A Story Of Courage

[Here's a story I wrote several years ago as something of self-therapy the day after I lost a precious friend. It does not have a happy ending (consider this fair warning), but I hope I captured in some tiny measure the spirit and will-to-live a seemingly helpless animal can demonstrate in the face of overwhelming odds.]

A few years back I worked all-day Saturdays as a volunteer at the West Suburban Humane Society in Downers Grove, IL, a no-kill animal shelter. Mostly I helped by doing adoption screening, medicating the sick animals, and performing odd jobs. In May 1992, near the end of my "shift", the feline director brought in a new arrival. Our newest guest had been found living out of a dumpster behind a restaurant. She was a seal-point Siamese, and appeared to be about six months old. The really remarkable thing about her survival under these circumstances was that she had apparently been blind from birth. It seemed that her eyes just never developed, perhaps from a genetic problem related to inbreeding (several backyard breeders were known to be operating in that area). So, on her way to the shelter, she was dropped off at an eye specialist who decided that it was best to have what little was left of her eyes removed to avoid infections and other potential problems in the future.

When she arrived at the shelter about 24 hours after the operation, she appeared the very picture of pathetic. Here was this tiny, undernourished, two-pound kitten with massive sets of stitches on either side of her head where her eyes should have been. Being springtime, the shelter was filled to overflowing, so they put her in a cage on the floor of the manager's office. I didn't get to see her until I went in to feed and medicate her at the end of the day. She was quite calm, though I could see she was disoriented. I knew this was not the best place for her to recover from major surgery, and with the stitches it was highly unlikely anyone would be interested in adopting her until she had healed thoroughly, so I made a decision on the spot to take her home for her recovery.

I had often threatened to bring the more pathetic guests of the shelter home to add to our five cats and two dogs, so I tried to contact my wife Amy to see how she felt about this one. Over the next hour I attempted to reach Amy by phone without luck, so when I left for the day, the unauthorized kitten came with me. One of the spare bedrooms had been used a few times in the past for short-term visits by animals in need of some quality time away from the shelter, so when Amy returned and saw the bedroom door closed, she immediately knew something was up. I didn't do anything to prepare her, except to say that this was a special case and that she'd see what I meant. As soon as she laid eyes on the kitten, I could see her heart melt as mine had, and knew right then she'd be staying with us for more than just her recovery. At the shelter the staff had given her the name Helen (for obvious reasons). Amy suggested "Calamity" might be more appropriate, but it seemed too severe and was quickly changed to Callie (from the Greek "kalos" meaning "beautiful"), which did seem to fit her better.

I took her to my veterinarian for further medical care, and she recovered quickly. As her visible wounds healed, a handsome cat began to appear. What amazed us most was how easy it was to forget that she was blind. She rarely bumped into things, and once she knew the layout of a room she'd jump up on top of a bed or chair without feeling for the edge first. Callie would walk right down the middle of the hall never veering left nor right. She was extremely affectionate and social for a stray raised in the "wild" and immediately took to cuddling and playing. Sometimes she'd get carried away, but she learned quickly to control her claws and teeth. She had all the playfulness of a regular kitten, even though she had to grow up fast living on her own. The dogs and other cats sensed almost immediately that Callie was special, and adopted her quickly into the family.

In July 1992, the time came for her to be spayed. I took Callie to my vet for the operation because I had great experiences with this doctor and my other animals, and I trusted her skills. That afternoon I got a call from the vet that Callie was having some difficulty coming out of the anesthesia and she wanted to take her home with her overnight for observation. I was concerned, but one of my dogs has a sensitivity to anesthesia, so I didn't panic. The next day I talked to the vet, and she said she wanted us to come in to talk over Callie's condition. It seems she'd had a major stroke sometime during or shortly after the operation.

She was almost completely paralyzed and seemed to be only partly conscious, though it was difficult to tell her state of consciousness without eyes. Given her youth and demonstrated will to live, we decided to give her some time to see if she might recover from the effects of the stroke to the point where she could rehabilitate and have a decent quality of life. Over the next few days, things didn't look good. Callie's skeletal muscles went rigid, and she began making the most pitiful moaning noises, perhaps related to the pain caused by her spasming muscles. She did seem to be fighting to get control of herself though, and we decided that as long as she didn't give up, we weren't going to give up either.

