Saturday, January 14, 2012

"All Creatures Great and Small"

I’ve just reread All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot (1972). James Herriot (real name: James Alfred Wight) was a veterinarian in rural Yorkshire in the 1930’s. He wrote a series of memoirs of veterinary life, published from the 1970’s through 90’s. I first read the series in high school, then reread it soon after graduating from vet school.

Each chapter is only a few pages long, a vignette of a particular patient or client. Although he talks about medical issues, the stories are more about the people—their personalities, attitudes toward their animals, and relationships with family and neighbors. For example, one chapter is framed around an old dog in congestive heart failure, but the real spirit of the story centers on the dog’s owner, a little old lady whose love of her pets—and Herriot’s assurance that animals have souls—help her find the courage to face her looming mortality.

As a veterinarian, I love to read Herriot because I’ve encountered many of the same situations with my patients and clients. It doesn’t matter that he practiced large animal medicine in England in the 1930’s while I’m practicing small animal medicine in America in the 2010’s—people and animals are the same all over.

The opening line is: “They didn’t say anything about this in the books, I thought, as the snow blew in through the gaping doorway and settled on my naked back.” (He’s pulled off his shirt to reach deep into a cow to deliver a stuck calf.) Yup. I can think of hundreds of situations when I thought, They didn’t teach me this in vet school. Like:
  • How do you repair a lacerated tongue on a cockatoo?
  • What do you do when the dog eats the heroin baggies that the (human) drug runner just vomited up?
  • How do you treat a seagull with head trauma?
  • What do you do when a scared feral cat is running amok in your surgery suite?
  • How do you do a bloat surgery on a German shepherd when you’ve never done one before and you’ve got the surgical textbook open in the O.R. but the pretty pastel illustrations don’t look like the bloody smelly mess in front of you?

Some of the stories will make a veterinarian laugh. There’s one hostile farmer who antagonizes practice owner Siegfried every time he sees him. Siegfried has tried repeatedly to fire the farmer as a client but he keeps calling them back for veterinary services, the quality and price of which he always complains about. But then Tristan, Siegfried’s goofy younger brother, inadvertently mixes up an ointment which was meant to go to the farmer with a fecal sample which was meant to go to the lab. The farmer receives a stinking pile of diarrhea on his breakfast table and they never have to deal with him again. (I can think of a few clients who I’d love to mail shit to!)

Other stories will make you cringe in sympathy, like when clients refuse to listen to James but will happily believe every word uttered by a neighbor, friend, horse trainer, or the “knacker” (slaughterhouse) man. In my case, clients will disregard me but believe the poxy teenager at the pet store, or their second-cousin’s friend’s brother who was an animal science major for a year in college, or the breeder of their genetically defective ChihuaMaltiCockaPoo.

Siegfried says it perfectly when he sums up a veterinarian’s life: “It’s a funny profession, ours, you know. It offers unparalleled opportunities for making a chump of yourself.”

1 comment:

  1. I enjoy how the James Herriot stories are the same situations we deal with everyday even though the drugs and technology are completely different. They made me want to be a veterinarian when I was only in 6th grade. I've had several vets tell me their sugar coated but being out in bad weather at all hours of the night sounds sounds about right.