hoping we could do the cultures during the same Friday car trip as the lime-sulfur dips. But we want our vet to do them herself, and that's her day off. So we'll probably be shlepping everyone to her office next Thursday night. I also suggested that she come to our apartment so they wouldn't have to decontaminate the exam room and waiting area, but they never do housecalls, even if it's more convenient for them!

* * *

Big triumph today: Wendy let me pet her tail. She was curled up on a chair and didn't run away as I slowly approached. The next time I tried it, she ran. But I finally got to touch her without corraling her or making her cringe in fear, and that's a first, at least since she's been outside her nursery-crate.

I wonder if she realizes her tail belongs to her, and is not a separate animal that's always following her too closely.

Wendy's favorite toy is her "birdiemouse," a leopard-print mouse that had a long feathered tail; now it has a feather stump. She carries it everywhere, singing in her delightful voice. When she loses it, as she did today, I hunt everywhere. I thought I'd find it when I did my daily vacuuming, but even when I took a flashlight and peered under radiators and bookcases (previously filthy spots but recently cleaned), I couldn't find it. I felt bad because, if I don't turn up the full inventory of lost toys daily, I'm missing areas I'm supposed to be cleaning and we'll continue to have the Plague.

But about an hour ago, I heard singing, and found Wendy curled on the bed, with her birdiemouse in her mouth. I wonder where it was; she must have put it in a safe place. A few minutes later, I heard her singing more passionately, and saw Possum leap onto the sofa with her birdiemouse in his mouth. Thief! Typical brotherly behavior. I stole it from him, gave him his favorite mouse (recently under a bookcase), and gave Wendy her toy.

We have a new bedspread, as you can see. All the cats tested it today and found it sleep-worthy:

One of the most depressing aspects of Ringworm Plague is living with furniture covered in old bed sheets, especially the PeptoBismol-hued flannel one on the couch. I broke down and ordered some inexpensive Indian bedspreads online and found this one in a shop in Coolidge Corner. These will add hippie charm, or bohemian je-ne-sais-what, to our rooms, which has to be an improvement on bedsheet decor. They will also absorb the scent of the lime sulfur, which rubs off wherever the cats sit or sleep. (Washing never fully eliminates the smell.) If they fade from thrice-weekly washing in the next few months, so be it. I will probably never want to see them again when this is over.

Will it ever be over?

Picky Eating: The Food Lists

The farmer's market at Copley officially closed yesterday, leaving me wistfully wondering why I didn't take better advantage of all that homegrown bounty while I had the chance. One reason: I get nervous when confronted with cooking a strange, new vegetable. Another reason: my husband doesn't like a lot of those vegetables and fruits, and I tend to cook and buy for two. So while taking a cooking class might help me with the former, I'm still cooped-up by the latter.

I'm thinking that it is time to list all the things the spouse and I won't eat, and try to conquer at least a few of them. I'm glad he eats mushrooms; that would be a deal-breaker, given everything else that he's wary about. He will offer to try things on his list if I beg him, but he likes it about as much as cats like pills.

As for me, since I got IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) eight years ago, there are many foods I love that I now cannot eat. When those gustatory avenues closed, I decided it was time to open new ones. So I resolved to be adventurous and try to eat, or at least taste, anything and everything that I can eat.

This proved to be an exciting experience on our trips to Italy last year, where I vowed to eat anything that was put in front of me. I had superb octopus and squid, and batter-fried fruit.

Just because I have to be a careful eater doesn't mean I need to be a fussy eater. We live in an unprecedented time of abundance, and while we don't have to love all of it, I feel we should at least try it before we reject it. Sampling foods should be an adventure; it should not turn an adult into a panicking, distraught 5-year-old. I ate my octopus like a man. And found it yummy.

Here are the everyday, ordinary foods I don't like:
  1. Green peppers (they taste soapy to me)
  2. Raw onions, except red or sweet ones, ones in teeny amounts (they burn my mouth)
  3. Liver, brains, sweetbreads, pig's feet, and other stray parts of the pig or cow
  4. Cilantro (tastes like soap suds)
  5. Mint ice cream (unless it's quality sorbet or gelato; otherwise, it's frozen toothpaste)
  6. Gummy candy, including licorice, jelly beans, and Dots
  7. Anything soy; it strikes me as more of a craft material than a food
  8. Half-cooked bacon; it has to be brown and crisp
  9. Cherry Coke, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi
  10. Coffee
  11. Spicy-hot food
  12. Salmon and swordfish
Here's what I can't eat because it triggers IBS:
  1. Alcohol (except prosecco in Italy and French champagne. I don't know why, but I'm grateful)
  2. Cream (Alfredo and other cream-based sauces, Indian kormas, cream cheese, cheesecake, crème brûlée, bread pudding, ice cream, whipped cream.... are you weeping in sympathy yet?)
  3. Spicy food
  4. Greasy, oily, or fried food, except in small quantities. Olive oil is okay. Asian food usually isn't.
Here are the everyday foods my husband doesn't like. I hope you'll agree that his list limits a farmer's market–loving cook. It features many foods I love: namely all the produce, olives, goat cheese, and grains:
  1. Sweet potatoes
  2. Whole grains, served with a meal, including wild rice
  3. Sundried tomatoes
  4. Roasted garlic
  5. Autumn root vegetables, except for carrots, but including red beets and parsnips
  6. Fish (except canned tuna)
  7. Shellfish, except for clam chowder and lobster
  8. Raw and cooked onions, except onion rings and French onion soup
  9. Eggplant and squash
  10. Polenta
  11. Goat cheese
  12. Many fruits, including peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums, mangoes, and figs
  13. Cabbage and sauerkraut
  14. Leafy greens, except for lettuce and spinach
  15. Liver, brains, sweetbreads, pig's feet, and other "weird" parts of the pig or cow
  16. Cilantro (tastes like soap suds)
  17. Mustard
  18. Rye, pumpernickel, sourdough breads, and onion rolls
  19. Olives
In the past year or so, here's what I've eaten experimentally (I limit this list to meat and fish; I don't consider eating any vegetable, fruit or grain a challenge. Except for molokhiya, a slimy green cooked vegetable dish that's popular in the Middle East. It's scary):
  1. Squid
  2. Octopus
  3. Goat
  4. Wild boar
  5. Venison (this was a while ago; I've sampled brains, liver, and pig's feet in the past, too)
  6. Mussels
  7. Shrimp (the teeny ones are really good!)
  8. Chilean sea bass (food of the gods)
  9. Every type of cured meat from the Emilia-Romagna region (more god-food)
  10. Oysters
Here are tasty but unhealthy things we like but limit:
  1. Deli ham with nitrates (we'll buy Italian pepper ham every couple of months)
  2. Fried chicken (once a year of less)
  3. Pepperoni pizza (once a year)
  4. Hot dogs (Parisian-style from Petit Robert, once a month at most)
  5. Potato chips (twice a year in a restaurant for me; spouse eats them more often)
  6. Bacon and breakfast sausage (on vacation in Maine)
  7. Donuts (almost never)
  8. Red meat (one steak, steak burrito, or cheeseburger per month, or so)
  9. Onion rings and French fries (with the burger or hot dog, once or twice a month)
  10. Double- or triple-cream cheeses (two or three times a year)
And finally, here's what I never (or almost never) buy because it's unhealthy or better made from scratch:
  1. Movie popcorn
  2. Snack foods that come in noisy plastic bags (Doritos, Fritos, chips, Little Debbie's, Tastycakes, etc.) My husband sometimes buys pretzels; they're low-fat, at least. I buy low-fat baked tortilla chips when I make guacamole a few times a year. Chocolate-covered pretzels are an unfortunate victim of this rule and are really more like candy than food, IMO, so I'll get them once or twice a year.... Oreo cookies are another exception; I wish they sold them in tubs
  3. White bread
  4. Pop-Tarts, breakfast bars, and cereals that aren't high in fiber and protein
  5. Frozen entrées, pizza, dinners, and desserts
  6. Canned and dried soups; I love making soup
  7. Most packaged cookies (except for those Oreos). Healthier exceptions include Trader Joe's Triple Ginger Snaps and their all-natural Florentines
  8. Frozen or refrigerated cookie doughs, pie crusts, breakfast and dinner rolls, biscuits
  9. Bottled salad dressings
  10. Non-diet drinks, except orange juice and cider
  11. Crackers, except for multigrain varieties with fiber. Crackers are surprisingly fat-laden
  12. Energy bars. I used to live on these until I realized that they aren't exactly.... food
You'll notice that this list doesn't mention cake, cupcakes, homemade cookies and brownies, or candy. We figure that by cutting out the other junk, there's room on the top of our alleged food pyramid for a modest dose of one (or two) those. Chocolate is non-negotiable.

