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Out of vet school for barely two months, newly licensed, and wet behind the ears, I accepted a job offered by my friend Rachel to be a part-time veterinary practitioner at her private clinic. She couldn't pay much, but she promised to train me in the nuances of private practice. And with me on hand, she'd finally be able to take longed-for time off . I'd have to handle some night calls, but that was okay; I was just relieved that I would have a mentor so soon after graduation.
As soon as I walked in the door of her clinic, Rachel bombed out to go elsewhere — not just my first day but every day I worked. No training in nuances or anything else! Being the only vet on duty was bad enough, but Rachel let her one and only vet tech — the assistant who helps the veterinarian with patients in many different ways — go home at the same time too. I felt utterly abandoned.
I was technically qualified to treat sick and injured animals, but being totally on my own, without even a tech to help restrain patients, I was only comfortable with healthy patients coming to the clinic for wellness exams.
My first night call was for a house call to a bitch that had just delivered puppies. By the time I got there, the pups were dead. I talked to the client, who turned out to be a friend of my husband, Earl, and then I left. I didn't charge him anything for the house call, because I really didn't do anything.
Rachel was furious when she found out I hadn't charged him — so furious I thought she would punch me out. She ranted at me: all calls get at least a night call charge.
How was I supposed know that?
This was definitely not the kind of "teachable moment" I'd expected from a mentor. Maybe taking this job hadn't been such a good idea. Low pay and no doctor present weren't helping me learn what was not taught in vet school. I began wondering if vet school itself had been a bad idea, if it had been a bad decision to leave my tenured teaching job four years ago.
But I was here, and I had a job to do, at least for the time being.
And at least the next time I got a nighttime request for a house call, I'd know what to do.
But no two calls are ever the same.
Jamie had gone to school with my husband and was the daughter of one of my mother-in-law's best friends. A few days after the dead-puppies incident, Jenny, Jamie's six-year-old middle daughter, came into the clinic carrying a tiny kitten.
"Dr. Carlson, Cupcake is mine, all mine! My very own kitten!" she said with pure delight. As a middle daughter myself, I understood that having her own kitty made Jenny feel extra special.
Cupcake was an adorable buff-colored female tabby with an enormous purr. I took her through her first physical examination and first round of vaccinations and deworming, then pronounced her in excellent health. Jenny asked me many questions, and we had a serious discussion about proper care for Cupcake. Teaching clients how to properly care for their cats is still my favorite part of practice; I guess that's the teacher in me coming out. Jenny paid close attention, and I was sure she and Cupcake would be just fine.
It seemed to me that Cupcake was a wonderful kitten for Jenny. I imagined her telling her closest secrets to Cupcake, just as I had told mine to my gray tabby, Smokey, when I was young. Cupcake would be there for her when she felt ignored and stuck in the middle, neither the bossy big sister nor the baby of the family. As I sent Jenny and Cupcake on their way that day, I remember thinking that childhood kittens and their owners are meant to have long, happy relationships filled with love, joy, and delicious secrets.
One evening, not too long after Jenny and Cupcake's clinic visit, Earl and I were sitting outside our house chatting, playing with the horses, and just enjoying being together after a hectic day. My pager beeped, disturbing the peaceful twilight.
When I called the number, Jamie answered, her voice frantic. Her husband, Steve, had run over Cupcake with his car and would not come out of their room. Jenny was in hysterics. Could I please come to their home right away?
With rookie inexperience and confusion blowing around in my brain, I asked Jamie what I could possibly do for her if the kitten was already dead.
I could hear the shaking in her voice as she said she would pay a house call fee if I would come and officially pronounce Cupcake dead, just for Jenny's sake. A terrible thing had just happened, and this was beyond her experience as a mother. She needed my help.
I agreed to come right away.
I hung up the phone, feeling slightly panicked. Oh my gosh! What was I supposed to do? Perform an exam on an already-dead patient? How does one do that? Was this to be a theatrical performance? My acting skills were nonexistent. Those skills are not taught in vet school.
