The True Cost of Illness

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December 3, our favorite cat, Doodles (shhhh, don’t tell the others!), fell ill. She had a swollen eye, and she was lethargic… well, limp would be more accurate. She’s a very active cat; she runs, plays, and greets our friends when they visit. We call her white shadow because of how often she’s around us.

I woke and gave them the usual morning treats. It’s a morning ritual that began when we moved here, to get calories into our sick cat, Poe. (She passed a month after we moved here, so this morning ritual is a trigger of mixed emotions.)

That day, Doodles never came out for treats.

She’s gorgeous. We joke that she has a personality for each Calico color. She’s alert, inquisitive, brilliant, playful, and friendly. Those who’ve seen her also know she is… well, “she has thick tissue,” as the vet phrased it. We say she has food issues because she’s always the first in line for feedings. If I sleep too long, she jumps on the bed and stands on me until I get out of bed.

Doodles Sprawled Out
White=Crazy, Black=Sweet, Orange=Sassy

When she didn’t come out for treats, I knew something was wrong. Very wrong.

I immediately panicked and searched the house for her. When I found her, her right eye was swollen and tearing. She’s had eye trouble since infancy; the friend who gave her to us, treated her with antibiotics before she was 6 weeks old. Wiping her eye with a warm, wet paper towel is a routine occurrence. I’ve learned that like humans, the weakness of a young cat often becomes their health challenge later in life.

We awakened to an emergency where we could do nothing. We wake up 3 hours before our vet opens. There was also a snowstorm headed our way. She was fine when we went to bed. What could have gone wrong in those 8-hours we slept!?! Did she eat something? Get something stuck in her eye? Is it… something worse!?!

We called our vet, and they were closing early for snow. We made an appt for 11am the next day, December 4. We were forced to wait another 27 hours with an ill cat and no idea what went wrong. How do you monitor the unknown? We had the emergency vet on speed dial in case her condition worsened.

She slept the entire day, as we watched for any sign of changes. We were helpless to ease her condition.

As soon as I arrived at work the next day, I told my boss I was leaving early and would come back when I could. I had no idea how long it would take, nor what they’d find.

She was marginally better the next day and the vet’s initial exam showed no illness. Her temp was normal, her eyes dilated normal, and she had no noticeable masses. The vet asked about her habits: she was eating, drinking, and using the bathroom like normal. Until we awakened the day before, she showed no signs of illness.

We all agreed it wasn’t necessary, but we took no chances. Because of her weight and the return of our anxiety from losing Poe at 11 years of age, we had x-rays taken as a precaution.


We lost Poe from a rare leukemia, despite eating, drinking, playing like normal. An x-ray found a large tumor in her stomach, but it was too late to do anything other than comfort her final days. Blood tests only 3 months prior to the x-ray and diagnosis showed nothing wrong with her, either. 

You never know with pets.

They can’t speak and tell you what hurts. Cats hide when they’re in pain—it’s almost impossible to determine what ails them. Sometimes, doctors have to guess. Our vet guessed it was a Herpes outbreak, which is common among cats. That’s a relief… a condition and diagnosis I understand. An easy fix, just like people. We gave her the antibiotic eye drops he suggested and bought Lysine treats to boost her immune system.

Thursday, she seemed 50% better. Those are good odds, considering how lethargic she was acting the prior day. She continued to eat, drink, use the litter, and came out to visit more. By Friday, she was at 75% capacity, so we hoped she was on the mend.

Saturday proved very different.

She was lethargic again and now had a “head issue” I couldn’t understand. She would move her head back and in circles, as if drugged. She would look in random parts of the room, though she wasn’t focusing on any sights or sounds. We had 2 feline children with neurological issues before (epilepsy in one, and an unknown brain condition that caused blindness in the other)… she was showing similar symptoms.

I went to work, despite my anxiety. The vet wouldn’t open for another hour—I wasn’t even sure they could see her. Vets work only half-days on Saturdays, if at all. Our vet doesn’t always have openings, regardless of the urgency of your situation. Sitting home would do nothing for my anxiety…

Rob was with her, so I knew she wasn’t alone. And it’s not like she was coming out to visit us like she usually does. My hourly routine of sneaking in the bedroom to make sure she was breathing certainly didn’t help her situation, nor ours. So I left for work.

I called the vet as soon as they opened, prepared to give them a speech.

What I’d say, I didn’t know. I only knew the initial diagnosis from the “teen vet” was unsatisfying (nice guy, but he looked as if he’d just graduated vet school—he sure didn’t seem overly confident in his diagnosis). Our Doodles had not only relapsed in 3 days, but had worsened. We were helpless again, fearing the worst. Neither of the medications he prescribed should affect her behavior–one was an antibiotic eye drop, and the other was a nutritional supplement.