What is your list like? I'd love to know!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Craving Peace

I had to do errands yesterday, but as I was putting on my coat, I heard screaming from the bedroom. Our senior male cat, Snalbert, was attacking our fragile little Snicky on the bed.

He had also done this last Thursday, for the first time in many years, and it was horrible. She'd peed all over the floor that time and, because she has chronic renal failure, there was a LOT of it. (Fortunately, for the same reason, it's very dilute and hardly smells. And even more more luckily, there was a full spray bottle of Nature's Miracle on the dresser next to where the attack had occurred. Calling this product a "Miracle" is not an exaggeration.)

Snicky didn't pee on the bed this time, thank god, and she wasn't hurt either time, but this was still very troubling. I was afraid to leave the cats alone. What if Snalbert attacked the kittens next? They'd be terrified, and it only takes one traumatic event to turn a happy-go-lucky kitten into a cowering scaredy-cat for a long time. When it happened last week, I called the vet, asking if ringworm pills can cause aggression. She said no, but pointed out that Snicky smells like lime sulfur (Snalbert hadn't been dipped himself yet), so that he may not be able to recognize her, a likely reason for his attack. Dipping all four cats would either eliminate the problem or make all hell break lose.

Yesterday, I spoke sternly to my sulfurous Snalbert, peeled him off Snicky, and, as he tried to fight with me, tossed him (rather harder than I intended) into the bathroom for a "time out." He howled behind the door; the kittens came running in alarm. They like him. I wondered what he was saying. I  moved Snicky to a high perch that she likes, so she'd feel secure, and let Snalbert out, with another lecture. He knew he was bad. He had not been acting like himself all day: he wasn't sociable with my husband as he showered and shaved, wasn't interested in breakfast, didn't howl conversationally, and didn't start to purr when I'd ask him if he was a nice pussycat — which always elicits an instant response. What was wrong?

I was on the way to the vet's office with insurance forms anyway, so I reported this. My vet wasn't there, but the assistant recommended Feliway, one of those pheromone-releasing oil diffusers you plug into an outlet. It calms cats down about half the time, they charge $38 for it, and it would probably aggravate my allergies as much as lime sulfur dips. I said I'd think about it.

I did my errands, including a visit to J. Crew, where they had none of the styles I liked in colors I liked. I was still able to see that the cinnamon is all wrong, burgundy is a bit drab, and "vintage forest" is beautiful. Their turtlenecks are extremely long again this year; they make me look short. So my craving is focused on a forest V-necked cardigan, which is sold out online and way too expensive at $168 anyway. But as I was leaving, I spotted a cotton, tissue-weight turtleneck in that color, at the bottom of a stack of black ones, in my size, for $29.50. Perfect.

I paid with my $25 gift card but stupidly forgot to show my husband's school ID. If I had, I think I would have had to pay about 7 cents.  Oh, for dumb. I just might go back... it's the principle of the thing.

I returned home, with many bags of groceries, to find all four cats unscathed and hungry. They all eat canned food, about five or six times a day. We also do a lot of bowl-washing and lugging home of cans. Oh, for the many past years of blithely pouring kibble into bowls twice a day and being done. Now we're syringe-feeding, mixing lysine into food, and opening lots of extra cans when a flavor turns out to be dud. But it's fun to occasionally see them all eating at once, when I've picked a flavor they are in the mood for. The kittens get fed whenever they want, and so do our fragile, finicky older cats.

Usually, I hit the pillow these days and sleep like a log, but I was awake much of last night, worrying about Snalbert. Then it hit me: along with his ringworm pill, we've been including a tiny quarter of Snicky's cyproheptadine pills, at the vet's suggestion. It's an appetite stimulant, and when he was sick for a month with a virus, he hadn't been eating enough. He's been getting it for weeks now. Aha!

First thing this morning, I looked up the side effects — agitation and aggression are among them. Problem solved. I can't wait for Snalbert to go back to being his old self. But how had I, my husband, and the vet all forgotten about those cypro pills? Live and learn.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Craving Cashmere

It's that time of year again. Despite a giant sweater drawer that's packed to the gills, I'm longing for new sweaters, even though I can't wear them in the house. We wear fleece, and wash it every day, because of the cat plague.

But J. Crew has my favorite styles in some beautiful colors right now:

I have a lot of sweaters in black, gray, off-white, and bright red. I don't have much in these jewel-tones, which suit me. A soft, cozy, richly hued sweater would cheer me up right now. The blue-green is my favorite color of all-time. They are already selling out of these colors, so I can't wait for the January sale, even if I can't wear it with abandon until later in the winter, when the plague, God willing, has let up.

I think I'll go take a look at them on my way to the supermarket today. Maybe these colors won't look nearly as enticing in person... that often happens. I do get a teacher's discount because I carry one of my husband's university IDs. And I do have a $25 gift card from last Christmas. And they might be having an in-store promotion.

But I'm also spending a small fortune on the plague and I'm exceptionally cheap. Will keep you posted.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Not Again....

Both male cats are meowing hoarsely again today, which makes us worry that the terrible calicivirus, which they suffered with for a month and just recovered from last week, is already making a return appearance and inflaming their throats. It's possible, because one or both of them may be a permanent carrier, and the stress of their visit to the groomer on Friday was certainly enough to weaken their immune systems.

But they simply have to get those lime sulfur dips every week, or we can't even hope to get back to a normal life a couple of months from now. We are only two weeks along in the treatment and we are anxious to get to the point where we can stop giving them dangerous, expensive medication. And stop cleaning for hours a day. And quit waiting for more ugly spots to appear on their cute little faces. Or on us. We're very tired of washing our hands 30 times a day, too. I'm not exaggerating.

I've resigned myself to expecting the worst and preparing for it, but all one can do against the calicivirus is give the cats twice-daily doses of L-lysine to boost their immune systems, and pray. If they get sick again, we'll have to return to all the nursing chores we gladly gave up so recently: syringe-feeding, hydration, pain shots, nose drops, dosing with antibiotics, and running the vaporizer.

At least we're skilled at cat nursing now, but we really don't need any additional practice.

Yesterday, we walked to the North End, had a pizza at Regina's and shopped at Pace's, the Salumeria, and the Haymarket. It was a nice, mild day for November, and it felt good to be out of the apartment and not medicating some cat or running the vacuum cleaner. It felt good to breathe clean air, untainted by lime sulfur, which irritates my nose and makes me sneeze.

