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Excerpted from

A Snowflake in My Hand

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My alarm clock failed to ring, but by skipping morning coffee I managed to be only fifteen minutes late. As the elevator crawled to the eighth floor of the Animal Medical Center I hoped that perhaps Clancy too had overslept. It was 7:20. The elevator door opened, and I stepped into the hall to find him waiting.

"I know I'm late, Clancy, but it happens occasionally." He looked angry. "If you would just wait until I come get you, you wouldn't have to pace in the corridor."

I unlocked the office door, and he brushed past me as he entered. I opened the drawer immediately, knowing there would be no peace until he got what he wanted. Clancy was not a finicky eater and promptly concentrated on his breakfast.

He was a square-jawed, tiger-suited cat, seven years old. Short-legged and sturdy, he looked like a prize fighter who had retired from the ring.

When I was on time, I would find him in his cage in the ward if the wardman had remembered to close the cage door securely. The door had to be lifted slightly for the lock to click. As soon as I opened the cage Clancy would meow, hug me, and then crawl over my shoulder and jump to the floor. Before I did the morning treatments, I would open the ward door so that he could run to the office where the food was waiting. But if I was even five minutes late, he would meet me at the elevator, as he had today, and reprimand me. I never knew how he got out the ward door.

Dr. Hayes came into the office. Audrey had completed her residency at the Animal Medical Center with a specialty in oncology, the study of masses or tumors. She was now an associate staff member. We had first worked together on Saturday night medical clinics. We both liked working with cats, and we both were unconventional in our restraint techniques: we tried to pay attention to the cat's preferences.

Dr. Hayes patted Clancy on the head. He glared at her.

"You know, Samantha, Clancy's using you. He's a male chauvinist, just like T.C." T.C. was one of her six cats.

"That may be true, Audrey, but Clancy and I have an understanding." Clancy yawned and walked away, confident that I would defend him.

"He's rude, arrogant, and ungrateful." "He's handsome and Irish."

I heard Greg's voice in the corridor outside the office. Dr. MacEwen was the head of the unit.

"In the parking lot? It must have come from the stables across the street. Will it be all right in this box? What about food?"

"I put some water in there and some bread," the clinic aide replied. "I'm just afraid to leave it downstairs in the clinic, in case someone knocks it over. It's quieter up here, if you don't mind, and I'll take it home this afternoon."

"Morning, Audrey, Sam." Greg was carrying a shoe box with tiny holes punched in the top. "One of the aides found this mouse, and I told her we'd keep it out of the way for her this morning. What's Clancy doing out?" We all turned and looked at Clancy now sleeping soundly on the counter, snuggled in a corner. I thought I saw his ear twitch, but he did not move.

"He's exhausted, Greg."

"He never does anything. Put him back in his cage." "But he's sick."

"He's not sick. Granted, he has the feline leukemia virus, but it doesn't faze him in the least."

"But he was abandoned. He thinks no one loves him."

Greg was weakening, as he always did with Clancy. Looking at the shoe box, he said, "What about the..."

"Clancy's too tired even to notice. You know he can't sleep when he's in his cage."

"Poor Clancy," Greg replied, smiling as he left the office.

Clancy stretched and shifted his position.

I had first met Clancy a few months after I started working in Oncology. We see most of our cancer patients on the eighth floor, but I was still working Tuesday and Saturday nights with Greg and Audrey in the general clinic on the second floor, where medical and surgical cases, routine examinations, vaccinations, and emergencies are handled.

When I walked into the exam booth that Tuesday night, Clancy was sitting on the metal table. I usually have to pry my cats out of their carrier when they visit the doctor, so I was impressed by his nonchalance. He stared at me defiantly and then began to groom himself. When Greg came in, Clancy lay on his side and stared wistfully into space.

Clancy's owner had three cats. The other two had tested negative for the feline leukemia virus. Because the virus is contagious among cats, Clancy's mistress had brought Clancy to be euthanized. He was her husband's cat; she had brought him in because her husband could not bear to.

