Tell Me Where It Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon

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Overview

It’s 2:47 a.m. when Dr. Nick Trout takes the phone call that starts another hectic day at the Angell Animal Medical Center. Sage, a ten-year old German shepherd, will die without emergency surgery for a serious stomach condition. Over the next twenty-four hours Dr. Trout fights for Sage’s life, battles disease in the operating room, unravels tricky diagnoses, reassures frantic pet parents, and reflects on the humor, heartache, and inspiration ...

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Tell Me Where It Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon

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Overview

It’s 2:47 a.m. when Dr. Nick Trout takes the phone call that starts another hectic day at the Angell Animal Medical Center. Sage, a ten-year old German shepherd, will die without emergency surgery for a serious stomach condition. Over the next twenty-four hours Dr. Trout fights for Sage’s life, battles disease in the operating room, unravels tricky diagnoses, reassures frantic pet parents, and reflects on the humor, heartache, and inspiration in his life as an animal surgeon. And he wants to take you along for the ride.…

From the front lines of modern medicine, Tell Me Where It Hurts is a fascinating insider portrait of a veterinarian, his furry patients, and the blend of old-fashioned instincts and cutting-edge technology that defines pet care in the twenty-first century. For anyone who’s ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at your veterinarian’s office, Tell Me Where It Hurts offers a vicarious journey through twenty-four intimate, eye-opening, heartrending hours at the premier Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston.

You’ll learn about the amazing progress of modern animal medicine, where organ transplants, joint replacements, and state-of-the-art cancer treatments have become more and more common. With these technological advances come controversies and complexities that Dr. Trout thoughtfully explores, such as how long (and at what cost) treatments should be given, how the Internet has changed pet care, and the rise in cosmetic surgery.

You’ll also be inspired by the heartwarming stories of struggle and survival filling these pages. With a wry and winning tone, Dr. Trout offers up hilarious and delightful anecdotes about cuddly (or not-so-cuddly) pets and their variously zany, desperate, and demanding owners. In total, Tell Me Where It Hurts offers a fascinating portrait of the comedy and drama, complexities and rewards involved with loving and healing animals.

Part ER, part Dog Whisperer, and part House, this heartfelt and candid book shows that while the technology has changed since James Herriot’s day, the humanity and compassion remains unchanged. If you’ve ever had a pet or special place in your heart for furry friends, Dr. Trout’s irresistible book is for you.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Trout desn't usually come to work at 2:47 a.m. A staff surgeon at Boston's Angell Animal Medical Center, he may be starting the day earlier than he would have liked, but he's just learned that Sage, a ten-year-old German shepherd, will die without emergency surgery. Her condition, commonly known as bloat, offers precious little time for reflection and no roomfor error.

From the front lines of veterinary care, Tell Me Where It Hurts is an eye-opening day-in-the-life account of a veterinary surgeon and his four-legged patients. Combining a compassionate bedside manner with cutting-edge technology, Trout takes readers on a 24-hour roller-coaster ride, narrated in his wry and intriguing voice as he introduces us to demanding pet owners, their beloved (but not always lovable) pets, and the extraordinary advances in veterinary medicine. A $40 billion a year industry in the U.S. alone, veterinary care now offers an amazing array of treatments for the 21st-century pet. While the standard, "First, do no harm," remains unchanged, Trout illuminates the controversy surrounding such advanced treatment and the high price it commands.

In this era of dog whisperers and pet therapists, Trout's tale shows that while the times and the technology may have changed since the days of James Herriott, the duty and humanity have not. Humorous, winning, and wise, Tell Me Where It Hurts is an inside look at a fascinating profession. (Summer 2008 Selection)
Publishers Weekly

Though he practices veterinary medicine in Boston, Trout hails from the U.K., so it's fitting that fellow Brit, Simon Vance, narrates. At a couple of points early in the recording, Vance stumbles slightly in bringing to life a few minor figures with pronounced regional American accents. He quickly regains his stride and settles on a style that conveys exact emotions appropriate to the frenetic pace of a large urban animal hospital. With Vance's smooth delivery, Trout's informative asides about the state of his often romanticized and largely misunderstood profession flow nicely into the action. The dramatic tension reaches a climax worthy of ER or Grey's Anatomy, and Vance's portrayal of one family soap opera featuring a lonely widower hoping for a miracle to save the life of his beloved German shepherd and the man's type-A personality daughter angrily dismissing Trout as a misguided purveyor of false hope, proves especially electrifying. Simultaneous release with the Broadway hardcover (Reviews, Dec. 24). (Apr.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Modern veterinary medicine is potently explored in this noteworthy debut by a staff surgeon at the Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston. The 24-hour romp Trout describes includes a riveting midnight foray into the operating room; compelling stories about individual patients (Sage, a ten-year-old German shepherd in need of emergency surgery; Woody, a geriatric Labrador diagnosed with aggressive cancer; Chunky Bear, a corpulent 40-pound cat; and Thor, a bisexual male boxer with profoundly pendulous breasts); and curious tête-à-têtes with demanding, devoted, and disgruntled pet owners. With refreshing frankness, Trout offers lucid observations on animal-human relationships ("Companion animals have moved from the periphery of the American family to its center in a love affair that has shifted the paradigm from accessory to necessity, from mere property pet to the status of an adopted child. Pet owners are now pet parents"). Trout thoughtfully considers the myriad of treatment options available for 21st-century pets, the impact of technology on the veterinary profession, and larger ethical and quality-of-life issues. Recommended for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/07.]-Miriam Tuliao, NYPL

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A seasoned veterinarian shares some memorable cases. With several decades of experience as a veterinary surgeon, the author has seen his share of animal emergencies, which he now structures as parts of one fictional day, a tactic that detracts from, rather than adds to, the urgency of his narrative. It begins at 2:47 a.m., when Trout is roused out of bed to perform emergency stomach surgery on Sage, a ten-year-old German shepherd who is the sole companion of an aging widower. Next up is a particularly unusual case, a hermaphroditic boxer named Thor who has begun secreting female hormones. Later in the morning the vet helps a family decide whether or not to put a beloved pet to sleep. This sparks a lively discussion of euthanasia, a high point in the book. A 40-pound cat aptly named Chunky Bear inspires Trout's musings on canine and feline obesity, an epidemic nearly as dire as the same among humans. Just past noon, the vet acquires David, a tag-along "shadow" with veterinary aspirations from a nearby high school, and enters the world of small animal plastic surgery. With Tinkerbell, Trout is cleaning up scar tissue from an earlier cancer surgery, but her case causes him to pause and pontificate on more cosmetic procedures, such as ear cropping and tail docking, which he opposes. Later in the afternoon, he embarks on a canine hip replacement. Finally, he ends his day with a cat named Snowball, who managed to swallow one of her own teeth. Trout brings up some interesting ethical issues, but readers looking for a heart-warmer will be bored by these tangents, and intellectuals will feel belittled by the tongue-in-cheek prose and frenetic pacing. Steadfast animal lovers might be willing tooverlook Trout's inconsistent tone, but he's unlikely to garner a wide audience.
From the Publisher
“Fabulous . . . The best veterinary book that’s been written since All Creatures Great and Small.” —Oregonian
The Barnes & Noble Review
If the gold standard for writing by a veterinarian is James Herriot's All Things Bright and Beautiful and All Creatures Great and Small, then Dr. Nick Trout's Tell Me Where It Hurts generally achieves the pewter standard, with some sterling-silver highlights. Herriot, whose real name was Alfred Wight, evidently fictionalized some of his narratives, though their grounding in true-life experiences is indubitable. (And, anyway, Oprah can't have Rex or Tabby on her show to, er, rat out a fabricator in this line of work.) Trout, an Englishman who is a staff surgeon at Boston's Angell Animal Medical Center, does the same -- as he acknowledges in his Author's Note at the beginning of the text. He has compressed stories from many different days into one day, altered the names of pets and their owners, and traded "characteristic idiosyncras[ies]...among pets and owners to maintain anonymity."