Amy and I visited the hospital in shifts so that we could each spend one to two hours with her every day. The hospital staff was giving her special attention with intravenous fluids and concentrated liquid foods usually given nursing kittens. She had become the special project of several of the technicians there and was receiving excellent care. Progress was slow, but steady. Though her entire body seemed to be affected, her right side in particular was hard for her to control, and the spasming was continuing on the that side. It was obvious the brain damage had been extensive. After about ten days she could hold herself upright. After 14 days she could almost stand. All the while, she was getting more responsive during our visits and seemed to recognize us and take comfort in our presence. During the third week she started using her litter again, and could manage, haltingly, to drink water and feed herself. Finally, on the 23rd day, we took her home.

Callie was never quite the same again. She had always been quick to panic when picked up unexpectedly (a behavior not uncommon in blind animals), but now she would get totally disoriented. She did learn to climb again, and within a couple of days she had made it back to the top of her six-foot tall scratching post. Callie may have been down, but she wasn't going to give up.

In September I started a new job. We moved first to a temporary living arrangement, and again in November to our permanent residence. Each time Callie adapted to the new location, but not with the aplomb she had before. There was considerable wall-banging and tripping down stairs. Eventually, she grew accustomed to the new topography. Our other cats were beginning to accept her more too. Her behavior after the stroke, particularly when startled or disoriented had been disturbing to them, but eventually they started playing with her and cuddling with her which was nice to see.

However, all was not well. Over the next few months we gradually noticed that Callie was becoming more complacent. She wasn't playing as much, and I hadn't seen her climbing the scratching post, which had been one of her favorite things to do. I attributed this change to her maturing (we figured she was born sometime around New Years the year before) and that she was just settling down into adulthood. As it turns out, I was terribly wrong.

By April we noticed that Callie was experiencing some trouble doing things which came easily just a couple of weeks before. She seemed to be having trouble eating her moist food, pushing it over the back of her bowl, though she was eating her dry food without difficulty. She sometimes seemed to have great difficulty burrowing under the blankets on the waterbed and the afghan on the sofa - favorite places to sleep during the cold winter months.

With any other cat I would have taken this as a drastic enough decline in abilities to warrant immediate attention, but with Callie I foolishly ignored the warning signs. Thursday April 29th we came home late to find her totally disoriented and unable to find her way out of a corner or out from under a shelf. She neither ate or drank, so I got some fluids in her by dribbling water from a washcloth while holding her mouth open. In this way, she drank enough water to keep from becoming dehydrated until we could get her to the vet.

That night Callie slept almost motionless between the two of us. Needless to say, we didn't sleep well at all. When I reached for her at 6:30AM she was so motionless I thought she might be gone. I took her to the vet immediately. She seemed to have deteriorated during the night, but she could still stand on her own, if quite wobbly. The horrible moaning was back, but she seemed content to lay in my arms wrapped in a towel. Still wrapped in her towel, I left her with the vet for diagnosis and treatment on the promise that she would get a warm heating pad to lay on and frequent attention.

About noon that day I heard from the vet that Callie's blood electrolytes were completely out of balance and it was affecting all nerve function. Ruling out some of the more obvious causes (large ingestion of salt, etc.) it seemed that either she had a severe glandular problem or a brain disease. They had begun to get her electrolytes in balance with an IV while they waited on the results of the test that would indicate the glandular problem. The vet said Callie was resting comfortably, but that they hadn't seen an improvement.

About 5:30 Friday night, the vet called to say that Callie had suffered a seizure and died. She had been with us the shortest time of any of our animals, but her loss was particularly disturbing. Though losing a pet is never easy, she had showed such will to live, and almost boundless courage in dealing with the bitter circumstances with which nature had confronted her, it seemed especially cruel for her to have had such a tragically short and pain-filled life. Callie needed, demanded, and got more attention than our other pets, so losing her left quite a void. She is uniquely missed.

Copyright L.D. Lampson 1993-2010

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