Life as a Veterinarian, Pet Care

Assigning a Voice.

DSC_2837pIt came up in a conversation at work this week. When you work with a crowd of similar animal lovers and you meet hundreds of animals a week it seems natural to want to assign them a voice. The question was “Do you talk for your pets?” “Do you share their inner dialogue?” “How accurate are we really in knowing that voice?” Besides our own pets we know and love well, we may even assign the voice and thoughts to our patients during their exam or hospital stay with us.

We often give clients an assumed dialogue from their dog’s perspective after their adventure with us. This can be after a brief stay for testing or when we return them to the owner after a quick trip to the treatment area for a blood draw. In a given day, I’d say I meet quite a few animals that would be up for making casual small talk if it were possible but I’d say there are a fair amount that we would talk thru a panic attack or grimace at the shouted explicits. I often wonder if our dialogue and “voice” given matches that which the owner may have.

In some ways, we create this inner dialogue for them to ease our own concerns for them. When your child is hurt you say comforting words and you hope they understand those words and respond with trust and feel safe and comforted. Our patients may understand the soothing tone but they don’t know the words “We are here to help.” or “It is really important we get this sample and it will only hurt a second.” We make verbal promises of care and relief from pain and fear they really can’t understand.

I think it is natural to want to know them better or question the inner workings of their minds since they are such a large part of our families and world. Voice and language are such a huge part of how we communicate. I sit in anticipation and sometimes frustration as I communicate with a toddler on the verge of language explosion. Sure they are words but we still communicate with grunts, gestures, pointing, and body language. In a year, I will probably be requesting a break from the chatter of the inner workings of a busy toddler brain but today I just want the words to come so as to open that connection.

Many of my pets have a “voice”, but especially my dogs. The dialect, pitch, cadence all contribute to the personality I have created and that which has come forth. Roscoe, our former Newfoundland, was assigned a simpleton, sort of dumb voice really. His name also alluded to that personality. He was goofy, comical, immature, and sometimes a royal pain in the you know what.

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Roscoe’s first picture- forever thereon known as “Big Dumb”

This is the first picture I ever took of Roscoe so it is no wonder I didn’t assign him a voice of a British intellect. It was 2009 and he quickly got the knick name “Big Dumb”. But maybe I was wrong? Maybe he was an intellect with a large and impressive vocabulary. I just heard the demanding bark of a hungry dog that had us well trained to deliver dinner.

Cassy, our Lab Collie mix, is a bit of a frantic, anxious, overzealous pleaser. So we don’t have deep “conversations”. Most include a discussion of retrieving and balls, and throwing the ball again and again. I hear her voice as “Oh, a ball. I love balls. I really love balls. Please throw the ball. Please. Please. Please. Oh, you threw the ball. I love running to get the ball. Oh again, again!”. She isn’t a calm minded creature so when I hear her voice it is a high pitched, fast paced question, always a question….”What do you want me to do now? I can sit? Or bring you a ball? Did you want me to sit? Just tell me what you want and I will do it!”

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I meet a lot of dogs in a day and some very clearly have a voice and often it is associated with a breed. Call it stereotyping if you will. Well groomed Poodle. You probably get a classy snooty diva voice. Big Mastiff or overweight Lab. Sorry you probably get a slower paced simpleton voice with a focus on food. So do we create our pets voice or do they have a voice of their own we bring to life? Shelby, our miniature poodle’s voice has likely changed from her previous life with a Senior Citizen woman to her current life as the
“Rhinestone Cowdog”.

Ripp, the Australian Shepherd puppy… well he is finding his voice. He is this obnoxious testing teenager now so in a way his voice is being found and than changing just as I can see the voice of my own Kiddo changing. How it was always “Mommy” and now I hear “Mom” sneaking in that vocabulary more and more.

Does your pet have a voice? Are we accurate in our idea of that voice? What do you think…do you wish pets could talk? As a vet, there are plenty of times I wish they could just tell me already but I also know I would get cussed out and that may change my level of career satisfaction.  I think I like the world as it where we create the voice and build a relationship with our pets beyond words.

