It is one in the morning on December 29 and I’m sitting quietly in the corner of an emergency vet hospital one and a half hours from home. It’s the closest emergency and specialist centre to me and I’d rather not be here but H, my cat, has deteriorated over the last few days and I cannot just hope for the best.
A few hours ago, G called out to me from another room. “I love you more,” he said, as I was googling respiratory distress and calling the emergency vet for advice. “Yeah?” I shouted back. “But do you love me enough?”
“What do you mean, enough?” he asked, realising our banter had shifted.
“I’m going to take Hunter to the emergency vet,” I said. “You can stay here.”
I heard the familiar crunch of styrofoam as he hauled himself out of the beanbag in the lounge room before coming to the dining table where I sat staring at the computer.
“No, I can’t,” he said. “You know I can’t.”
So at 10.15pm we piled into the car with the cat whose breathing was shallow and rapid, nostrils flaring.
A year ago, I almost succeeded in burning down the house. Not in the Talking Heads way, but rather in the way that I’d spent until near midnight on Christmas Eve cooking and preparing for the following day. After wiping everything down, cleaning the stove top, and placing the wooden chopping board on the stove for the following day’s prep, I stumbled into bed.
A couple of hours later, I woke to a strange, distant beeping sound. Weird, I thought in my sleepy haze, that sounds like a smoke alarm. It took a moment to process as my brain registered the noise; the far-away sound transitioning from a flat battery beep to a genuine, urgent, emergency beep.
Our house had only one smoke detector which, months earlier, had fallen out of the cement sheet ceiling so I’d placed it on top of a bookcase in the family room just down the hall from our bedroom. I moved slowly in the dark, assuming the smoke detector had failed, and felt my way along the bedroom wall to the sliding door before shuffling through a small gap into the hallway.
I opened the door at the end of the hall into the family room and switched on the light. Thick smoke obscured anything more than a few feet in front of me.
The cats, my God, where were the cats?
Edith darted immediately between my legs into the hall that was now beginning to fill with smoke. I ran back to the bedroom, woke G in case we needed to evacuate, and said I had to go find Hunter. I coughed my way through the smoke into the kitchen to attempt to identify where the fire was. But there was no fire. Just thick, heavy smoke in every room. I found H and hurried him into the bedroom where G was up and trying to come out to help. “Go back, go back into the bedroom,” I said. “There is no fire. I have to figure out what is going on.”
I wrapped a wet washcloth around my face to reduce the amount of smoke I was inhaling–we hadn’t yet begun to wear N95 masks so I didn’t have one readily available–and I knew from my workplace fire training that any damp, thick cloth would help filter the smoke. I walked from room to room opening windows, switching on fans and opening doors but could not find the source of the smoke.
Back in the kitchen, standing in front of the stove, I heard the familiar crackle and pop of wood as it heated and burned. Then I looked at the chopping board. I’d used it all day, washed it many times, and it had been waterlogged when I’d left it on top of the clean stove. Now, it was dry and beginning to curl at the edges. I grabbed it with an oven mitt, shoved it into the sink and doused it in water. On the underside was a perfect, charred circle where the hotplate had been slowly scorching it for hours. Eventually, I worked out that as I’d cleaned the stove and wiped the knobs, I must have flicked one ever so slightly into the on position. Just on low. Just enough that it heated the chopping board. The water had kept the board cool enough not to burn but instead, smoke profusely for hours, and now that most of the water had evaporated, it was dry and ready to burst into flames. It took hours to clear the house of smoke and even weeks later, if the air was very still, you could still catch a faint whiff of it.
Over the next 24 hours, Hunter’s breathing became loud and scratchy. The day after Christmas is known as Boxing Day, here. Boxing Day is a Public Holiday in Australia, and I called my vet, expecting an answering machine message that would advise me of their holiday opening hours. Instead, a person answered. And although there was only half an hour until closing time, they could fit H in. Did I want to bring him down? It’s a Public Holiday, though, they said, and an emergency appointment. Was I ok with both the extra charges? Yes, sure, I said. Whatever he needs.
I took H to the vet for raspy breathing and suspected smoke inhalation. One of his eyebrows was singed off and I guessed he had jumped up onto the counter to investigate, inhaling lungfuls of the heavy smoke. He’d always had a slight snore but in the 24 hours after the smoke event, his snore escalated to something else.
When I arrived and they listened to his chest, they wanted to perform an x-ray; a procedure which would require the vet and a nurse to stay back past closing time. Would I be ok with additional charges? Yes, sure, I said. Whatever he needs.
When I first adopted H, I used to smoke–inside–and although I quit many years ago, I have been paranoid ever since that I’ve given him lung cancer, in much the same way that I am sure I gave G blood cancer.
Nine hundred dollars later, we went home. Just monitor him, they said, and see if it settles down.
It didn’t settle down, so for the last 12 months, he’s had various treatments and investigations including blood tests, a specialist cardiology appointment and ultrasound of his heart, antibiotics, steroids and other medication. The final consensus has been “asthma” for which he has been prescribed an inhaler but I (not a vet) disagree with the consensus. Yes, he had been coughing. And the inhaler has eliminated the coughing. But there are other things, too. A loss of his higher register voice over a period of years. A new struggle to swallow and a choking/gagging noise when he eats. Vomiting. The high-pitched stridor in his throat as he inhales, that only I can hear when he rests his neck on my ear as we are laying down watching TV. At the vet, he is too stressed, too anxious, and too growly for them to hear what I hear.