They could squeeze her in at 11, so I left work (again) and said I’d be back. Sometime. I’m blessed to have an amazing manager and position that affords me this freedom. They understand our cats are our children. They come before anything.

When the second vet examined her stomach and eyes, Doodles hissed and growled. I burst into tears… she’s never been angry with a stranger, nor has she hissed at us like that in the 8 years we’ve had her. She was in a lot of pain.

We had the vet review the previous prognosis, hoping she’d find something that was missed. The second exam also resulted in a clean bill of health, aside from the odd head movement. We had a blood profile completed, despite it appearing as if it were a frivolous cost. We only knew was she was worse, “nothing was wrong,” and we were watching her fade away each day. We needed an answer, regardless of the cost.

Her blood work showed nothing abnormal and while there was some relief, there was also anxiety. What could be wrong if the x-ray is clear, the blood work is fine, but she’s in pain and has an unexplained eye problem? Were we destined to relive previous feline neurological problems?

The vet gave us another antibiotic and 2 painkillers/anti-inflammatories. Yet again, we left with no answers, just another vet bill and medication. At least we knew her head bobbing resulted from pain… she moved her head to relieve discomfort in her eye. “Something could be lodged behind her eye… something she ate could have traveled to her eye, or a small piece of dirt or substance could be stuck behind her eye, causing inflammation and swelling. She’s clearly in pain.”

If her condition didn’t improve, the vet suggested a neurological vet in Scarborough. Scarborough? Where’s THAT!?! GPS says… 2.5 hours from us. Each way. With a sick, uncomfortable cat. As we enter another winter in Maine.

Her daily medication routine was a challenge.

I wrote each medication on a piece of paper, how often she needed it, and the times I had to give her doses. In high-stress situations, our brains don’t work as well—I wasn’t leaving her health in the hands of my memory. Did I give her the Clavamox or Gabapentin? Did she get 2 doses of the Prednisone today? What day is it and when do I ween her off these pills? Which medication is an antibiotic (A) and which is for pain (*)? I need to gauge what reaction to expect… she’ll be groggy with the pain pills/anti-inflammatory.

  • 4am: wake and give her eye drops (A) and Gabapentin (*). Treats as a reward.
  • 6am: Clavamox (A) and Prednisone (*) – Prednisone first, wrapped in a ball of cheese, so she eats it. The Clavamox is a liquid I can easily squirt down her throat. The pill is a challenge, so let’s get rid of that first. Give her a little more cheese after the Clavamox, to wash away the taste of the medication and offer a reward for torturing her.
  • Noon (or as soon as I’m home from work): eye drops (A) and Gabapentin (*). Treats as a reward.
  • 6 pm: Clavamox (A) and Prednisone (*). Extra cheese as a reward.
  • 8pm: eye drops (A) and Gabapentin (*). Treats as a reward.

After 5 days of Prednisone, ween her down to 1 pill every other day… and hope the swelling doesn’t return. She was lethargic the first day she didn’t have 2 doses; she slept all day. She perked up soon after her dosing of medication, so the lethargy resulted from the medication, rather than illness. Whew.

All this while maintaining a normal work and dinner routine, despite nothing feeling normal.

She improved slowly, though her eye still seemed a little wonky. Her third eyelid was still pronounced and though there was no tearing, redness, or swelling, her retina didn’t match her left eye. Why?

But she played again and begged for treats. We cried the first time she attempted to play, and the first time she cried for treats. She even play-swatted one of our other feline children and growled when I moved her off a blanket, to make the bed. (Normal Doodles… her growl and hiss is a sign of annoyance… her “bitchy side.” She’s the perpetual 2-year-old human infant, with all the associated tendencies.) It’s nice to have her back!

Only 3 rounds of Prednisone remain, so her last dose will be Saturday, December 28. She’s not showing signs of needing it, thankfully. With the return of her health and intelligence, she’s not falling for the pill-in-cheese trick anymore. It’s a battle of cramming it in her mouth or mashing it into her wet food. There are advantages and disadvantages to both and I’m an expert with either option.

We’re hoping for the best, but we can only wait and hope. Will she be OK after we stop all medication? Will the eye trouble return? Will it be a larger problem next time? What is the problem? With the closest neurologist 3-hours away, winter weather, and my 2-months off work, we’re a bit on edge.

The vet’s prognosis was just a guess. A guess is the best they can offer us.

We took her health for granted.

