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January 2019

Christmas Surprise Part 2

Sunset on water

Alex and I sat in the hospital waiting room while the vet checked Bella.  HGTV played on two big screen TVs.  What had I heard about this show?  Something about them cutting corners and using shoddy materials.  No real surprise there.  A young couple nearby anxiously crouched on the floor petting their corgi.  The dog whined plaintively and the woman's face twitched like she'd been hurt.  On another couch, an older man rested a Highlights magazine on his belly and read.  What could he be reading that intently for so long in there?  A younger man, clearly his son,  sat next to him in the same position, eyes intent on his phone. 

The minutes wore on.  I read and reread a pamphlet about muscle loss in cats and dogs.  It had pictures depicting levels of loss, but all the illustrations looked the same to me.  I focused on the pictures as if finding the differences was a game in the Sunday paper. Next to me, Alex was looking up rabbit illnesses on his phone.  I refocused on the muscle loss illustrations.  Behind us a couple quietly complained about reality TV.

"Even the guys on Duck Dynasty are faking it.  They're Wall Street guys working every angle". 

"I bet their beards aren't even real".    

"Alex?"  A vet tech called out.  Alex and I both looked up, but the couple behind us had already stood.  The tech crossed to them and explained they needed a few more minutes to move Alex to a visiting room.  

"No no.  We don't want to disturb him.  All those tubes and wires.  Just let us see him where he is".  The man's voice rose and cracked as he spoke.  I couldn't make out the tech's reply, but the tone managed to be both firm and compassionate. Was their dog an inpatient?  I imagined them opening presents and eating Christmas dinner, pretending not to notice how empty the day, their home,  felt without their dog.  

"My" Alex crossed the room to the vending machine.  He came back with a bag of nuts for each of us. 

"Christmas dinner", I joked feebly.  He gave a half-smile in acknowledgment of the effort. A clock on the wall said it was 8:10.  

On the big screen TV a young couple groans as they're shown ugly property after ugly property.   About the time they'd chosen a property and the demo had begun we heard "Bella?" and rose to learn her fate.

There were just the three of us in the examination room, me, Alex and the vet.  It felt strange to be in that room without a pet, but Bella was out of sight being cared for.  The vet quickly came to the point, Bella was not in mortal danger. 

Then came the questions:  What symptoms had we seen and when?  Earlier in the day when she'd been startled at Alex's approach, did he remember which direction she'd run around in circles?  Was she eating, drinking, defecating as usual? Where does she spend her time?  What do we feed her?  Does she drink from a bowl or a bottle.  Amidst all the questions we learned that the vet, while not an exotic specialist, did live with a rabbit, the next best thing.   Alex and I gave each other a look that may as well have been a high-five.  We'd picked well.  We'd come to the right place.  

"It sounds like she's living the bunny dream", the vet said with a smile.  Until that moment, I hadn't realized just how much I'd wanted someone in-the-know to give us a gold star for being good bunny guardians.  I knew of course that we tried to do right by our bunnies, but the best of intentions don't always have the best of result.  I sat a bit taller and gave the vet Bella's health folder.  In it was the form we received from the House Rabbit Society when we adopted "Cecile", with what little information they had known about her.  If the D.O.B. was correct, she'd be three years old next month.  Not a wee one anymore, I realized with surprise.  On the folder itself I'd listed her medical care since living with us, just annual checkups and weigh-ins.  I pictured Lady's file at home, significantly thicker than Bella's.  And Fergus' file which I still couldn't bring myself to get rid of even even two years after his death.

Moon on water

The vet scanned the folder and smiled.  "She's a healthy young bunny, which makes a tumor or other extreme illness less probable.  She can control the motion of her head, which is good."  At this my eyes widened. Bella hadn't appeared able to do that at home.  Seeing her head slip side to side as I called to her had made my stomach go watery with fear.  Maybe vets had a different way of judging such things, something less obvious; I hoped so. 

Slowly, much like Hercule Poirot leading up to the big reveal, the vet walked us through her thought process regarding Bella.  She started with the brain and all but ruled it out as the cause of Bella's distress due to her age.  The vet’s thoughts moved out from the brain to the inner ear, deep in the head and impossible to see without invasive measures.  The inner ear is crucial to maintaining balance and awareness of one's position in the world. 

"Bella's symptoms are consistent with a vestibular issue." 

Alright , I thought, Bella's got vertigo.  "How do you treat it?" I mumbled.  But the vet wasn't done listing possibilities.  She talked about a common parasite that attacks rabbits' organs.  It's most visible symptom - head tilt.  I felt sick to my stomach and had trouble following the rest of what she said.  The vet laid out a plan involving antibiotics in case the problem was essentially an ear ache and a blood test to check for the parasite.  They could check with an exotics specialist for a second opinion.  There would be a fee for that.  They could keep Bella overnight for monitoring then transfer Bella to Exotics in the morning.  Is that instead of calling a specialist?  Do they not want to interrupt the specialist's Christmas?  Exotics could give Bella a CT scan in the morning to make sure there wasn't a tumor.  They could schedule it tonight.  The vet would be happy to check on the price of that for us.  Wait, wait.  What?  Does she think it's a tumor?  They could start the antibiotics tonight.  

