Urban Tigers Two – More Tales of a Cat Vet Chapter One

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“Oh, Dr. McBride. Thank God! It’s Verna Gillis,” a breathless voice
announced. “Sweet William’s doing the revelations!”

“Revelations?” What I knew about revelations was limited to an admittedly
unread chapter in the Bible and a tipsy roommate’s confession
that she’d slept with my boyfriend in vet school.

“It’s like that nursery rhyme. You know … ‘Round and round and
round he goes’,” Verna chanted. “‘And where he stops, nobody knows!’ ”

If it had been anyone but Verna, I would have suspected alcohol was
involved, but Verna was a devout member of The Celestial Church of
Truth. Parishioners believed that Christ was an alien from a superior
race who had crash-landed on this planet and tried to make the best of
things. Their rules were few, but liquor was strictly forbidden.

A few months ago, a moth-eaten stray had begun hanging out
around the dumpster behind the church. One night he simply followed
Verna home. New to the demands of cat ownership, Verna had lots of
questions. Since she didn’t remember most of the answers, she had to
call Ocean View Cat Hospital regularly. Verna might be a few tomatoes
short of a thick paste, but she had a big heart.

I looked at my watch and weighed my options. It was almost closing
time. I could see Verna and Sweet William now, or possibly be on the receiving
end of an emergency phone call at three o’clock in the morning.
Who knew? … by then Sweet William might be spinning cartwheels
and doing handstands while reciting poetry.

Verna didn’t own a car and normally walked or took a bus to save
money. She wasn’t about to take any chances with her beloved Sweet
William, however, and arrived at the hospital in a taxi. In spite of the
cold, miserable night, the windows were rolled down part way. The taxi
driver deposited his payload and sped off into the night.

“Oh!” Verna wailed as I opened the door for her. “Sweet William
had to use the bathroom … Number Two,” she wrinkled her nose. “Is it
still okay to bring him in?”

I assured Verna that if I refused to see any patients who relieved
themselves under stress, the hospital’s appointment book would be only
half full. In truth, I admired the dedication of cat lovers who made the
trek to the vet’s in spite of the accusations, the caterwauling, the vomit,
and, more often than not, the gooey mound of poop in the carrier.

Grabbing my arm, she looked up mournfully from underneath a
hand-crocheted hat that looked like an inverted flower pot. Her lower
lip trembled. Too large for the mouth to which it had been assigned, it
hung loosely in front of a row of neglected teeth.

“It’s cancer, isn’t it?”

Sweet William blinked at me in wide-eyed concern.

“Well, let’s not jump to conclusions. Why don’t you relax in that
chair,” I suggested, “and I’ll have a look at him.”

Verna nodded but remained standing.

Sweet William appeared perfectly normal. Although his heart was
beating a little faster than usual, the rhythm was regular and strong.
His lungs were clear. I did a few simple neurological tests, which he
passed without any difficulty. Opening his mouth, I checked his gums
and teeth then peered inside his ears with an otoscope.

“Mmm … ”

Verna clapped a hand over her mouth. “Cancer?”

“No, no. He just has a little inflammation in his right ear and there’s
a waxy build-up. He might be a little disoriented and that’s why he’s
doing … ”

“The revelations?” Verna interrupted.

I nodded.

She thought for a moment. “How do you know it’s not cancer?”

I resorted to a variation of one of my mother’s standbys when we
were growing up. “Because I just do.”

The answer seemed to satisfy her.

“What about fleas?” Verna asked, switching gears. “I don’t want fleas
in the house. Mother would roll over in her grave. That’d be funny,” she
added with a grin.

“Well, he does have a few.”

Verna shuddered. “I want to get rid of them instamatically!”

I began to discuss flea control, but Verna had her own agenda.

“He likes catnip, Dr. McBride. Is that OK? I don’t want him addicted.
My brother’s addicted.”

I hesitated. “To catnip?”

“No, gambling and … ” Verna lowered her voice, “and whores,” she
whispered, shaking her head sadly. “I wish he’d come to church with
me.”

“Well,” I quipped, “my grandmother always said the Lord helps
those who help themselves.”

“That’s what I always say!” Verna clasped my hand as if we were
soulmates, and gazed into my face. “What about his nails?”

“Your brother’s?”

“No, Sweet William’s.”

