Saturday, January 31, 2009

Toasted Goats

So Wednesday, just as I'm nearly getting over my cold, over my jet lag, halfway over my sleep deprivation, and just about all adjusted to my normal time zone and weather, I get a big fat migraine. Well, crap. That's no fun. So I go take the meds and lie down, waiting for them to kick in.

The phone rings. Mmm, that's pleasant, just like a spike to the eardrum. I answer it, only to find out that the worst my day has in store is not a little inconvenience and discomfort from a migraine. A friend of Wildwood Farm has had a barn fire.

Oh, hell. Barn fires are the thing every stockman up here fears in the winter. The barns need to be heated at least to some degree for certain kinds of stock - goats, fowl, rabbits, etc. The sheep - at least the Icelandics and Shetlands, and probably many of the other breeds as well - are pretty well-adapted, and heat is only needed in lambing season (and not always then.) But other kinds of stock require warmer barns, so despite the worries, heated they are, in various different ways and with all precautions. But there is always the risk of fire, no matter how careful you are, just as there is always risk of fire in our houses with heat of whatever kind. Most of the time this never crosses our minds, so used are we to living with electricity and furnaces and fireplaces and so on.... but the other night something happened with a heat lamp and someone's barn caught fire, R tells me. The mere thought is enough to make me feel just sick, adrenaline jacking uselessly into my blood stream (there being exactly nothing I can do to prevent the fire now), my heart leaping into my throat and my stomach sinking through the floor.

Naturally these things always happen when you are asleep or away, never when you're right there feeding or watering or moving stock and can immediately extinguish it. The upshot of which being that the owners learned of the fire when their livestock started screaming and woke them. The thought of this is enough to hollow me out completely. I can only imagine the horror they must have felt, running out into the snow in the middle of the frigid night, trying to get close enough to the barn to rescue at least some of their stock.

S&R being who they are, the first I heard of it was when R called me to tell me that she had been over there, helping collect the remaining live animals and trying to help the owner get them treated, and did I know the dose for penicillin for a goat, and how about something for their pain? I offered to go in and get meds, but she was already on the road, so I called the clinic and got them to draw up the appropriate dosages, to be ready by the time she got there.

A while later she called back to gather more treatment information; they had not been able to get a large-animal vet to even pick up a phone, let alone answer treatment questions. R knows very well that I am a small-animal vet and have limited skills with goats, but under the circumstances I thought I might be better than nothing, so I offered to come have a look. This is when I learned that S&R weren't just helping round up critters, they were taking them to their own farm to house them until a new barn could be put up. I'm telling you: these people. Salt of the earth.

I squinted my way down to my truck (the migraines make me photo-sensitive) and drove over there. R had the stock trailer parked at the top of the drive. When I got out of my truck, the smell of burned hair assailed me, rank and sharp, with an underlying charred tone that I didn't want to think about too closely.

I stepped up on the runner board of the trailer and had a look. Oh, the poor things. The poor little things. Their fur was scorched in some spots and burned away in others, their eyelids were swollen shut, their soft little noses were scabbed and singed. But their ears. Their ears were the worst of it, scorched crisp and hard as leather in places, swollen thick and blistered in other places, singed bald here, burned through there.

I climbed in to the rear compartment with R and we got a closer look. Some of the does had burns on the insides of their hind legs and their udders. Some of them were mainly just hair-scorched. Most of them had swollen eyelids, but to the extent that I could see their corneas (whilst gently prying apart their red, puffy eyelids), all looked intact. The ears - well, some of those goats won't have any ears when they're done with this, but most will keep at least part of them.

The sheep made it out unscathed, having been outside the barn in the pen (with all that wool making them cold-resistant, they had no need of the enclosed heat of the barn. Luckily for them.) But nearly all the goats - most of of whom are pregnant and appear to be ready to drop their kids any second now - have some degree of damage, from mildly singed fur to hard-crackly burnt-through ears. The one that worries me the most is one that has smoke inhalation; she has a soft, sighing wheeze audible on every breath, and one nostril is edged with foam from her swollen airways. She is hunched and still, passive in a way that is deeply disquieting. But she has had antibiotics and pain meds, is blanketed and snugged up in a stall with another goat (who has no inhalation issues evident, but a number of full-thickness lesions on her sides and back). There is little more I can do for them short of hospitalizing them, which I mention is an option.