“Dogs do speak, but only to those that listen.”

-Orhan Pamuk

Life as a Veterinarian

The Story is in the Details

DSC_0507 copyEveryone of us has a story, whether we share it or not. Our stories come alive because of the details…the words the author chooses to share cause us to we feel, see, taste, and touch. The details of our days bring the ordinary to life and create the extraordinary.

In the veterinary world, the story often starts a mystery…the villain is disease and dysfunction; the detective is me. People see their pets everyday and I often ask the question “How did they not see this?”. Sometimes it is just a matter of “We don’t see what we look at every day” but years of training in detection and deduction allows me to see the details when others simply don’t look or can’t see. It is those skills which define the veterinarian’s skill and competence.

Like a photographer that starts with a wide-angle lens I note the posture, behavior, general overview of the animal and then zoom in until I have a macrolens. Most clients just assume I am petting their dog or cat. But it is a systematic uncovering of details.

I start at the eyes…the windows to the soul and teller of what lies beneath. Move to the ears…teeth…gums. I run my hands under the fur and feel boney protrubances, palpate the tendon attachments, all while looking for the subtle discussion my patient may start…a look of worry, a grimace…Most owners assume their pet will cry or tell of pain but in nature pain is hidden and reserved for the weak.

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My nose seeks scents that may indicate infection or a change of the breath that tells of disease within. The little dogs and cats often smell of their owner’s perfume as they spend most of their day’s minutes in arm or cuddled.

I feel the fur thru my hands, matting or greasiness a detail not missed. The rounding of the mid-section with ribs deep below tell of a meals too large and walks too short. I slip the loops of intestine thru my fingers, seeking the details that tell of infiltrative disease or function not perfect. The cat’s bean-shaped kidneys should be smooth and without pain and in our senior friends a finding of irregularity or smallness tell of aging that has been unkind.

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The detective has many tools at hand.  To ausculate means to listen and so I auscultate to the heart and lungs. To hear a crackle or wheeze of air that doesn’t follow its set path thru the trachea and bronchi to fill the microscopic sacs of air that form our lungs. The heart beats its song of  “lub-dub”, “lub-dub”, lub-dub”. A missed beat, the song too fast or too slow, an irregularity in the lyrics tell of cardiac disease.

In the geriatric small breed dogs, I often hear a quiet whisper that sneaks its way in between those lubs and dubs…”lub-shhh-dub”.  The details tells the story of a heart valve that was once smooth and efficient, a door ushering the blood between the rooms of the heart. As I hear the “lub-shhh-dub” I visualize that blood now turbulent and paint a picture in my mind of a valve now nobby and irregular, the victim of degenerative disease.

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I collect a blood sample. How spectacular is the story that blood can tell. Within the liquid life are cells, hormones, and enzymes that tell the details of the inner organs. Within the blood are cells and under the microscope I can see warrior immune cells. With the subtle changes within them I can tell if the army is just being mobilized or if they are battle wary and fighting for the life of the pet.

And as the technology advances it takes the story and gives us more details… more ways to enter into the fascinating world. How clever are nature’s systems and we the detectives that seek to uncover the complexities, abnormalities, and find attackers and invaders.

Within minutes, the details tell the story of health and wellness or disease and dysfunction.  While I chat and pet and give treats my hands, my mind, my nose seek the details that make the story. For my patients that can’t talk I write the story of their health. In the discovery of details I often put a voice to their pains, aches, dysfunction, and disease.

Each of us have days filled with details.  What details tell your story? The details of my work have become an almost meditative invitation. I sought the extraordinary but found it in the ordinary.

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Life as a Veterinarian, Motherhood, Pet Care

Death Comes, Grief Follows

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As a veterinarian, I help clients say goodbye to beloved pets nearly every day. There are those geriatric pets whose age or disease has finally got the best of them. I say things like “They enjoyed a wonderful and long life.” “When we open our hearts to know their love, so do we open our hearts to the heartache of their departure” “It is our final gift to give to relieve their suffering.”

