Saturday, October 10, 2009

And then there were eight

At first, Opus rallied after receiving fluids, but her health soon began its steady decline again.

I don’t take vacations from writing. For me, stringing words together is like consuming food and water. It must be done within certain intervals or my well-being starts to weaken.

So when I go quiet for even a week, my close pals in rescue know exactly what that means.

Something has gone wrong.

Most likely I’ve been immersed in material that’s too torturous for my brain to process and I’ve shut down. But sometimes it’s more personal than that.

This week, my silence was as personal as it gets.

My mind was consumed with making one decision, that choice all animal guardians dread: to take the life of my beloved companion animal.

Opus was my oldest cat at 17. She had been with me since kittenhood, one of dozens of animals I fostered in the early 1990s for Winnipeg Humane Society (WHS) in my no-pets-allowed townhouse apartment.

I get attached to every animal I foster. But I was young and only felt ready for the commitment of adopting two cats. A pair, so they would have each other for company.

Opus stood out to me because of her feisty attitude. She also gave me my first bout of ringworm.

My dear friend Tamara Vukusic—a fellow Carleton journalism school graduate—had been working at WHS at the time handling public affairs and media relations. She called me to come and get Opus because the ringworm meant her time was up. She said she had a kitten sitting in her desk drawer who was “special.”

Was she ever special, as I would come to discover later.

Opus’ counterpart was a slightly younger and much sweeter black-and-white fluffy tuxedo kitten I named Magnum.

Together they formed magnum opus, a Latin phrase that refers to an artist’s greatest life work, her most monumental masterpiece.

Many other cats came my way over the years, but Magnum and Opus formed the heart of me. Through all the heartbreak, in rescue and otherwise, they were a constant source of strength and support.

Two years ago, I lost Magnum at age 15 to pancreatic cancer. He was the primary cat tasked with cheering me up when I was sad. I cried for nine days straight when he was no longer there to lick the tears away.

Because Magnum died at an age considered old for a cat, I couldn’t live in my denial bubble anymore. Opus’ body clock was ticking too.

I had a reprieve for two years plus a week after Magnum’s death. Then Opus looked sick all of a sudden. She became thin and listless almost overnight.

I already knew what that meant as I bundled her into the carrier to bring her to my veterinarian. She had been healthy for 17 years, but she was old now, and it was likely her time.

Still, everything reasonable that could be done had to be done. Just in case I was wrong.

Taking Opus to the clinic —or anywhere for that matter—hadn’t ever been easy. She fought doing anything she didn’t want to do, and like most cats, being removed from her home environment was one of those things she really didn’t want to do.

Northshore Veterinary Hospital already had warnings in the computer system about Opus when I arrived, so they knew not to handle her like the average housecat.

Veterinary assistant Tonya Teetz came in wearing thick gloves up to the elbows. After a cursory look, it was determined Opus would be less stressed out if she was lightly sedated for testing.

Tests were run on her blood and urine. Results began rolling in showing normal. Unusually normal in fact, for such an old cat. Opus was set up on IV fluids because she was dehydrated, and she spent the night at Northshore for observation.

On Facebook, I recorded her progress. People on my Friends list cheered Opus on as she started showing lively signs over the next 24 hours. She was eating healthy portions again, standing up, swiping at us, and trying to rip out her IV needle.

The next evening, she was discharged to me looking much better. But the apparent miracle recovery wasn’t to be.

A day later, X-rays revealed a cancer tumor in her colon that was large for a cat’s small system, at 9 centimeters by 4.5 centimeters.

Hope had evaporated.

The night I heard the fateful news, I posted the question I was posing to myself on Facebook as I was pondering it: When to do it?

Support came pouring in. Animal lovers messaged me their stories. How long their pets’ illnesses had lasted before they made the decision, all the life-saving measures they had tried. The guilt they had felt when they waited too long.

But it was veterinarian Kim Barron’s advice in a story I wrote about Magnum two years earlier that came back to me again and again (Grieving guardians seek peace and understanding). Kim's words echoed in my mind as I paced through the night beside Opus’ bed.