It felt too good, in fact, because now we've got two hoarse cats. I'm beginning to suspect that we aren't supposed to have any fun. I think the gods are punishing us for something. I wish I knew what.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Mellow Yellow

The aftermath of yesterday's lime-sulfur dip-a-thon wasn't as bad as I feared. We didn't asphyxiate in the car while bringing our four cats home, in their four identical, collapsible carriers. The groomer reported that everyone was polite and well-behaved, although.... "What?! Tell me!" I demanded. "Snalbert, um, had an awful lot to say," she replied. "He talked the whole time. He's very loud." This I knew. He would think nothing of speaking his mind for two hours while dripping with lime sulfur. He drove us nuts with his complaints the second we put him in his carrier and all the way to the groomer.  He compensates for his limited vocabulary with extra volume.

When Wendy is unhappy, she curls up into a ball, like a snail. You can pick her up, hold her, or set her down at any angle and she stays rolled up. My husband has started referring to her as "the sausage," but I think she is more like a bracciole, the Italian stuffed beef roast that the butcher rolls into a string bag to keep the stuffing inside, but I digress.  When Wendy is dipped, she becomes a ball and doesn't air dry as quickly as the others. This increases everyone's waiting time to go home, but there's nothing to be done.

When we walked into the vet hospital's reception area, the fruit-scented candles they are always burning did nothing to mask the powerful odor of rotten eggs. The groomer needed to prepare four gallons of solution, one for each cat; we were grossed out by just one cup of the stuff here at home.

This adventure cost us $160. Worth it, as long as the ringworm goes away for good.

They were very glad to come home, although Possum jumped right back into his carrier. (What else might you expect from a feral who was trapped twice before he was 10 weeks old? He likes to be trapped.)

Snicky and Snalbert look more bedraggled than the kittens, who have shorter fur. Snicky seems to smell the worst but that may be because she parks herself under our chins on the bed at night. Phew. I woke up in the middle of the night with a stuffed nose and have been itching and sneezing all morning. I suspect I'm allergic to the dip. Sudafed and Allegra.

The kittens do not look very yellow. Everyone feels dusty and weird, and our hands reek of gunpowder when we touch them.  But that's the worst of it. We touch them anyway.

The groomer reported that Possum and Snalbert were the hardest to soak, because their coats are so thick. Snalbert, being a full-grown Persian, has a long coat that's thick enough for two cats. But I was surprised about Possum, who is just a little guy with only medium-length, silky fluff. Someone told me he looks like a Norwegian Forest Cat. They have long, shaggy coats and huge ruffs. Could be.

I calculate that we'll be having them dipped every Friday at least through Christmas and probably into January. It seems one can get used to anything, even the smell of rotten eggs and gunpowder.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Journal of the Plague Year, 3

Today, we're taking all four cats to the groomer for their lime-sulfur dips. They will come home reeking of gunpowder, or fireworks if you are of a more pacifistic persuasion. Their lovely white fur will be yellowed and they will feel dusty and dry. We have to put them through this every Friday for the next couple of months, and I feel terrible about it. But it's supposed to be the best thing for treating ringworm, along with their oral medication.

I held the little Possum today, enjoying his silken kitten coat, which may never be the same again. In two months, when we're hoping all this will be over, he should have the beginnings of his grown-up coat, which won't be so baby-fine and soft.

Wendy and Snicky survived one dipping already, so we know the smell dissipates, but the dip that remains of their coats isn't pleasant, and there's sure to be build-up if they're getting more every week.

I couldn't resist taking a few last photos of the kittens before they turn yellow and weird. Here's one....

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Getting Into Med School

Through the summer and early fall, I helped a young man with his medical school application essays. I hadn't done anything like this before, but because I'm a writer with a persuasive, marketing bent, his parents thought I might be able to help G. out. He hadn't been accepted to any schools the previous year despite good grades and test scores, and pre-med experience. While many similar applicants are accepted right out of college, this fellow got only a couple of interviews and didn't handle them as well as he'd have liked.

G. and his parents chalked up his situation to not taking the applications seriously enough. So they asked me to meet with him. I liked him on the spot: he's smart, charming, articulate, modest, thoughtful, and dedicated to his goal of becoming a doctor. (He's also movie-star cute, not that it matters.) Since graduation, he's been doing full-time research in a hospital lab and has published a few papers. That would help him, too.

We began a late-night email correspondence; he worked long hours in his lab. He'd send me essays and I'd mark them up, add comments, and send them back. The first essay med-school applicants have to submit is a personal statement, discussing their background and their interest in medicine. It gets sent from a central office to all the schools the applicants choose. If their statement is acceptable, those schools send a secondary application with more essays.

G's challenge, of course, was to write an essay that was informative, sincere, and — most important — interesting and original. Imagine all the admissions committees reading thousands of these essays every year. How many of them say "I want to help people!"? G. decided to begin his essay with a short but eloquent list of various medical experiences he'd had through his life, from breaking a bone to volunteering in a hectic ER. It was catchy, dramatic, and unique. He got secondary applications from more than 20 schools. They each had two to six essay questions.

Applying to med school is not for the faint of heart or the disorganized.

G. is a good storyteller as well as a good writer. There were times when I'd rephrase a sentence or correct grammar, but I tried to be judicious so his essays always sounded like him, not me. I never put words in his mouth; his essays were his thoughts, not mine — although I sometimes managed to persuade him to take my approach. And as I read more of his writing, and learned about his past, I was able to ask the right questions and make suggestions that guided him in the right direction.

It's not easy for most people to write about themselves, but that's what med school applications demand. There were times when G.'s essays seemed too modest and a couple of times when they didn't seem modest enough. My job was to temper both, gently. The more I learned about him, the more convinced I was that he'd be a wonderful doctor someday. Helping him get there was an inspiring goal. I felt lucky to have an opportunity to help him. (And, yes,  I was paid, too.)

The best thing about this work was that all I really had to do was help G. write honestly and eloquently about himself. He already had wonderful "material" to work with, and it was a pleasure to help him shape his essays to the point where they were winners because they presented his character, thoughts, and experiences clearly and truly.

Sometimes, my most important guidance was to help G. focus on addressing the actual questions. Often he'd get sidetracked, writing things he wanted the admissions team to know about him, but not providing the information they wanted. I'll bet this happens to most applicants. The questions lend themselves to it; and when you're suddenly in the new habit of writing about yourself, it's easy to go off on tangents. He was asked, for example, to describe how he'd handled the most significant moral dilemma in his life — but it couldn't involve academic dishonesty. He sent me a gripping account of how he'd dealt with a competitive student in a lab class who may have sabotaged his experiment. It was a terrific story, but it was about academic dishonesty, so it couldn't be used.

Many schools ask similar questions, and the temptation is to recycle essays from one school to another. There were often times when portions of his writing could be repurposed for another essay, but we had to be careful that each new essay addressed every point the admissions committee was looking for.

The toughest essay questions were Duke's, which is said to be the best medical school in the country. Judging from the complex, thoughtful, psychologically revealing questions they ask of their applicants, it's clear that they are far more interested in really knowing their applicants than other top schools.

Harvard's application had two essays (4,000 characters max), and in G.'s case, we were stumped. For applicants in his situation — who had also applied the previous year, and did so shortly after graduation — the application is truly confusing. Here are the topics:

1. Briefly summarize your activities since your last application
2. Briefly summarize your activities since graduation.

What’s a candidate like G. supposed to do, since those time periods are identical in his case? Write the same essay twice? After mulling this over, I called Harvard's admissions office and spent 10 minutes explaining the problem to a dim but imperious assistant who eventually got it. She told me I should ask the director. So I called the director of Harvard Medical School's admissions team. Her response was a surprised, “Oh!”

