Doctor’s order: get a cat

Robin Sipe and her new kitten, Earlene, at home. Bob Grebe

Robin Sipe and her new kitten, Earlene, at home. Bob Grebe

Published Oct 28, 2023


Cathy Free

Robin Sipe’s eyes filled with tears as soon as her doctor entered the examining room.

“My cat had recently died and I was feeling really sad and depressed,” Sipe said she told her pulmonologist, Earl King, whom she’d known for 15 years.

King has treated her for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a condition that blocks airflow and makes it difficult to breathe. Sipe said he’d saved her life three times in a hospital intensive care unit in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

When he asked her what was wrong, Sipe, 67, opened up to him about her loneliness since her beloved cat died over the summer.

“I was really going through a bad time,” she said she told him during her appointment in September.

King mentioned that she should think about getting a new cat. When her check-up was over, he handed her a printed summary of the appointment, with instructions to get a high-dose flu shot in October and a coronavirus shot in November.

Pulmonologist Earl King’s after-visit instructions advising his patient Robin Sipe to get a cat. Bob Grebe

Then Sipe’s eyes lingered at the item at the top of the list: “Get a cat,” the doctor had written.

King, 63, has been a doctor long enough to know that “people sometimes don’t follow your instructions,” he said. In fact, patients don’t take medications as prescribed by their doctors about half the time, according to the American Medical Association.

King wrote down his advice so there would be no mistake about what he told Sipe during the appointment.

“Robin was down in the dumps, crying about the loss of her cat, and I felt that a new cat was the best remedy for her,” he said.

He’d seen the studies showing pets can improve a person’s mental health and help older adults cope with feelings of loneliness. He’d also seen the effects first-hand.

“I grew up on a dairy farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and we always had herds of cats and dogs,” King said.

“One winter, it snowed so bad the milk truck couldn’t get to the farm, and we had to run 600 gallons (about 2 200 litres) of milk down the drain,” he said. “The cats drank as much as they could hold, and they were very happy. Having them around was a wonderful experience.”

King was serious when he advised Sipe to get a new cat, he said. But he was surprised when Sipe, who has one adult daughter, took him up on it immediately.

After leaving King’s office, Sipe stopped at a farm produce stand for some fresh corn and cantaloupe on her way to her home. While she was browsing, she noticed a black and white kitten romping around.

“She was from a litter of five, and she was missing her front left paw,” Sipe said.

Stand staff told her the kitten lost her paw soon after she was born when something fell off a wall in a shed and severed it.

The kitten’s missing paw didn’t seem to affect her ability to play and get around, Sipe said.

She was instantly smitten, and the words “get a cat” were echoing in her mind.

“I asked if I could take the kitty home and told them I could guarantee that she’d be safe and happy inside,” Sipe said. “They had four other kittens they’d need to find homes for, so they said okay. This sweet little kitten was mine.”

“I bought three ears of corn and a cantaloupe that came to $2.99, and they agreed that an extra penny should cover the cost of taking the kitty,” she added.

When she got home, she said there was no question as to what she should name the frisky seven-week-old feline.

“I decided to name her Earlene after Dr Earl King,” Sipe said. “He helps with more than just my breathing. He’s always taken the time to look after my entire well-being.

“In this instance, he also treated my heart,” said Sipe. “Everything changed for the better when I found Earlene.”

Sipe said she had spent years struggling with COPD and had been admitted to the intensive care unit with breathing problems several times.

“I’ve had to be intubated and put into a medically induced coma,” she said. “Dr King pulled me out of death each time.”

When her cat Datura suddenly died, Sipe said she cried for weeks.

“She was a solid black domestic shorthair that I’d rescued,” she said. “I’ve loved cats since I started chasing kittens when I was 5.”

She thought she’d probably get a new cat one day, but King’s prescription brought home the urgency of bringing back some fun to her life, said Sipe, a retired purchasing agent.

“I do believe this was meant to happen with all my heart,” she said, noting that Earlene likes to watch television with her and cuddles up next to her in bed.

“She’s a sweet and loving kitten, but she does have this habit of waking me up to play at 1am,” Sipe said.

“She likes to reach up and rub my face with her stubby little paw,” she added.

King said he’s gratified that Sipe found a kitten so quickly, and that it was bringing her joy.

“I’m really happy that Robin found a new cat, particularly one with a disability,” he said.

Sipe said a kitten was the perfect prescription for her sadness.

“As far as I’m concerned, she was the pick of the litter,” Sipe said. - The Washington Post

The Independent on Saturday

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