When one of Cindy Chambers' students found a malnourished, sickly cat who appeared to be missing his nose wandering the streets of her neighborhood, the student contacted her big-hearted professor. Chambers is a special education faculty member at East Tennessee State University, and she is dedicated to helping people with disabilities.
"She thought, 'He has a disability, so why don’t I call my professor who focuses on disabilities in her field and also does some animal rescue work?'" Cindy says.
Cindy has a soft spot for animals in need. For about five years, she and several other faculty members at East Tennessee State have fostered animals either abandoned or taken from the homes of individuals who can no longer care for them. They have found homes for numerous puppies and kittens.
Cindy also considers her own home a "rescue house." She started with only one cat, but she now has four cats and four dogs -- "and I don't need any more," she laughs. But when her student introduced her to Lazarus, she couldn't say no.
"As soon as I got him, I looked in the carrier, and I thought, oh my goodness, this poor little kitten," she says. "I was really scared that when I took him to the vet, they were going to say I’d need to put him down."
The tiny, gray kitten was not in good shape. Cindy's student had asked around the neighborhood to see whether Lazarus belonged to anyone -- "but we were kind of hoping she didn't find who Lazarus belonged to, because he was malnourished, he had fleas, and his mouth was in really poor condition," Cindy says. He had a cleft palate, a congenital deformity that left him without an upper lip or the soft padding of his nose. This type of deformity is not very common in cats. With his lower fangs protruding, he looked a bit like a bulldog -- or perhaps an adorable vampire.
According to the vet, his mouth was also severely infected. He had bone exposure on the roof of his mouth, and the infection had spread into his nasal passages. There was good news, though: At 10 weeks old, Lazarus was a survivor.
"The vet said he’s made it this long -- he’s a trooper," Cindy says. "He said if we can get his infection under control, he’ll probably make it. That was awesome to hear."
The vet started Lazarus on antibiotics, and his infection improved. But the moment he went off the antibiotics, his infection returned. This pattern persisted for several months -- Lazarus would start taking antibiotics and seem to be getting healthy, only to have a resurgence of his old symptoms the moment the antibiotics stopped. Cindy finally discovered the possible reason for his health problems when she went out of town for a couple of days. She returned home to discover a startling surprise.
"One of his canine teeth on the top came in in two days," she says. "I left town and left him with my roommate, and when I came back he had this gigantic tooth sticking out of his mouth. And I thought maybe the infection was coming from an abscessed tooth."
She was onto something. The vet removed Lazarus' canine teeth and cleaned out all of the infection from his mouth and nasal passages. The result? Lazarus had a new lease on life as a healthy kitty. Today, at seven months old, his only remaining concern is the occasional bloody nose, which Cindy manages by running a humidifier beside his bed each night.
"He had that surgery, and he has not had a single health problem since," Cindy says. "Day to day, he’s just like any other cat. He’s rambunctious, he plays, he cuddles -- he does all the things every other cat does, but at night he sleeps with a humidifier."
Because of his unique look, Lazarus is well known among Cindy's colleagues. In fact, a number of professors even talk about him in their classes -- particularly in the speech and language pathology center.
"When they talk about cleft palates, they talk about Lazarus as well," she says.
Cindy's ultimate goal for Lazarus is to train him as a therapy pet.
In this role, she hopes he will change people's perceptions about individuals and animals with disabilities and help deliver the message that they can contribute positively to society. Follow Lazarus on Facebook here.
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"My hope is that through meeting Lazarus and hearing a little bit about the other work I do, people can apply those beliefs to people with disabilities," Cindy says. "You immediately feel some kind of connection with Lazarus because he has such a great personality and he’s just so loving. His disability really isn’t a focus. He’s just a really awesome cat."
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