Ember’s healing story began when a nonprofit organization called Dogs on Deployment, founded by two military pilots, reached out to VCA Animal Hospitals to explore new ways to support more pets belonging to active military members and veterans. Michelle Beach Harlow, VCA’s national shelters director, worked with Dogs on Deployment’s president and co-founder Alisa Johnson, a US Marine Corps, Captain (veteran), to host spay and neuter clinics across the U.S.—building on the organization’s support of military and veteran pet owners since 2012 by covering some pet-care expenses and helping to foster pets during deployments.
Spay/neuter clinic serves military families
“VCA was very excited to help military personnel by volunteering our services and expanding access to pets,” exclaimed Michelle. “We coordinated the offering with several VCA spay and neuter clinics around the U.S., located near military bases.”
One of the clinics took place at VCA Broad Street Animal Hospital in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina. It was here that Ember, a military pet, was scheduled for her spay.
“Our VCA clinic was the closest to Fayetteville, North Carolina, near Fort Bragg, so we served as the spay/neuter clinic in this area,” said Nicole Harris, hospital manager at VCA Broad Street Animal Hospital.
It was here that Ember’s owner Chelsea Kanitz brought her cat for a spay procedure. Chelsea’s husband, Derek Callahan, is stationed in Fayetteville, at Fort Bragg. However, the veterinarians at VCA soon discovered an issue. Five-month-old Ember had an unusual lump on her side that needed specialized care.
Ember’s journey to wellness
“I first got Ember when she was just four weeks old,” explained Chelsea. “My friend’s mom found her in the middle of the road and almost hit her. Ember had some injuries at the time and she walked with a limp. I said I would take her.”
Chelsea first took Ember to a veterinary clinic where they determined she had been bitten and had a blood clot—but thought she would heal.
After Ember healed, Chelsea later discovered VCA and Dogs on Deployment were hosting spay and neuter clinics while researching Facebook groups and resources available for military families. “That’s where I found out about VCA’s clinic,” notes Chelsea. “I brought her in for her spay, but they were concerned about the lump on her side.”
“ VCA was very excited to help military personnel by volunteering our services and expanding access to pets, exclaimed Michelle. We coordinated the offering with several VCA spay and neuter clinics around the U.S., located near military bases.”
Specialty surgery needed quickly for Ember
“We didn’t know what it was at the time,” notes Nicole. “After testing, we determined that the lump wasn’t a mass, but her protruding kidney caused by a hernia. We’d never seen something like this before.”
Nicole called Chelsea and shared what they found. Because the kidney is a vital organ, they couldn’t proceed with the spay procedure. The kitten required specialty care and needed surgery quickly. VCA’s team sprang into action, coordinating with Dogs on Deployment to cover the much-needed surgery. But the next challenge was finding a specialist in the area who could perform the surgery.
Fortunately, there was a BluePearl specialty hospital located 25 minutes away in Cary, North Carolina.
Repairing Ember’s hernia
Brittany Sanders, DVM, surgical intern at BluePearl, was on her surgery rotation when Chelsea brought Ember into the hospital.
"Ember had a body-wall hernia they believe was secondary to a previous bite wound, and there was swelling next to her spine by the epaxial muscles," explains Dr. Sanders. "The swelling was actually her left kidney herniating through the muscle layers of her body wall."
During the surgery, the attending surgeon Mischa McDonald-Lynch, DVM, DACVS-SA, pulled the kidney back through the muscles into the abdominal cavity and closed her body wall with stitches. In addition, Dr. McDonald-Lynch tacked Ember's kidney in its normal place so that it wouldn't move within the abdomen. "We also performed Ember's spay during the surgery," stated Dr. Sanders. "Overall, the kitten made a good recovery."
A happy, playful kitten
After the surgery, Chelsea says Ember healed really well and with no complications. She has returned to her usual playful self, bouncing around their apartment and lying down in funny positions.
“Everyone was so nice at VCA and BluePearl, explaining the situation and surgery so well to me,” recalled Chelsea. “I’m really glad they took the time to help us—it was invaluable. I’m also so grateful that Dogs on Deployment paid for Ember’s surgery in full.”
“When we heard that the kitten's life was in danger, and the challenges the owners would be facing, we put ourselves in their shoes,” explains Dogs on Deployment founder Alisa. “We knew Chelsea and Derek were facing very difficult financial decisions over Ember. We wanted to remove the financial strain and worry. No service member should have to stress over whether or not they can afford to save the life of a loved pet, especially one just starting off in their new family.”
Alisa shared that Dogs on Deployment was happy to help this military family save their kitten, and she hopes Ember has a long and healthy life!
“It’s our Dogs on Deployment donors and supporters who made Ember's surgery possible, along with expertise from hospitals like VCA and BluePearl,” concluded Alisa. “After 10 years of helping military families with pet health, it’s still the most amazing feeling for me. Stories like Ember's give me goose bumps and bring tears of happiness to my eyes.”