I Spent $17,000 to Save a Life: My Cat's - OZY | A Modern Media Company

I Spent $17,000 to Save a Life: My Cat's

I Spent $17,000 to Save a Life: My Cat's

By Betsy Boyd


Because unless your pet is a tortoise, it’s something you’ll have to consider.

By Betsy Boyd

Before my kids woke up, I drove my sick, ancient cat, Stan, from Baltimore to Philadelphia in my junky Rav4. I assumed we’d arrive at his clinical interview, meet the surgeon and her grad students and be gently turned away. Who gets a kidney transplant for a 17-year-old cat?

I’d already spoken by phone more than once with the no-nonsense renal transplant nurse/coordinator, Lynn, who had made notes on Stan’s stage 4 renal failure and tried to dissuade me from pursuing the possibility based on his advanced age.

“Is it fair to the donor cat?” Lynn asked me. “That’s one thing we have to consider.”

“I feel like Stanley wants to live,” I told Lynn when we first spoke. But then I asked her, “How much does this cost?” Stan’s wonderful Baltimore vet, Nancy, had estimated about $10K.

“Anywhere from 20 to 25 thousand,” Lynn said, and I asked myself if I could make such an exorbitant sacrifice for my best friend. Even though I’m a college writing professor and freelance editor — and my paychecks reflect as much — even though my semiretired freelance journalist husband and I have twin sons, age 3, a voice inside said, “You can, and you must — this is Stanley.”

Stanley came into my life when he was 8 weeks old and I was 27. My longtime boyfriend named him Stanley after filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, and he proved to be equally brilliant, in cat terms. He walked on a purple leash. He talked on command, answering mewling questions about tuna, turkey and chicken. He knew stuff. More importantly, he stuck by me through a very bad breakup; he nursed my left earlobe when I cried; he loved me and only me.

Dr. Aronson told me how her own brother joked, “Why not just do a collar transplant?”

“Wow, he looks great for 17,” said Dr. Aronson, a University of Pennsylvania small animal surgeon celebrated in the best vet circles for her pioneering work with feline kidney transplants. Stan, a long, slim tuxedo, eyed her knowingly. “He’s smart,” she noted.

“Right?” I said.

“Hey, there, handsome,” cooed the formerly tough-talking Lynn.


Dr. Aronson ordered an ultrasound, reviewed Stan’s other health stats and decided that his health was excellent aside from the shit with his kidneys. As Lynn looked on dubiously, Dr. Aronson said, “If you want to do it, I think we can.”

“Seriously?” I asked.


“What would you do?” I asked her. She wouldn’t answer — she smiled halfway. Cue my own psychobabble, edited for length. “I mean, I’d rather save him than buy a crappy Kia, not that my close friends don’t think I’m insane,” I told Dr. A., but inside I was wondering if those friends were right.

Dr. Aronson told me how her own brother joked, “Why not just do a collar transplant?”

Thank God I didn’t have to decide right then, because not only was I having massive anxiety about breaking into my small savings, more than that I was worried about the fact that Stan would have to take immunosuppressant drugs every 12 hours for the rest of his life if I elected to put him through the surgery — if he survived it. These antirejection drugs could lead to all sorts of problems: weight loss, infections, tumors. But if he lasted six months postsurgery, according to statistics, he’d have a chance at several years of good health. He might live well into his 20s. What were the odds? No one could say. But without intervention, he’d die soon — the only guarantee.

I couldn’t decide. I’d find Stan collapsed on a chair and half-hope he’d died in his sleep. He hadn’t. I was elated.

While I pumped Stan with subcutaneous fluids to keep his body hydrated and anti-nausea drugs to keep him from feeling like death from the renal trouble, I thought and thought about what to do. One close friend told me she wanted to do an intervention to stop me from spending my “sons’ tuition money,” so I stopped telling friends.

I talked to my easygoing husband, who said, “Up to you, babe.”

Then I talked to Stanley. I explained how much I wanted him to live but said I didn’t know what I should do. I watched how he responded to the needle-stabbing treatment I administered at home and the low-key but regular vet visits that were merely meant to keep him alive a bit longer. He purred a lot. He wanted to live, I believed. But he wouldn’t, couldn’t — not with a bum couple of shriveled kidneys.

Still, I couldn’t decide. I’d find Stan collapsed on a chair and half-hope he’d died in his sleep. He hadn’t. I was elated.

“The sooner you get him a new kidney, if that’s what you decide to do, the longer he’ll get to have a chance to enjoy it,” our local vet said to me by phone while I paced the backyard. Somehow, once Nancy gave her blessing, I became fearless.

The morning of the surgery, Dr. Aronson stepped into Lynn’s office where I was holding Stan, petting him and saying my potential goodbye. She wore green scrubs that swallowed her petite frame and old white Keds, and she looked pale.

“I’ll do my best,” she said, “but I can’t make any promises.”

My husband, kids and I spent the day at a popular children’s museum while Stanley received a kidney from a formerly homeless cat named for Jay Leno. Uber-friendly Jay, age 2, would become my family’s cat whether Stan lived or not. All day I felt tense but brave. I got a call around 5 p.m. that things had gone well. I cried euphorically in the hotel hallway. My sons asked if Stanley was all right, and I said he was better than ever — I hoped that was true. Less than a week later, I returned to pick up both Kubrick and Leno from U Penn in the old Rav4 and to pay my remaining balance.

Grand total came in lower than expected: just under $17,000. Lynn rolled the kitties out on a cart, put her emergency cell number in my phone and hugged me goodbye.

Three months post-op, despite one nasty bout with an upper respiratory infection, Stanley is thriving. His kidney values are golden. He requests food more than ever, frequently in the middle of the night, which is a pain in the butt. He hisses at Jay Leno. Jay Leno, for his part, seems to love us all. But Stanley loves only me.

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