Last December, I experienced life as a client. That client. You know the one I mean. The crazy one.
It started with a lump. Last September, I noticed a golf ball-sized lump on my rat's flank. Geraldine, whom we purchased for $12.00 from PetSmart almost two years ago, seemed unaware. Horrified, I picked her up and prodded the thing. It was firm, and movable, and seemed to be encapsulated. And then I did nothing. She was an old rat, I rationalized. She's been lucky to make it this far. I didn't want to think about it. But the thing kept growing, and eventually it was just too pitiful watching this otherwise bright-eyed creature drag around a side car that was probably a quarter again of her body mass. I resolved to at least consult with the exotics service by the end of the week.
One Friday at lunch, I saw one of the exotics clinicians walk by where I was eating my lunch and chatting between labs. Clinicians in any discipline are hard to get a hold of, because they have a way of running around the hospital all day. Without a second thought, I set my sandwich down and jumped over several chairs.
"Dr. X!" He turned to look at me, and I became aware of how he easily had a foot in height on me. "Are you on clinics this week?"
"Yes . . ." he answered. By his glance toward the stair case, I could tell he already knew where this conversation was going. I tried to make it quick, squeaking out my words. "I have a rat. She has a mass. Can you look at her?"
Dr. X did not miss a beat. In one breath, in his thick foreign accent, he ran through his top differentials and options for treatment. "Bring her in next Wednesday," he finished.
I am not sure what I was expecting, but all of a sudden I was committed. By interrupting that doctor's lunch break, I'd stepped off the precipice. I was going to seek veterinary care for my $12.00 pet who was pushing the upper edge of average lifespan. I loved her, but the idea of medical treatment for a pet rat was something I'd struggled with, and not without guilt.
Everybody falls in a different place on the spectrum of how much intervention they would seek for their pet. There are those who elect euthanasia rather than pursuing any type of treatment, and those who cart their animal to the veterinary school every day for weeks so that it can undergo the radiation therapy that will buy it eight more months of life. Barring outright cruelty, I believe there is not a wrong place to fall on that spectrum. Look at it this way; it's easy to look down on the individual who elects convenience euthanasia rather than treating a pet with a manageable condition, but is that judgment so easy to make in the case of a person with limited financial resources who elects not to pursue a kidney transplant for a cat in renal failure? I don't think so. My struggle stemmed from the fact that I felt that I should be one of the individuals who advocates state-of-the-art medical treatment for any animal in my care. But from a pragmatic standpoint, I wondered if surgery was a good use of resources- mine and the hospital's- for a pet that was frankly a pretty minimal investment.
But it seemed my conscience had gotten the better of me, because now I was going to do it, if for no other reason than that I had an appointment with the exotics service.
Wednesday rolled around, and I started the day off parading through the reception area with a tank full of shavings and one nonplussed rat. I had class early that morning, so I deposited Geraldine in the exotics ward and rushed to lecture. I was to return later to speak with Dr. X. I was prepared to coolly discuss the necessity of surgery and to really weigh the costs and benefits before committing. I was even prepared to discuss euthanasia, although the thought made me feel a little nauseated. When I returned later to speak with Dr. X, as I expected, he brought up surgery immediately.
"It's most likely a mammary tumor." I nodded. I knew from my previous life working in research laboratories that rats have mammary tissue over much of the body, making mammary tumors a common affliction in rats lucky enough to live that long.
"We should be able to take it out easily, and we would recommend spaying her at the same time to hopefully prevent recurrence."
This is the point where I knew I should stop and consider my decision. I thought about the small amount of money my husband and I had saved from our summer jobs, and the particular use I had in mind for it. I felt my face flush. I inhaled, ready to ask about other options, but no words came.
"Okay," I squeaked. "When?"
Surgery was scheduled for the following day, and I sheepishly sent my husband a text message about transferring some money from our savings account for rat surgery the following day.
As I walked back upstairs for my afternoon classes, I was of two minds. On the one hand, I knew I had been intimidated into electing surgery. Not by Dr. X; he was doing exactly what he would have done with any patient, which is recommending the treatment with the best chance of a positive outcome. I had intimidated myself out of debating a course of action with someone I perceived as an expert. On the other hand, I realized that maybe I really had made the best choice. Maybe this was no less than my due diligence for an animal for whom I had taken responsibility. In any case, I was even more committed than before.
At home that night, I prodded Geraldine's lump again. I watched her haul it around with her as she performed acrobatics, climbing upside-down on the roof of her cage. I started imagining a life for her without the lump. The next morning, I packed her back into her tank of shavings, and drove her off to meet her fate.