A tiny kitten, barely weighing more than a pound, arrived at our shelter on a Friday afternoon; it's an occurrence so commonplace that it is admittedly difficult to remember them all. But this kitten was unforgettable from the start. It was immediately evident that something was wrong: her breathing was labored and her gums were pale, but she didn't appear to be injured. Gently investigating her tiny body through kitten-soft fur, we discovered her sternum was severely sunken which had caused the organs in her chest cavity to shift. Known as pectus excavatum, this congenital condition leads to a multitude of respiratory and circulatory problems; and from her presenting symptoms, the prognosis was grave.
Luckily for her, she found herself in the care of a remarkably determined staff guided by compassionate and fearless veterinarians. There was one treatment option, but it was risky and certainly not conventional in a busy, open-admission shelter. But none of that mattered; all that mattered was that there was a chance.
As risky as the procedure was, it was also elegantly simple. A rigid splint was sewn to the outside of her chest so that it perfectly matched the contour of her sternum. The splint was then aligned and cemented into a chest cast which was shaped in a way that gently pulled her sternum out from its sunken position, allowing her organs to assume their more natural positions. No one really knew if this would work or not, but it didn't take long to find out. The monitors showed improved oxygenation mere seconds after the cast and splint were positioned.
She woke up from surgery wearing a tiny pink and yellow chest cast that resembled a suit-of-armor. One of her veterinarians dubbed her "Turtle" and she spent the next six weeks in a staff office, winning new animal and human friends on a daily basis. Her cast gave her an unusual stance, causing her front legs and feet to pigeon inward so that she looked like a posing bodybuilder. Her stance perfectly mirrored her confidence, and unless you saw her play and climb and jump and wrestle with resident dogs, you would never think that such a casted kitten would be able to do much of anything.
The one word that consistently came from people's mouths when talking about her was "special". It was often difficult to put into exact words how watching and interacting with her made us feel. Her cast reminded us how vulnerable she was and how her future was still uncertain. Her sideways hops when she was excited, with the best arched back she could muster put smiles on faces and never failed to make us laugh. The tone of her meows became demanding if anyone was eating their lunch without her. She refused to be left out, and none of us ever minded having a lunch buddy. Her determination to climb the chair and jump to the desk filled us with anticipation that was part excitement and part worry, which was most often followed by that unrivaled happiness that comes from a meaningful victory.
Six weeks after her first procedure, Turtle underwent a second to adjust the alignment of the splint to her growing body. Despite the very best of efforts, Turtle passed while under anesthesia. As she was mourned, people told and retold their own stories of their time with Turtle, they shared pictures and videos they had in their phones, some even demonstrated her stocky stance or how she walked. Every single person who knew Turtle shared similar feelings and stories. She united us and reminded us to enjoy the moments before worrying about the outcome. She showed us that we are one family and together we have the ability to make the impossible possible.
We may have given her the gift of comfort for the six short weeks she was with us; but what she gave us will last much longer and reach much further than we can possibly know.
Jamie, NACC staff member