Looking back, that particular year could be regarded as one of the darkest periods of my life. Gaby, the little hedgehog who lived with me, almost died, and not once but twice. It started when I noticed at mealtimes that he had some difficulty in swallowing. I ground up his food thoroughly and thought that would help, but during the next meal he started choking and suddenly he was gone. In an instant and to my horror, his body became floppy, his arms and legs hung loosely, his senseless eyes rolled upwards and his tongue become swollen and blue. There was no time to go anywhere for help, and so I thumped him a few times between the shoulder blades, automatically adjusting the strength of my hand movements. While my hands calmly performed the required routine, I screamed hysterically at him to come back. The combination of the treatment and the racket I was making worked because within a minute or two, he was back. As his breathing was strained, I rushed him to our vet who was based some 14 miles away. Gaby was X-rayed and then put into an oxygen tank to help his breathing. While I sat rigid in the waiting room for some four hours, that evening he had his back teeth removed since the vet suspected that was the reason for his choking incident.
Two days later, when the soreness of his mouth had subsided, Gaby was back to his old self . He ran around, played with me and ate well. My relief was overwhelming. A week later, Gaby got up one morning lethargic and grizzly. His nose was running with something I hadn’t seen before, a sticky, rubbery discharge. As he wouldn’t settle, refused his breakfast and insisted on being carried around, I took him to my study where I work every day. At midday the telephone rang and I put Gaby on the sofa amongst the folds of his blanket. After a minute, as I bent to pick him up, he gave a strangled choke, a colourless substance emitting from his mouth, and once again he was gone. Only this time he wasn’t fighting for his breath, but stopped breathing altogether. I grabbed the weightless, horribly floppy body, with arms and legs dangling outwards. His blue tongue protruded from his half-open mouth, and his glazed eyes already turning into his skull. Luckily, once again my instinct took over my panic, and hurriedly I spread-eagled Gaby on top of my desk. Holding his mouth, I gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, blowing big gasps of air into his lungs. I then pressed gently five times his breastbone and massaged his heart. I repeated the procedure over and over again for the next few minutes. I could see some movement back in his legs, and although he was still spread flat out, within a minute or two he was at last looking alertly into my tear-smeared face.
Without even dressing properly (I couldn’t let go of Gaby), we dashed to the hospital by taxi. By now the mysterious infection, which he had caught from some other animal or equipment used during his stay in hospital, acquired the manic proportions of the Phantom of the Opera mask, half covering his face and closing one of his nostrils, but at least he was alive. The vet seemed as perplexed as I was. I was given antibiotics to be injected daily and a bottle of antibacterial solution. The first seven nights of Gaby’s illness I had to spend on the floor of his bedroom holding his feverish and immobile body in a comfortable position. He had to be given water via syringe at regular intervals to avoid dehydration, and although so weak that he was unable to move, he couldn’t sleep. The rubber mask that was covering half of his face had to be bathed regularly with antibacterial solution as was the rest of his body, to prevent the spread of infection. Every morning we would move downstairs and settle in a big, roomy armchair, which I had lined with a quilt for comfort and warmth. Firstly though, on my desk Gaby had to have his daily injection of antibiotics since he couldn’t eat or even hold down anything except water.
Luckily for Gaby and for my own sensibilities, I am a dab hand with a needle, thanks to expert tuition from my father, a surgeon. Whether dear Pop could ever have foreseen that I would use this skill to give injections to a hedgehog remains unclear, but I often offer him my silent thanks all the same. After the cleaning session, I would settle into the armchair with Gaby firmly wrapped up in my arms and into a fitful 10 to 20 minutes of sleep. As Gaby couldn’t move, I had to massage his tummy very lightly to help him expel whatever it was possible to get rid off. In between cleaning and sleeping, I would talk to him in the same way as one talks to unconscious patients, urging him to fight and telling him over and over how much he was loved and needed. I cried a lot too because poor Gaby looked so ill that even my 150 percent positive attitude was, in the worst moments, momentarily shaken.
After one week of the treatment, Gaby was able to go to sleep properly and I could have my two-hour nap too. I could now see a slight improvement in the state of his face. By the end of the third week, I gently managed to peel off the hateful rubbery mask. At that point I was feeding Gaby with the help of a syringe filled with kitten food, which had to be pulverized in a small electric mixer, otherwise it would not flow easily through the nozzle. To finally arrive at the right technique took some time. The pictures and the walls in the feeding room had strange but fetching brown splodges all over on account of the more-often-than-not blocked syringe suddenly exploding when pressed too hard in sheer frustration. Six weeks on and most problems were solved. Gaby fully recovered, ran and played happily, talked his head off, his eyes bright once again like two blueberries after the rain.