The hardest part of having pets is always the one that slips your mind completely. Completely, that is, until you find yourself one day on the phone with a veterinarian
and you realize that she is dancing around telling you something.
That's when it all comes back.
I took one of my ferrets into the animal hospital last Sunday, because he was looking a little dazed and had started vomiting, occasionally, although his appetite was undiminished. Plus, he was feeling a little thin about the ribs, given how chubby he is around the tum.
They did X-Rays. They asked for (and received) permission to do ultrasound. They drew blood. They discovered that there was a large mass in his body cavity, the size of a lemon (if you have ever held a ferret, you'll understand the inordinate size we're talking). The next day, they asked for permission to do exploratory surgery when the ferret expert returned.
There are always factors to consider. I asked two questions: "What is his prognosis for this procedure? Will it improve his quality of life?" Answers: He was in quite chipper shape for someone with a mass that size, so prognosis was excellent; and two, if nothing else, the removal of that large a mass would make eating easier. I gave consent.
I receive a call at work from my now-familiar vet at Angell Memorial animal hospital. She tells me that the surgery is complete, and my beloved Slinky is recovering quickly - apparently he came out of anaesthesia hungry, which was a good sign. However, they not only removed the cyst] they'd seen on ultrasound (which turned out to be attached to his liver) but another growth from his spleen, and has discovered that one of his adrenal glands had begun to grow explosively, so they removed what of it they could. Then they biopsied everything in sight, closed him up and fed him yummies.
I know where this one is going, but she tells me it will take three days for the biopsy. In the meantime, she would like to see how Slinky does at home - since he's eating, we both think he'll be happier in his own digs. So that evening, I head over to the hospital clutching my checkbook and guiltily thinking about the estimated $388 that they had quoted me - before the surgery. I'm quailing slightly at the prospect, but I feel strangely happy, as well. I have been asked to make a sacrifice of unknown size for the happiness and well-being of my pet, and I have done so, without shirking.
The lady behind the desk exclaims that Slinky is "...such a wonderful ferret! He played with all of us, even after surgery!" I am happy to hear this. Slink has always been a ladies' weasel. She hands me the bill.
Two thousand, six hundred and forty dollars and yada cents.
For once in my life, I have the money. I had other plans for it, of course, but that's not relevant, and I manage to write the check without even breaking my smile - and it feels good, partially, in that same strange way, as I hand it to her.
They bring Slink out in his carrier. Poor little man, his belly is shaven and there is a massive incision from his breastbone to his navel. Ferrets pick at sutures, so the standard practice is to suture up his muscle layer and lower epidermis, and then use tissue glue on the surface. This makes the incision remarkably clean-looking, despite its angry red-and-purple coloration. I take Slink out of the carrier, and he immediately climbs up my arm to lick my nose, poor guy. He seems quite relieved to see me, and I am guilty again as I think about him sitting in a cage here at the hospital for days, wondering what he did wrong.
Many of my neighbors on the benches waiting are entranced by the little bugger (it's his gift) and he nuzzles two small girls, their mother, a craggy-looking Boston Irish construction worker who confides that he had two growing up, and the Burmese Mountain Dog waiting with the elderly lady at the end of the bench. Ferret and dog sniff noses, and both wag tails. Hoping that doesn't mean the pooch thinks Slinky smells yummy, I decide not to risk it, and extract the popular little marmot from his public to take him home.
He is quite chipper that night, eating lustily before heading up to his hammock for a deep snooze. Of course, that is when I need to administer the five different medications. They've given me oral syringes for each, and suspecting trouble, I preload all five and coat them with ferretone, laying them out on the kitchen counter, before going to excavate the furet du jour from his bed.
He yawns as we reach the kitchen, and being the devious bastard that I am, I use this opportunity to squirt the prednisone into his throat. He coughs explosively, looks at me in disbelief, and promptly begins spitting it back up. I grab his li'l cheeks and clamp his mouth shut.
Grand pause. Perhaps ten seconds of eye to eye.
He swallows, grudgingly. Flush in my triumph, I reach for the second syringe, and Slinky decides that's quite enough, thank you. The struggle that occurs then is complicated by several factors:
- I obviously don't want to hurt the little stretchrat, or strain his wound.
- He has no such compunction about hurting me.
- We're in the kitchen, which isn't ferretproofed, so I can't let him go or risk losing him, say, under the stove, which besides being a nasty place I'd rather he not rub his stomach, might have holes into walls or floor.
- The cats think this whole thing is uproarious, and have moved into close positions to watch the two of us battle it out. Their amused mrow?s sound suspiciously like wagering.