As it turns out, one of the large-animal vets returns their calls for help before much longer, and has space in her hospital barn for the most-injured animals. The remainder stay at Wildwood, in the tender care of S, R and YS. As I am pulling away, one inquisitive little escapee doe is standing perched on the tongue of the trailer, peering at me through her puffy eyes, essaying a little tail-waggle. I can't help but smile a little, despite the circumstances. Such small, irrepressible signs of life and hope, even in the midst of destruction and pain, can be heartbreaking in their way... but maybe they break the heart so it can open wider.

Today, S calls me at work to ask me to bring over some penicillin and a few catheters, as one of the does has dropped her kid, but has mastitis and may need a cannula and some antibiotics. The kids are being bottle-reared by the owner because it is too cold outside for them to stay with their mothers, absent a heated barn, so this doe will need to be milked off as well. In January. At 2 below zero.

Well. Good thing it's not three weeks ago, when 2 below zero would have been well above our daytime high temperature.

So over I go, after work, to drop off medical supplies. The new kid is in a dog crate inside the house, getting ready to be taken over to her owner's house (evidently there is a diapering-and-indoor-playpen set-up already in place for the kids.) Of course S&R take the kid out for me to see, because there is nothing on this earth cuter than a newborn goat. The kid is a soft cafe-au-lait color, with white markings on her legs and belly, and soft little cowlicks marking the site of future horns. Her ears are long and folded, the cartilage not yet strong enough to stand, though every so often one ear pokes up comically. She seems strong enough, though R reports that they haven't been able to get her to nurse yet (there is, of course, freshly-milked colostrum carefully jarred up and ready to use.)

Experimentally, I poke a finger into her mouth. She nibbles on it thoughtfully for a moment or two, and then butts the underside of my wrist.

"Well, she's hungry now," I say. "Let's try her." R sets about gently warming the colostrum up while I snuggle the goatlet, who burrows under my chin and begins butting vigorously at my neck, in between lipping at my jaw and earlobe and doing her best to give me baby goat hickeys. She's hungry, all right, and getting impatient about it.

The bottle is ready in minutes and R takes the baby over to the big easy chair, where she sits down with the goatlet in her lap and gets her started. It takes her a moment to get the idea, but once she does she nurses vigorously enough to collapse the nipple on the baby bottle that is being used to feed her, butting it in frustration when the milk stops flowing.

"That's not the right kind of nipple for her," I say, absently. "You need the kind like I have, the long black ones." I see the beginnings of a smirk and a cocked eyebrow and hastily clarify. "The long black RUBBER kind, like you get at a feed store, to rear orphan lambs. You know, smaller than you'd use for a calf, but bigger than on a baby bottle." But then I can't help myself, and I add, with a demure expression and a firmly suppressed smile, "Would you like to use my nipples? I have two that are just right." (Which, in fact, I do, sitting home gathering dust, since it's been a long time since I had an orphan lamb to rear.)

S&R agree that they WOULD like to use my nipples, which sound entirely superior to the ones they have, so I agree to drop them off the next day.

But meanwhile there is a baby goat to cuddle, replete now with colostrum and content to snuggle in my lap, sleepily observing the cats as they meander across the living room. Every once in a while the adventurous right ear tries to stand up, bravely pointing skyward for a few moments before wilting gradually back along the goatling's neck as she dozes on my thigh. Her fur is thick and silky and invites the hand; it is not possible to hold this baby in your lap and not pet her. So I chat with S while R gets things ready for transport, stroking the kid idly under her neck, rubbing her head, folding her cunning little legs up underneath her in a goat-in-repose posture. The goat dozes on my lap, doing much to erase the lingering horror of seeing her herd-mates, hunched with distress and confusion as they huddled together in the back of the trailer, stinking of burned hair and charred flesh. On my lap her little heart beats steadily along, and she makes contented little noises in her throat, soothing away the remains of my busy-to-overwhelming day.

So now I am back home, my dogs fed and dozing, feeling sleepy and relaxed myself. I suppose I'd better get motivated before I zone out completely; I should probably wash my nipples, if I'm going to let S&R use them.

