“Is she dead? Is she dead?!”
I can still hear the shrill sound of my voice as my husband Dan sat in the middle of our dining room floor, his hands around our cat Madeline’s belly as he rapped her on the back with the heel of his hand. She was choking. Seconds earlier I had been doing dishes when I heard her cough. I turned from the sink and saw her walk a few steps before she collapsed.
“Oh my God, Dan, Madeline!” We ran to her and noticed she appeared to be gagging, but no sound was coming from her. I pried open her mouth to see if there was any noticeable kibble, but saw nothing.
We snapped into auto pilot, Dan scooping her up and immediately beginning to administer the Heimlich Maneuver we had learned just two weeks earlier in the preparation classes we were taking as we awaited the arrival of our first child. I watched as he was slapping Madeline on the back, her face jutting forward across his fingertips and legs flopping around as if lifeless.
“One, two, three, four, five,” Dan counted. Nothing came out of her mouth. He flipped her over on his lap and used two fingers to press on her chest for CPR. “One, two, three, four, five,” he counted again.
“We need to do mouth-to-mouth,” I said and knelt down beside him, putting the entirety of my mouth around her muzzle and administering rescue breaths.
I have no idea how, but somehow I remembered that, like newborns, cats are obligate nose breathers and, therefore, resuscitation requires blowing air into mouth as well as the nasal passages. My 26-week-rounded belly grazed the floor as I puffed air into her mouth and Dan watched for the rising and falling of her chest.
When she still didn’t move, we started the process again. As Dan’s hand met her back, a photo of him next to the CPR dummy flashed in my mind. In his usual goofy way, he had taken a selfie with “him” during our class. But as I watched my husband, stoic as he moved with precision to save our cat, there were no signs of that photograph. It felt so far away, as if it had happened to two other people who wouldn’t be faced with the reality of the situation.
Madeline’s eyes were frantic and searching as Dan started to give her oxygen. She was still breathing, but the minutes between breaths stretched for far too long. I took over when Dan grew tired. In our class, the instructor had told us that the process was exhausting and that having a partner would help, but neither one of us could have never known just how breathless we would feel.
I started to pulse my fingers against her chest then Madeline began to wiggle, her paws wrapping around my arm and claws digging into my flesh. I moved my hands from her and she flipped over to her belly. Her body was unnaturally flat to the ground, but she was breathing on her own and no longer seemed to have something stuck in her airway.
To this day, we can only assume the kibble somehow made its way down because we never saw it.
We knew the next step was to get Madeline to a hospital, so I wrapped her in a blanket while Dan slipped on his shoes to run outside and clean the snow from our car. Earlier that evening, heavy snow had begun falling and our car was blanketed in a thick layer of powder.
Holding Madeline with one arm, I pulled my boots on with one hand and threw my coat around my shoulders, closing the door behind me. As we crept along highway roads that had not yet been plowed, I held Madeline on her back so that I could watch her face. We had just about reached the hospital when her head began to loll to one side, her mouth hanging open. I administered breaths again and continued to do so until we reached the parking lot.
When the hospital staff took Madeline from my arms, I kissed the top of her head and resolved myself to the idea that I might never see her alive again. We sat silently side by side in the waiting room, too shocked and scared to even speak.
An hour passed before a nurse called our names and walked us back to see Madeline. She told us they would be keeping her overnight in an oxygen chamber. I peeked through the glass at my girl, her once-fluffy orange fur now matted to her sides, and told her I loved her, the tears I had pushed aside finally falling down my cheeks.
We went home and attempted sleep, but we both lay awake anticipating the middle-of-the-night call the doctor promised us to update us on her health. My voice croaked with exhaustion when I answered my phone at 3 a.m., but all I cared about were the words on the other end of the phone: “She’s stable. She’s going to be OK.”
When we were able to take Madeline home two days later, we greeted her in an exam room where she leapt from the veterinarian’s hands to Dan’s outstretched arms.
The vet showed us side-by-side films of Madeline’s intake X-ray that had showed fluid in her lungs and a new one that had been taken that morning. Initially, she hadn’t been sure if Madeline had choked or was suffering from a pulmonary issue, but her lungs were clear. “She really did choke,” she said. “She’s still here because of you.”
To this day, neither one of us can fully believe the events that happened that night. As we sat in classes at the hospital where our daughter would be born that June, we feared the possibility of using those CPR lessons on our tiny human –– we never could have imagined they would save our cat’s life.
When our daughter Claire was born, Madeline was the first of our four cats to sit at her side. Each night that I woke up to breastfeed her, Madeline was close at my heels, sitting next to me while I rocked Claire back to sleep.
Prior to that February night, Madeline had tended to keep to herself, but it was if her near-death experience had caused something to shift. Madeline was warmer now and, as Claire grew older, the two have become inseparable.
I delight when I hear Claire beckon for “Time Time,” her interpretation of our nickname, Tiny, for Madeline. Madeline entertains Claire’s tea parties, obediently “sipping” from a pink teacup, and sits by the bathtub while Claire splashes around.
When we found out I was pregnant, we knew that diaper changes, late nights, big girl boo-boos and teenage drama would should us the way to parenthood. But we never could have expected that our first lesson in being Claire’s parents would come from our cat.
Turns out that, like parenting our tiny human, we learned that raising our furry kid can throw us a few curve balls, too.
Caroline Shannon-Karasik’s writing has been featured in several publications, including Narratively, Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, Redbook and Prevention. She is a mental health advocate and currently writing a collection of essays.