Lessons from a Veterinarian

Posted by on 11.12.07 | 3 Comments
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I suspect he may have changed a little, but what’s really
changed is my perception of him. When he whisked that calico cat away from me fifteen
years ago, and said as he was turning his back, “She needs an enema, call me
this afternoon,” I was stunned. No further explanation, no chance to say
goodbye to my kitty, and he was gone. I stood around for a minute then left.
Once I picked up the cat that afternoon I didn’t go back to him for six years.
I found another vet ten minutes farther away. She was an excellent vet, and I
was very happy with her care of all my animals for years.

Then one night the old knobby-headed dog was stricken,
bloated tight and crying under the stairs, and my vet didn’t answer the phone.
I called the next vet down the valley, and rushed the dog there at 10 at night.
He said “Your dog is fine. Whatever it was is over.” That was a relief. But it
was wrong. The ailment recurred a few months later. I tried my usual vet, who
once again wasn’t home. Believing knobby-headed dog would be fine, I walked him
around the yard for hours, but his pain increased. Finally, at 3 in the morning
with much trepidation, I broke down and called Dr. Vincent.

“Bring him in right now,” he said. When I arrived half an
hour later he was waiting for me with The Book open on his table. He showed
pictures of a dog’s stomach twisted over on itself. “Gastric torsion,” he said.
“This is what it was last time. Occasionally taking a dog for a car ride will
create just the right conditions for the stomach to untwist. It usually
requires surgery to fix it, and even that might not work. In 20 years I’ve done
ten of these surgeries. Five dogs have survived. He might make it through the
surgery and die in the next week from the systemic toxins created by the
torsion.”

He took the dog back to the surgery room and gave him a
sedative, then stuck a tube down his throat trying to relieve pressure and get
the stomach to untwist. It didn’t work. By now it was 4 in the morning. He said
“You’ve got three choices. You can take him home and hope it corrects like it
did last time; I can put him down; or I can do the surgery.”

I tried to say “Put him down.” The dog was 11 years old, and
while he had been an excellent companion and protector, he’d also been a trial.
For starters, he always tried to kill any non-human creature that was bigger
than he was. The flaws and strengths of that dog’s character are too numerous
to go into now, but the part of me that wanted an easier life opened my mouth
to say “Put him down.” Instead, out came “Do the surgery.”

“He won’t be the same dog,” cautioned Dr. Vincent.

“That’s fine,” I said with some relief. He gave me two more
chances to change my mind and each time my mind said “Put him down,” but my
mouth said “Do the surgery.” I left and drove to a friend’s house to sleep for
a couple of hours. Knobby-headed dog not only survived the surgery, but a month
later he brought down a fawn in the front yard. He was the same dog. After that
experience, after Dr. Vincent’s gentle and informative explanations of the
problem and possible solutions, after his obvious concern for both the dog and
me, not to mention his total lack of irritation at being waked in the night, I
liked him a lot. Knobby-headed dog lived two more years, and while he became
rapidly more mellow with his advancing years, he remained a pretty scrappy
hound.

Fortunately I did not have too many occasions for a vet for
the next few years. When I did I spread the wealth between the two or three
nearest vets. We’re fortunate where I live that there are half a dozen fine
vets within less than an hour, all of whom help out with strays and broken
wildlife as well as paying customers. I take the old dog to a holistic vet an
hour from home because diet, homeopathy and supplements work better on renal
failure than standard treatments. But ever since Dr. Vincent solved two
diagnostic mysteries on two dogs in less than a minute each, I pretty much converted
completely.

He’s been my primary vet now for 7 years. He has never been
brusque with me again, and he has unfailingly explained in detail what is wrong
and what I need to do to help my pet. In short, he has taught me. He makes
jokes and laughs readily when I tease him. He offers options when they exist,
and confidence when they don’t. With each visit to him I learn something new
about how to treat an abscess, or how a stool softener works and why it doesn’t
mix with oil, or when a cat’s lip might need to be cut off.

