Sunday, May 10, 2015

For Mothers Day

Every veterinarian has, or had a mother......And many are one themself...
So this....

A little girl wears the look on her face. Her mom knows the look. Moms are smart that way. They know what to watch for when they want to see if the tyke is headed for trouble, like that mischievous change in a little girl's face. Mom lets her wander a bit further this time. But, although one eye might be on the bowl of snap beans in her lap, the mom's other eye stays locked on the little girl.

The blonde, blue-eyed girl is 3 years old, so the world is a very big place. She knows she isn't supposed to walk all the way to the back of the yard, but there might be something worth seeing over there. She toddles off in that direction. Along the way, she glances back toward her mom. Am I caught yet? Nothing happens. I'm in the clear! What a fine adventure. Soon she is lost in exploring, poking about here and there, peering over and under stuff at all the wonders of the world.

A strange noise. The little girl feels that creep of fear. Turning quickly, she looks for her mom. Everything is OK, because mom is sitting right over there, watching her. Everything is OK.

Years pass, and the little girl is no longer little, and when she toddles off, mom is no longer in sight. The girl goes searching for something worth seeing over there. Mom can still spot that look on the girl's face that tells when she is headed for trouble. And mom finds the courage to let her go again. Mom cannot see, but the phone sits just beside her chair, and when it rings, and it is the girl checking to see if mom is still watching, she is. And everything is OK.

The girl becomes a woman, and when she goes exploring for something worth seeing, over there is across a country away. She doesn't look back nearly as often. And mom learns to stop searching for her in the yard. But when the woman feels that creep of fear, she reaches for the phone again, and mom answers before it rings. And everything is OK.

And then the woman finds herself with one eye on the snap beans, and the other on her own little blonde, blue-eyed girl who is headed over there. And she reaches for the phone with something to share, something new to her, and oh so familiar for mom. And everything is OK.

Decades pass, and the woman walks upon a lonely beach. Dark fog hovers near, and the sea is nervous that day, bearing a watchful eye as she is near the surf. She is working through the morass of things bouncing around inside her head, and she feels the creep of fear again. She cannot turn to see mom watching over her, and be comforted by that. She would dearly love to dial the phone, but mom is no longer there to answer. Instead, there is a vast hole in her heart.

But just then, at that very moment, the woman looks down, and she finds, lying on the dark sand, a fingernail size fragment of seashell, pure white, and carved by the waves into a perfect heart shape. A gift from the sea, or someone else? The woman looks up.

Hi Mommy. And everything is OK again.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Herky won't let me be

The lady was in the cat side of reception, looking through the window at my receptionist. She'd never been in before, and I could tell she was checking us out, to see if we were worthy of her cat and her business. That's fine. I do the same thing when I first visit a dentist or even a barber. You want to be comfortable in such an environment.

I was on our side of the counter, leaning and essentially worthless for the moment, although the staff is polite enough not to ever say that. The lady seemed a bit, oh I don't know, hostile is too harsh but she clearly wasn't just blending in as I've come to expect from my clients. Then she saw the cat. That was the deal breaker.

Jaws was lying on the counter, next to Karen, our receptionist and the best friend of Jaws.

The back story. Jaws came to us as an emaciated, flea infested, filthy orange and white striped eight week old kitten. She was hungry, and she demonstrated that with her rather prodigious appetite. She attacked food. So we named her, Jaws.

Jaws was, oh hell let's be honest, fat. And she hung out with Karen, for when the office was closed for lunch and Karen was eating said lunch at her desk, there was this other plate where some of Karen's lunch showed up in front of Jaws every day. The two were inseparable during business hours. I had no problem with this, and my loyal clients loved to see Jaws on the counter, digesting part of Karen's lunch.

Anyway, this lady saw Jaws on the counter next to Karen, and she just about screamed. She was incensed. She was outraged.

“There's a cat on your counter.”

Ah, yep. That's Jaws. She lives here.

“That's unsanitary. I'd never bring my cat into a place like this!”

Oh, well that's fine. Maybe you should just leave and go find some other veterinary hospital where the resident cat doesn't hang out on the counter. Because you will never be happy here.

Good luck with that. In my experience, most veterinary hospitals have what we call hospital cats. Such cats are generally fat, and they hang out on counters or wherever they damn well please, and the people working in those veterinary hospitals love those cats far better than they like BITCHY OLD SELF IMPORTANT WITCHES!

Oh, I'm sorry. Was I shouting?

In my experience, most veterinary hospitals, filled with people who care about their clients' animals, always have a few of their own beloved companions hanging about the place. It's just me talking here, but I wouldn't be comfortable in a veterinary hospital that didn't have a few, uh, normal challenged, animals living there.