Harvard is getting 7,500 applications annually, and this issue is news? She told me that applicants like G. should complete just the “reapplication” essay. She also told me to keep it to 1,000 characters or so. She said, ”I don’t know who came up with that ‘4,000 characters’ business! Nobody here is going to read much past 1,000 characters.”

I was amazed. This is the toughest school to get into — they accept only 162 people per class and half are always minorities — and they don’t even bother reading to the end of the longer essays? I was appalled. I mean, sure, I'd get pretty darn tired of reading essay after essay on the same subject, too. But it's their job.... Are all admissions teams burnt out? I remain impressed with Duke’s, though; they ask the most insightful questions. I bet they even read the essays.

G. has been keeping me posted as he gets interview invitations. He's received several so far, which is very good, and more may be coming. He's also been wait-listed for one of his preferred schools. And today he told me he was accepted to one of his top schools. I'm thrilled for him. We did it!

The Art of War

One excellent reason to adopt two kittens together:

This reminds me of a Japanese netsuke toggle.

Note the ferocious red gleam in Possum's eye.

Wendy's extra-long tail gives her ballast as she vanquishes Possum.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Little Good News

Yesterday Snalbert remembered that he is a cat and began eating food from a bowl again. He appears to have fully recovered from the calicivirus that was plaguing him for a month. Last night, we didn't need to syringe-feed him, although we did a little of it anyway, just to make sure he got his lysine dose. It is supposed to protect him against viruses, so it's important.

His voice has also returned, and he is making up for all the time he didn't have it. He lectured me all day yesterday at high volume, and has been very chatty today, too. He joined us for dinner, practically jumping into my plate. I even sawing him eyeing my laptop last night, probably wondering what new updates he can install for me.

It's wonderful to watch him eat, and it's great to be able to stop jabbing that big needle into him for the subcutaneous hydration he'd been needing daily for a couple of weeks.

He doesn't know it yet, but his recovery also means he can have the stinky lime-sulfur dips everyone (except us humans) will be getting every Friday for the next month, or two, or three. Here's hoping the stress of it doesn't trigger another virus attack; it's essential to do this to rid them of ringworm spores, so we have no choice.

Mr Maquoddy, aka Possum, is also going to get his first dip on Friday. He is still taking an antibiotic, and has an occasional cough, but I think he's safely on the mend, too. Knowing him, he'll probably like his lime-sulfur spa treatment.


Even with a big spot of ringworm on his nose, Possumus Passamaquoddy is the sweetest kitten ever. Nevertheless, I can't bring myself to photograph him with his spotty nose. This is a memory I don't want to capture for posterity. I plan to forget all this — but remember it just in time before I do anything foolhardly, years from now, like adopt another feral kitten.

Possy is a lap cat, meaning he chooses my lap and curls up, purring. He tries to crawl into my long sleeves, climbs up to rest his head on my shoulder, burrows into my elbow — he is as endearingly affectionate as a cat can be. He and Wendy also make trouble by ripping dust jackets off books and knocking over my last remaining plant, etc., but they are kittens and we don't really care if they wreck the place. It's their job, in fact.

Possum likes getting pills. He's nice about getting his Soft Paws glued on. He eats everything we put in front of him, and then some. He is interested in my cooking. He sits up and begs for cheese or deli turkey, and holds my hand with both little paws, so I won't take his treat away. He has bewitched our older cats. He is once again singing tender arias about food, now that he's over his virus. He spends 99.9% of his life in some adorable, photogenic pose. I'm madly in love with him, can't you tell? I can't wait to come home to him.

Here are a few photos of Possy from a couple of weeks ago. Surely you agree that he's worth all the fuss.

I'm crazy about Wendy, as well, but she still keeps her distance from us, and doesn't photograph so well with my zoom lens and flash. But she's gorgeous and funny, and we love her, too. We try to cuddle with her every day, and her purrs are surprisingly loud for such a tiny cat. She's letting us get closer now before she runs off. Winning over Wendy will be a triumph to anticipate for the future, but in the meantime, we've got Possy in our arms.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mammogram News, Too Late for Me

You may have seen the latest headlines in the mammogram controversy, which says that annual breast cancer screenings should begin at age 50, not 40 as previously recommended (perfect bad timing for me, darn it!)

I added the boldface for emphasis:

In Reversal, Panel Urges Mammograms at 50, Not 40

According to the story in the New York Times:
The new recommendations, which do not apply to a small group of women with unusual risk factors for breast cancer, reverse longstanding guidelines and are aimed at reducing harm from overtreatment, the group says. It also says women age 50 to 74 should have mammograms less frequently — every two years, rather than every year.... While many women do not think a screening test can be harmful, medical experts say the risks are real. A test can trigger unnecessary further tests, like biopsies, that can create extreme anxiety. And mammograms can find cancers that grow so slowly that they never would be noticed in a woman’s lifetime, resulting in unnecessary treatment.
Thanks, docs, for making me endure 10 years of annual and twice-annual screenings that left me bruised, sore, faint, and even bloody. If men needed annual mammograms, the equipment and techniques would have been refined by now to make them painless. For me, a mammogram is excruciating, unless I am in very capable hands. I've actually followed C., my favorite mammogram technician, from one hospital to another, even though that involves a complicated, multi-step process to transfer all my X-ray films and reports.

I once waited more than eight hours to have a mammogram with C., who is a part-time contractor who works only occasional shifts in several hospitals. I've spent hours, over the years, trying to track her down to schedule a mammogram with her via a confused, unwilling receptionist — because C, never causes any pain, and always manages to get very clear images in just the usual six or eight shots. I've sometimes had to endure more that 20 agonizing films with other technicians, which is probably also giving me a hazardous dose of radiation. It wasn't C.'s fault that I spent the entire day in the B-I mammogram clinic; she was scheduled to perform ultrasounds that day, and I had to wait for her shift to end.

As I sat in the waiting room, doing sudoku puzzles, reading, and shivering in my flimsy, faded hospital johnny, I had to periodically fight off the B-I's head mammogram technician, who is the worst I've ever had. She repeatedly tried to cajole, and then bully me into letting her do my mammogram. It was an exhausting day, but worth the time to finally see gentle, reassuring, skilled C. that evening.

I know exactly what the new recommendations refer to as "extreme anxiety." Waiting for any kind of medical test, and then the results, is my worst nightmare — except for actually getting bad news, of course. I don't have a tumor; I have clusters of microcalicifications, a relatively common issue that sometimes turns cancerous. It proved impossible to do a biopsy on them without surgery. But I was spared that: I was sent to the Faulkner Sagoff Breast Care Center, where I was first assigned to C. There, they do special "time-lapse" mammograms, which showed that the microcalcifications seem normal, sparing me from stitches and scars. No wonder I worship her.

Another marvelous thing about the Faulkner is that you get your mammogram report while you're still there. (There's nothing quite like hearing this on your voicemail when you come home at night, after offices are closed: "Hello, this is Beth Israel Radiology. We need to talk to you about your recent mammogram. Can you please call us at your earliest convenience?") I spent that night in shock, wandering the apartment saying, "Oh my god!" about a thousand times. Never again.

With microcalcifications, the standard practice is to "watch" them every six months with more mammography. So for a few years, I went been through weeks and months of continuous, life-ruining anxiety. When retests are scheduled every six months, that's not enough time for me to relax between them for more than a few weeks. Anxiety kept me up at night and greeted me every the morning. It ruined vacations. There was no escape; I didn't see the point of taking an anti-anxiety medication when it wasn't going to make the mammograms go away. When the Faulkner's radiologist told me I didn't need to come back there for a year, I was euphoric for about a month.

