Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Possum Tale, or, Pride Cometh Before the Fall

“The unending paradox is that we do learn through pain.” 
Madeleine L'Engle

When I was a kid, the rules for Show-And-Tell in public schools were, to say the least, lenient.  It was the highlight of the week, something kids looked forward to for a long time.  In Ms. Braden’s second-grade class at my now-defunct elementary school, it was an opportunity to really show off.  One particular week, fate brought me an opportunity to show off like no other elementary school kid has had before or since.

One night, my brother and I were out riding the 4-wheeler in a pasture near my parents’ house. In the glint of the headlight, we saw a small, furry creature trundling along across the pasture. It was a baby possum. The opportunity to try to catch it for a closer look was too great to resist. My brother and I hatched a plan: he would stay near the area where we last saw it while I rode off to get a plastic bucket to snag it in. I drove back to the house as fast as I could.  I quickly returned, bucket in hand.  We scooped the little guy up and carried him back to the house.  I was proud to show him off to my folks, but I had larger audience in mind.

I have to pause in the story to talk a little bit about possums.  The name “Opossum” is from an American Indian word that means something like “White Beast” if I remember right.  Seems appropriate.  They deserve the name “beast” when cornered.

Have you ever cornered a possum?  They hiss and open their mouth to show you all 50 of their teeth. I know 50 teeth seems like an exaggeration, but that’s what the reference literature cites (after my experience with this particular possum, I think it’s closer to 200).  If you’d like to see their teeth, just irritate one.  It will be happy to show them to you.

Angry possums have the attitude of a rattlesnake with a migraine. [Speaking of rattlesnakes, did you know that possums have partial (and in some cases, complete) immunity to rattlesnake and other pit viper bites? How tough do you have to be to have that ability?]  While possums may appear like cute woodland creatures, they are vicious animals anxious to gnaw any limb they can reach.  At least, that’s my experience…

Anyway, back to the story:
The day after I took the possum home just happened to be show-and-tell. I begged my parents to let me take the beast to school, and they figured that it would be something different- perhaps even educational- so they agreed. The next morning found me standing at the end of my driveway in the fog with a shoe box under my arm, waiting to board the bus.  There is no prouder person than an eight-year-old boy with a possum in a box for show-and-tell.

The anticipation that morning was nearly too much for me to bear. The occasional scratching sounds from the box inside my old metal desk faintly echoed through the morning, heightening the tension. Finally, after lunch, the big moment came.

I stood before my class and opened the lid of the box.  I basked in the adulation of my peers. The possum was the hit of the class, cute in an ugly way, peacefully staring back at the throng of children with small, black, beady eyes. I don’t believe that any of my classmates had ever seen one before, and certainly not this close.

Word got around the school about what I had brought, and requests started coming in from other teachers (who, I will assume, were looking for something interesting for their science classes) that they wanted the possum to make appearances in their classes as well. Instead of being in my class that afternoon, I was making rounds of the lower-grade classrooms, showing off the Marsupial Marvel.

I was going through the hall from one class to another when I ran into one of my buddies.  He quickly cornered me with an eye on the box.

“Is the possum in there? I want to see it!” he said.

Unable to resist the pull of elementary school stardom, I opened the box and looked at my friend’s face to see his reaction.

“Is it dead?” he asked, with a befuddled look.

I looked into the box and saw the unthinkable: the baby possum was twisted in an odd position, motionless, in the box.

‘He was fine a minute ago!” I said, as I poked him with my finger.

You can guess where this is headed, can’t you?

The tiny beast sprang to life and clamped down on my right index finger with lightning speed.  Three of its needle-like teeth went right through the fingernail. It was stuck on my hand.

I started trying to shake it off my hand, gripped with terror.  No luck.  My buddy was backing away from me, as if he didn’t know who the next intended victim was. I panicked and did the only thing I could think of.

In the hallway, there was an old steel water fountain that had been in the school since it was built in the 50’s. I swung my hand, with the woodland creature attached, as hard as I could. If you’ve ever seen a bad kung-fu movie, you know what that sounded like.  A giant GONG rang down the hallway.

The possum fell straight to the ground and immediately scuttled behind the fountain, unharmed but highly agitated. With some coaxing and careful maneuvering, my buddy and I got the possum back in the box.  But by this time all the commotion in the hall had caused a lot of classroom doors to open. Suddenly, I had more than my share of unwanted attention as we recovered the White Beast and I wrapped my throbbing hand.

And so it goes. Sometimes, the brighter a star is, the faster it burns out.
From that point forward, there were no live animals allowed at show and tell. I guess that the powers that be decided it wasn’t the kind of educational experience they wanted kids to have. It was certainly educational for me.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

On Being a Vet's Wife

The blog this time is from Karen, Dr. Bean's wife.  It's a different perspective on the life of a small town vet.

This was not what I had planned.

It was on New Year’s Eve night and I was holding two pieces of small intestine while my husband was trying to stitch them together.  We were standing on either side of the surgery table over a dog that was on the losing side of a dogfight.  In the background, we could hear our two kids watching a movie in his office (they were ecstatic… a movie and delayed bedtime in the same night!).  My husband, Dr. Bean, had just removed an eighteen inch section of bowel that had been too severely injured.  This type of surgery is called a resection.  The body has an amazing way of healing itself and functioning without the extra length of bowel.  I was helping with the surgery because it was a holiday night and our hardworking staff deserve some time with their families.  I had assisted in surgery several times before and I usually enjoy it.  But, this night was different.