Normal challenged?

Yeah, I usually say that you have to be defective to work in a veterinary hospital, but my wife takes some offense at that, and says for the animals at least, I should use the term, “normal challenged” when speaking about the cats and dogs living in veterinary hospitals.

Ya see, most of the animals living in veterinary hospitals have had issues before they came to live with us. Often they are missing various parts, a toe, a leg, a tail, an eye. They often have been abandoned by uncaring owners, or simply adopted by the staff when somebody wanted them dead because they were missing a part or were something less than perfect. They say the fastest route to insanity is to care more for the animals than the people who own them, and that may be true. But, it certainly is the fastest route to accumulating a few more hospital cats.

I look back on our hospital cats, to Moocher, Sam, Momma Tom, Kung Foo, Spaz, Jaws, Mohamed Ali, One Eyed Jack, Quirk, Lefty, Jill, and Herky and I wouldn't trade one of them for the opportunity to serve a woman who couldn't stomach seeing one of ours in our own hospital.

I was thinking about Herky today. He came to us as Herkimer, a ten month old tomcat who got into one too many cat fights, and sustained an abscess in the middle of his back, the consequence of a bite wound. We sent home the usual antibiotics, and all would have been fine except that this bite wound had penetrated to the bone of one vertebrae. The owner noticed that Herkimer was paralyzed at some point and after letting this steep for far too long, and when it didn't “get better by itself”, finally rushed him in. Not surprisingly, he was still paralyzed. Another course of antibiotics actually returned him to normal, but when the owner didn't follow up as we had suggested with further treatment with more antibiotics, he went down in the rear again. When they finally brought him back in, his rear legs were history. They couldn't have cared less.

So Herky came to live with us, and for the next twelve years he slid around our hospital with two good front legs and a back end that came along for the ride. He couldn't feel anything behind his last rib, so he bathed to there and stopped. He built up some fine callouses on the right side and slid along the smooth concrete floors as if they were designed for him. We tried to build him a cart, but he kept spinning out in the corners, so we just let him do as he preferred.

Some clients saw Herky sliding along the floor, and they felt sorry for him. They'd ask if we were going to put him to sleep because he was suffering, and then he'd slide up to them and rub his chin against their ankles purring until they'd pet him, and then it would dawn on them that he was actually a pretty happy cat. And he was.

What I remember best about Herky was his wisdom. From time to time I'd have one of those days when I'd rather be the janitor in a porno theater than to continue this nonsense of being a veterinarian. I'd wander back to the kennel to Herky's home expecting some sympathy, some understanding from a paralyzed cat when I was having a bad day.....and he would bite me. It kinds boiled down to one simple thing. Herky wouldn't listen unless I brought a complaint with some legitimacy. If I was just whining, he'd bite me. Come to me when you've got something important to say, and I'll listen. Smart cat. I learned much from him.

Due to his medical issues, Herky couldn't pee on his own. We needed to hold him over the sink and with gentle finger pressure, we'd empty his bladder each day. When we let him out of his cage each morning, he'd slide around on the floor until he moved his bowels, and that took care of that, most days. But each and every day, somebody needed to express Herky's bladder. On Sunday, that was my job.

Before doing anything fun on Sunday, my only day off, so to speak, I would first have to drive over the hill to the clinic, and squeeze Herky. It became something of a routine. Once I'd done that, my day off could begin. For twelve years.

Right now, we are remodeling our home, because when we finally sell the practice and we can retire, the house will also be sold and we will move to paradise for the remaining days of our lives. So right now, our cats are living at the clinic. So that means, on the weekends I get to drive over the hill to the clinic and make sure the litter pans are clean and the cats have fresh water and food. I was doing just that today, and while I enjoyed the scenery on the drive, it dawned on me that as many times as I have done this, this drive over the hill to the clinic to care for the cats at the clinic on the weekends when normal people are simply enjoying their weekends away from their work, I would soon no longer need to fulfill this duty..... and that brought a tear to my eyes.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Grown-up Angst

I made my Mom laugh really hard once. Didn't intend to, but that is what happens sometimes when you're convinced you know everything, and you haven't yet been shown the error of your ways.

Immersed in some version of teen angst, and seeing no quick and easy way through, I was thinking out loud. Mother had been a teen once, which didn't make her an expert on solving teen angst, but then Mom took after me; she didn't need to be an expert in order to voice her opinion. I can laugh at this bit now, but at the time I was dead serious.

Me, “I can't wait to grow up.”

Mom, “Why's that?”

Me, “Well, this being a teenager is just so full of problems, but when I am an adult, I won't have near so much difficulty.”