I hope these new recommendations spare thousands of 40-something women from similar anxiety and unnecessary testing. But a number of women won't be so lucky: their developing cancers are going to be missed until they are large enough to be palpable. (But the new recommendations no longer advocate month breast self-examinations, either. Go figure.)

In spite of everything I had to go through, I was unbelievably lucky: I didn't have cancer. That's all that mattered. But I can't help wishing that getting there hadn't been so hard.

When I go for my next mammogram in May (by the way, I've actually burned out on long-term dread about these now, and just get nervous a few weeks beforehand now), I wonder if they will tell me to come back in two years. Heck, I wonder if I should call them to reschedule for 2011 right now!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Garnet Hill Wins Me Over, and Over

Back in the middle of August, I ordered a skirt and a raincoat from Garnet Hill. They're based in New Hampshire and carry chic but generally sensible clothing, shoes, sleepwear, and bedding. You won't find cage heels or anything else you'd find in a fashion magazine — which is a relief, if you ask me. Instead there are thoughtfully designed items you can imagine yourself wearing every day. They specialize in luxurious natural fibers in a range of colors, and simple styling.

The raincoat arrived in early September; the skirt arrived last week. I knew these items were backordered when I ordered them. But I'd been hunting for a simple coat like this for years:

I already own a raincoat with a belt, but I HATE belts. What was I thinking? Yes, it was black, sleek, and subtly sexy in a PI sort of way. But I can't stand having to tie and untie a belt all the time (say I'm shopping in a cold downpour and going in and out of several warm shops) and I hate having the damn belt trailing behind me untied even more. Worse, this particular belt is slippery, so several nice passersby have stopped me over the years and proudly handed me my belt, which landed on the sidewalk. I was always sorry to see it. If it wanted to escape, like that boa constrictor in the first Harry Potter film, that was fine by me. A good excuse for a new coat.

My new "Travel Coat" has a fitted shape. NO belt. (It's strange how 9 out of 10 raincoats are belted trenches or totally shapeless.) It's waterproof, lined but not bulky, and it squashes up into a travel pouch, which would fit into my Longchamp bag if I bothered to bring it. I can just roll up the coat and stuff it in the bag instead. The collar conceals a hood. It's 3/4-length so I won't get drenched above the knee. (It's also strange how short many raincoats are — and what is the point of the ones with 3/4-length sleeves? What's next, a sleeveless raincoat?) I can tuck it in a small suitcase or use it as a pillow on a plane. It meets every requirement. I am a satisfied customer. In fact, I'm thrilled.

I ordered the skirt because they were offering 20% off purchases of $100 or more, and the coat was a bit less than that. Called the "Flamenco Skirt," it's made of gray cotton knit that falls in a half-dozen ruffles to about the knee. I like quirky skirts; with a simple tee or a turtleneck, they give me a semblance of style. But this one does nothing for me. It's clingy and quickly turns into a wrinkly mess. It's also too big, so it looks frumpy. It's going back. Win some, lose some. I already have a quirky gray skirt, anyway, and one is all I need.

At Garnet Hill, you get free shipping (to and fro) if you exchange an item for something else. I have my eye on one of their reasonably priced, lightweight cotton turtlenecks in fine gray and black stripes, which might look good under a cardigan with jeans or a quirky skirt. They also sell cashmere socks, which I like wear around the house instead of slippers in winter. (I hate slippers almost as much as belts.)

I planned to exchange the skirt today but housecleaning intervened with the trip to the PO; instead, I washed a quilt at the laundromat down the street because it's too bulky for my machine. When I picked up the mail, I found a card from Garnet Hill, entitled, "Good Things Come to Those Who Wait," with an apology for the delay in shipping the skirt. They included a $20 coupon that's good on any purchase until Christmas.

Consider me an even more satisfied customer, who will definitely shop at Garnet Hill again soon. I covet their $200 riding boots, which would be ideal for stomping around the neighborhood, but I can't afford to splurge right now. (The cat plague is costing us a small fortune every week and it will get more expensive later.) But if I can save $20 on that turtleneck or some socks, I'll be a happy shopper indeed.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

What Would Martha Do?

Thanks to yesterday's downpour, we never left the apartment. What an excellent, soaking, dreary November day! I really enjoy bad weather when I can stay indoors and make decadent grilled cheese sandwiches (not the bogus kind, for a change).

It was a perfect day for napping, medicating felines, and going through stacks of magazines. Eliminating excess stuff is part of my new housecleaning routine, and I will be glad to stop wiping down my overloaded magazine basket, topped with a slippery stack of mostly unread "Martha Stewart Living, " "Real Simple," and "O." (I also get "The New Yorker," which accumulates by itself on the coffee table. And because they are cheap, I subscribe to "Elle" and "Marie Claire," which I usually toss the same month they arrive. I'm not renewing those; I've seen enough slick spreads of trendy clothing and weird shoes that cost 20 times more than I'd ever spend to last me a lifetime. I'm getting older, or smarter, or more jaded, or all three.)

Yesterday I started on a stack of "Marthas" because they seemed to be the most irrelevant in terms of my life these days. I've been a fan of Martha since the '80s, when she was just creating cookbooks. My introduction was her Pies and Tarts book, still my go-to source on those rare occasions when I'm in the mood to make pastry crust (thanks to Martha, I will never use store-bought).  Nearly 25 years later, the book doesn't seem dated; it's still beautiful, too. When I page through it, I see just how pure and unchanging Martha's message (or her "brand") has remained all these years.

This book not only taught me to make piecrust, it inspired me to collect antique silver and china — items from Martha's own collections are used in many of the photos. I sometimes think that my 19th-century Whiting and Gorham collections are the wisest investment I've made. I began by buying one fork or spoon at a time, at antique shows. When eBay came along, I went a little crazy for a couple of years. But I have no regrets.

From Martha's books and magazines, I've learned plenty over the years about cooking, housekeeping, collecting, painting (blue ceilings!), and decorating. I don't watch Martha's TV shows but I've seen a couple of segments at the gym or in a waiting room, and I'm not sure if I like that big-sister lecturing tone she uses whenever she's describing how to do something. Still I usually find something to learn or enjoy in every issue of "Living;" I tear out the articles I want to keep and stuff them into a huge folder with the plan to organize them in binders someday.

But, yesterday, the thought of constructing an elaborate meringue dessert, decorating my lampshades, or cutting out little butterflies to découpage on blown-out Easter eggs was silly enough to cheer me up. I'd almost rather Swiffer my walls than braise a pork roast with all those ingredients and steps. With my furniture covered in ratty old sheets and the rooms bare of carpets, curtains, pillows, and throws, this is no longer a Martha-style apartment. And I have a cheap polyester fleece blanket on our bed instead of the luxurious European-white-goose-down baffled comforter she would have recommended. And we miss it. We're slumming in Martha land nowadays.

As I read, Possum napped next to me on the couch. When he woke up, he eyed the magazines suspiciously; I guess he'd rather I used my reading time for more serious, improving literature. But then he curled up on my lap, gazed adoringly into my eyes, and purred away. Reading anything with a cat on your lap is improving.

I began to wonder how Martha would handle an outbreak of ringworm at her estate in Bedford Hills. I've seen her place because our friend K. lives down the road. She has several longhaired, purebred cats, as well as dogs and horses. Ringworm is a recurring problem in many professional catteries; horses can get it, too. Imagine paying thousands of dollars for your ringwormy, pedigreed kitten or colt. At least I got mine on sale for $25.

