It is hard to imagine that next week will be the last week that I see pets in my office. It is almost hard to even imagine. It seems like just yesterday. I was sitting in my new hospital in San Antonio waiting to see my first patient. I had planned my opening the following Monday, but Saturday night I got a phone call from a lady with a sick dog. I jumped at the chance to get this career started and since those were the days before emergency clinics, at 10pm, Saturday night on an August night in 1981, it all began.
When you have been a vet for as long as I have, not only do you have the privilege to work with people and their pets, but you get to see generations of pets and the children of some of your long-time clients. A colleague of mine once said that you could chronicle your life by the pets you have had and that is certainly true, but as a vet, you can chronicle your life by the people and their pets. In time, they sort of blend.
If I sat down and wrote a story about all of the pets I have treated I could probably write all day, but when I ran out of memory, I am sure that it would just scratch the surface of what happened along the way. But, there are pets and people and staff members that stand out. Most of them are heartfelt memories, warm and tender, often sad. Some were funny and some taught me lessons the hard way. But, that is what life is supposed to do and even as a veterinarian, I had lots of them to learn.
Most people don’t know why I became a veterinarian. They assume that it is because I love pets. Who doesn’t love pets? The truth is, my best friend got accepted to vet school and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so he said, “Hey, why don’t you come along and we will both be vets?” I said, “Why not.” The rest is history and we both became vets for a very long time. It was a decision, not driven by passion but one driven by destiny.
As many of us had, my childhood was trying. My father was a hard man, scarred by a tough childhood and the atrocities of being a fighter pilot in a world war. Shot down at the battle of Midway, after two days floating in the ocean and a metal plate in his brain, he was sent him home with severe PTSD. Anger was his best friend and he displayed it on the family and anyone in his vicinity. Except our dog. Bekka, a Collie mix dog, seemed to be able to penetrate his defenses and when she sat in his lap, his heart revealed itself. It was the only time that we saw him happy. The only time I saw him give love. I was always intrigued how a dog could do something that none of us could.
I took that intrigue into my practice and when I have been asked why I stayed in practice so long, I always said that it was the relationship between the pet caretaker and the pet that always fascinated me. It took me a while to connect the dots but it explains why I studied those relationships and asked so many questions to myself that other vets seemed to ignore. We had not given that relationship factor enough attention and we still don’t. It is an enormous gift and one that I will continue to study even after I no longer see pets.
Being a vet back in the old days was quite a bit different than it is today. We were the “horse doctors” while the physicians were the “real doctors.” It was common to hear clients say, “My real doctor said this or that.” I always took it with a grain of salt but many of my colleagues carried a chip on their shoulders because of it. There was a genuine gap between the quality of care for pets and the quality of care for people back in those days, mostly due to the technology difference. There seemed to be this overall longing to close the gap and get our due recognition. I never felt that way so I just kept looking and thinking and experiencing. Nowadays, that gap is no longer there. Vets are looked on as real doctors, but that comes with a price. With our new respect, we seemed to lose our humility.
I remember the short time that I spent doing mixed practice. I think God wanted to humble me, so he sent me to their homes, to work on their animals and sit at their kitchen table and spend time with them. It taught me that my clients were genuine people like me, with similar goals and concerns. I never lost sight of that and to this day I consider most of my clients friends.
I remember Henrietta Priebe, the old spinster lady, who inherited the family farm and worked it by herself. I delivered a calf from her Jersey cow, lying in the mud, along with her, trying to save both cow and calf. We did just that and she was forever grateful and I felt the genuine connection that happens when that type of bond forms. She never had much money, so she paid me with vegetables and eggs and pecan pie with coffee at her kitchen table. She had four dogs, the largest she called Poodle Dog. I asked her one day why she named the dog Poodle Dog. She said that she always wanted a Poodle and since she knew she would never have one, the next best thing was to name one after a Poodle. When I start thinking there is no justice in the world, I think of Henrietta. Always poor, never had running water or electricity at the farm, fait stepped in one day and the oil company struck oil on her land. In the blink of an eye, Henrietta was wealthy. At night, out on a farm call, I would drive past the farm and see the lights coming from the farm house. I would smile. Months had passed since Henrietta had discovered the modern life style, I asked her what she liked most about having things that most people took for granted. She blushed, and said she liked the television. “I really enjoy those soap operas.”
So many wonderful people with so many wonderful pets. And, so many wonderful staff members and colleagues, all mixed together like a painting on some museum wall. In time, you begin to see yourself as that painting. The wise ones say that we should only carry the memories of love with us and leave the painful ones behind. All the loving memories I carry from all the love between people and their pets should keep my memory vault full for several lifetimes to come.
I would not be me without all of them and all of you. You all have given me my identity and my purpose. And for that, I will be forever grateful. I can’t help but think back of the irony when my friend David said, “Hey, why don’t you come and go with me to vet school?” And I answered, ”Why not?”