“Oh, right.” I was getting dizzy from all the conversational twists
and turns. Digging through the drawer, I found a pair of nail trimmers.
While Sweet William wiggled and squirmed his way through a manicure,
Verna tossed questions into the air like confetti. I reached for a
bottle of ear drops from the pharmacy shelf.

“This is Sweet William’s ear medication,” I told her. “It should get
rid of the infection. Three drops twice daily for ten days.”

Verna nodded as she studied the bottle. The manufacturer’s warning,
“Ear drops, veterinary use only” was splashed across the front along
with my directions.

“Where do I put them?” she asked.

Many answers came to mind. I chose the one that would allow me
to continue working at Ocean View Cat Hospital. I then showed Verna
how to apply the drops and spent the next ten minutes typing detailed
instructions beginning with “Hold the cat.” I had her read the instructions
back to me, and reminded her that I would like to see Sweet
William in ten days for a recheck.

“I’d like to check his stool for parasites as well,” I added. “Please
bring a fresh fecal sample with you if you can.” If Sweet William’s past
performance was any indicator of future performance, I doubted getting
a fresh sample would be a problem.

“It’ll be my New Year’s Revolution!” Verna declared, although it was
barely mid-October.

I called a taxi for Verna and waited with her in reception. I made
several attempts at conversation but found it hard to follow Verna’s
train of thought. After awhile, I just smiled and nodded politely, sighing
in quiet relief when the taxi finally arrived.

Verna rose to her feet. “I’m coming, I’m coming,” she grumbled, as
he tooted his horn impatiently. She put her hat on, tugging it fiercely
down over her ears as if to keep the contents of her head secure. With
my help, she fastened a handmade quilted cover over Sweet William’s
carrier and hoisted it into the air.

“Thank you, Dr. McBride. Goodnight,” she called over her shoulder.

At the door, she paused. Silhouetted against the glare of the taxi’s
harsh light, she was an oddly-shaped figure in a coat three sizes too
large that she had probably purchased at a thrift shop. The peculiar
little hat had a mind of its own and was rising like a loaf of bread up
over her ears. Sweet William shifted in his carrier, causing Verna to list
dangerously to the left.

“Dr. McBride?” she asked hesitantly. “Are you sure it’s not cancer?”

I squinted against the bright lights and nodded. “I’m sure.”

The taxi driver tooted again. Verna hesitated, then scurried out the
door with Sweet William in tow.

By the time I got home, it was almost ten. After a tongue-lashing
from three hungry cats, I changed into a comfortable pair of old-lady,
flannel pyjamas, the kind you don’t wear in public unless you have a
complete disregard for public opinion. Poking my head under the bed,
I hauled out my favourite slippers, a pair of orange tabbies. Striped tails
poked out of the heels and a softball-size head rested on each toe. They
were my Christmas “Secret Santa” gift from Bernie, the hospital’s head
receptionist.

Still wide awake after my evening with Verna, I made myself a cup
of warm milk and curled up with the cats and a book. Somewhere between
Chapter 2 and Chapter 3, I nodded off, only to be awakened by
a bone-jarring thud followed by an eerie silence. The cats scattered for
safety, leaving me to deal with the end of the world alone. I crept down
the hallway armed only with my book, and peered through the peephole
in the door.

Lying on the hall floor was my upstairs neighbour, Ed. Standing
over him was an attractive brunette in a short skirt.

“Eddy … Eddy!” she hissed, shaking his shoulder. When he didn’t
respond, she looked at him thoughtfully. “Are you dead?

There was a brief lull, during which time I thought that Eddy might
have indeed bought the farm. I needn’t have worried. A former defensive
tackle for the university football team, the man was built like a
forklift. When I opened the door, he burped and smiled benignly at my
feet. Two pairs of bulbous eyes stared back at him.

“Emily!” he gurgled happily in recognition.

“Did you break anything?” I asked. Eddy’s date cackled appreciatively
at my wit.

“Nah!” Ed scoffed at the idea and rose unsteadily to his feet. The
brunette, who was only slightly less drunk than he was, held him on
one side, and I held the other. Somehow we managed to get him up the
stairs and onto the sofa, where he began to snore. The woman stared at
the prone man while I cleaned and bandaged his head wound.

“Should we undress him?” she asked after a moment.