It seems to me that Martha's first step for treating ringworm would be to set fire to the house. Her house is too big to clean from stem to stern every day the way you're supposed to, and she has a lot of outbuildings, too. Arson is an extreme step, but it would certainly kill all the ringworm, and then you could stop cleaning and focus your energy on treating the cats. Medically, I'm sure she'd follow her vet's advice and also try to add some holistic supplements, as I keep trying to do, to counteract the toxic medicines and dips. She'd probably also burn woodsy-scented candles to mask the smell of gunpowder, which is how the cats smell after they get their lime-sulfur dips.

Burning down the house really does seem like a smart idea. While Martha would have the resources to start again from scratch, I can imagine the six of us moving to a well-insulated tent or trailer down by the Charles, which I could easily hose down daily with river water — it probably has enough pollutants to be antifungal. We could get fresh, free blankets from Pine Street Inn every week, so I could burn the old ones, too. And we'd eat a lot more takeout. The cats' litter box would be the great outdoors. What more would we need? I'm really starting to like this plan.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Photo Album

We interrupt these dreary reports of illness and housecleaning to bring you cute photos of the cats, so you can see what all the fuss is about. Possum is heavily featured because he refuses to be photographed in future until he's recovered from the giant spot of ringworm disfiguring his nose. We have no recent photos of Snalbert because he spends most of his time under the bed when the camera comes out.

We consider Snicky, above, to be our "healthy" cat despite her chronic illnesses: inflammatory bowel disease and chronic renal failure. She's getting pills and dips for ringworm even though she has no symptoms.

Here's Possum, relaxing on the tacky sheet covering our sofa. The sheets make decent photo backdrops but are depressing as hell otherwise.

Here's Wendy, our lovely ringworm perpetrator (we are careful not to let her know), letting me get just this close for a photo before dashing away for dear life. Wendy isn't a kitten with a tail; she's a fabulous tail with a small amount of cat attached, so it can go places.

Despite his feral-tipped ear, Possum was perhaps the most photogenic cat ever; may he be so again someday. He is so sweet that even Snicky tolerates him although she doesn't like cats. She seems to be reconsidering her position in this photo, but she didn't beat up on him, or so much as hiss, when he took over her armchair and her photo opportunity.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Journal of the Plague Year, 2

It was a rough morning. Among our various nursing chores, we have to give the kittens 2 ml of a cherry-flavored ringworm medication and I managed to let most of it run out of their mouths. We gave them an extra 0.5 ml, because I know I wiped at least that much off their fur and my husband's arm, but this is scary medication and I felt nervous about doing that, too. Tomorrow morning, my husband will give them their liquid, in 1-ml increments. We can't afford to keep screwing up.

I never made it to vacuuming the upholstery yesterday, so that's on the docket for today, along with the usual floor vacuuming, damp-mopping and laundry.

The two females came home from the groomer yesterday, looking forlorn and reeking of gunpowder from the lime-sulfur dip. This cost $150 for just two cats; we need to find a more economical treatment since we need to be dipping four cats every week, probably for a minimum of two or three months. Do the math; it's insane. And that figure doesn't include vet visits, cultures (one costs $92 and we hear we'll need a minimum of 12), the drugs (expensive), and all the bottles of stinky dip and topical medication.

The females look a little bedraggled today as well, but seem okay, although I'm bracing for them to catch the calicivirus the two males have been struggling with for 3-1/2 weeks. Their recovery is already taking twice as long as it should, so I suppose they are reinfecting each other.  We can't isolate anyone in here and the virus is spread by sneezing and saliva, so I figure we're doomed. There's not much we can do to treat it, unless we try more antibiotics in case of any secondary infection. The guys need to have lime-sulfur dips at the vet, too, to treat the ringworm, but they are too sick for that. This is incredibly frustrating.

Possum has a ringworm spot the size of a pea on his nose and it's now looking angry and irritated from the miconazole cream. I will have to call the vet to see if there's an alternative treatment.  It ruins his gorgeous face and there will be no more adorable photographs for a long time, probably months.

It's sad to be missing this time when we should be cuddling, holding, socializing, playing with, and enjoying these kittens. We have to love them from a distance unless we're treating them with medication.  Even so, I've washed my hands to the point where they feel like paper no matter how much lotion I use, and I have dozens of little cuts, scrapes, and burns that bug me all the time.

Wendy is still very skittish and runs when we come near. I don't blame her at all for this. Whenever we need to catch her, it's never for anything pleasant. I'm afraid that ringworm has meant the difference between having a friendly, sociable and affectionate kitten and the nervous hider we've got now. Maybe I should get brave and start handling her a lot even if it does mean I'll get ringworm. I need to weigh that carefully, but it might be worth the sacrifice. The ringworm will pass, even if it takes extra months or years (I simply have to consider the worst-case scenario these days, since that's all we seem to get). But a skittish cat might be a disappointment for a lifetime.


I started this post under the title, "Looking on the Bright Side." Sorry about that. I do try to count our blessings: we ourselves are not sick (yet), the cats don't have anything fatal (yet), we can afford to throw thousands of dollars at this as required (we'll feel it later), and the house isn't so torn apart and uncomfortable that we're completely miserable. We've got the trickier aspects of the nursing under control (except for my lousy liquid-giving technique), and the housecleaning is getting down to more of a routine, too.

If only one of the cats would start getting better, this wouldn't all feel so hopeless and sad. And, hey, it has to happen sooner or later.

Or does it? What if this calicivirus lingers forever and our cats are always this sick? I would like to ask the vet this question, but she's still got the flu, and she says she has other, more serious cat emergencies, and she won't have time to talk to us until later in the week. Ringworm can hang on forever, too....

Time to clean, and to try to think about other things.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Journal of the Plague Year

I didn't start this blog to whine about unpleasant feline medical problems, but it's....

[cat puking up breakfast and expensive, hard-to-give medication at my feet] life right now. And we're looking at at least 3 months of this, according the vet. We need to have three negative ringworm cultures for all four cats, in a row, a ringworm trifecta that sounds too good to be true. We have to space the cultures three weeks apart, because it takes three weeks to confirm whether they are positive or negative. And we need to have the cats on medication and getting baths for about a month before we can do the first culture. So we're looking at months and months of nasty, potentially deadly medication, the rotten-egg-smelling weekly dips at the groomer, and endless housecleaning and laundry to remove spores from the environment.

I'm already tired and officially, this is Day 1! (Yes, I did massive cleaning, freaking out, and research during the two weeks we waited for culture results, but the oral meds only started this morning.) I think we'd be less exhausted if two of the cats weren't sick with a bad upper-respiratory virus. We've been syringe-feeding Snalbert and giving him fluids, pain medication, lysine, and antibiotics for about 10 days now, and he's not improving. Or getting worse. Possum has trouble breathing through his nose (and a giant dark ringworm patch on his nose) and terrible sneezing fits a few times a day, which can give him a bloody nose.

I am trying to find comfort and distraction in the rest of my life, and I hope to share those discoveries rather than writing about nothing but cat health here. But I don't have anything to report so far. "Mad Men" was very good, but now it's over. How I would love to have access to the last season of "In Treatment." which is even better. And has many more episodes — very important right now.

I've been spending time on, where I've met wise cat people who have given me comfort and advice and sometimes made me laugh. I get advice on ringworm treatments and calicivirus, but I also take the time to try to help other people writing in about health and behavior problems that are often much more desperate than mine. I've had enough experience by now to be a useful source for at least one confused or upset person almost every day. I believe it's important to help other people at least as much as I'm being helped and I'm glad to have an opportunity.