The RUBBER nipples, like you get from the feed store. Sheesh! What did you think I meant?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Carolina Cold

So, after NAVC it was time to head north to NC where JP, her farm, and Raven awaited me. Unfortunately for poor JP, I arrived in my most unappealing possible state: Jet-lagged, sleep-deprived, virus-laden and somewhat the worse for wear after several months of combined winter- and injury-induced inactivity and stress- and Holiday-related chocolate consumption. Whilst JP was driving us around, I was actually hallucinating; I'd fall asleep in the middle of a sentence, entering a weird fugue-state in which I was simultaneously listening to the conversation, sleeping, aware I was sleeping, experiencing auditory hallucinations, and aware I was having auditory hallucinations. Such events lacked all sense of time: they might have gone on for a microsecond, or a half hour. Someone in the hallucination state was telling me aaaall about what Diane had to say. I have no idea who Diane is. I know some truly delightful women of that name (or a variation thereof), but I have no idea if it was to one (or all) of them that the hallucination referred. But I digress.

Raven appeared pretty confused to see me at first. It is a measure of JP's dog competence (and her absolute trustworthiness as one in whom to place your animal's well-being) that Raven looked to her for explanation, even while she was re-acquainting herself with my scent and voice. That made me feel good, to know that Raven trusted her so well; JP has had her care for nine months now, and I feel less as though I had abandoned Raven, knowing that she landed in so safe and worthy a spot. Intellectually, I knew it would be so, or I would not have done it in the first place, but it brought me a little extra measure of peace to know that on another level; to see it with my own eyes. It's one thing to know it will be all right. It's another thing entirely to Know it.

What with one thing and another I was entirely useless til the next day. JP and I went out in the early afternoon to see what Raven could do. It was amazing, and overwhelming, to see how far she has come in JP's skilled hands. Out into the pasture went my little black and white dog, much as I have known her all along. And then JP sent her, and all of a sudden it wasn't just my little dog. It was all the dogs that came before her, their genetics gathered and sorted and combined and re-combined into the particular array of what Raven is; bits and pieces of all the stock dogs of her line, her own unique combination of their genetics contained in that one small body, and summoned by the skill of a shepherd.

Damn, I thought. I'm way over my head here. There's no way I'm even one percent as good as the dog is.

Oh, well. I always knew that between us, I would be the weak link.

I practiced at first with another of JPs dogs, a made stock dog who will, she says, work for anyone. An honest dog, and one who forgave my idiocy readily, bless her lovely heart. I practiced with Raven, who was less sure of me and her job, and inclined (most likely out of stress and uncertainty) to dive in for a little ye-hah moments, feeling the pressure of my unfamiliarity to her as a handler, unsure of my leadership. I was dizzy as it was from sleep deprivation and the head cold, but I quickly got dizzier still trying to stay in front of Raven's speed in the round pen.

After a bit - needing to regain my equilibrium both literally and figuratively, I paused for instruction. JP pointed out that my voice was too kind, a concept that gave me a wry grin; I have spent so much of my professional life cultivating that voice, the one that coaxes the terrified dogs and cats from the backs of their cages to creep, trembling, but trusting through their fear that my tone speaks the truth of my intent, to my hand. So I must reach further back, to my days as a racehorse groom, when I had cultivated a voice that with a certain well-pitched "Ahhht!" could convey to a randy colt the laid-back ears and pinched nostrils and bared and snapping teeth he would have gotten had I been his lead mare.

In the open pasture JP showed me what Raven's mother, Twist, is made of. Here is a dog that needs no instruction beyond knowing what the job is that she is asked to do. She is an agile, tough, lovely little dog, so quick to read her stock and adjust accordingly in order to accomplish the task that, before your mind can process the conscious thought of what needs to come next, she is already at least two moves past it. If you have ever seen a good competition reining horse or working cow pony working a steer, weaving back and forth (while the rider sits quiet, staying out of the way of the pony's instinct), heading the steer off almost before the steer has had the thought to bolt, you have an idea of Twist on a sheep. She knows what to do, and she does it, correcting herself and judging her stock so fast that is is like magic, like a dance, like she and the sheep have rehearsed this all before and know what comes next. She's kind to her sheep, and a joy to behold. It's difficult to understand just how good she is while you are watching it, so fast does this dance move; it is only later, when you replay it slowly in your head, that you really start to get it.

