How Much Would You Pay to Save Your Pet’s Life?

When I first met Strawberry, age 16, she was lying on her back, paws akimbo. Her cat belly was shaved bare, and black stitches ran several inches down her naked pink skin.

A radiologist squirted ultrasound goop on her abdomen while two veterinary students in dark-blue scrubs gently held down her legs—not that this was really necessary. Strawberry was too tired, too drugged, or simply too out of it from her surgery the previous day to protest. In the dim light of the radiology room, her pupils were dilated into deep black pools. She slowly turned her head toward me. She turned away. She looked around at the small crowd of doctors and students surrounding her, as if to wonder what on God’s green earth had happened for her to end up like this.

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What had happened was that Strawberry had received a kidney transplant. A surgical team at the University of Georgia had shaved off patches of her long ginger fur, inserting catheters in her leg and neck to deliver the cocktail of drugs she would need during her hospital stay: anesthesia, painkillers, antibiotics, blood thinners, and immunosuppressants. Then a surgeon named Chad Schmiedt carefully cut down the midline of her belly—past the two shriveled kidneys that were no longer doing their job and almost to her groin. Next, he stitched into place a healthy new kidney, freshly retrieved from a living donor just hours earlier.

Schmiedt is one of only a few surgeons who perform transplants on cats, and is therefore one of the world’s foremost experts at connecting cat kidneys. When he first greeted me with a broad smile and a handshake, I was struck by how his large, callused hand engulfed mine. In the operating room, though, his hands work with microscopic precision,…

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