This is an installment in the ongoing Vet Tech Tales - Part 2 series, which has recently become more of an ad-hoc feature rather than a regular one (working on that, though!).
For updates on Buffy, the sweet rescue we me last week, please visit Wilkins MacQueen's blog for new pictures and current status. I think you'll agree it's already an amazing transformation!
On Thursday, I'll share what my favorite animal movie and book are for the I <3 Dogs Blog Tour in support of the Pawsibilities R Us rescue organization. Check their blog for this week's prize!
It wasn’t long before the veterinary clinic became the epicenter of my life. No longer just a job or a career, working there became a vocation that consumed me. Every other weekend off turned into every weekend on. Paying straight time meant Dr. Norris didn’t much care who was there in the clinic at need – only that someone was. And since I demonstrated not just enthusiasm for the back kennel work but an aptitude for the “medicine” part of the veterinary medicine profession, the vets began to use me in other capacities around the clinic as well.
At first I assisted with prepping dogs and cats for surgery, shaving them down and disinfecting the surgical sites then stretching them out on the surgical table and tying them into position using bits of cord slipped around their paws and looped around a series of hooks attached to the table’s edge.
I also learned not just how to set up fecal samples to test for parasites, but how to distinguish between the types of microscopic eggs to determine what kind of worms a dog or cat might be carrying.
I watched, absorbed and recorded, determined to be as useful as possible outside the kennel area.
But learning the nuts and bolts of how to do medicine was a very different process from understanding how to work with the animals and owners to practice medicine.
When Chewbacca came through the door, I was reminded again that my job didn’t exist because there were animals in need but because there were people who cared whether an animal was in need or not.
The year-old brindle pup that walked into the exam room could have been a magnificent boxer. He certainly had the frame and size to command a double-take. Instead of lean muscles and a confident look, though, he came to us with a xylophone ribcage and warm brown eyes that pleaded for nothing more than a little attention.
Despite Chewie wearing a studded leather collar, his person, Steve, had looped a piece of rope around his neck and was using the makeshift lead to guide him along.
When I stooped down to lift the underweight dog onto the exam table, Chewie cowered. Though his paws didn’t move, he shifted and flattened away from me, clearly expecting that I was going to hurt him. The flayed skin and deep wounds around his neck certainly looked painful, and my first thought was that he had been in a dogfight.
“There’s a good boy,” I reassured him as I moved carefully to gather him close. His stump of a tail twitched once in hope.
“He’s my neighbor’s dog,” Steve said as I placed Chewie on the cold exam table where he began to tremble. “I got the guy’s permission to bring the dog in but honestly he doesn’t deserve to have him back.”
One up-close look and I had to agree. Steve was using the length of rope as a lead not out of convenience but from need. The open wounds around Chewie’s neck weren’t bite wounds. Much of the inch-wide studded leather collar was embedded in the dog’s thick neck.
No doubt the collar fit fine when it was first buckled onto a new two- or three-month-old puppy. Over the months, however, the pup had grown and the owner had never thought to adjust the collar or apparently even notice anything wrong. How could anyone live with an animal and not notice? Or if they did notice, not do something to rectify it?
An embedded collar is an indicator not of someone briefly distracted by a family emergency but of ongoing and deliberate neglect. That the wound was trying to heal around the collar told us the it had been too tight for weeks if not months, slowly eating into the flesh.
“I’ll have to sedate him to cut the collar out,” Dr. Norris told Steve. “Which one of you will be responsible for the bill?” A cold-sounding question to be sure, but a practical one given the circumstances.
Steve sighed. “That would be me, I guess. But tell me, if I do pay for this, am I obligated to give the dog back? By law, I mean?”
“Chewie still belongs to your neighbor. If he won’t surrender the dog voluntarily you’ll need a court order to take him away.” The look Dr. Norris gave Steve was long and deliberate. “At least legally.”
I stroked the big boxer’s head to distract him while Dr. Norris administered the sedative. Cutting out the collar proved tricky. Chewie had no extra folds of skin along his neck to stretch over the open wound, which in some areas was an inch-and-a-half wide since the vet had to cut deep into healthy tissue to ensure infection wouldn’t set in. We put a loose bandage around Chewie’s neck to protect the raw areas that couldn’t be sutured closed. The wound would be painful for a couple of weeks while new skin and scar tissue grew in, but I was pretty sure Chewie would agree the short-term suffering was more than worth the trade-off over what he’d already been through and what the future would have held otherwise.
Chewie stayed with us 10 days, gaining nearly a pound a day. Charla and I fussed over him in our spare time and cheered him on to health. Slowly the magnificent dog he could have been became the magnificent dog he truly was.
Steve came by daily to check on Chewie’s progress. It was clear he was invested in the pup in more than a monetary sense – even more than a simple humanitarian sense. As their bond grew closer in the days following, there was no doubt that given the choice in all the world, Chewie would choose to be Steve’s dog. Chewie was responsive and loving toward me and Charla, but when Steve came to visit, his gaze followed Steve as they did no other. After all he’d been through and with hope so close, if he had to be returned to his former owner, I wasn’t sure Chewie would survive the heartbreak.
“He won’t go back,” Steve vowed to me about a week in. “I have an uncle in Lubbock who’ll take him, if it comes to that.” I nodded. Just because something’s legal doesn’t always mean it’s right.
In the end the neighbor proved reasonable and signed the dog over to Steve. I felt so proud that I had played even a small part in the two of them walking out the door together.
This, I felt sure, was what veterinary medicine was all about.