Today's tasks include returning the cheapo, too-small fleece blanket I bought for our bed because we need something I can wash at least every other day (no worries, it never left its packaging or even its plastic Marshall's bag). Good-bye to our pretty Pottery Barn quilts and coverlets; farewell, magnificent Cuddledown down comforter.

I also plan to throw myself on the mercy of the pharmacists at CVS, begging them to cut the ringworm pills (the ones we haven't already destroyed) into halves and quarters. Then we head to the groomer with two cats for the first, dreaded stinky baths. Meanwhile, I'll get my allergy shots across the street; the nurses there should have cleaning tips because they are constantly educating people about dust mites. Then home for cleaning and laundry. Today is my day to vacuum upholstery, including the underside of the sofa, chairs, and boxspring. (My least favorite task next to cleaning the bathroom.) At some point, I'll have to get back to the groomer and bring the cats home, by cab or perhaps by car if my husband gets back from teaching in time. Then it's laundry, floor vacuuming, and wet-Swiffering the bedroom. And then it will be time to for the cats' medications and our dinner.

I'm sorry to be missing my twice-weekly strength-training class today, for the second time in a row, but I think I'm getting plenty of exercise these days.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Things Seem Better in the Morning...

This morning, I realized I had the number of my vet's tech asst. in my caller ID from yesterday, so I called at 9, and she was there. She'd found the note I'd frantically stuck under the door last night and was about to call my vet.

Our vet called within the hour. She's been sick but has had to work a lot because the other vet is away. She apologized for thinking we had a fax machine, and chalked it up to a fever and a hectic day. She told me the recommended doses she'd calculated for Sporanox, which were, as I'd thought, drastically less than those the vet in the ER had given us (0.5 ml vs. 4.5 ml, for example). Then she realized that she'd made a serious math mistake when calculating the dosages, twice, yesterday. Yikes.

She said she was appalled. She also realized that the cherry-flavored liquid ($56 and unopened) was not feasible at the higher doses. She will investigate another drug on her day off tomorrow and try to get a compounding pharmacy to overnight it to us.

We talked at length about treatment issues. The two cats who are sick with a virus shouldn't be bathed or dipped, for example, and the older cats will need liver tests. And so on. At least now I have some idea of what to expect for the coming months. And I can start picking up or ordering what we need.

I'm still not feeling comfortable about the miscommunications and errors that happened yesterday. But she apologized, and I have the feeling things like this won't happen again. At least the doses she gave were simply too low to be useful; they weren't toxic overdoses. But still.

I'm partly to blame, too. I wanted to be a polite, patient client. Instead, I should have put my cats first, not my reputation. I should have called yet again when it got close to closing time, instead of assuming I'd hear from them after hours. Next time, every time, I will be more of a pain.

The lesion on Possum's nose is no worse so, although we are losing half a week when we could be tackling the fungus, I'm not the furious wreck I was last night. I'm finding a lot of support on the online forums of a cat lovers' Web site, and the people there were very supportive and sympathetic last night.

Another reason I'm a less furious wreck: my vet called me on her cell phone. I have caller ID, and wrote down the number. I plan to memorize it.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Another Saturday Night Cat Crisis

Today, after we got the ringworm diagnosis, we waited at home all day for the vet to call and tell us about the treatment. I had a list of questions. We checked in with her office twice, and both times she was busy. We were told that a medication, Sporanox, had been phoned in for us at the CVS at Children's Hospital, so we waited until we absolutely had to leave to go get it. At the CVS, I found that the label on the bottle said that dosage instructions for the different cats had been faxed to us. We've never had a fax machine. And, of course, the vet called our home while we were at CVS and never tried our cell number, which we carefully provided.

So it's Saturday night, and we've got four cats who really need ringworm treatment, a bottle of cherry-flavored Sporanox, and no dosage info. And no clue about what else we're supposed to do. Our beautiful little kitten, Possum, is developing a large lesion right on his nose, his first lesion, and we are desperate to treat it. Now it looks like we'll miss at least two full days.

I had also mentioned to the vet's assistant that we were running out of topical ointment for the lesions, and that it's not working one bit anyway, but of course we'd heard no response about that, either.

We drove to Kenmore Square, and I slid a big, desperate note under the vet's door. I figured: if they are boarding cats and they use that door, they'll see it tomorrow, maybe.

If I had been able to speak to the vet, I could have ordered or purchased everything we'll need for treatment, and scheduled the first medicinal bath/dip appt., which might have even been tomorrow, Sunday, because we're doing them on the groomer's days off.

My husband had the idea to take the medicine to Angell and ask them for dosages. We spent a miserable hour and a half in the ER, listening to some miserable child screaming in hysterics the whole time because she wasn't ready to put the family dog to sleep. Painful to hear. A nice but harried vet finally gave us dosage info, but when I compared it with what the vet tech had rattled off on the phone, the doses seemed way too high. And since Snalbert may already have liver disease from not eating, I'm doubly afraid of this dosage info, so I'm not going to use it tonight.

I began Googling our vets when we got home. Left a message on the office answering machine. Hunted down the home number of the head of the practice and left a pleading message. I think she's away. 

I think I found a few of their relatives, but I'm not a stalker. Just a desperate, exhausted but still decent citizen trying to help four sick cats.

Most vets in Boston don't have an emergency or after-hours on-call service, and that means their patients are left high and dry in serious situations. We are all supposed to go to Angell, but if they haven't seen your cats before for the problem, they charge very high fees. And their vets run the gamut in quality and personality, too. And for me, being there is always depressing and sometimes traumatic.

We experienced an even worse Saturday night ER drama over Labor Day weekend, when Bunnelina started having seizures (we didn't know what they were at the time and thought it was heart problems or trouble breathing) after we gave her chemo. We wound up in the ER, and a kind young vet guided us to decide to put her to sleep. (Last night's visit, and that hysterical young girl, brought it all back. Painfully.)

We weren't able to talk to our vet for days after Bunny died, because of her holiday schedule.We were devastated and guilt-ridden, uncertain whether we'd acted too soon. By the time our vet told us that we'd done the right thing, we were wrecks.

I can't take another Saturday night crisis. I don't want to become a regular client at Angell, with its traumatic associations and luck of the draw. But I'm not sure I have a choice if I want what's best for my cats.

It Is What It Is

Two days ago, I noticed that our kitten Possum seemed to be developing a mysterious pale gray oval spot on the middle of his gorgeous white nose — a spot similar to the suspicious patches on our kitten Wendy's ears. The vet and I thought those patches could be ringworm; I wanted her to see her ear and his nose. This morning before 8 am, we packed the kittens into their carriers and were driving to the vet when my husband's phone rang. It was the cat hospital, calling to tell us that Wendy's ringworm culture had turned positive and would we please turn around and go home, and wait for a call from our vet with the treatment plan? It would take some time to work it out and in the meantime, they didn't need our contagious kittens in the office.

I always expect the worst, it seems, and this time I got it. I suppose it's my own fault for naming her after a poisonous fungus, amanita pantherina. I thought it would make our timid little feral fierce, not fungoid. And as my sister points out, I was very wrong to throw away the little plastic statue of St. Gertrude, Patron Saint of Cats, when I was cleaning up my desk a month ago.

Oddly enough, I felt relieved to get the news. Now we can finally start doing something besides worrying and cleaning. Oral meds, weekly stinky baths at the groomer (we hope), maybe topical gels. And more and more cleaning and laundry. And more cultures to wait for: Every cat will need two or three negative cultures in a row, at three-week intervals, before the insanity can stop and we can believe we have a cure. We're still waiting to hear from the vet about everything we need to do, but we do know that the cats are all going to be getting once-daily liquid medication, Sporonox, for 28 days, at a total cost of $74. I was under the impression that there's be an extra zero after that number. That's a relief.

