Broken Promise

“He’s going to be fine, I promise!”

Don’t… don’t make promises you can’t keep.

A ‘gut feeling’ is nothing more than your brain rapidly jumping to a conclusion, taking a short cut through your usual decision making process, based on inputs that you may not have even consciously processed yet in order to get you to where your thoughts need to be as rapidly as possible.

‘Gut feeling’ for me as a veterinarian also means taking these hands of mine and palpating the abdomen of the patient, literally feeling the gut, as part of the physical exam, and in doing so with this patientI could just feel my heart sink as that gut feeling of doom set in.

Oh no.

A purebred kitten. Unfortunate anatomy but nice enough.

A little quiet. Sweet and cuddly.

A skinny little thing, I could feel all the definition of its spine and scapulae… but an abdomen bulging with fluid.

A kid in the room for the consult, for her kitten’s consult.

The mother of the child saw something in my expression change, something as I tried to very quickly think of what to say when I’m 99.9% sure this kitten, this adored new family member, has something terminal and I have to say it with a kid in the room.

And it’s not even here for being sick, yet. It’s here for a vaccine, but there’s no way that is happening.

I talk very carefully, explaining this kitten is skinny, but its belly is far to big for a kitten who’s not eating. And I can see the mother’s expression go through suspicious and concerned before I offer an abdominal ultrasound, complementary, just to check, now, right now.

I don’t even take the kitten out to the treatment room for the scan, I bring the machine into the consult room. If my suspicion is correct, every moment the family can have with their kitten will be precious, and too few.

I hope I’m wrong. I would very much enjoy being wrong. But that gut feeling is there.

The ultrasound is quick but insightful. I’m only looking for fluid, and the kitten’s abdomen is full of it. All that viscera just floating, and I explain as I go along, so the humans can see.

And the mother gets where I’m going very quickly, she understands. The daughter is only about ten, and she takes several minutes before jumping to a conclusion. Then the crying begins.

The mother jumps to comfort the child and says, on instinct I suspect, the very last words I ever would have wanted her to say.

“He’s going to be fine, I promise!” 

Because I know damn well that the kitten will not be fine. It’s not going to be this kid’s companion for the next decade, and that is a promise nobody can keep.

I have a brief moment to speak frankly with the mother when the kid excuses themselves to the bathroom. I don’t know how long a child usually spends in the bathroom, so I have the most horrible conversation trying to sugar coat the facts a little whilst also getting to the point quickly.

The kitten has FIP. I can do the tests to confirm it, to try to prove my gut feeling wrong, but they all end badly. All I can do is present the information so the mother can comfort the child in the time the kitten has left, and while I can try to make that as long as possible, it’s never going to be long enough.

In the end, we get about a week.

She asks me at the end, “you knew, didn’t you?”

And yeah, I feared.