I'll give Mom credit, because she tried out of politeness to remain cool in the face of my folly. But, as Rocky the flying squirrel once noted, that trick never works. Mom finally wailed with laughter as she staggered out of the room. At the time, I had no idea why she did that. I have since learned what she knew I would.

Some decades ago I took a walk in the mountains. The John Muir Trail through the best of the Sierra Nevada mountain range is some 220 miles long, and I didn't rush through it, taking some 18 days to finish. Didn't cross a road for the entire length. Nothing but wilderness, altitude, scenery, and wonder filled my days and nights on the trail. It was difficult and thrilling. I remember most all of this. But the part I distinctly recall was that last day as I walked down the mountain toward the dusty truck we left parked on the road, that time of triumph and accomplishment, and also the utter disappointment of knowing that this unparalleled experience must end. Such joy. Such sadness. Such life.

In June of 1972 I walked into the building. It was brand new, having opened for business on the first of the month. I was brand new also, having finished up at the School of Veterinary Medicine just a few weeks earlier. On July 1st I officially began working there, and I've been showing up to work in that building most every day since. Forty-three years.

And now I'm walking down the mountain again, approaching the end of another journey. I am filled with the triumph and accomplishment, and also the utter disappointment of knowing that this unparalleled experience must end. I'm putting my practice on the market so that I can retire. It's time to go elsewhere in life.

Mom was correct of course. That bit about being a grown-up, about not having any more problems....well that never quite happened. Practice was not a party. It had its moments of unforgettable joy, and success, and also those of gut wrenching disappointment and pain. Sitting at this end of my career, I now have the luxury of looking back at the good and bad that happened over four decades, of trying to make sense of it all, and of trying to measure the success or failure of my life, at least that large part spent in that building.

In other words, I now am enjoying yet another dose of what I can only call grown up angst.

The voice on the radio yesterday was talking about the riots, looting, and arson devastating an Eastern city, and since his job is to incite outrage, he decided to excuse the lawbreakers by stating that they only torched a few storefronts. No big deal, right? I listened with interest.

Show of hands.....who knows that there were two veterinary hospitals in the path of the rioters, looters, and arsonists that destroyed much of Fergusen, MO? Those two buildings did not make the news because they didn't burn to the ground. They didn't burn to the ground because terrified men stood outside them with shotguns, facing down the mob.

Have you ever wondered if you would do such a thing? When the last bunch of riots were only miles away from my practice, I wondered. Would you stand in the way of a mob, the wall of a building at your back, the shotgun in hand, just so angry people wouldn't burn the place down?

Would your decision be influenced by the fact that you have worked your entire adult life inside that building, doing important service for the animals and their people, and also supporting your family through thick and thin? Would a building that represents so much of your personal identity really be missed if it became a pile of ashes? Would your decision be influenced by the sad reality that the building represents a significant part of your retirement savings, an investment you worked decades to create, the difference between not getting by or having some comfort? Take on such a discussion in your head in the dark of night sometime. You won't enjoy it either.

When you put a veterinary practice up for sale, you open your business to evaluation. Some things don't come into play. You are trying to sell a business, so things like saving a kitten at no cost to a little girl can go into the memory bank, but since that other bank doesn't enter into the equation, this doesn't count. Not one thing you did just because you felt it was the right thing to do counts now. That number in the computer, all those times you trusted someone who promised to pay, and did not...that number works against you now, too.

Every time you cut a corner because someone begged you to do less than a good job, now counts against you. Every time you didn't raise your fees to keep up with inflation, because so many of your clients were out of work, counts against you. Even the fact that you worked all those extra hours, just so you could help more animals and their people.....even this now works against you.

The numbers are all in the computer. You cannot hide from them. You cannot hide them. And the person who may look to buy your practice will wonder why those numbers make this business look so feeble. What you did all your life to help, means nothing.

Bad business doesn't sell. And if you cannot sell it, those four decades of work trying to help, trying to be the good guy....well that just makes a veterinary practice's contribution to retirement less and less. A lifetime of trying to build that investment squandered. It's only money, you might say, and that would be true. You still have the sense of satisfaction of knowing you wanted to help. 

But when the young doctors ask you why they shouldn't let a client promise to pay a bill, you had best tell them the truth. When they someday are old, and struggling to pay the rent because they sacrificed as they bent backwards to help, they will remember the advice you tried to give, and they tried so hard to ignore.

When I retire I will have enough, but yeah....something more than just enough would be nice. I'd like to do more with my retirement, but I know I cannot. I will have memories and satisfaction. And that will have to do.

I'm almost at the end of my trail, often looking back now. With mixed emotions, regrets and smiles. Not a victim, but a product of all those decades. I get to live with all those decisions.

Such joy. Such sadness. Such life.