Instead, those additional symptoms point to some type of laryngeal paralysis which is getting worse. He is booked in with the internal medicine specialist on January 18 for a scope in his nose and throat to identify any potential blockages. But the last few days of heat at 35 degrees Celsius saw his breathing rate double from 30 breaths per minute to 60 and to become more laboured. His breaths have been shallow or gasping and neither his steroid inhaler nor the emergency Ventolin salbutamol has helped.
G thinks I have hypochondria by proxy with the cat. And while I do have severe health anxiety and some of it may be transferred, I know there is something very wrong with his respiratory system and if he suffocates at home through my lack of action when a vet visit could have saved him, I will never forgive myself. H has outlasted all my relationships to date; at almost 12 years old, he has been with me through several heartbreaks, interstate moves, and has not faltered in his devotion to me from the very first moment I opened the cage door at the pet shop and he climbed into the crook of my neck. G is catching him in the longevity stakes, of course, and will eventually overtake him but I had intended to have H around for at least another five years before he breaks my heart.
As I wait, a man brings his elderly German Shepherd in. I catch snippets of his explanation to the nurse who is triaging the late-night attendees. Christmas Day, a whole roast chicken. Vomiting. Restless. Won’t sit down/lie down. Strange because. Osteoarthritis. I know that cooked chicken bones are terrible for dogs’ tummies and begin to worry for this dog that looks like the one I’m minding for 12 months. They take the man and his German Shepherd through to the back. Hunter has been under observation for almost two hours and no-one has come to give me any news. An hour later, the man comes out from the rooms in the back without his German Shepherd. I can hear him at the reception desk. He is sniffling. Crying. He makes a phone call I can’t hear. And I know then, that he won’t be taking his dog home. I begin to panic that I may not be taking Hunter home, either.
There is no sadder place than an emergency vet at two am in the holidays, except, perhaps for a hospital. And I’ve seen my share of those, too.
Another couple of hours pass, and they call me into the room. They ask why I brought H in tonight, and I explain the history of his breathing and investigative testing over the last 12 months, his current treatment, and the deterioration over the past three days.
“I can’t find anything wrong with him now,” the vet says. “His respiratory rate is normal, he is not in any distress–except perhaps some anxiety at being here–and all his other vital signs are good.”
This should be good news. Instead, I am only convinced that everyone except me is missing something while also knowing this is only going to further G’s belief that I’m making up symptoms the cat does not have.
We drive home, or rather, G drives us home and we fall into bed as the clock ticks over to five am.
At 8.30 am my alarm goes off. I have a doctor’s appointment at 9.40 am. I’ve had three and a half hours’ sleep and am starting to feel the effects of the covid booster that I had the afternoon before. I cannot tell if my headache is from the vaccine or lack of sleep. If the buzzing in my body is the vaccine or lack of sleep. If the nausea is the vaccine or lack of sleep. But I am starting to feel like death.
I go to the doctor and forget why I made the appointment so I end up discussing the headaches which are coming more frequently now than ever before. They could be hormonal, I say. Or they could be stress related. I list all of the reasons I could be experiencing frequent headaches but I never mention brain cancer. And neither does she. Where are the headaches located? she asks, and I motion across my forehead. At the front? she confirms. Yes. And do they get worse if you tip your head forward? Yes, I say. I can then get a shooting pain behind my eyes that takes a minute or two to recede when I lift my head again.
“Aspirin,” she says. “I’m going to give you a specific dose of aspirin to take every day for a week. I think they are tension headaches. Come back next week.”
I ask her to reprint my referral to the gastroenterologist that I’ve misplaced so that I can have my low iron levels investigated. And I check that I do not need a referral for a mammogram, that I can just book in through the breast screening program. Then, I go home to bed.
By lunchtime, I cannot sleep any more but feel awful. G feels wretched, too. And we are not sure if it’s from staying up all night or the vaccine. Or both. He says he feels hot, but when we take his temperature, it is normal. Several hours later, when I start to feel chilled, though I wouldn’t say feverish, I take my own temperature: 37.8 degrees Celsius, a mild fever. I take two Tylenol, have a warm shower, and go to bed.
Christmas has been a difficult time for me for 27 years and I ponder whether it is my own anxiety that ensures I add more traumatic events to the list each Christmas. Is it my attitude to this time of year that makes it more challenging, or is it the subconscious memory of terrible events that determine my attitude? For years, I worked on Christmas to avoid it altogether. Two nights ago, I took H to the emergency vet, believing he may be close to death. Today, he has been chasing the other cat around the house the same as he always does. Did I imagine it? Was his breathing really problematic or was it simply my fear that made it appear so? Will I believe anyone telling me there is nothing wrong with him or will I always think they are wrong? Are H’s perceived breathing problems a metaphor for my life? Perhaps, I am choking. And all we can do is keep breathing.
This world of words and pictures and music is a strange one. Everything I say here is true. Has always been true. And yet, it can never be the whole truth. I cannot write every thought I have, describe every interaction, post every photo or memory. That is to say, it is not a complete picture of my life. Only what I choose to share. But does that mean that what I don’t share can never be known? I’m not so sure. Quantum entanglement, while only in the initial stages of scientific exploration and understanding, possibly, probably shares more information and secrets than we will ever know.
Today, I feel better. There is no headache (a miracle) although I’ve not yet taken any aspirin. And there is no strange buzzing in my body. No nausea and no fever. I am lying on the couch as I type this, the clock ticking over to one am on December 31. The laptop is propped on a pillow on my thighs, H is lying on his side on my stomach, his breathing noisy but not distressed. His body rises and falls with my breath; he stretches, pushes his paws against my face, turns over and relaxes again.