I had travelled quite extensively with my cat by car and even by plane and he had always been pretty calm. I had foolishly assumed he would be as equally chilled on the three-hour train journey from Amsterdam to Gare de Nord.
I had been offered a job in Paris and decided to relocate for a year with my partner. The biggest challenge was comfortably moving my cat. I did my research and found that train travel is very good in Europe and people frequently take their pets with them, so much so that travelling with them was completely free.
It turned out to be a terrible mistake. About an hour into the journey, the train went over some particularly squeaky tracks and my cat started to move around in his carry case. I tried to soothe him by stroking his head through the material. At that same moment we went through a tunnel making a very loud whining sound. He panicked and in an attempt to get out, bit my ring finger through his case.
I took my hand away and saw two small pin pricks on either side of my finger, I had been bitten by cats before -- sometimes it happens when you are playing and they get a little overexcited. Cats have a lot of bacteria in their mouths and it can give you a little bit of an infection, but it usually goes down after a day or two.
This felt different, something wasn’t right -- during the three hours it took me to get from Amsterdam to Paris, my finger began to swell to the point I could no longer bend it. I knew that as soon as I got off the train I would have to go straight to hospital.
I dropped my cat off at the pet hotel, explaining what had happened and leaving strict instructions that he was distressed and needed to be alone for a while to calm down, and then I took a taxi to the emergency room at Georges Pompidou.
An English-speaking doctor was brought in to translate for me. I had planned to take a train the next morning to London, as I was visiting relatives and then travelling to Portugal with my father. I asked the doctor if I could have my operation in my home country. He told me it was too dangerous to do that, if I waited until tomorrow afternoon I might lose my hand. So I chose to stay in France and have hand surgery that the doctors predicted would cost around 2000 Euros, as I had not yet taken on a new insurance plan.
“Also,” the doctor added before leaving, “Of course after you have surgery and your stitches heal you will have a very big scar.”
My surgery was scheduled for 6am the next morning at L’hopital st Antoine, a teaching Hospital in the 12 arrondisement that specialized in muscular injuries.
I have a feeling that someone took the doctors aside and told them to be extra nice to me. I obviously looked terrified and miserable and didn’t really know how I got into this chaotic situation. The hospital staffs were absolutely charming and hilarious and I suppose having a patient with such a bizarre injury made their workday a bit more interesting.
I was suddenly surrounded by cute, funny, male doctors in their early thirties, and because my partner was in New Zealand applying for his European visa, I felt justified in flirting shamelessly with them to calm myself down.
My favourite character was the tall, blonde anaesthetist who came in to numb my arm for surgery. His opening line when he walked into the room was, “Hello, I am like George Clooney in hospital drama but better because we’re in Europe so you get to hang out with me for free!”
The cute anaesthetist pointed to the monitor and showed me my shoulder as a collection of blurry nerves. “You see this?” He moved a large needle around under my skin and when he found the right nerve and he pressed down the plunger it felt like he had injected me with a cold metal that made my arm sink down until I couldn’t feel my hand anymore. After about thirty minutes my limb became a strange rubber stunt arm that wobbled and jerked around, every so often I’d lose control of it and it would fall away from me and the doctors would have to catch it and put it back warning me not to let it happen again.
I don’t remember much of the surgery because I had asked for an injection of something to calm me down. The whole procedure had been obscured from my view by a sheet, so I didn’t get to see my hand until it was bound up with gauze. (Note to readers, don’t let your inner hypochondriac/ dumbass Google ‘cat bite hand surgery’ like I did and see what they actually did to me. Don’t do it, it’s some seriously gnarly can’t-un-see-it horror show shit.)
When I was lying in the recovery room feeling terribly sorry for myself, the surgeon came in and pressed my paperwork under my good arm.
“I think you should talk to your insurance and insist that they cover this, it was, after all, an emergency."
I was about to tell him the same thing as the other doctors -- that I had savings and would be begrudgingly covering the cost myself. Then I suddenly remembered something. About two months before when I had been in the midst of packing, apartment searching and all the stresses that come from relocating jobs, houses and countries all at the same time, I had a conversation with my partner about how my government contract was ending soon and along with it my health insurance.
He absolutely insisted that I take out a very basic emergency travel insurance package to cover me in Europe during my holiday, just in case. I remembered at the time being very pissed off at having to spend a small amount of money and ten minutes filling out the form on top of everything else I was doing that day. I owed him a clumsily typed, one-handed e-mail to say thank you for saving me two grand.
After I was wheeled out of surgery and into my room for the night I was left with a doctor who tried to translate after care on his iPhone. You know you are in a Parisian hospital when first thing the doctor does when he walks into your room is pull your hospital hairnet off and tell you:
"You are not beautiful in this."
I ate some dinner, asked the nurses if I could use the computer to email my family and got a surprisingly good night’s sleep. I jumped awake the next morning to a nurse with her clipboard doing her rounds, and a breakfast of yoghurt and apricots.
They took the IV out of my arm at around midday, after the doctor had checked my stitches, and I wandered dazed out of the hospital and straight into the Paris metro with my arm in a sling. My first initiation into city life was standing up with my hospital paperwork under my injured arm glaring at all the perfectly able-bodied people avoiding eye contact with me because they didn’t want to give up their seat. “What the hell happened to city people to make them into such assholes!” I remembered thinking.
Everything pretty much went back to normal after my emergency, I moved into my new apartment and after a day or two of recovery I was able to book an easy jet flight to Lisbon and have a short but wonderful holiday with my friend and my Dad. I got lots of lovely emails from the cat hotel with them telling me he was so well behaved and they were going to miss him when he left.
Even though a lot of people suggested I throw my cat in the Seine for what he did, I forgave him and after a week he came home and was hanging out in the new apartment playing fetch with my scrunchie and pawing at the puddles in the shower stall like old times.
The severity of a cat bite is something I hadn’t really understood before it actually happened to me, and most people are shocked when I tell them the story. However, I get an entirely different response when I talk to some one who works in medicine or physiotherapy. They smile knowingly at my massive Harry Potter lightening scar and comment that it healed pretty well considering.
Or, to quote the doctor who came to see me in the morning to change my dressing before they discharged me from hospital: “If you think this was bad, you should see what it looks like when someone gets bitten by a human.”