Still, despite these liberties and despite some chronic shortcomings, Tell Me Where It Hurts manages to convey, often with drama and humor, what a modern vet's professional life is like. Running through the "day" here is the story of Sage, a German shepherd suffering from gastric dilation and vovulus (in which the stomach of a dog sort of flips over) and her owner, Mr. Hartmann, for whom Sage has been a lifeline since the death of his wife. Dr. Trout -- summoned to the medical center early in the morning -- and a young resident discuss the surgery needed to correct this problem and the procedure's possible complications:

Mortality rates for GDV can be as high as 60 per cent, and factors associated with a higher chance of death include abnormal heart rhythms, extremely high pulse rates, the need to cut out part of the stomach....Sage had checked off nearly every negative prognostic factor for survival.
Trout uses Sage's story as a sort of clothesline from which to hang other stories and dilemmas and statistics and veterinary issues. In this book resembles any number of contemporary accounts of a professional life -- such as Dr. Katrina Firlik's recent book about being a brain surgeon, Another Day in the Frontal Lobe -- in which anecdote mixes with background and commentary. Here we learn that some 69 million Americans own pets; that a vet specializing in "exotics" can cut off a turtle's penis, after his (the turtle's!) girlfriend has already bitten half of it off, with no adverse functional effect, as the organ plays no role in micturition; that the toughest decision a vet has to make is, as you might guess, whether to advocate putting a pet to sleep; that, perhaps consequently, veterinarians' suicide rates are very high; that American pets mirror their owners' obesity problems; that cosmetic surgery for animals is against the law in England; that putting two ferrets in your pants, making sure they can't escape, and attempting to endure the consequent fighting and biting within is an old sport in England, called by the uninspired and very Monty Pythonesque name "ferret-legging." The record is held by Reg Mellor, of Yorkshire: 5 hours and 26 minutes.

Some of the more entertaining and powerful moments here include a spirited defense of animal euthanasia when it is clearly called for. In response to those who advocate letting nature take its slow and painful course, Trout exclaims, "Sometimes nature can take its course and shove it!" Another strong passage describes Trout's own introduction to veterinary medicine, at his father urging, while he was in high school in England. He accompanied a Welsh vet named Ryan James on his rounds. James was a charismatic, no-nonsense practitioner who in one day showed young Nick Trout what vets did, including injecting a bull's eyeball to cure pink eye (James made Trout do one of the injections), pulling the teeth of a Pekingese, and earning a patient's owner's trust by letting him or her see how conscientious you are at the very beginning of a consultation: "Make a show of cleaning your table in front of the client," James says.

Tell Me Where It Hurts hurts a little when Trout tries too hard -- or, maybe, not hard enough -- to be funny. In discussing the famous rash of cat self-defenestration in high-rise New York apartment buildings in 1987 --132 in five months -- and their surprising survival rates, Trout says, "I don't know about dogs but it must have been raining cats in Manhattan that year." Please! And he gives us his efforts at witty ripostes that often turn out not to have been actually riposted. "You really think he's fat?" a pet owner might say to Trout. "Well...[he] certainly would benefit from a little dietary discretion. But then again, so could you." Trout then tells us that this last sentence in truth remained "unsaid." And the book's structure, which involves many chronological shifts and subject jumps, presents its own challenges.

The best aspect of this book is its obvious understanding of and sympathy with pet owners' love for their animals. The origin of this recognition is easily found in Trout's own childhood connection with his family's German shepherd, Patch, who suffered a painful and saddening deterioration before he died. The second best is the polar opposite: the clinical explanations of pets' afflictions and the surgical steps required to treat them -- notably resetting a goose's wing bones and removing a nerve-sheath tumor from a canine's armpit. Since there are 69 million American pet owners, and many of them are pushovers when it comes to animal stories, as we can see from the enormous success of some recent books about dogs, the prognosis for Tell Me Where It Hurts may be quite positive.

I will not tell you what happens to Sage and her widowed owner, Mr. Hartmann. Take a guess. --Daniel Menaker

Author of the novel The Treatment and two books of short stories, Daniel Menaker is former Executive Editor-in-Chief of Random House and fiction editor of The New Yorker. His reviews, humor pieces, and other writings have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Slate. He is currently the host of the web-based book program titlepage.tv.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781602833487
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/19/2008
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged Edition
  • Product dimensions: 5.78 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Meet the Author

Nick Trout is a staff surgeon at the Angell Animal Medical Center and lives near Boston, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

1
2:47 A.M.
WAKE-UP CALL

This might seem strange, coming from an Englishman, but sometimes emergency surgery in the middle of the night can play out like a synopsis of a perfect season for the Boston Red Sox. The beginning may be predictably crappy, slow, and discombobulated until a rhythm develops and momentum builds leaving you stricken with that familiar glimmer of hope. When it comes to the final stretch, everyone accepts that there may be failure, there may be disappointment, but the struggle is always gritty and memorable, and occasionally, if you are really lucky, something magical will happen.

My beginning came half an hour earlier with a phone call reeling me in from a cozy dreamless void.

"Hello," I said, two disjointed syllables caught in a sticky web at the back of my throat.

"This is Dr. Keene, one of the new surgical residents. We haven't met but I've got a dog, a ten-year-old spayed female German shepherd; she's bloated and . . . like . . . well . . . I need you to come in for the surgery. Sorry."

All I heard was sound, not words I could interpret, my brain dormant on my pillow.

"Hello, are you still there?"

"Yeah, sure, I'm listening," I croaked, wiping a palm across my face. "What time is it?"

She told me and dove into her apology.

"I really hate to disturb you but, like, my backup's not answering his pager and, like, I didn't know what else to do." Her words surfed through me—a Valley Girl inflection—and sluggish gray matter dug out a memory of a recent departmental memo—"Be sure to welcome our first-year surgery resident, Dr. Sarah Keene, from the University of California, Davis."

I came awake, sat up in bed, and told my wife to go back to sleep.

"No problem, Dr. Keene. Tell me about your GDV."

As a new surgery resident, Dr. Keene may know all about GDV, an acronym that stands for gastric dilatation and volvulus, commonly referred to, with a satisfying rustic flavor, as "bloat." But more than likely, at this stage in her training, her understanding is primarily academic, words and phrases in a textbook, disease as bullets of information in shocking fluorescent pink highlights. She will be a year out from veterinary school, a year in which she will probably have diagnosed and managed several cases of GDV. She knows all about this bizarre anatomical aberration and the inevitable, rampant pathology it will incite. She even knows exactly what needs to be done. But, until now, until tonight, she has never been the one who actually picks up a scalpel and makes the cure happen. Tonight, for the first time in her professional career, she is the surgeon on call, and not surprisingly, she is in need of some help.
GDV is a true veterinary surgical emergency. It typically occurs in deep-chested dogs like German shepherds, Great Danes, and standard poodles but, on occasion, I've even seen it in breeds as small as dachshunds. No one is entirely sure why it happens, but oftentimes the animal eats a large meal, gets some exercise, and an hour or so later the problems begin. Fermented gas starts to accumulate in the distended stomach, and for whatever reason the entire organ twists around and flips over on its long axis. The effect is catastrophic. The twist blocks off the esophagus so despite the poor creature's desire to throw up and rid itself of all that food and gas, nothing will budge. The stomach expands unchecked, destroying its own blood supply, driving into the chest and squashing the lungs and the blood flow back to the heart. There is no absolute timetable for how long an animal can survive in this state, but dogs can die in a matter of hours. As soon as the diagnosis is made, the clock is ticking.

"She got into a full bag of kibble around seven. Owner took her for a walk before bed. He could hear the dog trying to vomit unsuccessfully around midnight and drove her all the way up from the Cape. She looks ready to explode. Classic double-bubble on abdominal X-rays."

I had been waiting for this description, the twisted, distended stomach looking like the silhouette of a giant heavyweight's boxing glove on an X-ray. It tells me her diagnosis is correct.

"Is she stable?" I asked.