We missed the other little things we took for granted: her sassiness, play hissing with our other children, cuddling, jumping on the bed, wanting coconut oil when we shower, begging for treats, running around the house, playing with toys and strings, scratching on the post, and rubbing against us.

What a powerful reminder of our health.

What auspicious timing, as we near the new year and a new decade for health goals. This stress is a reminder for our health, as much as hers.

I remember the routine of doctors, helplessness, medications, time off from work, and funds needed for transportation and medication. I remember the hours of waiting and traveling; sitting in a doctor’s offices for some tiny answer. Answers that never helped. Difficult prognoses with no hope, no cure, no possibility for pain relief.

The pain of living 15 years with my mother’s illnesses and then losing her flooded back to me.

When you watch helpless as someone fights a terminal diagnosis for 15 years, you make necessary adjustments in your life. If for no other reason, watching my mother slip away guided me to a path of Wellness. I search for answers the doctors never give her.

Her illness’s and my father’s sudden death are the reason I’m proactive with my health. My grandfather smoked until his death, despite emphysema and multiple strokes. My grandmother limited, but refused to give up her seafood, despite painful gout.

They inspired my vow to age with increased, rather than decreased health. Though I’ve never forgotten why I took that vow, I’d forgotten the feelings attached to the “why.”

I have a renewed sense of my Mission in life; I can help others avoid these same pains.

Despite all our medical advances in the last 17 years later, I still search for answers doctor’s never have. “There’s no cure for that.” “We don’t know what’s wrong.” “Spend hours traveling, give us money, and we’ll hopefully have a medication for you.”

Medications never heal the condition, they only mask the symptoms.

When western medicine can’t even give you a diagnosis, what do you do? What about those who don’t have insurance, nor funds for endless testing methods… what happens to them? What if you can’t afford a $250 prescription that only lasts a few days? What if the only medicine that eases symptoms costs $5,000 a month!?!

The only solution is being proactive, and it doesn’t matter what your age or health conditions are.

I’ve read countless stories of near-death recoveries, improved health at 70-years of age or more, and none of these are wealthy people with access to unlimited medical advances. We scoff at the simplicity of their recovery: eat more plants, sleep 7 or more hours, meditate, exercise 15 minutes daily, chase your crazy passions, and surround yourself with people who you love, admire, and who inspire you.

When I have heart-to-heart conversations with people about their level of health, the conversation turns to hopelessness, apathy, and a lack of motivation. Why? Because “healthy food doesn’t agree with me,” “I like my junk food too much,” “What does it matter? I’m 55, 70 years old (insert any age), and can’t change… what’s the point of trying?” “I want to enjoy my food,” or “I don’t want to give up sweets. It’s not like I’m looking for a new spouse, anyway.”

I ask again… “why ‘suffer’ to be healthy?” Because these people are on medication, routinely visit the doctor, are on disability, and can’t walk far, nor lift over 15 pounds. I hate watching helplessly, knowing how their family is suffering as a result of their false beliefs.

Here’s the true costs of illness for you or your family, should you avoid this basic advice:

Physical Cost:

  • We pay cash for every medical visit, whether it’s for us or our cats. This includes medications. During the holiday season. The season my work ends for 2.5 months.
  • 2 medical visits equaled 2 weeks of my pay. What if we only had 1 income and not 2?
  • I left work for each appointment, which meant losing more pay

Mental Cost:

  • Lack of sleep from worrying and checking in on the affliction
  • Lack of clarity and focus
  • Lack of motivation and inspiration

Emotional Cost:

  • There’s no laughing… how can you laugh while someone else suffers?
  • Guilt… what have we done wrong? What are we missing? How’d we not catch this?
  • Heightened fear and sensitivity. She’s our favorite cat, always on Rob’s lap or hanging around us. We couldn’t console her nor comfort her. As Rob so perfectly phrased it, “I feel like I’m failing her as a father because I can’t make her comfortable.”
  • Illness and death dampen the spirit of any holiday. Father’s Day without a dad, Mother’s Day without a mom, Valentine’s Day without your partner, Grandparent’s Day, Sibling’s Day, family outings, anniversaries, the end-of-year celebrations, let alone birthdays… many suffer holidays alone, missing friends or family that passed far too early.

For your sake, your family’s sake, and your friend’s sake, please be proactive with your health. Eat well, drink water, sleep, and enjoy the life you live. Even if it’s one healthy habit each day, it makes a big difference. We have such a short span of time to make a difference—use this time to leave a legacy you’re proud of.

We often take our health for granted and forget how fragile life is.

If you’ve ever suffered through your own illness or that of a loved one, please share your experience in the comment field. Add the costs others don’t see or have forgotten. Your insight inspires others to live a healthier life.

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