Sunday, August 31, 2008

If it looks like a duck...

So Friday, a client comes in with a duck that she found. She found it alongside the road, and she saw that it couldn't get up, so she scooped it up and drove it to the clinic. On entering the building, she announced that she had found an injured duck, and would we take a look at it? Sure, she was told, we'd be happy to... at which time she more or less thrust the bird across the reception desk, clearly relieved to have found help, but wanting no further responsibility for it.

Dr. N brings the bird into the office. She has it bundled up in a towel, and is rotating one of its legs, frowning thoughtfully. "Are they supposed to rotate like this?" she asks me, demonstrating a nice 180 degree reversal of the leg, from pointing frontward to pointing backward.

"I think so," I say, "But I'm not 100% sure. It depends on the species."

"D'you think it's broken?" she asks. "I don't feel a fracture, but that looks pretty weird."

"Let's see if it can walk," I say, and she sets the bird down on the office floor and unfurls the towel. The bird lays on its belly and then does a sort of awkward forward lurch, launching itself half a body-length forward and thumping down on its breast. It repeats this maneuver twice. It does indeed look seriously crippled, but without the swaddling, the bird is recognizable (I think) as a juvenile red-necked grebe, a common water bird in this part of Alaska. If so, it's a bird that (to the best of my limited knowledge) lives its entire life on water or in the air, constructing floating nests near the shores of lakes and migrating to warmer climes in the fall, when of necessity our lakes get a bit solid and unwatery.

"Well, that looks pretty uncomfortable," I allow, in reference to the bird's awkward lurching, "but I think this is a species that can't stand or walk on land, because their legs are so far back on their body that they can't balance their weight. Let's do a swim test to see if he does better there."

Everyone agrees this is just a dandy idea, so Dr. N deftly scoops up the bird (who is not best pleased with this idea and begins peeping in an irritated sort of way) and we go back to our dog-bathing tub and fill it with cold water. Once there's enough water in the tub to float a bird, we place him on the surface, where he immediately begins to paddle around, scooping up a bit to drink, poking his head underwater to have a look, swimming along the length of the tub with his head submerged, limned in silver by the air trapped on the surface of his feathers, and looking generally relieved to find himself in a something at least a little more familiar to him than being carted around in Detroit's finest, and/or bundled up in a bath towel and paraded around the clinic, no matter how competently.

Help! I've been kidnapped and I can't get out!

Meanwhile, as we are assessing the grebe's (excellent) swimming skills, my nurse Jill has been on the phone to the local bird rescue people. "You're in luck," she says. "They're having a meeting tonight, and you can just drop him off to them. At Loon Attic," she adds, the irony clearly not escaping her. "Go upstairs and ask for Ken."

Well, this is just dandy, actually. Loon Attic is not even a mile from the clinic. I'm completely certain that the bird rescue people - who in this locale are capable, knowledgeable and very competent - are going to be much better custodians for this bird than I am. I'm not at all certain what grebes eat, and while the pointy beak suggests fish and frogs and snails and that sort of thing, I'm much happier to have the experts figure that out than trying to do it myself. The corvids are easy - they eat just about anything, and usually with good appetite - and I have a reasonable idea what the dabblers and insectivores will go for, but I'm not at all sure I know how to make grebe escargot. Nor am I sure I want to.