“If there’s nothing that can be done and the animal is not completely comfortable, and if the owners are ready, it’s time,” she had told me in our interview.

As the night wore on, Opus’ condition didn’t get any better. In fact, she got worse. She started changing body positions every 15 minutes or so trying to get comfortable. Cats tend to get settled into the same position for hours. And she moved very slowly. She seemed to grow more listless.

When morning dawned, I had my decision. I called Kim and made an appointment for 2 p.m. to give me the morning to say goodbye. But as I watched Opus, her eyes seemed to plead with me.

Within half an hour, I had moved the time up. To right now. As soon as I could get her there.

Of course I wasn’t ready. Who is ever ready to say goodbye to a cherished friend?

But then I realized I was ready in a way. Ready for her to stop suffering. Ready to ease her pain as she had eased mine for 17 years.

And that—the gift of a humane goodbye—is eternal.

* * *

Note added Dec. 15:
Just two months passed, and I experienced another grave loss. Read about Felix in Down to a Magnificent Seven.

Katie Sinclair and Rose Eastman work expertly to sedate Opus. Notice the gloves.

Dr. Kim Barron supervises a battery of tests for Opus.

Opus is extremely fractious, so she is sedated for tests that some cats could handle wide awake.

Despite Opus' cantankerous nature, veterinary assistant Tonya Teetz formed a bond with her while she was at the clinic. When Opus had to be euthanized, I was going to request Tonya, but I didn't have to. She asked to be with Opus before I asked for her, and appeared in the room as if by magic.

Opus' fighting spirit came back briefly.

I made the same request to Kim when Opus died as I had for Magnum two years before: that she would autopsy her so I could look inside and find closure, to see that there truly was no hope. Veterinary assistant Deirdre Kettlestrings prepared the room.

In addition to the autopsy I requested, Kim elected to do an ultrasound for educational purposes, because she had never seen a cancer tumor inside the ascending colon before.

Opus chose to spend her last night at home looking out over the forest she loved so much from the comfort of her warming bed.

Sam sat by Opus saying his quiet goodbyes. They spent 7 years together.

Opus Maloney
1992 -
Oct. 8, 2009

Rest in peace
my angel


Anonymous said...

Dear Opus,
You and your little brother Magnum have been precious grandkits to us for almost two decades and you will be sadly missed.
Many years ago, we thought we may have lost you when you inadvertently jumped through the glass of the French door but happily, you survived.
There are no words to describe your Mom's sadness today but with the passage of time, she will be able to look back and enjoy the memories.
For us, we think of you now as a furry little angel, frolicking at the Rainbow Bridge, playing tag with Magnum again, and meeting up with those who have gone before.
And Opus, you may not have known it, but you were incredibly lucky to be cared for by one of this planet's most special people, an Animal Angel. Always putting your interests first, and always loving you dearly.
Til we meet again, little Grandkit.
Love Gramps and Granny xoxo

Junie Quiroga said...

Carreen, having been through this less than 3 months ago, I know only too well how sad you are. Without my beloved Tiger I am lost every day of my life. You are so lucky to have your other kitlets around you to comfort you. Know that I love you and I feel your pain. There is nothing I can say to you that will make you feel better. Take care my sweet niece.

L Weston said...

Oh Carreen, I am so sorry. You know that I understand what you are going through and the decision you had to make. I know you know that helping to end her suffering was your final gift to her. Thinking of you, Lisa.

David Herer said...

Thank you for sharing this sad but necessary story. For those of us, like you, who have faced this crossroads it is affirming to hear you say that the decision taken is both humane and eternal. Unlike most people, however, your efforts to understand and document the process have given real, useful guidance to others who are or someday might be facing this end of life dilemma. And it should be noted that you did a great service to the Vet workers by describing their actions and emotions so completely. They have such a tough job in these circumstances and your recognition is a gift to them. To this day, the loving attitudes of the Vet staff when we had to euthanize our dogs five years ago have served as a strong salve to the pain associated with those memories.