In one of the pens JP had several ewes, one with a lamb at side. Ewes with lambs are inclined to fight the dog, rather than giving in to it. Moreover, there was one ewe - the crazy red ewe - who was inclined to cause problems in general. We took Raven in there, JP meaning to show me some of the other dynamics that Raven should be able to handle for me on the farm. It was a useful lesson. The stock split, the ewe with the lamb going one way and the rest, with the crazy red ewe in the lead, going the other. Raven placed herself where I thought she was wrong, off balance to the handler, and looking away from us at the small bunch of ewes headed by the crazy red one. But JP waited, and I watched. The ewe with the lamb faced Raven, stomping her foot, challenging her. Raven spared her an occasional glance, but kept her body facing toward the other ewes, where most of her attention was focused. In inter-dog or dog-people dynamics, this would indicate that she was either submitting to some degree (declining to engage directly, turning her shoulder), or stressed enough that she had to look away. But JP's narrations brought it into another light for me.

"See? She's using her physical presence to hold the ewe with the lamb, and using her eye to hold the crazy red ewe," JP told me. Suddenly the awkward triangle had symmetry and balance, and I thought: Trust the dog. She knows things about what is in the minds of these sheep that I will never be able to see. A moment later, two moments, and JP and Raven were proven right. The mama ewe, given a few moments to think while Raven held her with just enough pressure to keep her from bolting, turned her back, giving way. Raven came to her feet. The mama ewe eased over to the other ewes, bunched up behind the red ewe. Raven came to the balance point, heading the whole group and balanced to the handler. The ewes turned and filed into the stall that was our intended goal. And I felt completely humbled by this little dog, created by JP's good judgement and by a hundred and more years of Raven's forbears, honed by the work that they do and by the judgement of generations of hill shepherds.

The next day we drove to RF's farm for some different work on different sheep. There I worked Raven in a larger pen, and it went better; we started to get a feel for each other. She started listening more to me, getting a sense of my leadership, which steadied a bit with more practice and less spinning in dizzying circles. I corrected a flank and Raven stopped, listened, went the way I asked her to go. I called her off and she came, still eager for her sheep, but waiting to be sent.

I watched others work their dogs in bigger areas, with greater obstacles and more challenges. I watched some work their dogs in the round pen, or in a packed pen jammed with sheep and handler and dog so tight there was little space to move. I could not tell you what things I was learning from that, but I find that my eye now seeks different information when I look at an animal; perhaps my brain is weaving together the subtle and elusive tapestry of information that comprises stock sense. A rudimentary form of it just yet, to be sure, but the beginnings of it.

So it was a productive visit, although in some ways a muddled one, thanks to the head cold. Like Florida, it had been unseasonably cold in NC, so there were two kinds of cold to deal with - although compared to the deep sub-zero we'd endured for weeks in AK, it was quite pleasant for me. But I must say that there was a deal of warmth, as well... I was blessed to meet a number of people who I had known only from the Border Collie Boards, or other Internet contact, and I was charmed and delighted by these Southern women, so lively and warm and kind and mannerly, but also so full of fire and spice and wicked humor. There's something about the combination of hospitable good manners and cut-to-the-chase directness and pragmatism that is deeply engaging. I think I like the South... the food is as good and plentiful as all the stereotypes would lead you to believe, but the people are better than you would be able to imagine from any description.

I highly recommend it.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Flying South For More Winter: NAVC in Florida

Well, being in Florida has been something of an eye opener. For one thing, I got to try Vietnamese food for the first time (highly recommended). For another, every 4th person asks me (after looking at my conference badge) where in Arkansas I practice (isn't this the south? Aren't people down here supposed to know that Arkansas is abbreviated AR? And no, Arizona is NOT AR, it's AZ). For a third thing, No, I do NOT know Sarah Palin personally. And for a fourth, it's quite chilly here by Floridian standards: low to mid-40's in the daytime, with a thin sharp breeze half the time; low 30's at night. Looking around you see plants whose caretakers have carefully shrouded them in sheets to protect them from the cold. Considering that it was 45 and RAINING the night I left AK (with a high temp of 52 degrees that day), I feel a bit upside down on the weather. I feel like I've left Alaska so I could enjoy more winter.

