Putting a Price on Love?

This was a very stressful week in the Michael household. Early in the week our eldest cat, The Nix, started upon a peeing spree around the house that hit several pieces of furniture that heretofore had not been sprayed on by any of our cats. We thought that the ongoing turf war that exists between her and our newer, younger female cat, Criseyde, had temporarily escalated and, after cleaning the furniture we assumed (and hoped) it was little more than an isolated incident. By Wednesday, when I got The Nix to stand up on her perch only to discover that her whole back end and legs were soaked in her own pee, it had become apparent that there was a more serious problem in the works. I called her veterinarian, Dr. Pauline Knowles, owner of a mobile veterinary unit, and asked her to make a house call on Thursday morning. I was hopeful it was a bladder infection and was easily and cheaply rectifiable. I could not have been more wrong.

The Nix

The Nix

By 9:30 A.M. on Thursday morning Dr. Knowles, to her credit, had easily diagnosed The Nix with bladder stones but, feeling ill-equipped to treat or diagnose the full extent of the problem with x-rays and the like, passed us along to King George Veterinary Clinic for an emergency appointment. At K.G.V.C. our little girl’s x-rays revealed a blockage in the urethra as well as the bladder stones but they, like Dr. Knowles before them, felt ill prepared to do the surgery. To quote the attending veterinarian:”If she doesn’t have the surgery to remove the stones today or by early tomorrow she will die.” So once again we were passed along, this time to VCA Waldorf, MD. By mid afternoon I had to cancel work, I had yet to eat or feed my son, and now he and I and his sister were making an unscheduled emergency trip to Maryland.

In Maryland, VCA Waldorf couldn’t have been more helpful. They could do the surgery. They could save our 9-year old little girl’s life. It would only cost around $4,000! Prior to being handed that expense I had already racked up two other bills from the other two vets that already totaled over $600. Now I was being presented with a bill that the only way I could pay (since with uninsured pets you have to pay in full up front) was to draw out of my IRA at a penalty. I didn’t know what to do.

The Nix defiantly awaiting surgery

The Nix defiantly awaiting surgery

What a terrible question to have to ask oneself: Is my child’s life worth the money? The Nix is only nine; she could have many more years of life left if she undergoes the surgery. On the other hand, our disposable obsessive society sends very mixed and denigrating signals to its citizens on pets. Is the life of any pet worth almost $5,000? Do I just put her down and get another? Do I just buy more love somewhere else? She’s a pet, not a person, right? I’ve only raised her since she was six months old. She and I are only the last surviving inhabitants of my mother’s home in PA. I’d had to fight with a dear friend for possession of her after my mom accidentally gave The Nix away as she was vacating our house. She trusts me as her father to care for her. Does that trust mean anything? Fortunately, an alternative was waiting to be found.

VCA Waldorf, sensing that we just didn’t have the money they required to save our girl, suggested that we take her to a low cost clinic in Richmond called Helping Hands. H.H. could do the same surgery for us for only $650 if we could get her there by 9 AM tomorrow morning. The appointment was made, her records were faxed, and by 4 PM Friday afternoon Helping Hands of Richmond had discharged our little girl back into our care, her surgery a success. As I write this on Sunday afternoon, two days later, The Nix is resting comfortably, eating and drinking again, and to the best of our knowledge poised to make a recovery.

I can’t begin to thank enough all the vets and staff that were involved in the saving of our little girl’s life: Dr. Pauline Knowles and Beth Johnson, Mrs. Niznik of K.G.V.C. and their vets, the staff of VCA Waldorf, and finally and most importantly the veterinary staff of Helping Hands that ultimately did the surgery and saved our little girl’s life. So many wonderful people worked together to allow us to bring our little girl home and to all of them we are grateful.

That said, so far I’ve put out over $1300 in medical bills for the surgery and there are follow up appointments for a urinalysis, stitches removal, and the like looming on the horizon, and I can’t help but wonder what someone else would have done when faced with a similar dilemma. Why was the cost of the same surgery so vastly disparate at two different clinics: $650 vs. $4,000; just because one was in-patient and one was out-patient? Really? I realize there are economic factors to consider, the likes of which I’m not qualified to comment on, but what I do know is that because we can’t afford pet insurance we were put in the position of putting a price tag on our little girl’s life, and that’s a position that I personally don’t believe any parent should ever be put in.

At home after surgery in our cone of shame

At home after surgery in our cone of shame

Then again, it really shouldn’t be a surprise to me, since we can’t even agree as a nation that all human lives have value. There is certainly a segment of our society that is fine with letting people die if the price tag just doesn’t suit. I don’t count myself among them, and I know deep down that if Helping Hands didn’t exist I would’ve paid the $4,000 despite the hardship to my family. But this debate is just part of a larger conversation about the value of all life on our planet and, at the end of all this, I did the right thing by my child because I could afford to, and because there are good people who are willing to work at reduced cost because they love animals. Hopefully, at some point in the future of this country we’ll be able to agree that all life is precious and has value, and that money should not be the determinant of the quality and availability of care. Till then I fear we will continue to put price tags on our love and our loved ones. I’m just glad I was blessed to have enough in the bank to bring my little girl home.



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