I thought back to when I was Jenny's age. We'd had a small Pekinese dog named Tang. Tang had been on the sidewalk with our family when the neighbor's Airedale, Kip, raced across the street and bit through Tang's chest, killing him instantly. It happened without warning, right in front of me.
I remembered my dad having to use a cane for the next few days because he had sprained his ankle when he'd kicked the stuffing out of Kip.
I remembered my mom picking me up and holding me in her arms for days afterward while I sobbed uncontrollably.
No matter how anxious I felt, I knew I had to look like the professional Jenny needed me to be. I pulled on a crisp white lab coat and looped my stethoscope around my neck, which I never do. I think wearing stethoscopes as necklaces is stupid unless you have no pocket to put them in, and white coats are impractical. Veterinary medicine can trash a white coat pretty quickly with nasty, smelly fluids.
I walked up the driveway, carrying the vet bag I knew I wouldn't need, looking like an experienced doctor of veterinary medicine.
As I approached the pretty little stone-and-wood house, I saw curly-haired Jenny backlit by light spilling from the open garage. She ran to me, sobbing and gasping, her face red from crying. She stared up at me and whimpered, "Dr. Carlson, my k-k-kitten is dead."
I knelt down and gave her a long, silent hug.
She took me by the hand and, still sniffling, led me to Cupcake.
Cupcake's body was lying on its side in the garage, slightly flattened and clearly dead.
Jenny held her breath as I grabbed my stethoscope and listened for a sound I knew I would not hear. I adjusted the stethoscope, moving it gently over the little kitten's soft chest with great care.
Even now, sometimes I listen to a patient's chest for a long time. It looks as though I am doing a really thorough cardiac exam, but I am actually thinking, What in the world should I do next?
This time, I had some help knowing what to do; rigor mortis was setting in. What I needed to do wasn't easy, but it was clear.
I turned to Jenny and said, "Yes, sweetheart, Cupcake is gone."
Jenny let out a long sigh, then burst into tears and fled into the house.
I carefully wrapped Cupcake's body in an old towel and glanced around, unsure of what to do next.
Jamie answered that question by leading me to the front porch and putting a glass of iced tea in my hand. We settled into chairs and chatted for a while in the quiet night.
When I asked about Steve, Jamie said that he was so mortified by what he'd done that he wouldn't come out of their bedroom.
"It really wasn't his fault," I said, knowing this grisly accident was perfectly understandable to a veterinarian but unthinkable to Cupcake's family. I explained what had most likely happened.
Cats will seek out warm, cozy places, places no one imagines a pet will hide in. Steve had no way of knowing that Cupcake was napping on top of a comfortable tire. When he'd put the car into reverse and backed up, the tire had crushed the sleeping Cupcake.
Jamie and I talked about grief, how people process grief in their own way, and how Jamie might help her husband work through his feelings, as well as how to help Jenny and her sisters cope.
That evening was a powerful "teachable moment" for me too. I learned that I should talk to clients about possible accidents and how to prevent them when discussing how to care for a pet. I learned that house calls aren't only about caring for a beloved pet but also about being there for the humans who loved the pet.
Losing Cupcake would leave a void in Jenny's life. That's a tough thing to experience, especially when you're a little girl who had finally had her very own kitten. I couldn't bring Cupcake back, but I could be there for Jenny and her family.
On the way home, I thought about whispering secrets to Smokey all those years ago, about Tang's awful death, and about why I had become a veterinarian.
And I knew that becoming a vet had been the right decision. It didn't matter if I stayed at this particular clinic or found work as a veterinarian elsewhere; I was where I belonged.CHAPTER 2
How does a slight girl from suburban Chicago grow up to love horses and the wild landscapes of the Rocky Mountain West?
In my case, it was thanks to my mother's brother, Thomas Lederer.
My mom and Tom were born and raised in Chicago, where their parents, Margery and Carl Lederer (known as Nana and Bapa to my sisters and me), owned a wallpaper business.