Dude! I don't make fun of YOUR diet, do I?
Now that I have a place to park our grebe, I am all relieved. It's 20 minutes to closing time and there's not much doing at the moment. I'm not 100% sure I've correctly identified our bird, so I take some pictures to compare with the bird book. The grebe, floating peacefully in the tub, doesn't seem particularly disturbed by this, so long as I am not so foolish as to put my hands in the water. THAT, I am given to understand (by means of gaping beak and little darting feints), is Really Not On.
You did NOTICE that pointy little beak, right? Grebe bites can be pretty naasti, yu know!
Meanwhile, once it's time to shut the clinic down and transfer our bird, I decide to drain the tub so I can scoop up our grebe in a towel (the most efficient way to ensure that neither of us emerges from this maneuver bleeding.) The grebe has Other Ideas about the advisability of me draining the tub. He expresses several opinions, none of which was "Go right on ahead with that." And, dang it, there IS blood on the scene, and it's mine. However, by means of using a hose to distract our erstwhile patient, I manage to snatch the drain out of the tub. This produces immediate consternation on the part of the grebe. He darts his head underwater, staring intently at the drain (which is, in the way of drains, emitting a gurgling, sucking sort of noise.) This is clearly Not All Right with the grebe, who paddles to the other end of the tub, pupils wide with alarm. There's little he can do about the draining of his personal wetlands, however, and before long he's stranded on the porcelain, where it's now a relatively simple matter to pluck him up and insert him into a cardboard cat carrier (brand new and freshly bedded with shredded paper for his sanitary comfort). I cart him to my truck (which move he protests by lurching back and forth in his box and making stabbing little feints though the air holes with his sharp little beak) and manage to settle him in without exposing any more of my skin to his tender ministrations. After a very brief drive to Loon Attic, I hand him over to the erstwhile and experienced Ken, who (wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a swooping raptor that says "Carpe Paradeum: Seize the prey") confirms that it is indeed a juvenile red necked grebe, and that grebes are in fact unable to walk on land. Then asks me where the bird was found (alongside the road near the grocery store), whether it had any wounds (none, apart from some scrapes on the bottoms of its little feet) and if it tried to escape the tub (not on your life). "Good," he says, after I answer his questions. "If he didn't want out of the tub, his waterproofing is probably good. If there are no wounds, it probably means he was driven out of the sky by a raptor or by ravens, but was found before they could finish him. They're never found on land," he adds, which only makes sense, given that whole "can't walk on land" thing. Ken assures me that bird rescue will double check for any wounds I might have missed, check him for parasites and treat him accordingly, and release him as soon as they're sure he's healthy.
So I guess this is where that saying about how "if it looks like a duck and talks like a duck and walks like a duck" gets tested. At least in southcentral Alaska, if it looks like a duck and talks like a duck, but can't walk like a duck, take it to your local vet clinic and see if they know what it is.

Puppy Pandemonium

So the other day, one of my technicians, Jill, invites me over to see her puppies. This is partly for my benefit (who doesn't want to play with a big pile of puppies?) and partly for theirs (Jill likes to socialize her puppies when they are very little so that they're more temperamentally stable when they're old enough to place.)

This is Jill with Mink the WonderSibe. Mink is a lovely bitch, beautifully built for athletic activity (Jill mushes, so this is important to her breeding program). Mink also has a solid, stable temperament and is a very good mother. According to Jill (I myself know nothing about this except what Jill tells me), her coat color isn't preferred in the breed ring, but personally I love the wild-type coat colors. Jill competes with her dogs in agility and obedience, as well as showing in the breed ring, mushing (recreationally, at the moment), and she also does a little bit of tracking with some of her dogs.

Obviously, apart from her other charms and delights, Mink is also capable of producing puppies which can cause your eyes to melt from the cuteness. WARNING: DO NOT GAZE AT PUPPIES FOR OVER TEN SECONDS WITHOUT EYE PROTECTION. EXCESSIVE CUTENESS MAY CAUSE RETINAL DAMAGE.
Sleepy babies
Hungry babies
Exhausted babies
(Note the puppy in the background, which has fallen asleep with a toy in her mouth.)
One of the hazards of going to play with a biiiig pile of puppies (apart from the risk of accidentally adopting one) is that when they fall asleep, especially after they've eaten, they appear to have the ability to exude some sort of sleep vibe that is a powerful sedative. Luckily it doesn't work at a distance. Oh, wait a minute... maybe it does.... zzzzzzzzz......

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Bald Mountain Butt-Buster

So last weekend, instead of being at work saving little doggie and kitty lives, I was at the Bald Mountain Butt-Buster Competitive Trail Ride. I was working P&R (pulse and respiration), which means that I was responsible (along with a bunch of other volunteers) for taking vitals on horses after they came into the checkpoints. The point of competitive trail riding is that your horse should be conditioned so that it recovers (in the allotted 10 minutes of rest after entering the checkpoint) to a pulse and respiratory rate that is consistent with A) a well-conditioned horse, and B) a rider who is appropriately husbanding their mount's resources and not racing it willy-nilly over hill and dale without regard for the horse's well-being. A friend of mine put it this way: "The first competitive trail ride I entered, I was beaten by a 69 year old man. I figured: If I can be beaten by a 69-year-old, this is the sport for me."

