Sunday, March 11, 2012

White Lightning

In the record of humanity’s past on this world, one of the earliest known uses of written language was to preserve the recipe for making beer. Shortly thereafter, writing stuff down was applied to commerce, to keep track of the talents, shekels, and such. Only much later did penning religion, history, philosophy, poetry, and sports scores use up of most of the words. Clearly, as a species we valued getting loaded and figuring how to pay for this took precedence over a lot of that other extraneous stuff.

With luck, we can return to getting loaded in a moment, but I wanted to briefly talk about commerce, the paying for things that we want or need. You may have noticed that we will be having an election soon, and those old arguments concerning whether we are better off by being victimized by the greed and criminality of banks, insurance companies, and big business, or instead by the incompetence, inefficiency, and criminality of government seem to dominate the whole process. And in the middle of all this sausage making, the yelling over who should pay for health care seems to fit right in.

I hope you aren’t holding your breath waiting for my solution to the health care issues in America, because I don’t have the answer for that. Most of the solutions folks are proposing will cost me more and deliver to me less, so I don’t know…maybe I don’t see these as solutions. 

So I simply look instead at the little picture, the one on one exchanges that take place in the exam rooms of veterinary hospitals every day, as the doctors negotiate diagnostic and treatment costs with the clients, and some decision is reached that ultimately helps, or doesn’t help, our patients. Our thinking is not muddled much by governments, insurance companies, unions, organized crime, Marx or Rush, or any of the other influences that come into play in the big picture. It’s just us and you all, with Fido in the middle.

I once had a middle aged couple as clients. They had no children. They did have an older Yorkshire terrier. When the time came to purchase a new motorhome, they let the little dog chose the model. They wanted him to be happy with the decision. Needless to say, they never hesitated to authorize whatever it took to assure their little pooch the best in medical care. When the time came that they had to decide whether or not to spring for the brain surgery up at the university for his nasty tumor, they simply said “do what it takes” to try to save the little guy. Sadly, money was not the answer for that particular problem.

For every client like this, I’ve had hundreds who would neglect or even kill their pet rather than dig into the cigarette money, or that weekend in Vegas.

In the middle between these extremes live all those folks with the common realities: budgets, sick kids, fixed retirement incomes, bad luck, bad jobs, bad bosses, layoffs, repossessions, asshole spouses, and all those other reasons why they cannot simply write a check to cover whatever expense Fido might require. Each and every time I’ve stood on my side of the exam room table as they stood on their side, and we’ve tried to find a way to help. This, from time to time, has led to some interesting stories….

Every young doctor mentored by the wise old one has heard the suggestion that you cannot judge what a client can and will do to help their animals by the way they look. Never have I seen this to be more true than when a character direct from central casting arrived with poodle in hand. This man walked right out of an optimistic young doctor’s worst nightmare. Long stringy oily hair, full untrimmed beard with some of breakfast still aboard, filthy denim bib overalls with no shirt and only one shoulder strap fastened, and bare feet that looked like they had never met a shoe. Oh, and the subtle odor of man. No way was this guy going to grasp the concept of paying for the medical care of a dog. He didn’t look like he could afford a nail trim, much less a significant problem.  And the dog he held had two broken front legs. 

I began formulating a plan to try explaining to this guy the ramifications of this dog’s injuries, when he interrupted me. He pulled out a ROLL of $100 bills, and just flat OK’ed the entire treatment, without even hearing about it. No questions asked. And despite the presence of Murphy in the world, the dog healed perfectly.

Then there was the day the young lady showed up with her version of the dog with broken leg. She opened the discussion across the table with the statement that she didn’t have any money, but that she was good for it. I had fallen off the turnip truck quite some time earlier, so I was a mite suspicious of this promise, but she proved me wrong. I had asked for a $100 deposit to begin treatment, for in those days that got you halfway through the care needed. Five times that afternoon she came back to the hospital with $20 each trip. I didn’t ask, and she didn’t tell. This dog also healed up just fine. 

But the strangest experience of my career involved a very distant house call, and a very different owner. It was three plus hours up the interstate, then turn left into the mountains for another two hours and 40 miles along narrow, winding, clinging to the cliff above the river, mostly unpaved road, dodging logging trucks and trying to stay on the track while gawking at the scenery. 

My friend lived in a dilapidated ancient trailer house haphazardly sited on a flat shelf above the white water river. The nearest veterinary hospital was two hours away, so she often lined up a few of her neighbors’ animals for me to treat while I was there visitin’. The town, if you could call it that, was a few cabins spread along five miles of river, and some dirt floored hand built log homes set up the mountain in the trees by various creeks. Most folks got their electrical power from Pelton wheels set in those streams. The area and its people were just a tad bit behind the times. 

On an earlier trip, I had arrived with the notion that we might be trimming the overgrown hooves of a local deer. The old man and woman who lived in one of those log cabins were in the habit of feeding the deer, so their neighborhood was filled with the lovely things. The locals all hunted deer, but they knew the unwritten law…ya didn’t hunt around their place.

Anyway, there was this old doe with hooves so overgrown that they curled up like a genie’s slipper. So I brought the drugs that would induce cooperation, and the old lady would lure in the doe, who she could pet, and I’d poke her and when the drugs kicked in, trim her hooves. It was an optimistic plan, doomed to failure, so when the doe didn’t show that day, no doubt psychically warned away, we weren’t surprised. 

The old woman was an artist, and to thank me for taking the time to try to help, she gave me a product of her genius. It was a tree fungus, those shelves that growth off the side of dead trees, with a curved side on top and a flat bottom. On that flat bottom she had painted a snow scene, with trees and rocks, and a doe standing there, just looking through you like they can do. Nearly forty years later, I still have that painting. It is far more precious to me than any talent or shekel I’ve ever earned in this deal.  

Picture my friend’s trailer kitchen, vinyl sheet covered floor tilting slightly toward the river, an old table centered in the room, and the young cat anesthetized on said table. It was time for him to be neutered, and that was my job. Oh, and the owner wanted to watch. She was not the type to take no for an answer. A woman of indeterminate age, somewhere between thirty and sixty, she wore a dress that would have done the madam of a nineteenth century French brothel proud. Silver studded high top leather boots, long ribbons in her hair, and a hand tooled western style belt and double holster, with two pearl handled Colt single action army revolvers, loaded, completed her ensemble. She was thrilled when I finished and her kitty was just fine. And yes, I made a point to take special care of the little tyke, standard of practice notwithstanding.

For services rendered, the kitty’s owner offered up some local favorite, a fifth of triple distilled moonshine whiskey, in a used booze bottle. What could I say? A few years later the local currency become more herbal, but that is yet another story.

So see, I did get back to getting loaded, and I tied it in with commerce, too. Not bad for a Sunday.