“You’re on your own!” I shook my head and headed back downstairs
in the hopes of getting a few more hours of sleep. I saw nothing
of Ed or his girlfriend all day Sunday. In fact, there were no reported
sightings of Ed all week long, although Mr. Chang, the property owner,
confirmed that he had paid his November rent.

“Ha! Dr. Emily … you have thing for Mr. Ed?” He wiggled his eyebrows
up and down.

“No! God, no!” I assured the skeptical Mr. Chang. Besides, wasn’t
Mr. Ed some sort of talking horse on a TV show from the sixties?

“Ha! He smooth operator,” Mr. Chang commented. “Many beautiful
women friends. Not for you, Dr. Emily. Ta-ta.”

I stared at Mr. Chang’s retreating back, wondering if he was merely
concerned for my welfare or if he felt I didn’t meet Ed’s standards. I
was still wondering when Verna showed up for her appointment a few
days later.

“Here’s your fetus sample, Dr. McBride!” she declared, shaking a
yogurt container.

Cautiously, I lifted the lid and peered inside at a well-formed, foul-smelling
fecal sample in its prime.

“That looks good,” I said, snapping the lid shut.

Verna glowed with pride.

Microscopic examination revealed it was free of parasites. I passed
on the good news to Verna, expecting she would be pleased. Instead,
she threw her hands into the air. “Well, then, how come he still has the
revelations?” she demanded.

I looked at Verna. “Are you getting the medication in okay?”

“Uh-huh.” Verna bobbed her head up and down as she looked
around the room in wide-eyed innocence.

“Verna!”

“Oh, it’s so hard!” she wailed, collapsing under my stern voice. “He
hates me.”

I assured her that even I had trouble sometimes putting in ear drops,
but that it was very, very important. Verna nodded solemnly. I showed
her how to wrap Sweet William in a towel so he couldn’t struggle. Then,
holding him against my chest with one arm as he sat on the examining
table, I applied the drops to his right ear.

“Remember to massage his ear afterwards so the medication goes in
deep enough,” I explained. Like most cats, Sweet William loved this part
of the procedure and leaned his head into the massage.

“Now you try,” I smiled.

Sweet William did not recognize Verna as an authority figure. It
took her quite a while to get the hang of things and to convince Sweet
William she wasn’t trying to murder him. Ten minutes and half a bottle
of ear drops later we emerged from the exam room, exhausted but
victorious.

Verna plopped into a chair and fanned herself with her hat. “I’m
just going to sit for a minute till I recover from that orgy.” Al Whitehead,
who was waiting with his cat Al Fresco, looked up with sudden interest.

Over the next ten days, I kept in daily touch with Verna so I was
reasonably sure she was getting the medication in Sweet William’s ears.
She had increased her odds with a few flakes of tuna before, during,
and after each treatment. According to Verna, Sweet William had never
been happier.

His recheck was scheduled just a few days before Hallowe’en. Inside
Ocean View’s reception room, Verna gazed in delight at the black and
orange streamers draped from each corner and meeting in an extravagant
bow at the chandelier. Wisps of cotton batting had been stretched
into filmy cobwebs on the retail shelves. Thanks to our receptionist’s
carving skills, a buck-toothed pumpkin surrounded by Hallowe’en
cards flickered cheerfully on the reception counter.

“Oh, this is fun!” Verna clapped her hands together as she caught
sight of a witch stocking the shelves and a pirate grooming a sedated
cat.

“And what are you, Dr. McBride?” she asked.

“A veterinarian,” I grinned.

“Ohhh.” Verna knitted her brows together in a puzzled frown. Then,
switching gears, she thrust an envelope into my hand. “Open it.”

The envelope had been hermetically sealed with half a roll of Scotch
tape. Impatient with my bumbling efforts to find a crack in the envelope’s
armour, Verna blurted out the contents with unrestrained joy.
“Sweet William got you a card for Hallowe’en! It’s real funny! There’s
a cat wearing white undershorts with red hearts on them. It says, ‘My
heart pants for you.’ Get it?”

Giggling, Verna held a hand up to her mouth. The fact that it was a
Valentine’s Day card was lost on her. “I bet my card’s the funniest of all
them cards,” Verna declared proudly as she studied the display of cards
on our coffee table. And, in truth, it was.

I thanked Sweet William personally for his taste in cards and ushered
the pair into the exam room to have a look at the cat’s ear. There
was a small amount of waxy brown discharge and his eardrum, instead
of being smooth and uniformly opalescent, was a heterogeneous
off-white.

