My mother has been a regular blood donor all her life, and I grew up eager to follow in her footsteps. I pounced on the blood drive at my high school as soon as I was old enough to qualify for it; I consider donation an act of good citizenship.
I learned about feline blood donation much more abruptly. When I worked at a nonprofit animal hospital, a desperate call swept through the halls one afternoon: A patient was hemorrhaging and in dire need of a transfusion. Did anyone on staff have a young, healthy cat at home? Could they bring the cat over as soon as possible?
My cat, Chuck, was a year old and just across town. I didn’t think twice — of course he would be a donor — and within the hour I was back at the hospital with him. His blood type matched that of the other cat, and he ended up saving that cat’s life. I met her human guardian a few days later, and she wept as she hugged and thanked me. She told me to thank Chuck, too.
In some ways, that experience was much more intimate than my own donations. My blood has always been trundled off to a bank somewhere; I can assume it has benefited many people over the years, but I’ve never met them, and they’ve certainly never cried on my shoulder. I felt in that moment that I’d made the right call.
That warm certainty overshadowed a much more harrowing experience of the donation itself, a few days earlier. Cats go under general anesthesia for that kind of blood draw, and the hospital kept Chuck overnight to be sure he woke up in good shape. I ducked into the treatment room to say goodbye at the end of my shift, and there he was: a small, shorn body at the back of a cage. My breath left me in a whoosh, and I crawled in to curl myself around him.
“I am so sorry,” I whispered. “You’re doing such a good thing.”
When I decided I wanted to write about blood donation here, I checked an old journal to see what I’d written that night. The entry was pretty straightforward: I’m an ass.
Chuck gave blood for a second and final time, and saved another life, a year later. By then I had a second cat, Jude, who was too little and nervous to be a donor. I reasoned that Chuck gave once for himself and once for Jude; if either of them ever needed blood, I could feel justified in asking others for help. I don’t know if that makes sense. It’s what I told myself.
Caring for a companion animal is tricky. Experts caution us against anthropomorphizing them — we might suspect we know what they feel and what they want, but attributing our own traits, emotions, and intentions to them is wrong. We’re in charge of their health care, though, and we have to act on what we believe they would want all the time. That responsibility rips my heart in half every time I have to take it, whether it’s to pay it forward, as I chose to do with Chuck and the blood donations, or to fight for my own cat’s life, as I did a decade later when Chuck needed chemo for small-cell lymphoma. (No cat of mine has ever needed blood.)
I have never been a cat, but I have been under general anesthesia, and it was terrifying. I woke up and faked lucidity just long enough to get discharged and lurch to the hospital parking lot, where I hid on the floor of my car. If I had to guess, I’d say those two stays for Chuck were probably hell. Maybe I’m an ass was right.
That said, I stand behind my decision to donate my cat’s blood. We humans depend on pro-social behavior, such as volunteerism and shared responsibility for our children, to thrive. Companion animals are members of our families as well, and we need to be able to lean on and help each other on their behalf and for their sake. Chuck might not have known why I offered him up, but I know I did it because I loved him.
Read more by Lauren Oster.
About the author: Lauren Oster is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She and her husband share an apartment on the Lower East Side with Steve and Matty, two Siamese-ish cats. She doesn’t leave home without a book or two, a handful of plastic animals, Icelandic licorice mints, and her camera. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.