Keeping Billy Alive
Dread settled around me when the young resident veterinarian led Deborah and me into a room larger and, in some odd way, more somber than the examining rooms we were used to. We were already sad about Billy’s being so sick. This felt sadder.
Billy was our senior citizen, a black cat in his seventeenth year with us. Chronic illnesses made worse by time, two operations and races to the emergency room had made us more familiar with the Animal Medical Center’s facilities than we ever wanted to be.
Two years ago, a critical situation badly handled and maybe caused by his regular vet forced me to race through an Upper East Side rush hour to get him into triage. Since, discovering and then alleviating a condition that put Billy in crisis too often, surgeons at AMC operated twice, both times successfully. Now, a feared follow up problem, a severe urinary tract infection, a UTI, delivered the worst risks we’d been warned about from his last surgery.
Billy’s biggest threat, the vet told us, was chronic kidney disease. It unleashed a multitude of related problems throughout his system, the most immediate being anemia brought on by his inability to produce enough red blood cells The only thing resembling a cure was a kidney transplant. The estimated cost, $50,000, was staggering, but more important, the threat to Billy’s enjoyment of life at sixteen outweighed the uncertain benefits. The traumas he would have to go through for a short life extension, with no guarantee even of survival, seemed as threatening as the illness. Stress alone could kill him.
Before going over other options, I told the vet as clearly as I could that our only criteria for decisions was Billy’s quality of life. As long as he was able enjoy himself, as long as he showed enthusiasm for his food, for exploring our home, for being cuddled and played with, and retained his distinct personality, there were no limits on what we were willing to do to help him.
“We’re not rich, but he’s family. As long as he’s enjoying his life, we aren’t going to let money decide anything.”
What went unsaid was our mutual awareness that Billy showed no signs of wanting to do anything but fight back and return to doing his own, unusual cat thing. His demeanor told us he was far from throwing in the towel.
“Billy’s a fighter,” we’d hear from his vets many times in the coming months. That he was.
Besides, you can’t put a price tag on a life, each of which is a miracle of complexity and natural design.
Our values may not be what the vets at AMC heard all the time, but the smile that lit the doctor’s face told us he valued Billy’s life as much as we did.
Making that statement clearly was important because the second alternative we heard about, after the transplant, was “a humane solution,” that is, ending Billy’s life now, chemically and painlessly. But the reason: “You may feel you’ve already spent a lot of money on medical expenses, and the best we can offer now is an extension, maybe just a few weeks, not a cure,” wasn’t a good one for us.
Lives, ours, our family’s, our animal friends’, were not on a budget.