"Not really," said Dr. Keene. "Her pressures are through the floor and we're having a hell of a time just finding a decent vein, let alone placing a catheter."

My feet were swinging out of the bed and I began to fumble for clean clothes.

"Do your best. Try to pass a stomach tube. I'll be there as fast as I can."

Angell Animal Medical Center, part of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, is located in the eclectic and increasingly gentrified Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. There are no world rankings of veterinary hospital size, but at 185,000 square feet I imagine Angell is one of the larger ones, with over seventy veterinarians serving nearly fifty thousand dogs, cats, and exotic pets every year.
After ten years on staff as a surgeon, I know that those nasty rumors about Boston traffic are all subterfuge because at three in the morning, an easy commute is rewarded with my pick from one of the primo parking spots close to the front door.

It is January in New England. There are a couple of inches of snow on the ground, a miniature version of the Andes has been plowed against the perimeter wall, and today's high will be only ten below. I walk across the salted asphalt like a geriatric with a bad case of hemorrhoids, poised to slip on the black ice. Despite the hour, my sleepiness is starting to burn off like fog on an imaginary sunny morning as I enter this five-story brick building and head toward the nonsterile surgical prep area. The corridors are empty, floors polished, phones silent, and pagers dead. I have entered an antiseptic ghost town and I like the way it feels. It reminds me of being a kid again, of breaking into the neighbor's backyard in order to steal the ripe apples taunting me from their tree. The mission is covert, even risky—all but guaranteeing the rewards will make it worthwhile.

Cutting through the radiology department, I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the glass window outside the MRI unit. The man I see looks unfamiliar. He has piggy eyes, a pillow-crease scar across his left cheek, and a jaunty case of bed head. Thank goodness my patients never judge me on my appearance.

My patient lies splayed across a large gurney, nervous nails clawing for purchase on the stainless steel surface. She is a big girl, obviously not lacking for love in the calorie department. Her darting chocolate eyes scream in fear of her strange situation and the changes taking place in her body, but as I enter the room and approach, her broad and bushy tail offers me a couple of friendly beats. I like German shepherds. I grew up with one as a kid, but this gesture strikes me as both uncharacteristic and, at the same time, utterly endearing. Until this moment I have been dealing with an anonymous and remote animal reduced to a list of diseases, conditions, problems, and deformities. Suddenly everything has changed. This animal has a name and a personality. This animal has become my patient. This is the moment when I begin to care.

I pat her head and run my hand across a soft velvety ear, over her chest and down to the enormous, unyielding abnormality that is her drum-tight abdomen.

"Hi, sweetheart. You hanging in there?"

For me, all my patients are "sweethearts" until proven otherwise, whether they are male or female, cute and cuddly Himalayan kittens or slobbering and stoic 250 pounds of bullmastiff.

Holding a needle and syringe, Dr. Keene, a short, shiny-faced woman with blond hair in a ponytail, turns to me. She can be no more than twenty-five. I wonder if at forty-three I'm getting a little long in the tooth for this game. She glares through sparkly green contacts as though she thought I had been addressing her. I introduce myself, offer my hand, and assure her that I was speaking to our patient.

"This is Sage," she says, trying to apply an oxygen mask to the dog's snout. "I'm Sarah, and this is Dan." She gestures to a technician I have never met before, although this is not surprising given the hour. For most of us working in a busy animal hospital, being on call for surgical emergencies every other night, every other weekend, is simply not sustainable for more than a couple of years. Nocturnal surgical emergencies are a rite of passage, an inherent requisite in any decent residency program, a privilege to be endured and enjoyed. But now, nearly fifteen years after the completion of my training, my midnight forays into the OR are limited to the one week in every month that I am available as backup to the residents.

Dan juts a square chin in my direction and gives me a casual " 'sup." He has a pierced right eyebrow and lower lip with colorful sleeves of tattoos running down his arms in perfect contrast to the sallow vampire skin of his face. In different surroundings he might attract attention, but here, working the overnight, he can relax, setting up the EKG leads, sorting out the pulse oximeter, and adjusting the intravenous fluids with an experienced hand.
There is a small shaved square on Sage's flank where an attempt has been made to release the trapped and expanding gas in the dog's stomach by directly puncturing the organ with a large bore needle. I touch the small red bull's-eye in the center of the bald spot. The skin is impossibly taut. Clearly the attempt failed.
"No luck with a tube?" I ask, although I know the question is redundant. If they had successfully passed a stomach tube, the preferred method of decompression, there would have been no need to try to use a needle.

Dr. Keene shakes her head.

"I'm afraid not," she says. "She's in bad shape. Heart rate's two twenty with occasional VPCs. Her color looks like shit."
I'm not surprised. The shock to Sage's circulation has convinced her heart that she is running an endless sprint. This effect combined with the absorption of toxic by-products via the damaged stomach can produce runs of abnormal and ineffective heartbeats called VPCs or ventricular premature contractions. Heard over a heart monitor, VPCs make the beat of a frenetic African tribal dance sound like the cord changes of a funeral march. They can be disastrous in their own right.

Sage's tail beats a message of thanks as I relieve her of the oxygen mask and lift an upper lip to inspect her gums. Healthy, vibrant pink tissue signifying normal peripheral blood flow has been replaced by an ugly, muddy purple.

"How much intravenous fluid has she had?"

"This is her fourth liter," says Dr. Keene. "It took forever to find a vein. Isn't that right, Dan?"
Dan nods.

Sage's color looks awful. I imagine someone shoving an overinflated beach ball under my rib cage. I know I wouldn't be faring as well.

"You're absolutely right," I say. "She looks like crap. You're certain Sage got into the kibble around seven?"

"According to the owner she did. Why?"

"Because she's acting like she's near the end, like her stomach has been distended for so long it's going to die. It's all very well trying to get her stable for surgery, but if her stomach dies, she dies. I don't think we have any more time to dick around. Start a lidocaine drip, give her some intravenous antibiotics, and knock her down. The faster we get this thing untwisted the better. I'm going to get changed into scrubs."

"Before I forget," says Dr. Keene, "the owner is waiting up front. He insisted on meeting with you before you get started."

Inwardly I groan. Don't get me wrong, good client communication lies at the heart of great veterinary care. There is enormous satisfaction in getting pet owners involved, explaining exactly what it is we are doing, why we are doing it, and making sure they are part of the decision-making process. But right now, with Sage fading fast, every minute lost is a minute closer to a patient who never wakes up from anesthesia. I just want to get going, to give this dog a measure of relief. Perhaps Sage's owner doesn't understand the gravity of the situation. I imagine myself walking into a time trap, forced to engage in idle banter with a belligerent owner about whether I really know what I am doing, how many of these things I have done before, committing to verbal assurances that I will be the one performing the operation and not my resident.

"Okay," I say, "if I'm not back in five minutes get scrubbed in, drape her off, and start setting up. If I'm not back in ten, page me to the OR, stat."

I hand comb my hair on the way to the vast waiting room, preparing myself for combat with some sort of aggressive middle aged lawyer type, who, despite the hour, has turned up perfectly coiffed in an immaculate pinstriped suit. But the only person I see is an old man of at least seventy, sitting in a corner, head slightly bowed with one liver-spotted hand tightly clasped in the other. He is bundled up like a snowman, frail skin swaddled in a cap, scarf, and overcoat.
"Mr. Hartman?" My mind and body rapidly decelerate as I approach.

The old man looks up, offering an apologetic expression that changes into a wince as he gets to his feet with difficulty. My nose detects the faint, menthol aroma of Bengay.

"Hi, Mr. Hartman, please don't get up on my account. I understand Dr. Keene has explained that your dog is seriously ill and in need of emergency surgery, so I thought I should introduce myself. I'm Sage's surgeon. I will be the one operating on her this morning."

Tired, frightened eyes search mine as he extends a cold hand.

"I'm so very sorry getting you out of bed," he says. "It was my daughter, you see. She's a doctor." I assume he means a doctor of humans. I am pleased to hear him refrain from saying a "real" doctor. MDs appreciate better than most that a hierarchy exists in a referral hospital—student, intern, resident, attending. She probably provoked this insight.