Here are the things that are fun about being CTR ground crew:
1. Horses.
2. Being outside in Alaska in the summertime.
3. Free food!
4. Riding around in the woods on ATVs driven
by cute, capable, amiable young men.
5. Did I mention Horses?
6. I DID mention the outdoors, right?
8. Read # 4 three more times.
9. Repeat # 1 through 4.
10. Repeat # 1 through 4 again.

Now, I will grant you that it was a bit rainy on the first morning, but it stopped before we went up the trail to Checkpoint One. We found ourselves a nice spot amongst the fireweed, spangled with clinging drops of rain. While there, a plane flew by, low overhead; Oh, GREAT, I'm thinking, THAT'LL calm down the horses; but the pilot kept it steady above us, not buzzing us, not low enough to spook the horses. I glance up. Little red Cessna on floats. Has to be Dave, I think, cruising by to check out the ride from the aerial view; how many red Cessnas on float would be flying over lake-free Bald Mountain otherwise?I resolve to ask him when I get home if he was doing a fly-over [he was], and bend my head back to the task at hand. We check through all our riders (28 competitors and two sweep riders) and go back to the staging area for lunch.
By afternoon it has cleared up nicely. Checkpoint Two is in the Clover Field, which is really more of a meadow that used to have a little clover in it, but is pretty much just assorted wild Alaskan grasses now. It's a flat trail to get there, but it's still off-road, so we trundle out in the ATVs. To fit more people in per trip, three of us stand in the bed of the ATV and hold onto the roll-bar, knees slightly bent to absorb the motion (like you would on a dog sled), swaying with the bumps and feeling our hair streaming behind us like banners. We spend the afternoon sprawled in a meadow, basking in the sun, chit-chatting and waiting for riders to arrive, which they tend to do in groups; hence there are long stretches where we laze around being dive-bombed by enormous dragonflies (who were feasting on the late-summer insects that were attracted to our no-doubt tasty hides), admiring the clouds, getting tans and generally relaxing and enjoying ourselves.

Day two dawned raw and heavily overcast, though not actually raining. Our first checkpoint is mere yards from the staging point, in the driveway of one of the ride organizers. We sit and digest our breakfast whilst the riders ride the course and do their obstacles (certain areas where they have to trot, or side-pass their horse over a log on the ground, or retrieve a bucket from atop a hay bale while mounted, etc., all under the watchful eyes of trail judges.) The point riders from day one had reported a bear sighting, so one of the sweep riders was armed; while I take his mount's vitals he hitches his shoulder holster into better position, remarking that he wasn't quite sure why he was wearing it; if he met a bear, he says, and actually had to shoot at it, it would be less likely to run away than to laugh at him (right before it dragged him off his horse and ate him).

After we shut down our checkpoint we cram ten women sardine-style into a Suburban and drive up to the lunch area, where we mow down some calories and eye the top of Bald Mountain, shrouded in the low clouds. The point riders come in and report another bear sighting, as well as two moose. In view of this - and deciding that discretion is the better part of valor - we all elect to use the outhouse in hopes of avoiding any solitary treks into the brush which might involve unfortunate pants-around-ankles, face-to-face interviews with the local wildlife. After sorting through the available toilet paper ( a decent proportion of which had been confettied by squirrels), we all gird up our respective loins and load five at a time into the ATVs again for a little steep-and-rocky P&R team relay up to Checkpoint Two.