I make a tactical retreat, and offer Ferretone. He laps it up for a second, looks at me, and stuffs his pointy face into the espresso cup I have the stuff in. While he can't see, I grab syringe number two, and when he comes up for air I zap it into the left side of his lip-smackin' little gob. Then grab his nose as he shudders and tries to scramble out of the cup and the kitchen. A brief moment of will passes between us before he swallows, and I release my grip -
...at which point, the little faker opens his jaws and shakes his head like a dog, spraying Meloxicam all over the both of us before stopping, licking his chops with a pleased expression, and turning in my hand (I have him by the scruff at this point, hanging) to look me placidly in the eye.
I give up after three, and put him back in his room. He runs for the water bottle, then burrows in for nap. The strength of his fight encourages me.
The now-familiar phone call hits my cell in the afternoon while I'm at work. Dr. Clayton is avoiding something, I know (this is where you came in, earlier). Finally, she explains that Slinky has lymphoma. It may not even be clinical yet, because they found it by chance when they were biopsying anything that looked like an organ and the lymph node was nailed. So it's early. I ask her what her prognosis is, and there's a small silence before she answers.
"Most ferrets with lymphoma we see last perhaps four or five months at the outside, without successful treatment."
"What are my options for treatment?"
"Well, we have a new chemotherapy regimen we just got from Tufts. We think it's a big improvement because rather than require intravenous medications, we only have to give them either subcutaneous or orally once a week - a tech can do it - so he doesn't have to stay over in the hospital each time."
"What's the stats?"
"We've done it for around twenty ferrets. Four had complete remission eighteen months later. Five saw the lymphoma return around that time period. The rest progressed as they would have wthout treatment, or got at most a couple of extra months. Whether you want to do this of course is up to you; we have the luxury, with animals..."
"Not really, do we, Doctor?"
"No." She is quiet a moment, respectfully.
"Doctor," I ask, "I just need to know this. Will this improve his chances and quality of life? And will it do it without making him miserable? Chemotherapy isn't fun, and...how long is this course of treatment?"
"So six months of chemo with a probability of around .5 it won't make a difference?"
"Okay. And am I correct in assuming lymphoma is terminal but wasting, and not painful?"
"Yes; he'd just get weaker until his blood chemistry crashed, but we'd have lots of warning of that, and we could make him comfortable then until we'd need to put him to sleep."
"Right. So he has that six-months-of-drugs-for-maybe, versus three to four months of happy fun ferret frolicking before he gets weak."
"That's about right. Of course, some live longer, some shorter - but you have the idea."
I think it over for about ten seconds. "Lee, I just want him to be happy."
"I know. You have a bit of time, anyhow."
"Well we wouldn't put him on chemo so close to his surgery; we'd give him a week to heal and rest. Also, if his blood counts go back to normal by the end of that week, we know we found the lymphoma early, which bodes well for the treatment's chances. If, however, his blood levels are still screwy in a week, well..." She doesn't need to finish.
"Okay. Thank you Doctor. You're back Tuesday? We'll give you a call and set up blood work for around then."
She thanks me, offers sympathy, and drops the call.
See, here's what it is. I don't have children, or a wife, or a significant other. I'm a fairly solitary bachelor. However, I have these two cats, and these two ferrets. By adopting them into my home, I have committed myself to all reasonable efforts to ensure their lives are happy, safe and rewarding, and that if this is no longer the case, to help them leave us here with dignity. Bank accounts are irrelevant (although they make the logistics easier). My own time and effort medicating and caring for him is his to claim simply by looking up at me; I owe him no less.
But, God damn it. Damn it. It hurts every time this happens, so much, and you feel what you only knew just before the phone call - that for each life we bring into the world, or preserve, we accept the binding of one death to us. Parents can hope to predecease their kids; hoping to predecease a small fuzzy pen thief with a li'l coon mask and silly face is not really practical thinking.
Slinky, I know now that we in all likelihood have a few months more left to us - perhaps less, if your liver is damaged too far, or the cancer has metastized. I hope that knowledge will make me bend down for that extra few minutes of silly before going to work, rather than rush out the door; that the minutes spent carefully feeding you Sustacal and yummies will be minutes I look forward to, because I can spend time with you rather than minutes I begrudge you.
In the end, it comes down to this course of events judging my character and my responses. Slinky wouldn't judge me even if he could, I like to think; and he has indeed led a spoiled life for a ferret! Whatever happens these next few weeks, though, I hope I can stay true to the most important questions:
- Will it make him more comfortable?
- Will it prolong his life in a way that gives him more happiness rather than more pain?
- Will he feel anything?
Slinky, thank you right now for the four and a half years you've kept me company. I hope we have more to come. If not, I hope that the time we spend together won't all be tied up in forcing nasty meds down you. I hope we get a chance to wrestle on the couch; to chase the cats again, to go for a convertible ride in the mesh shoulder bag (ferrets instinctively stick their noses into the windstream and slit their eyes. They look incredibly streamlined.) I hope your sister doesn't pine for you if you have to leave us.
I love you.