As for the meeting... first, the exhibit hall. There are actually two, in different hotels; one is of reasonable size, about the area of a pair of football field, packed full of people, products and services, and intensive information about products and services. The other is of impressive acreage and overwhelming content. The exhibit halls are like trick or treating for vets. Nearly every booth has candy or pens (or both), plus or minus other goodies... coffee cups, tote bags, balls that light up when you bounce them, stuffed animals, leashes, water bottles, bottled water, magnets, big clips, magnetic big clips, lanyards, key rings, bottle openers, post-it notes, free samples of products.... you can herniate yourself. Someone could make a killing providing sherpa services to carry all the loot. There are also numerous opportunities to win high end toys (laptops, iPods, iPhones, texts) and some lesser toys (scrubs, hats, gym bags, crocs.) Some of those you earn an opportunity to enter a drawing for; others you acquire by attending a little mini lecture at the booth. You can actually get quite an education at some of the booths; the exhibit halls can be another lecture in and of themselves.

They've arranged the food just the opposite way of the exhibit halls, perhaps to even out the attendance at each: the good buffet is with the smaller hall, the hot dog and chips one is at the larger hall. I personally have objections to paying $8 for a hot dog (Eight DOLLARS for a hot dog?!? I ASK you!) so we went back to the other hall every day for lunch. Handily, there is a $75 allowance on the badge for food, so we ate well at lunch, anyway, without it costing us anything above what we have already paid to attend.

The lectures have so far been good... by two lecturers in particular: one, a cardiologist out of U Penn, whose every word was gold; the other, Marty Becker - who, apart from being a wonderful lecturer, has a certain celebrity cachet, evidently, as he often shows up on Martha Stewart and Good Morning America and the like; he's a very good speaker, so I see why they want him. I'm confident that there will be more sterling lectures to come; at a meeting this size there always are, and there are certain lecturers from whom you know you will get good value, so those are always worth attending. Sometimes even if the subject matter doesn't seem like it ought to be that exciting.

One thing that is rather cool is that now everyone has little electronic scanners so they can scan your badge; this records your attendance at lectures and allows representatives of various companies to get your information should you be interested, say, in a digital X-ray unit or a blood analyst or a new software system (or what have you.) Other fun highlights have included the free massages in the indoor park they constructed for us (complete with plants, a tiny toy duck pond, booths full of vet-oriented games, and a live puppy, who seemed to be enjoying the attention of all the passing vets who were sucked inexorably into the irresistible vortex of his puppyness), and running into (almost literally) a doctor who practices about 20 miles from me. I was pretty much NOT expecting to run into another Alaskan here, but I guess it really IS a small world any more.

Lowlights have been few, but DID (most unfortunately) include me catching a cold from my room mate (or else from the same source that she caught it from, although her symptoms broke before mine did.) Oh, goodie. I get to ride on a plane with a massive head cold. My seatmates are going to be SO happy. Not.

The other lowlight has been a complete inability to sleep for more than two hours at a stretch. This has the advantage of allowing me to wake up at 1 a.m. and watch lectures (a limited program of which is broadcast 24/7 on the conference channel). It has the disadvantage that I don't think I've ever been this tired. I've been doing on-call for 15 years and though I've had many days and night when I was exhausted, I don't think it's ever gone this deep. Oh, well. The attendant hallucinations are entertaining, at least.

One of the best parts was having a chance to catch up with my friend RG, one of my best pals from vet school. We shared a very comfortable suite where we could hang out in the evenings, chit chatting about lectures and our lives and mutual friends. It is also approximaely 1,000,000 times more fun to trick or treat in the exhibit hall if you go with a friend, for some reason. In part, four eyes are better than two, so we have better cool pen location skills (the ones that have a little light inside so you can see what you're writing in a dark lecture hall are the best.) In part, at booths where there is something interesting to be learned, having two sets of brains and experience allows you to learn more, based on the questions asked from two differing perspectives. In part, it's just more fun. At any rate, if you're going to go to Sea World for a meeting-sponsored evening, and it's cold enough to see your breath, it's more enjoyable to bitch about the chill with a good friend. It was wonderful to see RG, regardless of the moral support on general grousing. It reminded me why we became friends in the first place, and why we stayed friends through all the stresses of vet school and our lives beyond.

So, next stop: Julie's farm, where I will be reunited with my stock dog and where you will all want to kill me because I did not bring along my digital camera to take pictures.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Going To Extremes

So Monday night it was 25 degrees below zero at my house. The next morning it had warmed up to a balmy twelve. By Tuesday evening it was 42 degrees and raining.