Tom was a sickly child and suffered from asthma all his life. Treatment options were limited in the 1920s; Mom told stories of how Nana and Bapa walked the floor with Tom at night to try to relieve his asthma attacks. One winter, his attacks were so bad that they pulled up stakes and moved to Phoenix in hopes that Arizona's dry, warm climate would help. It didn't, so they returned to Chicago.
Despite his health challenges and slight frame, Tom grew up to be fun loving and adventurous. After attending college and earning his certification at aviation mechanic school, he decided to move "out West" for two important reasons: he didn't want to work in my grandfather's wallpaper business, and Colorado's climate was better for his health.
He found work as a dude wrangler on a guest ranch that straddled the Colorado–Wyoming border. He wasn't a big man, but he had a knack for working with horses, even with his asthma. His personal ranch horse was a palomino quarter horse named Shane.
Eventually, Tom settled in Fort Collins, Colorado, which back then was a sleepy college town of about fifteen thousand people. He purchased a garage on a large plot of land that had been part of an estate sale. He converted the garage into his home and a new business repairing all kinds of appliances — radios, stereos, record players, even reed (pump) organs. He could fix anything.
Growing up, my sisters and I got to know him primarily through his annual Christmas visits to our grandparents and the recorded "letters" we sent back and forth. It was fun talking into the microphone of the reel-to-reel tape recorder and telling him what was going on in my junior high world.
Tom came home every Christmas, and he spent a lot of time playing with us kids. In many ways, he was just a big kid too; he loved toys and bought plenty for himself. I especially loved racing his HO model slot cars on the track he kept at Nana and Bapa's house.
Tom's visits were a treasure. He had an infectious giggle; I have never known anyone who could laugh so hard at his own jokes. He regaled us with stories about the adventures of Mitts, the long-haired tuxedo barn cat he'd adopted and brought home from the dude ranch.
Tom's stories of life in Colorado and Wyoming made the world west of the Mississippi River seem mysterious, exotic, and exciting. I longed to see it for myself, but we'd never taken family vacations or gone to sleepover camp, as our friends had. My parents had divorced when I was young, and Mom never had the money for travel. Dad wasn't interested in vacationing with his daughters.
One cold February day in 1968, my mother woke me in the early morning with the news that Nana had just died. Her death was completely unexpected, and I burst into tears. Nana and Bapa were madly in love with each other. "What will Bapa do now?" I sobbed.
Tom flew in to be with Bapa and say goodbye to Nana. I remember him waiting in the sanctuary of the funeral chapel when we arrived for the service. He stood beside Mom and said quietly, "They're closing it up now." I knew he meant the casket. They ushered us into the adjoining family waiting room; even though we weren't children any more — Margo was nineteen years old, I was fifteen, and Natalie, fourteen — they didn't want us to see Nana's body.
That April, Bapa arranged a trip for us to visit Margo, who was a sophomore at the University of Arizona in Tucson, as well as Tom in Colorado.
Arizona was an amazing and alien world to Nat and me. We'd never been beyond the lush, tree-filled green of Chicago's North Shore. Home was beautiful, we never doubted that, but Tucson was a hot world of sand, brilliant blue sky, and vivid green cacti. It had roadrunners, whose odd-looking antics made us laugh. It had skittering lizards, rattlesnakes, and dust storms. It had exotic dishes — we'd never heard of Mexican food, let alone lollipops with scorpions embedded in them.
We drove to Phoenix, where Mom and Bapa tried to find the house they had lived in when Tom was so ill. We didn't find it, but we did find a riding stable, and Natalie and I got to ride horses with a guide.
We both loved horses, but Natalie was the one who'd taken lessons. Mom had been willing to shell out eight hundred dollars every summer for several years for Nat's English riding lessons, in the hope that riding would keep her off the streets and out of trouble. I longed for lessons too, but I knew the financial strain of Nat's lessons; I didn't think it was right to demand that Mom spend more money on lessons for me, so I never even asked.