“Mmm … ”

“What?” asked Verna, instantly alert.

“Have you been massaging his ear after you apply the drops?” I
asked.

Verna nodded vigorously.

“Well, I think he may have a polyp in his ear as well as an infection.”

“Cancer?” Verna gasped.

“No, not cancer,” I hastened to assure her. “It’s probably a benign
growth. They usually start in the Eustachian tube. That’s the tube between
the ear and the throat,” I added, when Verna’s forehead wrinkled
in confusion. “Instead of growing down into the throat, it may have
grown into the ear.”

“More eardrops?” Verna sagged visibly in her chair.

“No, let’s just leave it for a week or two and see how things go. If it
gets worse, I may want to get a sample of the discharge from his ear.”
I hesitated. Sweet William’s list of health concerns was growing like
Jack’s beanstalk, and no doubt Verna’s savings account was shrinking
proportionally.

“Have you noticed that Sweet William is losing fur on his face and
ears?” I asked carefully. “His skin in those areas is a little blotchy too.”

Verna opened her mouth to speak.

“It’s not cancer,” I added quickly. “I think he may have an allergy.”

“An allergy? Like hay fever? Blessed Virgin!” Verna crossed herself.

“Will he need drops?”

I explained that fur loss in these areas was typical of an allergy to
the food, usually to a protein in the meat. All we had to do was switch
his diet to a hypoallergenic formula and see if he improved.

“Oh no, Dr. McBride,” Verna frowned, shaking her head, “he won’t
like that. He’s very fussy. VERY FUSSY!” she added for emphasis, folding
her arms across her chest.

I glanced at Sweet William as he sat Buddha-like on my examining
table. Rolls of fat cascaded over his feet. Fussy was not a word I would
have chosen to describe him. Forging ahead, I explained the importance
of sticking with the special food for at least six weeks. “No treats, no
table scraps, no cream – nothing extra. And I want to see him back in a
couple of weeks. Sooner if his ear gets worse.”

Verna grabbed onto her head with both hands, eyes wide. “My poor
brain, Dr. McBride! It’s swollen! It can only hold so much, you know.”

I promised Verna I would write everything down for her. The staff
knew by now to book me extra time whenever Verna and Sweet William
came to town so I didn’t fall behind with my other appointments.

When I pulled into the driveway that night, exhausted after another
long day, I spied Ed at the mailbox. “Hey, Ed! How are you?”

“Eddy!” I shouted again when he didn’t respond. “Are you deaf?”

“Oh. Emily. Hi,” he replied, turning around as I came up the steps.

“I didn’t hear you. Ear infection,” he grimaced. “I’ve had it pretty much
since, well, you know. That night.”

As he stood still under the bright porch light, I noticed the rash on
his face and neck and took a few steps back. Ed was a decent-looking
guy but the red skin and scaly patches were disturbing.

“Oh, yeah,” he added. “I’ve got some kind of rash too. That just
started. The doc doesn’t think that it’s contagious, though.”

I murmured something sympathetic and decided to check my mail
later. It struck me as an odd coincidence that both Sweet William and
Ed exhibited remarkably similar symptoms, and I was the common denominator.
I dismissed the thought as the overactive imagination of a
veterinarian who had done one too many fecals.

But, over the next few months, Ed and Sweet William battled their
remarkably similar ailments. Verna grew more stressed with each new
bottle she took home. Ed cancelled a trip to Cuba. The doctor was worried
that his ear didn’t seem to be responding to treatment, and the
rash had spread. The brunette had found herself a new boyfriend with
smooth skin and an impressive net worth.

When there was no improvement in Sweet William’s ear, Verna
finally consented to an ear flush under anesthetic. I was able to examine
his mouth and nasal cavity more closely and take X-rays of his skull.
There appeared to be a small hole in his eardrum. I swabbed the debris
in his ear canal but when we examined the slides under the microscope,
we found nothing unusual. As luck would have it, the samples we sent
to the lab for analysis and culture were lost en route so I had no way of
knowing what antibiotic might be the most effective.

“His skin is improving, though,” I told Verna with a bright smile.

Poor Verna. It was just one thing after another. To help with her
ongoing medical expenses, I offered her a payment plan, which she
promptly refused.

