Broken boards dangle from the fence. Gaps, like missing teeth, lie among the rows of bottles on the shelves. My work boots went into the trash last week, uppers yawning away from the sole, swallowing mud over the tongue of my foot. It feels like the last days of Rome as we finish out these final few weeks at the clinic in the knowledge that our era has ended, that we have lost, and the invaders have conquered the city. Hannibal ante portus. “Hannibal is at our gates.”
There are no elephants. Elephants would be cool. Instead, we simply opened the gates to “pink-slip” e-mails stating what was already known: essentially, ‘Large Animal is closing, and since you were unique, there is no place for you in the company. We wish you the best.’ I wonder if this is what happens to politicians in the lame-duck period. Do things begin to fall apart? Does no one refill the stapler? Is it hard to sort through the in-box or to go to ribbon-cuttings that are so ill-timed as to require the presence of the walking dead? My truck could stand to be cleaned. But there seems to be so little point. Of our fleet of three, only one truck is operational at this point, and a colleague and I rotate it between us on our alternating days. I could pull everything out, scrub and organize it, but by the next day that I work, it will again be “all humble-jumbled” as Sierra would say. And so I content myself with taking out the trash, scooping up the syringe case that has rolled and jammed beneath the pull out drawers, and periodically scrubbing the instruments and buckets.
The pillaging and looting have begun as well. The phone calls are changing tone. Now, there is less mourning and more people looking to “stock up on supplies” or refill prescriptions, “before you close.” ‘Where were you six months ago,’ we want to ask. I received a card yesterday from a sometime client, telling me what an asset I have been to the community and how much I will be missed. It would have been heartwarming, but for the fact that this particular person, by her own admission, routinely used other practitioners and only called us in emergencies, when none of her cronies were available. We have had angry phone calls from people wanting to know who they are supposed to call now in the middle of the night since we were the only practice they could reach at those hours. Clients who scorn routine work and pride themselves on only calling a vet “when it’s really bad” are crushed that we will no longer be available. Again, I want to say, “Where were you? How did you think we would earn a living?”
I don’t ask. It’s not their fault. We bent over backwards trying to accommodate everyone: answered every phone call, squeezed in clients at all hours, complicating our own schedules even for cases that could have waited for the next open appointment. We hadn’t raised prices in nearly five years, assuming that we were doing our clients a favor. We dispensed hours of free advice over the phone. We didn’t show that we valued ourselves. In retrospect, how could we have thought that this attitude would make others value us?
And yet… All of this makes me sound bitter. And some part of me is; I think bitterness is part of the process, part of the grief. And yet, sometimes, there are moments like yesterday. Moments in which, while being appreciated, I realize that appreciation was never my job. It’s easy to forget, in the midst of anger, sorrow, and loss, that my job was never to be appreciated, nor to be loved or lauded. My job was to make things better.
I had two calls on the book yesterday. The first looks straightforward in writing. Three horses to vaccinate. Dread dragged my feet; I stalled leaving the office as long as I could. I know these three horses. One is old, no problem. And then there are the other two. Both had been donated to this non-profit by a well meaning owner who had spoiled them until they became dangerous.
One, the gelding, I have known since he was a foal. In fact, I gelded him. I suspect he holds a grudge. Along the way, he learned to rear and strike when things aren’t going his way. Apparently his previous owner thought that this was a cute trick. It may have been cute in a 200 lb foal (personally, I think not), but it is downright lethal in a 1300 lb adult horse. He isn’t needle shy in the truest sense. He simply doesn’t like being messed with and doesn’t like the vet. He and I have reached an arrangement over the years. Once I take his lead rope from the ranch manager and we go for a walk, it is established that I am the boss mare, and then generally vaccination proceeds without incident. However, part of his game involves trying to pull away as the handler passes the lead rope to me. Yesterday, thanks to a 12’ lead, we moved past that stage smoothly. Our routine then involves me asking him to walk, back, and turn. I mix up the order and repeat the steps until I feel that his attention is engaged. Then I pet and play with his face and neck until he allows me to take the roll of skin just in front of the shoulder in a move we refer to as a “neck twitch.” Neck twitching a horse doesn’t hurt. It provides a means of control, and in many cases, I have watched horses lower their heads and relax their ears as they are neck twitched. With this particular gelding, typically, once I have a hold on him, he never even acknowledges the needle. Unfortunately, since I am right handed, I use my left hand to grasp the roll of skin, and my right hand to inject the vaccine. My left hand is the one that I broke this summer. Yesterday, in the chill wind, I could feel my metacarpal ache, seemingly at every screw. I lost hold of the neck twitch between shots. Sure enough, my friend the gelding pulled away, and reared. Repeat process.
