I remember seeing the heartbreak in her eyes. It was an hour or so before the morning shift volunteers were scheduled to come in, and one of our neonate kittens had crashed.
The kitten had been fighting a severe case of Coccidia. We managed to catch the parasitic infection within the litter early on – unfortunately, the litter was already going upstream against underdevelopment and possible FELV infection.
Their Immune system was practically nonexistent, and every bacterial infection seemed to know it.
After staying up through the night shift with the neonate, my wife Melanie was getting ready to switch shifts with me – she’d been up all night caring for the little one.
During our morning briefing where we share what happened and what needs to be taken care of for the day shift, the kitten went from stable to critical and was gone before we knew it.
She tried everything she could to save that kitten: CPR, IVs, etc. But the baby was gone.
I felt the pang in my heart as did she. No matter how many times we’ve faced this scenario, it never gets easier. It always seems to break our hearts just a little bit more each time. And, I think it has more to do with the fact that we often care for these kittens since they’re a day old, or come in half dead and we manage to stabilize them – watch them grow up.
I stepped away to give her some space, I knew she was devastated, but she doesn’t like to show it. The reality is, that even though situations like this break our hearts, she still has an organization and shelter to run. The shelter doesn’t stop, rescue pulls from county and city don’t stop, adoptions, Veterinary visits, paperwork, foster coordination, transport, donor management, marketing, community outreach, projects… none of it stops.
We have to constantly stay on top of everything and manage our time wisely. There’s no room to sit and sulk. The reality is, personal moments like that take away precious time and attention to the rest of the abandoned cats & kittens in our care. We have to always keep moving forward.
This all changed when I heard a crash from the other room. Normally, things falling or being knocked over are common in our shelter – I mean, it’s run by cats. But, this time it wasn’t followed by the usual “it was me” or “I’m okay.” It was uncomfortably silent besides the humming of the air purifiers.
“Is everything oh-kaa…” I lost my words as soon as I had seen Melanie laying on the floor in the Neonate Nursery. She doesn’t remember if she lost consciousness or not, but she was clearly disoriented. I helped her up. I was trying really hard not to panic.
After a few seconds, she started to come to. I started fumbling for my phone to call for an ambulance, but she urged me to give her a moment to collect herself. She finally decided it would be best if she would just go home and get some rest so she called her mom to come get her.
Ten Minutes later I was helping her into the car to go home. I kissed her goodbye and they drove off. A few moments later the volunteers started to show up for the morning shift and I had to get my head back in the game.
I had a difficult time focussing on the shift, so much was going on and all I could think about was my wife. Seeing her on the floor. My heart dropping. I was still obviously worried. That’s when I got the heart sinking text “She passed out again. We’re taking her to the Emergency Room.” I felt like my world had stopped.
“Oh Shit!” slipped out my mouth and the volunteers in the medical unit all stopped to stare at me. I was instantly panicking, and I knew they could see it. I told one of the Senior Volunteers that I had to go and she was in charge. And, I was out the door.
Now I wish I could tell you that I met her just as she was being taken into the Emergency Room with a doctor and nurses by her side, but the truth was that we just sat in an over crowded waiting room for hours. There was obviously some people that looked much much worse than my pale lethargic wife, so we sat patiently.
She eventually urged me to head back, finish whatever I had left, and she’ll keep me updated. Now, let’s fast forward to the next day, you know, after she was seen by the ER doctor who never looked up from her chart, said she was ‘okay,’ ‘drink more water,’ and prescribed some Tylenol for the pain. I’d like to pick up where I got another text while working at the shelter from her mother saying that they’re heading back to the ER. She passed out again.
This time it was different. She was far worse than she was the day before. Her skin looked like it was nearly transparent. And she was having a hard time concentrating let alone being able to finish sentences.
After getting her own bed in the ER, having numerous test run, the Doctor decided that she was to be admitted into the hospital. And, just like that, they were wheeling my wife away toward the Intensive Care Unit. The RN said it, but I already knew it… she was really bad, and this is much more serious than any of us had thought it would be.