Natalie was clearly an experienced rider — even though she had learned on an English saddle, not the western saddles we were using — but I got up to speed quickly, and I loved it.
After Tucson, we flew to Denver in a new Boeing 737. Tom picked us up from the airport, and we headed north to Fort Collins.
Tom had long since established his Precision Radio shop, offering both repairs and parts sales in the converted garage. He'd also built half a house — a bedroom, bathroom, and living room — set well back from Mountain Avenue. No kitchen as yet; he still used the one he'd built in the garage.
Tom was a great tour guide. He knew the best scenic spots to visit, showing us the grand landscapes of northern Colorado and southern Wyoming. He drove us up to the guest ranch where he had worked and, while Mom and Bapa relaxed in chairs on a broad wooden porch, Tom saddled up horses for Natalie, himself, and me and led us on our first-ever mountain trail ride. The wondrous mountain beauty (and the seven-thousand-foot altitude) took my breath away. I was fascinated with all of it: the scenery, the wildlife — we even found old bones and a cattle skull! Quite an adventure for a fifteen-year-old suburban girl.
I loved the wide-open spaces of the West, and I was intrigued by Fort Collins and Colorado State University. Until this trip, I hadn't known CSU existed. College was still three years away, and I was just beginning to think about where I wanted to go. All I knew for certain was that I didn't want to stay in Illinois. CSU was now high on my list of possibilities.
The next summer, Natalie and I visited Tom together — by then, he'd finished building the other half of his house — and the summers after that, we took turns, first one visiting, then the other. It was our first time traveling solo. For a week or two, I had Tom all to myself.
During my visit, we went sightseeing, horseback riding, and swimming. We flew in his little two-seater 1959 Cessna 150. We did plenty of eating too — Tom was a great cook and loved to barbecue.
Most nights, I slept on his wonderfully comfortable couch. It wasn't a sleeper sofa, but with a set of sheets on it, it was as comfortable as any bed. I still have that couch; it's been reupholstered twice in fifty years. It may not be the most fashionable piece of furniture, but its comfort still makes up for its lack of style.
The nights I wasn't at Tom's house, I was at the ranch. That was amazing.
Tom loved to ride, and he fostered our love of horses. Every time we visited him, he took us up to the ranch for a day or more of riding. The first summer, when Natalie and I were there together, he let us stay overnight at the ranch, the closest we'd ever been to sleepover camp. The summer before I began college at CSU, I stayed with him during the freshman preview event. As a special treat afterward, he let me spend the night by myself at the ranch. I had my own cabin room. It was my first time being on my own; I didn't know anyone there other than Tom's friends. For supper, I shared a divine meal of roast bison and mashed potatoes, served family style, with the other guests. I felt quite grown up.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Drinking From the Trough"
Copyright © 2018 Mary Carlson DVM.
Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Cupcake, 3,
2 Tom, 8,
3 No Chrome, 18,
4 Calproonio, 31,
5 Paw Prints in the Snow, 41,
6 A Syringe and a Lariat, 65,
7 Sick Pets and Summer Olympics, 79,
8 It's All in How You Talk to 'Em, 86,
9 What's in a Name?, 103,
10 Wandering in the Outback, 106,
11 Sex Changes and the Amazing Testicle Hunt, 111,
12 Tipper the Wonder Husky, 123,
13 The Hundred-Dollar Horse, 134,
14 A Matter of Respect, 149,
15 Eating Disorders of The Wonder Husky, 153,
16 Hike! Hike! Hike!, 160,
17 The Easter Gift, 163,
18 Best Cat, 166,
19 The Wayward Horse Trailer, 179,
20 The Annie Walk, 184,
21 Been Rode on the Ranch, 191,
22 Lost and Found, 199,
23 A Lesson in Newtonian Physics, 210,
24 Snow Day!, 239,
25 A Life Well-Lived, 241,
26 Ten Days, 245,
27 The Cobalt-Blue Bag, 254,
About the Author, 271,