Then there are the tragic unexpected losses where you just try to hold them up while emotions of disbelief, guilt, rage, anger, among others wash over them. Perhaps they want comfort to know their pet went quickly and without pain. You assure them it isn’t fair, that it was chance or poor luck.

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I have been awash in loss this past year. Expected loss of dogs from cancer and heart failure to the sudden losses due to tragedy or an undiscovered disease. I don’t know if one is better or worse than the other. With the terminal pets I felt waves of anticipatory grief. As much as I held on to the idea of “enjoying every day given” where there was joy in that day there was fear that this day was the end, that I didn’t know that moment would come and couldn’t control the end. Here I sat a veterinarian and I couldn’t save my own.

With each client I felt the need to take away the pain of grief and put in on my own back to bear so as to reliever their own suffering. I put myself in their shoes and felt my own losses, either those that had happened or those yet to come. I couldn’t go on in that way as a veterinarian helping. Instead I started thinking of grief as blanket and it was my job to hold a space for them, to wrap a blanket of understanding and support around them. I could share the grief but I could not shoulder it.  My quote of choice became: “Grief is the final act of love we have to give to those we have loved. Where there is great grief there as great love.” And then loss hit again today….and a wave of anger and grief once washed over me knocking me over.

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Maxx was a miracle, a PITA butthead, bully, and I loved to hate him. He would even spend time on kitty Prozac for his inappropriate marking behavior.

It was a typical afternoon at the clinic, when an older gentleman brought in an overly friendly overweight tabby cat with a thick red collar. Just 20 minutes after his exam and vaccines that tabby showed up at our strip-mall veterinary clinic doorstep in respiratory distress and vomiting blood. His owner couldn’t be found and we feared the worse. We couldn’t wait any longer and so radiographs revealed the problem- he had a diaphragmatic hernia…basically his diaphragm had torn and his abdominal contents including stomach and liver were in his chest threatening his life.

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The owner was located and couldn’t commit to the necessary surgery to save his life. Maxx had jumped out the car window on their departure. He could have ran under a car or to another business location but he seemed to beg for help by coming back to our doorstep. Maxx seemed a survivor and was owed the chance to prove it. I had him signed over and swore to do the best I could.

His breathing during surgery was provided by manual ventilation by a technician. Each breath provided by the careful squeezing of the reservoir bag, passing oxygen and anesthetic gases thru the tube in his trachea to inflate his lungs.  The diaphragm tear was found and I saw his beating heart and removed what didn’t belong in his chest. I sutured his thin torn diaphragm back together. And he survived…and recovered…and I couldn’t let him go so he became mine.

Maxx was really the worst…overly loving but on his terms, a food loving fatty I feared would become diabetic, a bully to the outdoor cats, and destroyer of my belonging with his potent urination. But I loved him.

So when he was gone for more than a day I feared the worse. Brad searched and found him…and since I had been texting for updates I got the call…and all the grief came back. I couldn’t handle another loss…just weeks after our beloved dog and months after other pets. I was pissed…I have clients that bring their cats in once a lifetime at the age of 18. I did everything for this cat. I saved his life…he beat the odds so why the hell now!

Nature is a cruel bitch! As I see the pastures come alive I know she brings life and beauty and she takes it away in one moment. Maxx had been attacked and the evidence suggested by a coyote. His wounds not survivable. I was fearful I won’t be able to find the answers I always need but when I saw him it wasn’t him…he was gone and this worthless body left behind.

And I said all the things I share to others…”You saved him. He had a great life. He loved the outdoors (He was strictly indoors initially but seemed to hate it and needed more. His first adventure outdoors I swept him up from under a bush after spending the entire 10 minutes he was outdoors convince he was acquiring feline leukemia virus). I don’t understand nature…I have the training to diagnosis, prescribe, and treat but in the end nature wins…she always does…whether it be when it seems right after a long full life or in tragedy we can’t understand.

I hold gratitude I have my family, children, and loved ones…that perhaps “He was just a cat. That she was just a dog.”. But my heart hurts and so once again death comes and grief follows.

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