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Convent's kitty is a 'little miracle'

Gina, a petite kitty with enormous green eyes, was saved from a life-threatening ailment by two caring veterinarians.

The prayers of nearly 80 Franciscan nuns -- one of them Gina's owner -- probably helped a bit, too.

Sister Alice Gilabert of Springville says, "I call the story 'The Miracle Workers,' because the docs sure saved her, along with our Sisters of St. Francis, who were praying for her."

"There were some powers at work there!" says Dr. Gary Schmitz of Springville Animal Hospital, shaking his head. Schmitz and Dr. Michael Reilly, owner of the practice, performed the surgery that saved Gina's life, and their staff cared for the kitty for a week afterward, when her recovery was still in doubt.

The story starts early this year, when Gilabert, who lives in the convent at St. Aloysius parish in Springville with Sister Lois Nunweiler, went through a long ordeal with their beloved cat Midnight.

They had had Midnight, a coal-black kitty, for 10 years until she died in January. "We went a little while without a cat, but it was so heartbreaking, and the house was so empty," says Gilabert. "Franciscans are very animal-oriented. St. Francis was the protector of animals."

At St. Aloysius, "The sisters have had animals through the years, and I think the convent has been there since 1895," says Gilabert. "Ever since the Springville Animal Hospital opened, we have taken all our dogs, cats and other critters there."

In late February, she heard about a special $14 adoption deal for cats offered by the SPCA, and she and Nunweiler visited the agency's Walden Galleria adoption site to take a look. There they spotted Tillie, a petite 5-pound calico-colored tabby with white feet.

"Although they told us she was timid, once we went into a room with her, she just started rubbing up against us and wanted to be petted," says Gilabert. "They told us she needed to go to a quiet home. I looked at Lois, Lois looked at me, and we said, 'How much quieter can you get than a convent?' "

At home, they renamed the cat Gina, after Gina Browning of the SPCA. After about a day of hiding, Gina emerged to explore her new surroundings.

The next day, Gina became ill, refusing to eat, vomiting and drooling. Reilly checked her out, giving her fluids and medicine to settle her stomach, but she didn't improve.

"Dr. Schmitz felt her stomach and said she might have an intussusception, which is when a portion of the bowel slides into the next, much like pieces of a telescope," says Gilabert. "Gina was one sick cat, very close to using up eight of her nine lives."

Although Gina was newly adopted, Reilly could see how devoted the nun was to her charming companion. Recognizing that "nuns don't get giant paychecks," Reilly offered to donate some of the services.

The vets straightened out a 2-inch overlap in Gina's intestine and used some stitches to secure it in place.

When Gina came out of anesthesia, the waiting began to see if Gina would start eating again.

Reilly says he and the staff were determined to save Gina. "We had just gone through all kinds of problems with sister's previous cat, and I said, 'She is not going to go through the loss of a second cat. We're fixing this cat!' "

While Gina fought for her life, Gilabert worked daily at the order's St. Mary of the Angels Regional House in Williamsville. "Every time I stepped in the door there, the sisters would all ask me, 'How's Gina doing?' " she says. "I'd have to tell them, 'She's not doing too well, she's losing weight and is still in the animal hospital.' I asked our wonderful Franciscan sisters to pray for this creature of God -- and they did!"

The vets gave her fluids, pain medication and finally appetite stimulants, but Gina refused to eat and her weight fell close to 3 pounds. "Every time we passed her, we would talk to her and encourage her to eat," says vet tech Desirae Hebdon.

About a week after her surgery, as Gilabert was cuddling Gina, Hebdon brought in a morsel of food on her finger and put it into Gina's mouth. This time Gina began to chew. "I don't remember what I said when she started eating, but I was just so happy," says Hebdon. Fellow vet tech Lisa Zontek chimes in, "I'm pretty sure it was, 'SHE'S EATING! SHE'S EATING!' "

The vets kept Gina one more day, to make sure she was digesting her food.

"Gina is now a very healthy cat who loves life," says Gilabert. "She just loves to play and eat. She's very lively and has toys all over the house from the sisters who came to visit this little miracle."

Recently, Gina returned to Springville Animal Hospital for a reunion with the doctors and staffers who saved her life -- and to meet her namesake, Gina Browning.

"When you work at the SPCA, there's no higher compliment than that, to have an animal named after you!" says Browning, cuddling the kitty.

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com

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