"She said to make sure to get a surgeon who is on staff, someone with more experience. Not a resident, she said. To be honest, it doesn't bother me. I just don't want to lose her, that's all. Sage is all I've got."

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Table of Contents

Author's Note     ix
2:47 A.M. Wake-Up Call     1
7:24 A.M. Salad Days     21
7:48 A.M. The Fairer Sex     42
8:30 A.M. Second Opinion     53
9:12 A.M. Long Shots and Underdogs     68
9:21 A.M. Kiss of Death     88
10:11 A.M. Dangerous Liaisons     103
10:22 A.M. Minor Complications     127
10:47 A.M. Supersized!     160
10:56 A.M. The Final Straw     175
12:01 P.M. Exotic Detour     191
12:41 P.M. Bitten!     207
12:54 P.M. Extreme Makeover     223
2:47 P.M. The Cutting Edge     234
6:35 P.M. Foreign Body     254
10:02 P.M. Reasonable Doubt     268
Acknowledgments     285
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First Chapter

2:47 A.M.
WAKE-UP CALL

This might seem strange, coming from an Englishman, but sometimes emergency surgery in the middle of the night can play out like a synopsis of a perfect season for the Boston Red Sox. The beginning may be predictably crappy, slow, and discombobulated until a rhythm develops and momentum builds leaving you stricken with that familiar glimmer of hope. When it comes to the final stretch, everyone accepts that there may be failure, there may be disappointment, but the struggle is always gritty and memorable, and occasionally, if you are really lucky, something magical will happen.