With him vaccinated, we turned our attention to his “sibling.” Now, the mare is barely trained – what we call green-broke. And she is truly needle-phobic. Not only does she feel the needle, she reacts violently to the sensation. And, joy, oh, joy, she has the same escape mechanism as her partner. Rear, and flail. We try the usual desensitizing steps. No go. The neck twitch does not relax her. She simply realizes that it is a prelude to the dreaded shot. Finally, I rub her face, rubbing over her closed eyelid, and with her vision obscured, inject her neck in one quick jab. She pulls away as I withdraw syringe and needle. Great. Vaccine done. Wonderful, except that she is due for two. She’s onto me now, and the challenge of giving the second shot is magnified. Eventually, we get the job done. The old gelding is a piece of cake.
As I walk back to the truck, the ranch manager and I chat about the closure of the practice. He seems truly sorry, and there’s this weird sense of something floating between us. A giant elephant painted with the words “LAST TIME” walks between us, and neither knows how to address it. I’ve seen this elephant a lot lately. I want some good parting words, something meaningful, but not sappy. And yet, we aren’t friends, not really, just Dr. and client. But, Dr./client doesn’t cover the relationship we have had. And thus, the elephant. The ranch manager looks at me. “Do you like Divinity? The candy?”
I smile and he makes a dash for his truck. Returning, he presses a plastic wrapped box into my hands. I give him a slanted hug – awkward for us both, and dive into my truck, biting back tears.
My next call is a sadder one. A young steer has gone down, as the result of a leg injury sustained some weeks ago. The owner had been trying to manage on his own, with advice from a nearby vet, but the steer has continued to deteriorate, and the owner, not a “real rancher,” confesses to our office manager that he can’t bear the thought of shooting the animal himself.
Sure enough, when I finally crest the hill of his long driveway – after passing two lurking CHP cars, missing the driveway, and attempting to find a safe place to turn around on the rolling, two-lane highway – the gentleman is almost pathetically relieved to see me. Given his house, hair, and bearing, I suspect that he is or was a businessman, and sure enough, a few sentences reveal that he has come to ranching late in life. He shows me the steer, asking without asking, if he is making the right choice. He is. The animal has shed at least 150 lbs from the pre-injury weight that the owner describes, and of course he has lain down in the lowest corner of the paddock, in the slickest mud. I climb over the panel fence, bashing a shin as my clay-slimed boot slips on the rail, and kneel next to the steer as the owner asks questions that he doesn’t want to sound nervous. Do I have to hit a vein? Will we need to halter the steer? What’s the discharge from his eyes? Do I think he’s started to develop pneumonia? Yes. No. Infection. Probably.
I climb back over the panels and under the oak branches, retrieving from my truck: a pair of clippers, two IV catheters (if you grab two, the first one will work), a stethoscope (more signs of the fall of Rome – one earpiece is missing), and 60 cc of pentobarbital. 60cc is excessive; 35 would have done the job. However, when it comes to euthanasia, overkill (pardon the pun) is no bad thing. I explain the process to the owner, using words that are their own script, slide the catheter into the vein, and inject. Seconds later, the flanks stop moving; the muscles stiffen and then relax. I check for heartbeat and corneal response – none and none.
My client has changed, even as his steer exhaled the last breath. I can feel the exhale of relief, the sense of pulling together in the man. He takes the clippers from my hand and offers to assist me over the fence. His sense of normalcy, of control is returning. As he asks a few more questions, probing for my thoughts as to what happened to the steer and what he could/should have done differently.
This is what matters in the end, in these last days. It doesn’t matter that some of my patients may have been unruly. It doesn’t matter that the owner of the steer consulted with another practitioner throughout the injury, only calling me in the end. What matters is that somewhere along the line, someone’s life is returned to normal: horses are vaccinated, suffering is ended. What matters is the work.