“I pay all my bills,” she declared. “And I sell my hats at the flea market.”
When I dutifully admired Verna’s hat, she pulled several variations
on the flowerpot theme out of her bag.

“I sell them for $15 each. It only takes me an hour to make one while
I watch them game shows. So it’s good profit,” Verna added proudly.

I bought a purple one.

Verna surfaced a few weeks later with a bag full of hats and Sweet
William. She sat in the chair, nibbling her fingernails and casting furtive
glances my way as I examined Sweet William’s ear.

“Verna!” I exclaimed, clicking off the otoscope.

“What!” Startled, she bolted upright.

“Sweet William’s ear is the best I’ve ever seen it!”

“Praise Jesus!” Verna looked up at the ceiling, then back down at
me. “How is his crustacean tube?”

I assured Verna his Eustachian tube was fine. We chatted for a few
moments longer. Sweet William looked good and smelled good and
offered no resistance to my examination; I had become part of his normal
routine. I had just plucked him off the table for a cuddle before
returning him to his carrier when I noticed a small, ulcerated lump
high inside his right foreleg.

Verna sat very still, her hands clasped in her lap. She fixed her sad-
beagle eyes on me. “Cancer. I knew it.”

“We don’t know that, Verna,” I replied. Despite my assurances to
the contrary over the last few months, it was certainly possible that this
lump was cancerous. It was just as possible that it wasn’t. I explained
that the only way to know for sure was to remove the whole thing and
send it off to the pathologist for analysis.

Verna was silent.

“Everybody I know dies from cancer,” she said at last. “Why, Dr.
McBride? Why? And now my cat. ” She started to cry.

Verna loved Sweet William and she had continued to trust my
judgment when others would have given up and gone elsewhere. I
reached over and hugged her like I held my nephew when the older
boys wouldn’t let him play road hockey. Sometimes words alone are
cold comfort when what we really need is to feel that we are not alone.
I imagined that Verna felt very much alone sometimes, a child trapped
inside an adult’s body.

Wiping away her tears, she scheduled Sweet William’s lump removal
for the following Tuesday when she would be back on day shifts.
“Can we fix him then?”

“You mean his castration?” I asked.

Verna nodded.

“I think it would be best to wait until we get the results from the
pathologist,” I answered. “I don’t want to stress him too much right
now.”

Verna turned to Bernie at the reception counter. “He has The
Cancer,” Verna explained, lowering her voice so Sweet William wouldn’t
hear.

While Bernie murmured sympathetically, I hastened to remind
Verna that we didn’t know that for sure. “Cancer’s only one possibility
among many.”

Verna looked at me and managed a feeble smile but her eyes glistened
with barely restrained tears. I bought two more hats and Bernie
picked out a lime green one for herself. Hughie found a pink one in the
pile that his great-aunt Louise simply had to have.

On Friday night, I ran into Ed at the checkout counter of the liquor
store. He was barely visible behind a tower of beer.

“Party tonight, Eddy?” I asked with a grin. His skin looked much
better.

“Yup. Could be my last one,” he confided. “Doc found a lump under
my armpit.”

“Oh, Eddy!” I gasped. “I’m sorry. It’s probably nothing, you know,”
I added hastily. “I get them all the time from shaving. Sometimes a
lymph node gets a little infected.”

Eddy looked at me oddly. “Em, I don’t shave my armpits. In fact,
most guys don’t. You need to get out more,” he chuckled.

I laughed along with Eddy as I studied the pattern on the tile floor.
The truth was I wished I did get out more.

He slapped me on the back. “I’m just teasin’ ya, Em. I’m not worried.
I feel great!” He smiled encouragingly at a giggling cluster of coeds
around a wine display.

I assured Ed that everything would be fine, then avoided him for
the next several weeks. It was the stuff out of a Stephen King novel. For
every symptom in every location that Sweet William exhibited, Eddy
had one to match. Maybe somehow I had cursed the two of them. I
popped a get-well card in his mail box and hoped for the best.

When I look back now, I can see I needn’t have worried. Ed’s lump
was nothing more than a fatty cyst and Sweet William had a benign
mast cell tumour with complete excision. He went home the day after
his surgery.

Verna was ecstatic. “When can I schedule his catastrophe?”

Mercifully, Ed was on a cruise ship in the Caribbean when I castrated
Sweet William.

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