Now, if I haven't mentioned it, riding around in ATVs is fun. Really really fun. It is a bit bouncy and you do get thrashed across the face with various branches and leaves (all of which dash icy droplets of water over you), but without a horse, there'd be no way we'd get to our checkpoint before the riders do. This is really quite lucky, since it means we get to go up in the ATVs. Chad and Cole, our two drivers, are cheerful and competent, happily ferrying eight women up the trail and parking their vehicles off to the side, lounging comfortably on them whilst riders come in, wait, receive their P&Rs, and go on. There are two classes going through the checkpoint: Competitive Trail and Pleasure (18 riders in all, plus the sweep riders), and in the lull between the two groups a moose cow and calf come through the bush, see us, and bound away, long legs reaching elegantly over the thickety ground cover in a high, prancing trot. Not much later, more riders arrive, and we are back to handing out P&R cards, timing, slipping unobtrusively between the gently steaming flanks of one horse and the next, and I am nestling my stethoscope against warm damp hide, shutting out the outside world and listening to the secret world of a horse's heart, letting the steady rhythm of it thunder slow and powerful in my private ear.

In early afternoon we shut down Checkpoint Two, and down the mountain we go. Tabby and Jessica - co-workers who I have mercilessly roped into volunteering - have the bright idea of avoiding the Suburban-sardine routine and going all the way back down the mountain and to the staging area in the ATV. This seems like just a DANDY idea, because it is Just. So. Much. FUN to ride in the ATV, especially with a personable, funny, capable driver. So we rocket on down the road, the wind unfurling my hair behind me, tiny bugs occasionally impacting our faces, stinging like bits of flying sand.

As we descend the flank of the mountain, I can feel the air growing warmer with the loss of elevation. When we get back to camp, some of the riders, long checked in, rubbed down and packed up, are already gone. My hair is in a long, spiralled snarl from the ride, and I am hungry, but my feet have stayed dry and I'm not really cold despite a day spent tucked just under the belly of a cloud. I'm thinking: Maybe next year, if I can just get my hands on a horse.....

Friday, August 22, 2008

Things that make you go "Eh...?"

So, one thing that makes being a vet pretty interesting is that you get to see a lot of different stuff, medical and otherwise, every day. A LOT of different stuff. Some of it is just a new variation on an old theme. Some of it is different enough that you've never seen anything much (or even remotely) like it. Some of it is so different that you think: Are you having me on? (Or, alternatively: I guess we're not in Kansas anymore!)

One of the things that sort of brings me up short from time to time is the disconnect between what I think I'm saying and what the client thinks I'm saying. To combat this problem I tend to repeat myself at least twice, using different terms, every time I explain something to a client - but that's not always enough. I do TRY not to get too jargonized when talking to clients; after all, they would not be coming to see me if they had been to vet school themselves, so it stands to reason they didn't have the annoyance of - er, opportunity to - learn all that obscure medical vocabulary. Still.... sometimes I assume that people will get what I'm talking about, only to discover that I Could Not Be More Wrong. I'll take my lumps up front and admit that if there's a disconnect on communication, it's my fault and my job to set right. After all, it's my responsibility to educate the client. Still, I guess I kind of expect that there is at least a little overlap between the jargon-rich world of medicine and the everyday world of people's regular lives. I sort of assume that certain things are understood by both groups, that there is some common ground, that there are some terms and concepts we all understand even though not everyone has gone to medical school. But it isn't always so. There are times where I find myself going: "Now, is it just me...?"

As it turns out, it's not always me. Because today one of my nurses tells me this story.

When she was working at her previous place of employment (a vet hospital in a state which shall remain nameless but which rhymes with "spillinoy"), a client called up in a state of great irritation.

"I want to talk to someone about this medicine for my dog's ear infection," she says, in an annoyed tone of voice.

"Yes, Ma'am, how can I help you?" my nurse - always the professional - asks.

"I don't see any way this is ever going to work, " says the client, rather waspishly.

Well, that isn't too odd; sometimes it takes a few days for meds to kick in and show an improvement in symptoms. However, there are some other possibilities, such as a pet that's vomiting their meds (which obviously does no one any good), or one suffering some annoying or worrisome side effect from them. With this in mind, my nurse decides to get more detailed information.

"What seems to be the problem?" she asks.

"You gave me enough medicine for a week. I've only been treating my dog for three days, and I can't fit any more of the pills in his ears!" exclaims the client.

There is a moment of silence after my nurse relates this tale. "Really?" I ask her, with a sidelong look and a raised eyebrow.

"God's honest truth," she says, with absolute sincerity.