My beginning came half an hour earlier with a phone call reeling me in from a cozy dreamless void. “Hello,” I said, two disjointed syllables caught in a sticky web at the back of my throat. “This is Dr. Keene, one of the new surgical residents. We haven’t met but I’ve got a dog, a ten-year-old spayed female German shepherd; she’s bloated and... like...well...I need you to come in for the surgery. Sorry.” All I heard was sound, not words I could interpret, my brain dormant on my pillow. “Hello, are you still there?” “Yeah, sure, I’m listening,” I croaked, wiping a palm across my face. “What time is it?” She told me and dove into her apology.“I really hate to disturb you but, like, my backup’s not answering his pager and, like, I didn’t know what else to do.” Her words surfed through me—a Valley Girl inflection—and sluggish gray matter dug out a memory of a recent departmental memo—“Be sure to welcome our first-year surgery resident, Dr. Sarah Keene, from the University of California, Davis.” I came awake, sat up in bed, and told my wife to go back to sleep. “No problem, Dr. Keene. Tell me about your GDV.” As a new surgery resident, Dr. Keene may know all about GDV, an acronym that stands for gastric dilatation and volvulus, commonly referred to, with a satisfying rustic flavor, as “bloat.” But more than likely, at this stage in her training, her understanding is primarily academic, words and phrases in a textbook, disease as bullets of information in shocking fluorescent pink highlights. She will be a year out from veterinary school, a year in which she will probably have diagnosed and managed several cases of GDV. She knows all about this bizarre anatomical aberration and the inevitable, rampant pathology it will incite. She even knows exactly what needs to be done. But, until now, until tonight, she has never been the one who actually picks up a scalpel and makes the cure happen. Tonight, for the first time in her professional career, she is the surgeon on call, and not surprisingly, she is in need of some help. GDV is a true veterinary surgical emergency. It typically occurs in deep-chested dogs like German shepherds, Great Danes, and standard poodles but, on occasion, I’ve even seen it in breeds as small as dachshunds. No one is entirely sure why it happens, but oftentimes the animal eats a large meal, gets some exercise, and an hour or so later the problems begin. Fermented gas starts to accumulate in the distended stomach, and for whatever reason the entire organ twists around and flips over on its long axis. The effect is catastrophic. The twist blocks off the esophagus, so despite the poor creature’s desire to throw up and rid itself of all that food and gas, nothing will budge. The stomach expands unchecked, destroying its own blood supply, driving into the chest and squashing the lungs and the blood flow back to the heart. There is no absolute timetable for how long an animal can survive in this state, but dogs can die in a matter of hours. As soon as the diagnosis is made, the clock is ticking. “She got into a full bag of kibble around seven. Owner took her for a walk before bed. He could hear the dog trying to vomit unsuccessfully around midnight and drove her all the way up from the Cape. She looks ready to explode. Classic double-bubble on abdominal X-rays.” I had been waiting for this description, the twisted, distended stomach looking like the silhouette of a giant heavyweight’s boxing glove on an X-ray. It tells me her diagnosis is correct. “Is she stable?” I asked. “Not really,” said Dr. Keene. “Her pressures are through the floor and we’re having a hell of a time just finding a decent vein, let alone placing a catheter.” My feet were swinging out of the bed and I began to fumble for clean clothes. “Do your best. Try to pass a stomach tube. I’ll be there as fast as I can.” Angell Animal Medical Center, part of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, is located in the eclectic and increasingly gentrified Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. There are no world rankings of veterinary hospital size, but at 185,000 square feet I imagine Angell is one of the larger ones, with over seventy veterinarians serving nearly fifty thousand dogs, cats, and exotic pets every year. After ten years on staff as a surgeon, I know that those nasty rumors about Boston traffic are all subterfuge because at three in the morning, an easy commute is rewarded with my pick from one of the primo parking spots close to the front door. It is January in New England. There are a couple of inches of snow on the ground, a miniature version of the Andes has been plowed against the perimeter wall, and today’s high will be only ten below. I walk across the salted asphalt like a geriatric with a bad case of hemorrhoids, poised to slip on the black ice. Despite the hour, my sleepiness is starting to burn off like fog on an imaginary sunny morning as I enter this five-story brick building and head toward the nonsterile surgical prep area. The corridors are empty, floors polished, phones silent, and pagers dead. I have entered an antiseptic ghost town and I like the way it feels. It reminds me of being a kid again, of breaking into the neighbor’s backyard in order to steal the ripe apples taunting me from their tree. The mission is covert, even risky—all but guaranteeing the rewards will make it worthwhile. Cutting through the radiology department, I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the glass window outside the MRI unit. The man I see looks unfamiliar. He has piggy eyes, a pillow-crease scar across his left cheek, and a jaunty case of bed head. Thank goodness my patients never judge me on my appearance. My patient lies splayed across a large gurney, nervous nails clawing for purchase on the stainless steel surface. She is a big girl, obviously not lacking for love in the calorie department. Her darting chocolate eyes scream in fear of her strange situation and the changes taking place in her body, but as I enter the room and approach, her broad and bushy tail offers me a couple of friendly beats. I like German shepherds. I grew up with one as a kid, but this gesture strikes me as both uncharacteristic and, at the same time, utterly endearing. Until this moment I have been dealing with an anonymous and remote animal reduced to a list of diseases, conditions, problems, and deformities. Suddenly everything has changed. This animal has a name and a personality. This animal has become my patient. This is the moment when I begin to care. I pat her head and run my hand across a soft velvety ear, over her chest and down to the enormous, unyielding abnormality that is her drum-tight abdomen. “Hi, sweetheart. You hanging in there?” For me, all my patients are “sweethearts” until proven otherwise, whether they are male or female, cute and cuddly Himalayan kittens or a slobbering and stoic 250 pounds of bullmastiff. Holding a needle and syringe, Dr. Keene, a short, shiny-faced woman with blond hair in a ponytail, turns to me. She can be no more than twenty-five. I wonder if at forty-three I’m getting a little long in the tooth for this game. She glares through sparkly green contacts as though she thought I had been addressing her. I introduce myself, offer my hand, and assure her that I was speaking to our patient. “This is Sage,” she says, trying to apply an oxygen mask to the dog’s snout. “I’m Sarah, and this is Dan.” She gestures to a technician I have never met before, although this is not surprising given the hour. For most of us working in a busy animal hospital, being on call for surgical emergencies every other night, every other weekend, is simply not sustainable for more than a couple of years. Nocturnal surgical emergencies are a rite of passage, an inherent requisite in any decent residency program, a privilege to be endured and enjoyed. But now, nearly fifteen years after the completion of my training, my midnight forays into the OR are limited to the one week in every month that I am available as backup to the residents. Dan juts a square chin in my direction and gives me a casual “ ’sup.” He has a pierced right eyebrow and lower lip with colorful sleeves of tattoos running down his arms in perfect contrast to the sallow vampire skin of his face. In different surroundings he might attract attention, but here, working the overnight, he can relax, setting up the EKG leads, sorting out the pulse oximeter, and adjusting the intravenous fluids with an experienced hand. There is a small shaved square on Sage’s flank where an attempt has been made to release the trapped and expanding gas in the dog’s stomach by directly puncturing the organ with a large bore needle. I touch the small red bull’s-eye in the center of the bald spot. The skin is impossibly taut. Clearly the attempt failed. “No luck with a tube?” I ask, although I know the question is redundant. If they had successfully passed a stomach tube, the preferred method of decompression, there would have been no need to try to use a needle. Dr. Keene shakes her head. “I’m afraid not,” she says. “She’s in bad shape. Heart rate’s two twenty with occasional VPCs. Her color looks like shit.” I’m not surprised. The shock to Sage’s circulation has convinced her heart that she is running an endless sprint. This effect combined with the absorption of toxic by-products via the damaged stomach can produce runs of abnormal and ineffective heartbeats called VPCs or ventricular premature contractions. Heard over a heart monitor, VPCs make the beat of a frenetic African tribal dance sound like the chord changes of a funeral march. They can be disastrous in their own right. Sage’s tail beats a message of thanks as I relieve her of the oxygen mask and lift an upper lip to inspect her gums. Healthy, vibrant pink tissue signifying normal peripheral blood flow has been replaced by an ugly, muddy purple. “How much intravenous fluid has she had?” “This is her fourth liter,” says Dr. Keene. “It took forever to find a vein. Isn’t that right, Dan?” Dan nods. Sage’s color looks awful. I imagine someone shoving an overinflated beach ball under my rib cage. I know I wouldn’t be faring as well. “You’re absolutely right,” I say. “She looks like crap. You’re certain Sage got into the kibble around seven?” “According to the owner she did. Why?” “Because she’s acting like she’s near the end, like her stomach has been distended for so long it’s going to die. It’s all very well trying to get her stable for surgery, but if her stomach dies, she dies. I don’t think we have any more time to dick around. Start a lidocaine drip, give her some intravenous antibiotics, and knock her down. The faster we get this thing untwisted the better. I’m going to get changed into scrubs.” “Before I forget,” says Dr. Keene, “the owner is waiting up front. He insisted on meeting with you before you get started.” Inwardly I groan. Don’t get me wrong, good client communication lies at the heart of great veterinary care. There is enormous satisfaction in getting pet owners involved, explaining exactly what it is we are doing, why we are doing it, and making sure they are part of the decision-making process. But right now, with Sage fading fast, every minute lost is a minute closer to a patient who never wakes up from anesthesia. I just want to get going, to give this dog a measure of relief. Perhaps Sage’s owner doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation. I imagine myself walking into a time trap, forced to engage in idle banter with a belligerent owner about whether I really know what I am doing, how many of these things I have done before, committing to verbal assurances that I will be the one performing the operation and not my resident. “Okay,” I say, “if I’m not back in five minutes get scrubbed in, drape her off, and start setting up. If I’m not back in ten, page me to the OR, stat.” I hand comb my hair on the way to the vast waiting room, preparing myself for combat with some sort of aggressive middle-aged lawyer type, who, despite the hour, has turned up perfectly coiffed in an immaculate pinstriped suit. But the only person I see is an old man of at least seventy, sitting in a corner, head slightly bowed with one liver-spotted hand tightly clasped in the other. He is bundled up like a snowman, frail skin swaddled in a cap, scarf, and overcoat. “Mr. Hartman?” My mind and body rapidly decelerate as I approach. The old man looks up, offering an apologetic expression that changes into a wince as he gets to his feet with difficulty. My nose detects the faint, menthol aroma of Bengay. “Hi, Mr. Hartman, please don’t get up on my account. I understand Dr. Keene has explained that your dog is seriously ill and in need of emergency surgery, so I thought I should introduce myself. I’m Sage’s surgeon. I will be the one operating on her this morning.” Tired, frightened eyes search mine as he extends a cold hand. “I’m so very sorry getting you out of bed,” he says. “It was my daughter, you see. She’s a doctor.” I assume he means a doctor of humans. I am pleased to hear him refrain from saying a “real” doctor. MDs appreciate better than most that a hierarchy exists in a referral hospital—student, intern, resident, attending. She probably provoked this insight. “She said to make sure to get a surgeon who is on staff, someone with more experience. Not a resident, she said. To be honest, it doesn’t bother me. I just don’t want to lose her, that’s all. Sage is all I’ve got.” There is a tremor in his voice that he cannot fight down. He is holding it together but only just, proud, helpless, and completely vulnerable, tethered by that wonderful and inconceivably powerful bond to the animal in his life. The passion for his canine companion pours from him, washing away any residual traces of my sleep deprivation, replacing them in an instant with the awesome responsibility I have to this man and his best friend. “You think I’m doing the right thing, don’t you? I mean bringing her here, having the operation?” “Of course,” I say. “No question about it. There’s a good chance that we can correct the problem. Things might get a little rough in the postoperative period, but nothing we haven’t seen before, nothing we can’t handle. Believe me I wouldn’t be standing here ready to perform surgery if I didn’t have your animal’s best interests at heart.” For a moment he studies his hands, wringing them, working the thick and knotty joints and knuckles before adding, “Tell me I’m not being selfish? You see, my daughter, she means well, but she keeps reminding me that Sage is ten, after all.” I shake my head. “Not at all, Mr. Hartman. You’re doing exactly the right thing. You’re taking the best possible care of the animal you love.” I can see that he is still not convinced. “And if she were your dog? Would you put her through surgery, given her age?” How many times have I been asked this question? It is the yardstick against which so many owners measure and weigh the difficult decisions they must make. This is the point at which the veterinarian has the unique opportunity, through a combination of experience, knowledge, and personal opinion, to totally influence a decision. It is a burden we must accept and use wisely. Fortunately, in this case, I can answer honestly and without bias. “Absolutely. Sage seems like a great dog. Any animal prepared to beat me up with her tail, feeling as sick as she does, is definitely worth saving.” He tries his best to stifle a smile. It works but he cannot catch the tear. “She’s all I’ve got since my wife died. Sage helped me through the darkest hours of my life.” I swallow hard, trying not to get sucked in, unable to resist the allure of this gentle old man. He is a character out of a James Herriot novel, a cliché widower clinging to the last tangible link to the love he has lost. But the truth is these people are everywhere. Sixty-three percent of all homes in the United States have a pet. That’s more than 69 million people. It may be a cat, a bird, a ferret, or a guinea pig, but the chances are high that when someone close to you dies, a pet will be there to pick up the slack. Pets devour the loneliness. They give us purpose, responsibility, a reason for getting up in the morning, and a reason to look to the future. They ground us, help us escape the grief, make us laugh, and take full advantage of our weakness by exploiting our furniture, our beds, and our refrigerator. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Pets are our seat belts on the emotional roller coaster of life—they can be trusted, they keep us safe, and they sure do smooth out the ride. “I can’t tell you how much that dog means to me,” says Mr. Hartman, and I see the deep pools of suffering in his eyes. I try to defend myself from his grief. I need to focus on my job. “Believe me, Mr. Hartman,” I say, pursing my lips into a smile, “it shows. I know the problem. My father had a shepherd when I was growing up. They’re one-man dogs. They bond tight, like superglue, and never let go.” His smile begins to win his emotional battle. He raises a hand and gives my shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Just do your best. I know you will.” “Doing my best is the easy part,” I say. “Sage needs to do hers.” “She will,” says Mr. Hartman, watching me go. “She’s a strong girl. She won’t let us down.” The golden iodine-stained skin yields easily to the scalpel, weeping the familiar tiny tears of blood to reveal a pure, white, fatty shellac below. I don’t have to deliberate. I don’t have to ask. I don’t have to think. My hands are on autopilot as they gently work their way into Sage’s abdomen. I am not a natural-born surgeon. I was not blessed with what some like to call good hands. Thankfully surgery is a skill that can be learned. It is a bit like playing the piano. If we possess the desire and the diligence to practice long enough and hard enough, eventually we can make progress, eight of our ten thumbs might even disappear, and most of the time we end up hitting the right notes and playing a decent tune. Shortly after graduation, when we make our first sortie into the operating room, we quickly appreciate that our Rachmaninoff solo at Carnegie Hall might have to wait until we have mastered “Chopsticks” on the out of tune upright at Grandma’s house. Neophyte surgeons have to shout and scream at their hands, ordering them to the appropriate places, struggling to find the right touch and pressure, fumbling to select and handle the correct instrument. Only with time and practice can we begin to whisper and, occasionally, not to speak at all. The hands learn to dance, to move without effort, without hesitation, without waste. Work becomes seamless, slick, economical, and productive. I am wearing blue scrubs, a sterile gown, and powdered size seven-and-a-half latex surgical gloves. Blue paper bootees cover my sneakers, my hair is trapped inside a disposable bouffant cap, and most of my face is hidden behind a paper mask affording me the pleasure of sniffing my own hideous morning breath for the foreseeable future. Dr. Keene peers on tiptoe through the green window of the sterile drape covering our anesthetized patient only to recoil as the bloated stomach bursts through the raw edges of my calculated slash. Paper masks can hide only so much. With my gesture toward the distended organ, a polite “please, be my guest,” she televises the emotions playing behind her eyes—a flash of excitement followed by the lingering betrayal of apprehension—so together we squeeze our gloved hands into the impossibly tight space between Sage’s stomach and the abdominal wall, watching them disappear into pink tissue and the vat of red paint that is free and pooled blood. “Get a good love handle of stomach in your right hand, and pull up on it as you push down with your left, here,” I say, ensuring her grasp is appropriate and correctly positioned. Dr. Keene begins to grunt, to strain, and I know that with every breath Sage takes, the abdominal wall is cinching down tight on her forearms, replacing her hands with cramped and useless stumps. A full minute passes and nothing has happened. “Fuck it!” she curses, retrieving her lifeless fingers. “There’s no way I can do it. You’re going to have to take over.” I study her over the rim of my mask. Given their interminable workload, even the most angelic of surgery residents might occasionally cuss like a character on The Sopranos, but in this circumstance, I know the outburst is borne of insecurity and a fear of failing her patient. I have no doubt that she can do this. I need to reassure her that I am here as a safety net and a few first-time jitters do not constitute a fall. “Don’t beat yourself up,” I say. “Your natural instinct is to be too gentle, too cautious. You’re worried the stomach is going to rip.” I focus on finding the right tone with no trace of condescension. “Think of it this way, if you don’t correct the torsion, Sage will be dead. If the stomach rips, because it’s damaged, it was going to rip anyway. At least she dies trying. You’ve got nothing to lose.” Dr. Keene takes a deep breath and lets it out, causing her mask to flutter. Slowly she begins to nod. Shaking the blood down to her fingers, she resumes her position, hands grappling with the enormous stomach, and once again I ensure that everything is correct. Within seconds her frustration has liberated all the greater force and vigor she requires, and with a sloppy and wonderfully satisfying whoosh of finality, this great big muscular balloon flops back into its anatomically correct position. The green contacts beam with the satisfaction of her achievement, a triumph trumpeted by Sage herself as the dog is relieved of the kind of belch that would satiate the toilet humor of any eleven- year-old boy. “Fantastic,” I say. “Dan, if you’d be so kind as to pass the stomach tube.” I reach into the abdominal cavity and already there is more room to spare. Down by the diaphragm I can feel the esophagus as the wide-bore rubber tube slips by my fingers. Suddenly a column of liquid food and gas pours from the tube and into a collection bucket, instantly searing our nostrils with the pungent aroma of fermented dog kibble. “Thanks,” says Dr. Keene. “I mean, like, for making me keep going.” “Not a problem,” I reply. “It’s like I always say. Surgery is meant to be difficult, but the more you struggle, the more you learn.” Her professionally plucked eyebrows knit over her mask in an expression that says, “Okay, Grandpa, no need to get all philosophical on me.” She recovers and says, “So, now what?” My hands begin fishing through the blood and small intestines. “Time to check out Mr. Spleen.” I locate the large meaty boomerang of an organ located adjacent to the stomach. It is entirely purple black in color. “What do you think?” I ask. Dr. Keene does exactly as I had hoped, feeling for the arterial supply to the spleen and palpating for a pulse between her fingers. She takes her time moving from one vessel to the next before concluding, “Nothing. I feel no pulses. The spleen is dead.” I repeat her examination for myself and agree with her conclusion. Unfortunately the spleen is tightly tethered to the stomach, so wherever the stomach goes, the spleen must try to follow. In the case of a GDV, the result can be damage and obstruction to the spleen’s blood flow, followed by the organ’s death. Fortunately, Sage can afford to lose her spleen. “Dan, I’ll take an LDS.” Dr. Keene smiles behind her mask at the mention of another three-letter acronym. It is contagious and for a second, as we wait for the instrument, I bask in the memory of those early days as a surgical resident where everything was new and every sterile instrument was like opening a present at Christmas. LDS stands for Ligation and Divide Stapler, a surgical device that looks and handles a little bit like a gun. It has a barrel, cartridge, a grip, and a trigger, which fires metal clips that seal off a blood vessel just before a razor-sharp blade slices the vessel in two. It also comes powered by a carbon dioxide gas canister so that each “shot” makes a satisfying noise like a sound suppressor on a handgun. I don’t care whether it is soft-tissue surgery or orthopedics, surgeons love toys. In minutes, with the instrument in semiautomatic fire in her hands, I feed Dr. Keene the appropriate vessels and the dead spleen is out of Sage’s body. “Okay,” I say. “Now let’s go back to the stomach and see how it looks.” Her hand sweeps back a stray loop of bowel, I grab at the main body of the stomach, pulling it free of the blood and into the bright light of the surgical lamps. Dr. Keene senses my hesitation. “What is it?” For a moment I say nothing, taking my time, changing the position of my hands, feeling the tissue as it slips between my fingers, noting its color and its texture. I can almost feel Mr. Hartman’s hand on my shoulder. “I don’t like what I see. This area,” I point to the junction of the stomach and the esophagus, “its color, that purple congestion with maybe a hint of gray. It might not be viable.” Dr. Keene is staring at me. “So why not simply staple it off?” She makes her question feel like a casual invitation, one I can take or leave. I wish it were that simple. Dogs and cats don’t read textbooks in which line drawings, flow charts, and photographs reduce disease to black and white. Surgery is replete with everything in between, forcing surgeons to make quick, vital decisions based on experience, instinct, and faith. Mistakes are inevitable and their results are indelible. In my opinion dexterity and touch can take a surgeon only so far. Learning to make the right decisions is the art in this science. I like to believe that my decision is objective, emotionally detached from patient and client alike. But in my peripheral vision, I can see a dog who still manages to say hello with a stomach about to burst and an old man reduced to tears at the thought of losing his closest friend. If this job came with tunnel vision our clinical judgment would be so much clearer. “Here are Sage’s three options as I see them,” I say. “One, we take our chances, staple off as much stomach as we dare, and pray that nothing breaks down.” Dr. Keene nods her approval. “Two, we seal off the end of the esophagus, seal off the end of the stomach, put a feeding tube into her small intestine, put a tube into Sage’s throat and down her esophagus to suck off her own saliva because it has nowhere else to go, let the stomach decide whether it lives or dies, and come back in a few days to see if we can put her back together again.” “Wow,” she says, her eyebrows performing a fine impersonation of the “golden arches.” “Have you ever tried to do that?” “No,” I said. “And I hope I never will. But in theory it is possible. I just don’t know if I could put an animal through all that surgery when the risk of failure is so high.” She appears relieved. “So what’s option three?” I sigh. “We call it a day. I scrub out and speak to Mr. Hartman right now. Explain our predicament. It might be better to let Sage die in her sleep than to have to wake her up and succumb to a slow and painful death when her stomach perforates because I made the wrong decision.” Suddenly I notice the beat of the heart monitor filling the silence and it sounds deafening. “What do you think Mr. Hartman will want to do?” I meet her stare. I know the answer. “The right thing. Whatever that may be.” For a full minute neither of us speaks. My relationship with animal and owner is entirely superficial and only minutes old, yet I hold two lives in the balance—one physically and one emotionally. Who am I to make the call? “Dan, get me a GIA, and I’m going to need at least three or four cartridges.” I read agreement and relief in Dr. Keene’s eyes. The Gastrointestinal Anastamosis Stapler chomps its way across the area of devitalized stomach, sealing and separating the good from the bad as it goes. I let Dr. Keene do most of the work. She may fire the device, but I am the one defining the line of demarcation. I am the one selecting healthy tissue from dead tissue. The responsibility for this part of the procedure is mine alone. “Let’s oversew the staple line,” I say, “and then you can get on with the pexy.” “Sure,” says Dr. Keene, asking Dan for some suture material. “But I’ve only done one before now.” Crow’s feet gently land at the corners of my eyes. “Well, you know what they say. ‘See one, do one, teach one.’ ” The resident loads her needle driver and picks up a Debakey forcep from her table. She tuts, making a nice job of rolling her wrists as she passes the suture through the stomach wall. “What idiot made that one up?” The term pexy means the surgical fixation of an organ. In this case a gastropexy is essential to prevent Sage’s stomach from performing somersaults in the future. Rather than relying on the strength of synthetic suture material alone to hold the organ in place, a chunky flap of the outer stomach wall is created and fixed to the muscular lining of the abdominal wall for added security. I make Dr. Keene feel for the slip, the physical separation between the inner and outer layers of the stomach, because this is the natural plane she must define, physically separate, and exploit. I watch as she traces the margins of the flap with the point of her scissors. I approve her design and let her get to work. In my mind I am still deliberating over the merits of my gamble when I hear a curse and look down to see dark brown fluid spewing from a rent in the stomach lining where Dr. Keene has been cutting with her scissors. “I’m so sorry,” she says, fumbling with sponges, trying to mop up the contamination flooding our sterile surgical field. “I thought I was dissecting in the right place. My scissors went straight into the lumen.” It would have been so easy to snatch the instruments from her hands and take over, an arrogant misogynistic surgeon justified in shooing his resident aside. After all, the last thing my patient needed right now was a case of peritonitis because of her heavy-handed technique. But what would Dr. Keene gain from the experience? How would she learn from her mistake? “It’s okay, Sarah. It’s done. Let’s fix the problem, flush half a dozen liters of sterile saline through her abdomen, change gloves, change instruments, and get out. Do you think the mucosa is viable?” I peer down at the tiny rip she has made. It is relatively small and the tissue appears to be healthy. “Yes,” she says, but without conviction. “Look. Do you want to finish this? You’ll be much faster than me.” I shake my head. “No way,” I say. “You need to get used to operating at this time of the morning. And besides, I’m useless before my first cup of coffee. I’d only screw up.” Her eyes roll up and say, “Yeah, right,” but her hands are already placing some stay sutures to reduce the risk of further spillage. Fifteen more minutes and with the click of the last staple bringing the edges of the skin incision into perfect apposition I return to the waiting room to speak to Mr. Hartman. He is still sitting where I first saw him, staring at the floor, working his hands, chewing on his lower lip as he gently rocks back and forth. Obviously he’s been keeping vigil for the past hour. I make it to the bench beside him before he has time to try to get to his feet. “Everything went well,” I say, but already I can see he is searching my eyes for the caveat. I tell him exactly what we found, about how we deflated the stomach and fixed it in place to prevent it from twisting in the future. I tell him about the spleen and how Sage will be absolutely fine without it. He hangs on every word, every intonation, reading more in the expressions on my face than the words falling from my mouth. I feel like he can hear, but he is not listening because he knows I am keeping something back. “My biggest concern is the stomach wall and whether it will live or die. There’s no way to know for sure. I had to make a judgment call, a difficult one, but one that I believe is correct. The next twenty-four hours will be critical.” He lets out a deep breath, hanging his head. He has allowed himself to hope, flooded by the relief that Sage is alive and still in the fight and in doing so a levy inside him has burst. Emotional and physical exhaustion are taking their toll. He looks like he may collapse. “You need to get home and get some rest. Do you have to drive all the way back to the Cape?” I noticed on Sage’s record an address in Orleans, Cape Cod, at least an hour and a half drive given the wintry conditions. “My daughter offered to put me up. She lives in Wellesley.” “Great,” I say. “Let’s give her a wake-up call and let her know you’ll be on your way. It might be better if you take a cab. Sage and I need you in good shape for visiting hours later today.” He smiles, more with his eyes than his lips, nodding his understanding that he must be patient. I make sure we have his daughter’s phone number in Sage’s computer record, promising to call if anything changes as we part company. As I watch him go, my mind silences a tumult of ugly, undisclosed statistics. Mortality rates for GDV can be as high as 60 percent and factors associated with a higher chance of death include abnormal heart rhythms, extremely high pulse rates, the need to cut out part of the stomach, and the removal of the spleen. In short, Sage had checked off almost every negative prognostic factor for survival and yet I still decided to give her the benefit of my doubt. Should I have been more blunt, more cynical in my synopsis of the surgery, stacking the odds against success? Should I have used the word die more often, more emphatically? And even if I had, who would have been the beneficiary? Not Mr. Hartman and certainly not poor old Sage. Sometimes, early on in our careers, veterinarians tend to err on the side of caution when looking into their clinical crystal ball, seeking the safe refuge of a negative prognosis. If the animal died, the outcome was sadly inevitable. If the animal lives, the doctor has worked a miracle. I have made a huge decision—either a moment of flitting genius or enduring miscalculation—and like it or not, a stranger and his best friend are coming along for the ride. It is too late now. I may wonder if I have taken my final look at a stomach that should never have seen the light of day, but the verdict is already in. I just hope I read the decision correctly—sentenced to life, and not death by lethal injection.
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Reading Group Guide