Thanks to my neurotic pessimism, the house is already cleaner than it's ever been. I've made it easier to do all the chores by packing away as many textiles as possible, including the rugs, as well as various knick-knacks. I sort of like swabbing up microscopic spores with my new wet/dry Swiffer, which is a good thing since I need to use it almost every day. I can tolerate sweeping up spores daily with my new Miele canister vacuum, with a HEPA filter and self-sealing dust bag, which I hope is saving me from having to replace the bag every day to prevent the spores from escaping. The bags cost a small fortune and are supposed to last for months. I decided to wash my microfiber cleaning cloths with fungicidal cat shampoo.

I wish I could find a way to make all this daily housecleaning more fun since it's going to take up so much of my time for the next few months. Time to put more Harry Belafonte on the iPod...

Friday, November 6, 2009

Deep Thoughts

Today, in the shower, where I do some of my deeper thinking, I mused about how happy we were when we first got our kittens a few weeks ago, before we had any inkling they had every non-fatal but disgusting, highly contagious parasite and virus known to veterinary medicine.

When we awoke the morning after Wendy arrived, it felt like Christmas. Better than Christmas. We raced out of bed at 5 am to her crate to greet her, adore her, and coo. We thought life was going to be grand. Yes, she was feral and skittish, but we would teach her how to trust us, to purr, and play like a kitten. And that's what we did, in a matter of a few joyful days. Wendy's skittishness continues, but she gets a bit braver every day, which is a pleasure to watch. (Naturally, the kittens still bring us a lot of joy along with a lot of worries.)

Wendy is going to be a beautiful cat, and her personality will be quirky and complex, unlike Possum's, who is utterly loving, sweet, and trusting. Between the kittens and our teenaged cats, whose personalities are in fascinating full bloom, we have it all. Too bad that three of our four (so far) also happen to be sneezing, scabby, feverish, and/or oozing blood, with the potential for all of us to end up covered in sores.

That's life, I guess. I can't seem to cultivate a sense of zen tranquility and acceptance in the midst of all this. I just can't. Maybe if I didn't have to vacuum for so many hours a week and give so much medication....

I thought about how our joy evolved to worry, then shock, fear, and horror as we watched our cats and kittens get sick, and as we learned awful lessons about their real and potential illnesses. I wondered if all joys, brief or lengthy, are eventually alloyed with disappointment or sorrow. I think they must be — if we are honest with ourselves. When we're children, our joys are often pure: Christmas morning, trips to the amusement park, hours of happy play, birthday cakes. With our kittens, we were foolishly optimistic, and it was reinforced by the way our older cats tolerated the newcomers without any of the growling, fighting and bad behavior we expected. I know that not every new owner of kittens gets socked with the health problems we're facing, but in retrospect, we seem embarrassingly naive. I wish we'd been warned about worse problems than hissing, roundworms, and mild sniffles. I wonder if we would have listened. If people weren't occasionally foolishly optimistic, they'd never take a risk.

Maybe what differentiates adulthood from childhood is our inability to lose ourselves in unconscious joy for hours at a stretch. Adults know, on some level, that happiness is fleeting. No matter how much fun we're having, we also remember that we have underlying problems and worries. If nothing else, we realize that, somewhere not far away, other people are having much tougher times.

Or maybe I'm just neurotic. Maybe other people are capable of feeling complete happiness for days, weeks, or years at a time. I don't know any, but that may be because I'd consider them much too annoying to ever befriend.

All I do know is that I can't wait to feel naively happy again. I know it will happen eventually, probably as soon as I'm able to rehang the curtains, unroll the rugs, pull the bedsheets off the sofa, and stop spending hours zealously attacking germs every day. Probably many weeks from now, on the day we find out that our furry foursome are not contagious or sick anymore.

We're so much better informed than we were in September. But it's not the kind of knowledge that brings tranquility; I wish I didn't know so much about diseases that seem straight out of science fiction stories. I will never be brave enough to foster kittens or cats in our home now; to me, a kitten is a walking, purring germ factory. I may even be leery of visiting shelters from now on: cats can be highly infectious even when they show no sigs of illness. Disinfecting hand cleaners don't kill everything floating in the air. We owe it to our cats to protect them from what other cats may carry. Now we know.

But we're still not so wise, I hope, that we won't fool ourselves into thinking it's Christmas morning a few more times down the road.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Easy Way Out

I get to take a break from my cat-nursing and housekeeping activities tomorrow, when the Back Bay Garden Club holds its annual reception for new members. Since I am a member-at-large of the Executive Committee (sounds impressive, but all it means is that I have to attend a couple of meetings), I've been asked to contribute something for the cocktail buffet.

But what? I was stumped, and I don't have a lot of time these days, thanks for my rigorous nursing/cleaning schedule. All I have time to make in the kitchen these days (besides my bogus grilled-cheese sandwiches) are canapés made of cat pills wrapped in Laughing Cow cheese and turkey deli meat. My life revolves around cat issues; I can't focus on gardens, clubs, or party food.

I don't dare make anything with cheese, fish, turkey, chicken or Gerber baby food. What if I lose it at the reception and starting forcing my little treats down the throats of the Garden Club ladies, first pressing the corners of their mouths open so I can quickly toss my cheese snacks down their gullets?

Then it occurred to me. Genius!

Hot Artichoke Dip
Mix a cup of mayo, a cup of grated parmesan cheese (not a cat-related cheese) and a can (or jar) of drained, chopped artichoke hearts. Spread into a baking dish and bake at 350 for 30 minutes, or until it's bubbly and golden on top. Serve with an Iggy's ficelle or baguette. Delicious hot, cold or in between.

It's as easy as it gets and entirely addictive. Even if I do go temporarily insane and try to force-feed it to some poor Back Bay lady, she'll probably thank me.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Ultimate Challenge: 10 Good Things about November

1. It's not February.

2. All those Thanksgiving dinners. We usually have three: one per day as we dash around visiting our various families. But the turkey leftovers prepared by the two cook-housekeepers at our friend Kelly's house are always the best of all when we stop by for lunch with him on the weekend. I think they use pounds of butter and quarts of cream for every meal. No complaints.

3. I'm already running out of ideas. I can't get excited about Veteran's Day. Hmm. Here's one: quarterly estimated taxes aren't due in November. (Or in seven other months. But it counts.)

4. I don't get much of a thrill from the extra hour of Sunday morning I get when we turn back the clocks, but we're talking November; even tiny thrills count.

5. The pressure is off to create a fabulous Halloween costume. Geez, this is quite a lousy month, the more you think about it.

6. Since I started wearing boots, cords, and sweaters weeks ago, I can't claim that arguable pleasure for November. But maybe I'll be wearing my trusty, 15-year-old shearling jacket soon. That's actually something to look forward to, even if moths did eat all the fuzzy edging around one of the patch pockets.

7. It would be nice if mosquitoes disappeared by now, but we've had them in November because they breed in our chimneys. But I've never been bitten by a mosquito in my sleep in late November. Hooray for that.

8. Scraping the bottom of the barrel here.... by November, I don't mind seeing Christmas decorations in stores. The displays in Anthropologie are always whimsical and fun.

9.  Here's a real one: skating at the Frog Pond opens in November. Maybe this year I'll finally get up my courage and go. I got new figure skates for Christmas a few years ago, and haven't tried them yet.

10. It's not March. But here's a little-known fact:  March is a euphemism for February II. In New England, February is really 59 or 60 days long. At least November is only 30 days. That's another good thing.