The vet stopped and looked at us expectantly.  I wasn't even sure what question she was waiting for us to answer.  I remembered being in a similarly empty exam room two years earlier, with an equally nice and understanding vet, being asked to choose a course of treatment for Fergus, who somewhere, out of sight was working desperately hard to breathe.  That vet had given us several options, each with equally uncertain outcomes.  Now we were being given life and death choices to make, again, without the knowledge necessary to know what was best.  On TV the doctors always give a recommended course of action for their human patients.  Are vets taught not to in case a family doesn't have the money to pay for the recommended treatment?  My body tensed at the unfairness of it.  I wanted to say "Just tell us what you would do if it were your rabbit", but for some reason couldn't get my mouth to work. 

The vet excused herself to give us time to talk it over and check on the prices.  Alex and I stared at each other.  He raised his eyebrows in a question.  I took his hand in mine and shrugged slightly.  We sat in silence, not, definitely not, crying.    

The vet returned and suggested we take Bella home and treat the suspected ear infection with antibiotics.  They'd taken a blood sample to test for the parasite and would have the results in a few days.  If Bella didn't improve on the antibiotics, then we could follow up with the Exotics Dept.  

"Sounds good" I heard myself saying.  I wasn't sure if the vet had just decided for us, or if that's what she'd been saying all along and I had been too worried to understand.  I didn't care.  We had a plan and Bella wasn't going to die that night.  That was enough.  Alex paid the $620 we owed and we headed home with Bella, feeling incredibly lucky. 

Full moon

A Christmas Surprise


"Trish!  Something's wrong with Bella!"  I dropped my book and raced to the living room.  Alex was on the floor, with his head under the coffee table.  This ostrich impression would have been funny under other circumstances, but the worry in his voice stifled my laughter.  I got down beside him and stared at Bella.  She was upright, but her head was slipping from side to side, as loose and out of control as a bobble head.  All I could do was stare at Bella's eyes, giant with fear, scanning left right, left right, loose marbles in her swaying head.  I showed her my hand and called "Bella.  Pet pet?"  Her ears pricked forward a bit but there was no attempt to come to me.  Her head continued to slip back and forth as if utterly out of her control.  

In the other room I could hear Alex calling vets with 24 hour services.  "Is anyone on who is trained to treat exotics?" he asked each one.  Rabbits are the fourth most common pet in the US, but their care is a specialty within veterinary medicine.  I lay down on the floor, inching toward Bella, making myself as unintimidating as possible.   An animal in pain is unpredictable and I had no desire to see what damage her teeth and claws could do.  But Bella didn't back away.  She didn't grunt or thump.  Now I was close enough to see that her body, usually a straight line from her nose to her scut, was curved unnaturally into a C.  Alex appeared at my side.  

"We can go to the place we brought Fergus.  They can call an expert if needed.  Or we can go to the vet school.  It's about double the distance..."  

"I think we have a better chance of getting someone who knows about rabbits at the vet school."  I pictured Fergus' body going limp as the drugs went through his system.  The way his body, in a moment went from familiar to alien, a mass of fur and meat.  It had been the right decision to put him down, but...was Alex thinking about that night too?

"I agree.  I'll get the address."


We drove through the deserted Christmas streets a little faster than the law would allow.  We sped by house after house lit by televisions and Christmas trees.   Radio off, the only sound in the car was the British GPS woman doling out directions with a frustrating lack of urgency.  Couldn't she give a little more advance warning so we wouldn't keep missing our turns?

It's impossible to see a black bunny in a dark car, so I opened the carrier a bit and slid my hand in.  For a split second I feared touching her.  What if I touched a body, the life gone?  The fur was warm.  I pressed more firmly and felt more than heard the undulations of her gut in action. I reached for her silky ear and gently rubbed it, hoping to hear her teeth tap with pleasure.  Nothing.  I stopped petting and a heart beat later I felt the familiar bump of her forehead against my hand, demanding more.  She couldn't be too bad off then, could she?  

Somewhere on that forty minute ride Alex asked, "Did you see her when you got home?  She was fine when I left for my parents'."  And with that, the search for a cause, a missed symptom, something we should have noticed moved from interior monologue to a conversation.  I remembered Alex's sister, a scientist who works with mice, talking about how they hid any sign of being sick until they were too far gone to hide it any more.  "One day they seemed fine, the next they'd be dead.  They're prey animals".  Oh yes, we knew about prey animals.  

"Did she jump off anything? Was anything knocked over?"

"She doesn't seem to be in pain.  She's letting me pet her and you picked her up."

"She was a little slow to eat her breakfast, but she ate it." 

"Remember I told you how funny she was this afternoon, slinking arou


nd the living room like it was unfamiliar territory?  Maybe something was wrong then." 

"Sometimes she just acts funny.  Bunny logic, you know?"

Silence surrounded us as we passed empty shopping plazas, dark car lots, miles and miles of tar and concrete.  I rested my head on the carrier, one hand absently caressing Bella.  There were a few cars on the road, but I felt like we were separated from everyone else by the joyless reason for our outing. IMG_2399

Then, in a move worthy of a Dickens story, my mind jumped to people I knew or knew of who had seen more doctors than santas this Christmas season.  John.  He'd been sick for weeks and probably would be for some time to come. Marc who had come mighty close to death as everyone else counted their blessings and ate pie.  Dave.  No Dave was quietly doing a bit better now.     

Then there it was.  A big, red, glowing Emergency sign.  Through the window I could see the receptionist look up at the approach of our car. 

A surge of gratitude for the vets who work Christmas, who care that much about animals' well being, made me teary as I checked Bella in.  I almost hugged the doctor who took her from me.  We'd done our part.  We'd gotten her there.  Now we'd wait.   

Animal hospital 12252018