This night, Dr. Bean was reaching the end of the procedure, the only thing left was to stitch the two ends of bowel back together and close the surgery site.  However, he was having trouble with this because his target kept moving.  It was my fault- I no longer had my eyes on the bowel.  He thought boredom had set in and I wasn’t paying attention (it had been a long night and a long surgery).  This was not the case.  I was looking anywhere but down as I tried my best not to pass out and hit the floor.  The edges of my field of vision had begun to darken and I could hear the telltale ringing in my ears.  I was on my way to a full fledged faint, but was too proud to admit it.

At this time, I would like to point out that I don’t have a weak stomach.  I have cleaned up after several dogs and cats plus lived with two kids.  I have helped clean fish and deliver puppies.  I’ve assisted in surgery plenty of times.  However, something about that night and that operation sent me over the edge.

I was able to hold on a little longer.  Thankfully, Dr. Bean had come to a point where I could take a break.  I took the chance to sit on the floor where I could watch the dog’s breathing and monitor the anesthesia machine, all while resting my head on my knees.

He thought this was amusing.  I thought it was humiliating.

This was definitely not what I had planned.  It was not what I had planned for a late New Year’s Eve night.  It was not what we had originally planned for our careers over fifteen years ago when we got married. 

I must say though, that I love our life.  I love having a family business where we can work together and where our kids can visit.  I love that we have built a business that can provide for us and our employees.  I love that we get to work with a great group of folks: our employees and our clients.  I love being part of a small town where complete strangers stop me to tell me that my husband is wonderful.  I do love this.

There are some things about being a vet’s wife that are not so great.  We take separate cars to church in case he gets an emergency call during service.  Family vacations have to be carefully planned away from major holidays, spring break, or summer since we normally have a lot of boarders at those times.  We’ve spent many restless nights with a howling dog or cat in our laundry room at home when my husband was too worried to leave it alone at the clinic overnight.

These are the types of things that we never had to deal with in our previous life.  Twelve years ago, we were both working in an Atlanta suburb.  He was an associate at a small animal clinic, I was a research engineer for a large consumer products company.  The future was mapped out: we would both work our way up with our employers with no significant changes ahead.  Our lives revolved around our careers and fighting traffic and we didn’t mind too much.  We worked our eight to ten hours a day and went home leaving the office behind us.

Then we had our son in 2002 and suddenly hour long commutes were no longer so much fun.  By the time our son was 2, we were looking for a way out.  The idea of owning a practice had not previously appealed to Dr. Bean- the hours are long and the financial risk is high.  But owning a practice would allow us to move back to Alabama, near our families, and keep me at home, at least part-time, with the kids.  We were soon exploring the idea of opening a clinic and building a new life in a small town.

So fast forward to 2012…. we’ve traded the corporate world for the world of small business in a small town.  We no longer have a boss to gripe about; we are the bosses.  We’ve swapped the hour long commutes for school carpooling and walking dogs.  Work now follows us home and sometimes it seems like it’s all we talk about.  And we love it.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Scully, the World’s Best Dog, part 2.

In one of the previous installments of this blog, we told you about Scully, one of the animals we have treated for cancer.  Her type of cancer, lymphoma, is one of the few that are treated in the private practice setting on a regular basis.  You may remember from the earlier blog, that typical life expectancy after lymphoma treatment was 6 to 12 months and Scully had just passed the 16 month mark.  It may not sound long, but sixteen months means a lot of walks and doggie treats.

Scully had come in a couple of times during early November.  Things started to look progressively worse as the weeks passed, and her lymph nodes were getting larger.  We re-started chemotherapy in hopes that we could buy her even more time, despite the fact that she was well beyond average survival times already.

The day before Thanksgiving, Scully’s Mom brought her in and let me check her over once more.  The news wasn’t good: her disease simply wasn’t responding to the drugs anymore.

As I ran my hands over her, feeling the changes that the cancer was making, the right decision became clear.  I turned to Scully’s owner and recommended that they discontinue treatment. They did.

Things went along relatively normally until a couple of days before Christmas.  Scully had started to have some bad days.  She had an episode of weakness on Christmas Eve in the afternoon and evening, and I wound up talking to and checking in on them a couple of times that night.

I called back Christmas morning and found out that she had passed away the night before.  She had followed her owners outside to the mailbox that evening as she always did- it was sort of a ritual- and on her way back into the house she simply collapsed.  She passed away in her owner’s arms.

It was the best way I could have imagined it happening, really- She was at home doing the simple things that made her happy, and she was with the people she loved.  Her owners had been wrestling with the decision to euthanize ever since her turn for the worse. The stress of that decision hanging over their heads was a real burden for them, and understandably so.  As it happened, they didn’t have to make that call.

Whenever we get into the more intensive medical treatments in animals with a questionable prognosis, we always have to ask ourselves a series of questions.  What are the most likely outcomes if we proceed?  What are the risks?  Is the price something that the owner has the ability and desire to take on?

These types of decisions can become complex quickly; emotions have a heavy influence in how we approach things.  In Scully’s case, it turns out that the decision to treat her did have a good payoff.  She had well over a year of extra life, with the majority of it spent feeling good and being with the family she had always been with.  I feel good about that.

My wife is doing a guest blog about being married to a veterinarian, which should be interesting.  She’ll publish it in a week or two.

A teaser for my next blog:
Remember show and tell at your elementary school?  Me too.
Did you ever take a live possum?  I did.
It turned out to be more exciting than I had planned…-RAB