The old calico I first took to him died last year. Three
days later I was out in the garden and I heard a strange sound. I thought at
first it was some unusual bird, but as my ears sorted it out I realized with
dismay it was a cat crying quite nearby. I found him under a tree not 20 feet
from the calico’s grave, a tiger tabby with a bloody mouth and bloody paws. I
scooped him up and held him to my chest. It was love at first sight. It’s
impossible to articulate the feeling that passed between that cat and me in
those first moments of holding him. I didn’t even take time to call. I rushed
him to the car and, murmuring reassurance to him all the way, drove him up the
valley to Dr. Vincent’s office. I needed a name to murmur. “Vincent,” I said,
“it’s ok, you’re going to be fine.”

At the clinic Doc came out from emergency surgery during his
lunch hour and said “What have we got?” “He’s bleeding from his mouth,” I said.
“I just found him. If you can fix him I’ll keep him. Please fix him.” He
whisked him into the back saying “Call me in three hours.” That was the sum
total of our exchange. I realized then that his haste with me that first visit
had been solely a result of an emergency situation. For six years my knee-jerk
emotional reaction had kept me from knowing and learning from this
extraordinary doctor and teacher.

I called him in three hours. “It’s calicivirus,” he said, “a respiratory virus that has ulcerated his
tongue. If I can save the tongue I can save the cat. A cat can’t survive
without a tongue. He needs it to drink. I’ve seen it before but I’ve never seen
it this bad.”

“You better save him,” I said. “I named him after you.”

Dr. Vincent laughed. “Well I’ll have to save him then,” he
said. “If he makes it over the weekend I think he’ll be fine.”

Monday morning little Vincent emerged from the back room
looking like a new cat. “He’s a remarkable cat,” said his namesake. “I just
gave him an anti-inflammatory. He did the rest. Really, he’s a special cat. You
can take him home tomorrow,”

“Only I can’t,” I said. “I leave home for a month tomorrow.
Any chance you could keep him for me until I get back?”

“I don’t see why that would be a problem.”

A month later I returned to the clinic to pick up my new
cat. He was the darling of the staff. He came into my arms as though he’d known
me forever. The doctor charged me a pittance for everything. But this is what
he would do for anyone, for any cat. He’s a small-town vet who works all hours
for the valley’s pets. He donates and discounts his services for the local animal
rescue group. He works in a room open to the front desk and the waiting area. I
never mind waiting my turn, watching and eavesdropping in fascination and
admiration as he diagnoses, treats and explains each patient in front of all
the rest.

A few months after acquiring little Vincent I took in one of
the dogs and Doc asked after his namesake. “He’s great,” I said. “He is so
smart. Sometimes he’s so smart I call him Dr.
Vincent.” The real Dr. Vincent almost blushed.

Vinnie goes back to his vet every now and then when he gets
in a fight outside at night. Last week he went in for an abscess on his tail.
This week for a fecal blockage, the same condition that introduced me to Dr.
Vincent fifteen years ago. “This is too far up for an enema to do any good,” he
said. “We’ve got to approach this from the other end.” He gave me a week’s
worth of stool softeners with a pill plunger to get them down. “These pills are
bitter, they’ll make him drool. Don’t be alarmed. Keep an eye on that cat for
me, I mean it.”

Today, rather than phone, I dropped by when I was in the
neighborhood to get a report on blood work for one of the dogs. The parking lot
was jam packed. I stood in the center of a hubbub of ailing kittens, nervous
dogs, and their people, watching and waiting until he had a chance to talk with
me. I watched him take a phone call while he turned off the lights and looked
at a cat’s injury with his eye scope. He took his time with me between patients,
explained the blood work and discussed options, then patiently heard my report
on little Vinnie’s progress. I walked out of the chaos of the clinic calm,
informed, and, as usual, a little bit enlightened. I hope he’s not planning to
retire any time soon. I want this vet to keep tending my pets and my education
for many years to come.

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