There are a million stories in the world of veterinary medicine. It seems a fertile ground for tales of all sorts, and while it has its share of horror and sorrow and general weirdness, it is also a world bursting with stories of goodness, of kindness, of humor, of redemption and grace and amazement and joy, of miraculous recoveries and abiding love, of forgiveness and healing and the best that is to be found of both humanity and nature.
Sometimes, though, it's a strange combination of several of the above.
One day, when I was an intern working in Sacramento, I went into a room to see a German Shepherd for ticks. In Alaska a tick is a rare thing - I've seen eight in 13 years, and am surprised I've seen even that many - but in California it's not an uncommon complaint. In fact, it was common enough that the clinic where I worked had several tick spoons, little devices designed to remove an embedded tick without (one hopes) leaving the head behind.
All unsuspecting, I walk into the exam room where I find a lively, attractive Shepherd bitch and her owner, accompanied by the owner's good friend. The two women are friendly, happy salt-of-the-Earth sorts, and they look up smiling when I walk in. The dog echoes their demeanor, bright-eyed and cheerful, panting happily and waving her tail gently at me to telegraph her good will.
"So, you're here because Sasha has ticks?" I ask. The owner nods vigorously.
"Yes, and I can't get rid of them. They're all over her. I tried burning them off with a match, but it didn't work."
Ignoring for the moment the idea that on an animal that is nearly entirely covered in hair, tick removal by match might not be the safest route, I take a history and do an exam. Everything seems normal.
"Okay, now show me these ticks," I tell the owner.
"They're all along her belly," she says, inducing her dog to lie down and roll on her side to display her trim and barely-furred belly. "They're just disgusting, I can't stand them being on her. See? Look at them all! I tried burning them with a match, like I do when I get a tick, and it never hurts me - but every time I try it on her, she squeals and jumps up. Why do you think she does that?" she asks, looking at me anxiously.
"Because those aren't ticks," I tell her. "Those are her nipples."
The owner's eyes spring wide with shock. She looks at her friend, who is equally goggle-eyed.
"But... but they're all black," she says. I refrain from mentioning that so might hers be, if someone kept applying a match to them.
"Yes, well, sometimes they ARE black," I say. "That's perfectly normal. Sometimes the skin pigments itself in areas where it gets a little more impact from cold or friction, like a nipple might." I do not mention heat as a source of hyperpigmentation, in part because the nipples were pigmented before heat became an issue; the pigmentation, after all, is what decoyed the owner in the first place.
"Are you sure they're her nipples?" the owner asks doubtfully.
"Yes," I say patiently. "See how they're lined up in symmetrical pairs, in two strait lines along her belly? Ticks don't line up strait like that, but nipples do."
The owner looks at her friend again, who is this time biting her lips and giving her friend a sort of "well, that makes sense" kind of look. The owner looks at the dog, still laying with her tummy exposed, fanning her tail gently against the floor in appreciation of our attention. The owner looks at me.
"You mean I tried to burn my dog's ninnies off with a match?" she says, her eyes wide with horror.
"Well, yes," I agree, somewhat nonplussed at the term - which I might have applied to something in the room other than the dog's nipples - but catching her meaning.
The owner turns her round-eyed and horror-stricken gaze on her friend for a moment, upon whose lips a smile is being firmly suppressed. Suddenly the owner bursts out laughing. The friend starts laughing too. Sasha, getting into the spirit of things, gives an agile twist and leaps to her feet, wriggling happily and grinning at everyone. The owner hugs her and kisses her and rubs her ears, apologizing through her laughter for the matches, which earns her several kisses from the dog. I can't help but smile a bit too; the dog's reaction to the matches had fortunately prevented the owner from injuring her, so in the end no harm was done, and now the owner has new knowledge with which to arm herself against future errors.
I counsel the owner that there are safer ways to remove ticks than with matches, and if she's ever in doubt she can either check with a vet or look to see if the structure of concern is represented symmetrically on the opposite side of the animal. Things that are symmetrical from one side to the other are generally normal structures, I advise her, and best not approached with matches. The owner agrees that she'll never go near her dog with a match again.
The little trio marches on out to the front desk, paying their bill with much hilarity. The dog is of course not quite sure of the nature of the joke, but she's perfectly happy to enter into the spirit of the thing, eeling between the two women for attention and wagging her entire body with happy excitement. The last I see of her, she is prancing out the door between her owner and her owner's friend, still dancing with delight at their ongoing chuckles.
A week later I get a card in the mail, addressed to me at the clinic. On the front is a pretty scene, and inside it reads, "Dear Dr. H, thank you for taking care of me the other day, and thank you for telling my mommy not to try to burn my ninnies off any more. Love, Sasha."
I notice that Sasha has spelled my name accurately and given the correct clinic address. She has also included correct postage. Smart dogs, German Shepherds.
No ninnies there.