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.
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.