1. Do you have pets? What has your experience been with their healthcare?

2. Throughout the book, Trout makes it clear that he’s not just treating his patient–his actions also affect the life of the owner. How does this understanding influence his decisions about the care of these animals? In what ways does it make him a better doctor?

3. Discuss the training veterinarians undergo, and the competition for spots at veterinary school. What kind of person seems best suited for this line of work? What about in England, where potential vets must commit to the profession while they’re still teenagers?

4. On pages 44 & 45, Trout discussed the relatively recent domination of the veterinary medicine by women. What do you think of his explanations for this? Why do you think there are now so many women veterinarians? Is this a good thing?

5. In describing owners who come armed with diagnoses they’ve made based on their own research, Trout says, “Sometimes the Internet can feel like a religion for agnostics who need a shoulder in times of trouble.” What does he mean by this? Do you agree? Can you think of other situations where that statement might apply? Have you ever done online medical research for yourself or your pet? In what ways can it be beneficial as well as a hindrance?

6. Discuss the Stonewall couple and their dog, Jester (pp 63-67). In your opinion, does their delay in seeking treatment constitute inhumane treatment? Clearly they love their pet, so how can you explain their behavior?

7. On page 72, Trout compares veterinarians to pediatricians, in that both of their patients are unable to speak about theirailments. Can you think of other ways in which their challenges and job requirements are similar? Which would you rather be?