Now, is it just me....?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Vet on the edge of WHAT?

Well, that varies.

In a general way, I'm on the edge of the North American continent and the continental United States. More specifically, I live on the edge of a lake AND on the edge of a wetlands (the lake and the marsh being separated by a small street, all three of which my property abuts). Lots of people will tell you I'm on the edge of losing my grip on my sanity, my temper, my sense of decorum, and/or any hope of propriety whatsoever. It's not completely unheard of that I'm on the edge of being late for work due to some unexpected hazard (such as having a moose in my driveway, or having the doors of my truck freeze shut overnight, or road conditions ranging from deep snow to cement-like drifts to icy to Oh My God, Do I Have To Drive On THAT?) Being as how I live pretty far north, we ALL spend a bit more time on the edge of night up here. There's a big seasonal variance in what time of day that edge comes, but the dawns and twilights are long (regardless of if they're coming at four in the afternoon or four in the morning). In the deep summer, the only thing that looks even a little bit like night is essentially one prolonged twilight that lasts for a couple of hours in the general region of midnight.

At various times I'm on the edge of being run over by my sheep, being eaten out of house and home by my dogs, freezing half to death (sometimes literally), or becoming so completely disorganized that my cells lose all cohesion so that I dissolve into a puddle of goo.

Mostly I find myself the edge of my life, the front edge, where it's expanding. That might mean I'm hot on the trail of some mystery diagnosis, or that I'm trying out some new hobby (because God knows that the approximately 27,000 hobbies I already have just aren't enough, and I clearly must have MORE), or that I'm flying to Africa for safari (thanks, Mom) or Paris for my birthday (thanks, Dave). It's a peculiar thing, but being on that leading edge of my life seems at the same time to place me squarely in the center of my self. I don't know how that works, but there it is. Maybe I've got that backwards: Being in the center of my Self brings me to being on that front edge of my life.

It's interesting, anyway... the cutting edge may be sharp and it may be scary, and it may even be dangerous... but that's where the juice is.

Sun? What's That?

Fair time again. One of the little ironies of living in Alaska is that "Fair weather" (as in, the weather you get at the time of the Alaska State Fair) is really NOT fair weather at all. It's usually rather crappy weather, based on the usual perception of what is and is not fair weather.

Mind you, I do have a pathological affection for cool, rainy, overcast days, so I'm not particularly saddened by this. Besides, if I'm going to buy approximately 1,000,000 Really Cool Things and schlepp them around the fairgrounds in a big bag for six hours, I'd kind of prefer not to A) sweat myself to death and B) have to kill 20 sweat-attracted mosquitos per minute at the same time as schlepping and trying to drink my de-rigeur Fair-time breve (which is evidently required to be approximately the same temperature as the molten core of the Earth). All of which means that the usual "Fair weather" is really rather perfect for me.

On the other hand.... this has been THE rainiest, coolest, most overcast summer I've seen since I moved to the Greatland over a decade ago. It's also now officially the coldest summer on record up here. I haven't minded this much - at least, not as much as most everyone else seems to have done - but even I have caught myself thinking about lying on a tropical beach somewhere for a few days.

Still... cool weather has its advantages. For one thing, if it's pouring down rain you may not mind the fact that you're indoors at work in the summertime in Alaska, where summer is an endless siren song begging you to come outdoors. For another, the mosquitos don't seem to like the rain, so if you DO go out hiking (as I like to) in the rain, you don't have to DEET yourself to death. Besides, you do get interesting clouds...

... and beautiful, lush foliage, thick with ferns... [NOTE: as this is Alaska, you can pretty much guarantee there will be no ticks in there. There may, however, be moose or bears or the occasional crazy Alaskan]...

... and dramatic backdrops for photos of your BF's Cessna......

...AND (as an added bonus) it really makes you appreciate days like this:

The downside, of course, being that I think I'm starting to grow algae in certain anatomical regions that I'd really rather not.

Oh, well... it can't last. September is coming, which means that our usual dose of glorious Indian summer is (with any luck) nearly upon us. And the days are getting shorter, which means that pretty soon algae is going to have a tough time gaining a grip. I hope.