You may recall that in years past I've had some issues getting up my driveway when it rains on top of the ice. But now I have the wonderous Rock Ridge Services on my side. Just about the time I was feeling a strange combination of persecution, outrage (it's JANUARY IN ALASKA, for %#^$ sake! It's not SUPPOSED to be 42 freaking degrees!), gratitude that I didn't have to drive to work on disasterous roads the next day, and resignation (oh, well... you deal with what you have to deal with), I hear a strange growling rumble outside. Eh? Could it be...? It IS! FW of Rock Ridge is out in my driveway with the sanding truck, making my ice-white, running-with-rain driveway look like a dirt road.

Ahhh. I feel so pampered. (This may be an Alaska girl thing... who else will feel all cosseted if you bring them dirt?)

The next day it was still 42 and still raining. And the next. Friday I went to work and it was 52 degrees.

We've had the mid-January warm-up before, one year or another. I don't recall ever having a 67 degree temperature change in 24 hours, but maybe we have. However, I'm CERTAIN that since I've lived in Alaska I've never seen it break 50 dregrees in January. January. The coldest month of the year. In theory, anyway.

So, as if that wasn't extreme enough, on the evening of the freak 52 degree weather I left the balmy climes of Alaska (although by then it had droppped from 52 to about 45 - but still raining) and I am now blogging at you from central Florida, nearly as far away from Alaska as I can get without leaving the US. I could go to the Keys, I guess, if I really wanted to make a point; and as jet-lagged as I am at this stage, I feel like I could just about drift out the window and float there without the airplane.

So, as long as the WiFi holds out, I will see what I can do about showing up here (in between trick-or-treating in the exhibit hall, catching up with sleep and with old vet school friends, and... Hmmm, what else was it...? Oh, yeah, attending classes for the CE I'm ostensibly AT this meeting for...!) I will apologize in advance for fat-fingering the keys more than usual (just getting used to the netbook's smaller keyboard, and I'm one of the world's less acconplished typists to begin with - and did I mention jet-lagged? - so the results may be either hilarious, pathetic, or unintelligible.

Possibly all three.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Glamorous World Of Veterinary Medicine

[Author's note: Okay, you guys, I admit it: I've been cheating. Some of these stories are ones I wrote in previous years, to entertain my sister or my BF. I'm re-printing them here because most of you haven't had a chance to hear them, and some of them still make me laugh. Besides, I'm getting ready to travel; that means I have 2 zillion things to do in a very short period of time, so for a little while I won't have time to write new stories. So.... I hope you don't mind if I go to my archives to keep you entertained for a little while. If not, read on for one that happened in late February of 2003...]

It was one of those days today, lots of interesting events - too many for one story, though, so I'll start at the end and work backwards as I have the time.

The day ended with two just-before-closing emergencies. Since I'm on call, we told them both to come in. One is an Iditarod leader who just got bitten by another dog and has a one-inch laceration on its wrist. There are a select few clients from whom I will believe this assessment; it seems to be quite difficult for people to accurately report the size of lacerations on their animals. Unless it is a client who has proven their accuracy in this regard, I read "one-inch laceration" as "some kinda cut, which could be anything from a degloving injury to a puncture wound - on the owner".

Since Iditarod is starting this weekend, this dog needs to be seen ASAP. The dog is in Willow, though, and it's just started to sleet in earnest, so the owners estimate they might get in by 6:30 if the roads are passable. I elect not to try to make it home and back in 30 minutes (I can make the round trip in 23 minutes, traffic permitting, but it isn't worth it for the 7 minutes at home.)

As it happens, just a few minutes after this call someone rings in with a cat laying around and crying as if his stomach hurts. My receptionist quite rightly suspects an obstructed tomcat and tells them to bop on in lickety split. They arrive at six on the dot and I spend the approximately 22 seconds it takes to diagnose a blocked tomcat (this includes the time it takes to take the crate apart to get the cat out... it's isn't a tough diagnosis in general, and Zeke's bladder is approximately the size and hardness of a softball, in any case.)

Fortunately as I walk into the treatment area with my (eighteen pound) patient, I note that not only has JG not left yet, but M has stopped by for some reason and is chatting with her, so I have TWO nurses available. This turns out to be a fortunate event, as all three of us are ultimately necessary to pass Zeke's catheter, a procedure I can usually do alone. We clear away the surgery laundry that JG was folding on the treatment table and replace it with poor Zeke, who is purring madly despite his extreme discomfort - his owner says he purrs when he's nervous, which he has every reason to be about now; his life is on the line and I am all that stands between him and death. Fortunately we have a neat little toy to help unblock tomcats, an ultrasonic device which is supposed to break up the crystal plug so you can catheterise the cat, and I am keen to try it out. M gets out the dental machine, to which it attaches, and JG and I anesthetise the cat.