Seven days. She was in the ICU for seven days. She had to be on fluids nonstop. On a controlled diet. She went through Thirteen rounds of various antibiotics. She couldn’t even get out of bed to use the bathroom on her own.
During this time, I’d spend the night and sleep on the chairs in her hospital room. Wake up to go manage the shelter, and come back to stay by her side. Each day was hard, both physically and mentally. I was running the shelter by myself. And of all the times for it to happen, volunteers just stopped coming in to help. I wasn’t entirely sure as to why, but all I knew was that I was by myself and had to figure out a way to make it all work.
I had to psych myself out each day. Tell myself “one kennel at a time.” And that’s all I could do. My days at the shelter were starting at 7am and I wouldn’t be able to leave till around 8pm. I’d start catching up on admin work when I got to Mel’s side.
Somedays volunteers would come by to help, but it was in all honesty “too much” for them. A lot of them couldn’t handle all the work that came with the day to day operations – some left. Some never came back. I tried my best to come off as optimistic and motivate the volunteers, but pep talks can only go so far.
Seeing others leave the organization started to look tempting. There was a day where I sat on the floor of the nursery and just broke down, pouring my eyes out and sobbing as I hugged my knees tight. This went on for almost an hour – I didn’t want to get up. I had given up. I quit. As I looked up, all I could see were little paws against the glass enclosures trying to get my attention. They were hungry and crying, and I felt like I had failed them, the organization, and my wife.
When I’m anxious, I start counting. I’ll randomly run numbers, figures, statistics, all kinds of numerical crap through my head. It’s my way of calming down – I use it to find stability, as well as a balance to center myself. Eventually the numerics bled into my surroundings, and I started counting the kittens in the nursery. The numbers started connecting to stories, stories of the kittens and how they each had come to be there in the first place.
All the calls, messages, photos from members of the community… from staff at the county shelter. “Please, can you help take in this kitten?” “I have no where else to go…” And then I began to remember all the calls for the ones that we couldn’t take in – the ones that ended up being put to sleep. They died because we couldn’t help them. Now, I know we can’t save every single kitten (yet), but the ones that were right there in front of me were the ones that we were able to save.
I realized that if I didn’t get up, push through it, other kittens wouldn’t get this opportunity. They’d die because I quit. And I need to hold on, not just for them, but for my wife.
GERD, Kidney & Bladder Infections, over a dozen ulcers and kidney stones, hypertension, anemia… this is just a short list of what the doctor’s found with my wife. They said that the majority of it was caused from the high stress that comes along with not only working in a shelter, but managing it as well as a nonprofit organization. The thing my wife had built from scratch and loves was killing her – literally.
Melanie was working Sixteen hours shifts for almost a year straight. Her and I had honestly taken a total of six days off during that time. We even worked on our honeymoon. Everyone gave us crap for it, but somethings don’t get the luxury of being put on hold or to the side.. especially when you’re going up against the fact that if you don’t do your job, animals will die.
I remember the doctor, family and friends, asking if it was worth it… and each time without a hesitation she’d always say “yes!” She knew this struggle wasn’t going to last forever, that it would one day get better (and easier) – we’d just have to hang on and get through it. She’d tell them that as long as I was by her side, supporting her, that we’d be able to do it. As long as we’re together, we can do anything. And that includes tackling the Highest Euthanasia rate in the country and saving as many abandoned cats & kittens as we can.
So as I sat on the floor in the nursery, I just kept counting the numbers, and hearing my wife’s brave words replay in my head. I got back up, and kept moving forward…
We’re coming up on our one year anniversary since opening our No-Kill Cat Shelter in Bakersfield, CA. Within this time, we’ve successfully rescued and found loving homes for 500 abandoned Cats & Kittens. 500 that would’ve been put to sleep for being disabled, underage, senior, special needs, etc. But, we didn’t do it alone, we had volunteers give thousands of hours, donors fund operations, agency partners working along our side, but most importantly, an amazing leader (my wife). Save the Kitties.