8. Discuss the costs of veterinary treatments. If money were no object, how much seems reasonable to you to prolong the life of a pet? If you have a pet, do you have health insurance for it?

9. What are your feelings about euthanasia for pets? How is it related to your thoughts on the same subject, but for humans? In what ways are the issues the same, and in what ways are they different?

10. Before reading this book, had you ever considered pet euthanasia’s effects on those who carry it out? How did Trout’s first experience with putting down a patient, Peanut (pp. 92-96), color his thinking? How would you have handled that situation?

11. Re-read the section beginning on page 109, in which Trout describes several of the more eccentrically enthusiastic owners he has met, people who “embody the conspicuous simplicity and intensity of the animal bond.” Why do you think he told us about them? What is his opinion of this level of devotion? What is yours?

12. Discuss Trout’s take on obesity, both of pets and their owners. How is it linked? Why do you think obesity is recognized as a major health problem for humans, but is commonly considered almost endearing for animals?

13. On page 179, Trout says, “Current thinking dictates that if it makes me feel better, it must make my pet feel better.” What are the dangers inherent in this attitude? How might it be beneficial to pets? To their owners?

14. Discuss Trout’s overall treatment of Sage, the German shepherd whose story is laced throughout the book. How does Trout’s childhood experience with Patch affect his decisions? Do you think he made the right call? How did the owner’s daughter influence the outcome?

15. On pages 245-247, Trout cites the findings of a recent survey of pet owners by the American Animal Hospital Association. Did any of it surprise you? Why do you think our feelings about our pets have become so intense in recent years? What does this say about our society?

16. Have you ever read the works of James Herriot? How does his work as a country veterinarian, some fifty years before Nick Trout, compare? What do you imagine he would think of the current state of veterinary medicine?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 45 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(20)

4 Star

(15)

3 Star

(5)

2 Star

(4)

1 Star

(1)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 45 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 25, 2009

    Wonderful Book! Couldn't Wait To See What Happened Next...

    This book gave me insight into what it is like for the Vet dealing with animal wellness, sickness and death. I work as a Vet Assistant and I'm a pet owner, so I know what its like from my side of the exam table, but this definitely opened my eyes to their world. It was written with enough humor throughout to keep me wanting more, yet had sincere emotion intertwined to keep it real. Loved how the Dr. could recognize and translate the human-animal bond. I gave this as a gift to one of our Vets and she has passed it around to many as a must read!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 13, 2010

    Great Read for anyone in the profession

    I think that this is a great book for anyone in the vet/vet tech work atmosphere. I enjoyed it and was able to read it quite quickly because I found I could easily relate to the author.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 12, 2010

    This is one to pull at your heartstrings

    Tell me where it hurts is a wonderful read, not only for those working in the medical field but also for all you animal lovers out there. I was first roped into reading it when I spotted the adorable little Boston on the front. Then about 2 days later this book was recommended to me by a family member who had heard about it. It is a page turner that you will not want to put down. I read the entire book in one day/night and am now reading it again! I have 3 pugs one of whom has cancer, so this book really had me in tears both sad and happy ones. I highly recommend every pet owner and lover read this book!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 30, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Tell me where it hurts

    Very Harriotesque in it's delivery I also tend to lose the thread of the story as he begins talking about one case which seguays into other cases and when comes back to the first case he doesn't really bring you up and I have forgotten what the first case is. Otherwise very good.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 20, 2010

    A very good book

    I enjoyed this book very much

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2009

    Tell Me Where It Hurts

    Is a great book. I loved it from the moment that I picked it up in the store I could not put the book down. It is a must read for any dog person or anyone with furkids! I highly recommend this book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 15, 2009

    A great book!

    I read this book and really enjoyed it. I lost my dog almost a year ago, and so it was definitely a tear jerker for me at times. But, I would recommend it to any of my animal-lover friends. All in all, a great book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2008

    Perspective Veterinary Med Students MUST READ

    This book goes through, in detail, a day in the life of a veterinarian in a large practice. It tells of the difficulties of not only his job and the patients, but also of getting there. Details how hard it was not only to get into Vet School, but to stay in. Details of patients cases are informative and have actually helped us to understand our dogs. Parts are very humorous and or heart wrenching showing just what it takes out of you to be a vet.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2008

    Fun, informative

    Both for animal lovers, and anyone who is considering a career in animal medicine, this book is fascinating. Dr. Nick Trout tells of his, most likely, average day as a veterinarian/surgeon, and the many animals and diagnoses given for various ailments 'some common, others bizarre'. He also discusses the sometimes quirky parents of these animals, such as a client who was upset because his dalmation's spots were not perfectly aligned after surgery. It appears that being a veterinarian is often a thankless job, and if you're in it to get rich, think again. While I have always adored my vet, I respect him even more after reading this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 5, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    I know the average reader will go to this book for cutesy animal

    I know the average reader will go to this book for cutesy animal stories and they are there.  For me, the read was therapeutic in a sense.  It’s nice to hear that these sort of scenarios go down in other hospitals.  There’s emergencies in the middle of the night, surgeries to remove the most disgusting things from intestines, owners who can’t stop trying to find a cure and people who think that veterinary medicine is a waste of the consumer’s money.




    Veterinary medicine has challenges by the boatload.  We practice on a wide spectrum of species.  We meet people who want to do everything for their pet but don’t have the money.  There are people with tons of money but would never spend it on a dog or cat.  You’ll see cases that you know are doomed from the start, but sometimes you’ll have miracles pull through when you least expect it.




    All of this plus being constantly sprayed with some sort of bodily excrement and still being able to smile when people refer to MD’s as real doctors.




    I found myself crying during several stories and laughing uncontrollably at others.  (The Jack Russler story… hilarious!)  All of the stories in the book do not actually take place in the ‘Day Of Humor, Healing And Hope’.  As he takes on each new case, he recalls other similar cases.  Anyone who has spent time with a veterinary crowd knows that one story leads to another story that leads to another.  I saw some reviewers found this sort of story telling awkward.  I guess it came naturally to me.




    I plan to pass this book around to my coworkers.  If you are in the veterinary field, I strongly recommend this book for some R&R reading that still ties in with your occupation.  If you are an animal lover, I think you will enjoy it also.  If you don’t love animals, then you are just a weirdo.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2012

    Rosie

    *wakes up and sleepily trudges to your room with a yawn*

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2012

    Nick

    I do yave to og by ily

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 17, 2012

    For a dog owner, a really must read.

    As someone with multiple rescue dogs and the constant visits to the vet, this was nice to read. There were things you wonder if your vet knows or thinks about. I have a feeling after reading this, while all vets are different, I do think there are some very thoughtful, caring ones out there...

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 14, 2011

    Another great read from Nick Trout

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Posted September 5, 2009

    24 hours in the life of a vet

    Offers insight into veterinary practices.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 4, 2009

    Accurate yet humorous

    I found this book to be a very realistic portrayal of a veterinarian and a veterinary practice. It may in some places, with its occassional PG-rated language and straight forward relaying of stories of clients and the things they do, disturb the average animal owner. Although there are some touching stories, this is a not a warm fuzzy fantasy book about animals. If someone is considering entering this field, it gives a fairly accurate description of some of the issues that veterinarians face everyday.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 24, 2008

    What a Waste

    I love animals and a good animal story. I decided to read this book because of the catchy title and because I have a Boston Terrier. The book started out to be a wonderful read because I live in Boston and take my dog to Angell Memorial. I gave up after reading 154 out of the 200 plus pages. Dr Trout should have stuck to the details of his cases instead of branching off into topics only veterinarians would appreciate. This isn't a "Merle's Door" or a "Marley & Me".

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2008

    A Hard Read

    Dr. Trout takes you on a journey through a day in the life of a vet, at least his life. The book rambles from story to story, mixing several before finishing one. He comes across as sarcastic about some of the pets and most of the owners. I was disappointed with this glimpse and attempt at humor, although I assume he really cares about his clients.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 45 Customer Reviews

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