Leukemia is an abnormal proliferation of white blood cells in the bloodstream and bone marrow. In cats most leukemia is caused by the leukemia virus, but not all cats with the virus develop leukemia.

The virus, found in a small percentage of cats in the general population, can be passed from cat to cat in the saliva, urine, milk, and blood. In other words, a communal litter pan and feeding dishes are likely intermediaries for the virus, as are a bite wound, or a mother cat nursing her kittens. Not all cats exposed to the virus will become viremic, or persistently infected. Some cats develop antibodies against the virus within three months of exposure to a positive cat, and therefore become immune to the infection.

We had been able to send a magnificent long-haired cat home to his grateful owner after the cat rejected the leukemia virus on his own. We didn't see a case like this often, but such things did happen.

We do not know which cats will become viremic and which immune, but we believe that kittens and older or debilitated cats are more susceptible because their immune systems are either not fully developed or are altered. In any event it takes more than one test to confirm that a cat has the virus.

A cat who tests positive for the leukemia virus may be a healthy pet with a glossy coat, good appetite, and normal activity. I remember a feisty calico cat with eyes the colors of stained glass who probably became positive late in her life. She lived to the age of twenty-one.

I had long been fascinated by this virus that remains dormant in some cats and causes fatal diseases in others. It was generally believed that the positive cats were more susceptible to disease because their immune systems, the body's defense, were suppressed by the leukemia virus. I had asked Greg if we could use on Clancy a new form of therapy that we had been testing - therapy meant to stimulate Clancy's immune system so that, ideally, he would reject the virus, or at least resist the diseases associated with the virus. Greg had agreed, and we had suggested this treatment to Clancy's mistress as an alternative to euthanasia.

When I lifted Clancy from the table, he had rested both front paws on either side of my neck. As we headed for the elevator to take us to the eighth floor, his new home, I heard Greg's voice. "Just this one, Sam. And remember, don't get too attached." But Clancy was purring.

Greg set the ground rules for Clancy's stay with us. Clancy must remain in a cage. He must not interfere with the Oncology Unit's routine. I appealed to Greg's sense of fairness. After all, Clancy was a pet, unaccustomed to prolonged confinement. Greg gave Clancy his first inch, and Clancy slowly and relentlessly stretched it until the entire eighth floor was his.

Clancy was allowed in the office before clinic for breakfast. Duerrel, our wardman, usually cleaned the ward between 7 and 9 a.m., and then Clancy could return to a clean cage. A few mornings clinic started early, and by the time his cage was ready I was busy with patients. Clancy wisely camouflaged himself among plants and piles of records. He slept soundly in the sun, only occasionally rattling a paper or toppling a plant as he shifted positions.

Greg was off on Saturdays, and Clancy spent that entire day in the office. He was so well behaved that gradually he came to stay with us a few days during the week. To encourage him to remain in his corner during clinic I left a water bowl, canned food and dry food within easy reach. But all too often when Greg was concentrating on a patient's X ray, Clancy, a noisy eater, would interrupt with a crunch or slurp.

Still, as time went on Clancy was allowed five-day access to the office, although Greg never actually acknowledged the concession.

Some afternoons Clancy would sit in Greg's office across the hall. While Greg worked at his desk Clancy slept curled up on the extra chair. But as soon as Greg left the office for a few minutes Clancy jumped down, stretched, and then took possession of Greg's chair, which he clearly preferred. When Greg returned, he always displaced Clancy from the chair, but he never threw him out of the office. And sometimes I would catch Greg reaching over and gently petting the slumbering beast.

The song that Clancy purred to me the first night he entered my life became a vital part of my days for the next two years. His former owners never called or came to visit Clancy. I guess they thought that any contact with him would be too painful for them. He was my cat now, and we spent our days learning about one another. Those days were precious days, bonus days for Clancy and me.




Tags: Pets

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