When Holly Freifeld brought her cat, Linus, to Washington State University's Veterinary Teaching Hospital, he had three tumors on the lining of his brain and it was uncertain whether he could be saved.
Wednesday morning, after two surgeries and a new partially acrylic skull, the 8-year-old tabby was back to his old self, surprising doctors and his owners with the swiftness of his recovery.
"(It's) incredibly surprising, I would say, given the fact that we had three tumors we had to remove," said Annie Chen-Allen, one of Linus' veterinarians who helped perform the procedures. "Not that no one's done that before, but I think most people try to shy away from doing that because it is so extensive."
When Linus came to WSU in August with the tumors, prognoses were more bad than good.
"The hospital where we had the MRI done in Portland - all three neurologists there said, 'You're just going to medicate him until he can't compensate anymore and then you're going to lose him,'" Freifeld said. "These (tumors) aren't uncommon in cats, but for there to be three of them - and one of them especially
was quite large - it was a pretty extreme case."
When Linus went in for his first surgery in late August, the intention was to remove all three tumors at once and then reconstruct the skull. However, when the portion of his skull was removed, Linus' brain began to bleed and swell, bulging through the opening and making it difficult to operate.
With his blood pressure dropping, surgeons were only able to remove two of the masses before they were forced to close around the swelling without replacing the removed piece of his skull.
"I actually went into the room and told the owner I was worried that he may not wake up from the anesthesia because of the swelling I was seeing in surgery and because there was a lot of blood loss," Chen-Allen said. "But within 20 minutes from anesthesia being turned off, he woke up - so he surprised us."
After his initial surgery, Linus was sent back home to Portland, Ore., and after a week seemed to be in good spirits, but when they brought him back to have the last tumor removed, an MRI and CT scan found his brain was still swollen.
Chen-Allen said Linus' brain was herniating out of his skull and doctors had to come up with a creative way to replace the piece of skull they removed in his first surgery.
Working from CT scans, Tom Wilkinson, a professor of radiology at the veterinary hospital, created a 3D replica of Linus's skull and swollen brain and used it as a template to form a new skull out of a surgical acrylic called polymethyl methacrylate.
Linus had the final mass removed in September and Freifeld said he is back to his old playful self.
The pair returned to WSU Monday and scans show no new tumor growth. Chen-Allen said while it is unlikely the disease has been eradicated, radiation therapy will help quell any further growth and could help him to live another four years (or 28 cat years) or more.
"There are almost certainly some cells left," Freifeld said. "This is something that will return with time and so the radiation therapy is our best bet for ensuring his longevity."
While the procedures don't even approach the cost of similar procedures in humans, cancer treatment for cats is not cheap.
Charlie Powell, senior communication manager for the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine, said the price tag for surgeries like Linus' can stretch into five digits.
Freifeld said she and her husband, both conservation biologists with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, are on furlough as a shutdown of the federal government enters its third week.
Since there is no knowing when they will receive their next paycheck, the couple have been advised to apply for unemployment insurance. While the two aren't wealthy by any means, she said they're prepared to handle the expense and Linus is worth it.
"I don't want to give people the idea that we're made of money," Freifeld said. "We have good jobs and there's more money where that came from and the amount of money that it is - it is a lot - but it will never make as much difference in my life as he does and will."
Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to email@example.com.