Now the fun begins.

Zeke, like the majority of my obstructed toms, is a bit (read: rather a lot, really) on the portly side. In addition, he isn't the "manliest man" I've ever encountered. I can find his prepuce amidst his chubby and luxuriantly furred thighs, but exteriorising his penis is another matter entirely. He is so fat (and admittedly he's remarkably under-endowed to boot) that I can't get more than the tip of his little Johnson to peer out of the sheath (although considering that I'm about to clip a hemostat onto it and run a catheter up it, this may indicate a certain degree of reasonable caution). It is impossible to catheterise a cat unless you exteriorise their little weenie first, and since Zeke's life quite literally depends on me catheterising him - and right now - I have to find a way. With JG holding Zeke's substantial thighs out of the way and M applying pressure to Zeke's peri-genital tissues I finally am able to get a bit more of him to extrude itself, like a snail emerging cautiously from its shell in fear of small boys with salt. I make a lucky grab with my hemostats (although about this time I bet Zeke's Johnson wasn't feeling especially lucky). It's not in the ideal position, but I am unlikely to get a better one; the minute you let go or try to hold it in place with your fingers while you move the hemostat, it slips through your grasp like a bar of wet soap and has to be laboriously fished out again (which, as you might suspect, I am reporting from personal experience with Zeke's very own penis, which is already a deep reddish purple from the strain of trying to pass his urethral obstruction, and would surely rather not be pinched any more with the hemostats than is absolutely necessary).

M has hooked up our ultrasonic toy and I manage to get the slender tip of it into the (tiny) urethral orifice. It is a SLICK little device and zips through the gritty crystal plug in Zeke's urethra like a hot knife through butter. Zeke's distended bladder, under considerable pressure until now, gratefully sends a high-velocity jet of cat urine geyserlike into the air, arcing gracefully above his prostrate form and onto my neck (liberally dousing of my nice long hair and my clinic coat). M and JG are frozen for a microsecond of dismay, but I start laughing, which leads them to conclude (correctly) that none of it went in my mouth, no matter what it looked like. The front of my shirt is generously sprinkled with Zeke pee, but while I will say I don't love the smell of cat urine in the evening (or any other time), I'm just as glad to be doused in it this time: it means I've just saved Zeke's life, which goes some way to making a shirtful of cat pee seem like a minor deal. All part of the glamorous world of Veterinary Medicine.

Meanwhile, my other emergency has arrived and the dog-handler is watching the circus with bright-eyed interest. I go to change my shirt - which, I notice, is dotted with tiny domes of sand, courtesy of the incredibly high crystal content of Zeke's urine - while we manage to express the rest of Zeke's bladder (primarily into the sink). The treatment area reeks of cat urine, and there is bloody urine and a visible sediment of sand on the treatment table, but I am feeling cheerful about this; Zeke is way better off than he was 10 minutes ago. The dog handler wants to know how it happened, what we're doing, how we'll prevent it recurring, whether the cat is anesthetized and so on. I answer absently, concentrating on getting Zeke emptied out and setting up to pass our catheter, but when I get to the part about prescription diets, she says sagely, "Just as long as you stay away from Science Diet," nodding firmly to underscore her point. This rather irritates me (in actuality, in my hands at least, it's the best on the market for this problem; I've had all other prescription and non-prescription crystal control diets fail at least once, but so far Hill's hasn't let me down.)

"Actually, in my opinion, that's the best diet on the market for this problem," I tell her, still working over Zeke's slumbering form; we've pretty well emptied him but we still have to place a urinary catheter that will stay in place until at least morning.

"It has soy in it," she argues. "That's really bad for them." I suddenly suspect she has Internet access. Sigh.

"Be that as it may, if this cat is going to recover, it'll be on that diet. Nothing else is as good for this problem," I reply, rather shortly, as I tease the catheter into the still-gritty opening of Zeke's urethra. After a little stutter, it passes into his bladder. Ahh. Success. Until it is pulled, the catheter will keep Zeke's bladder empty. This is important not only to prevent re-obstruction, but also because the bladder, having been stretched well beyond its normal limits, has lost its tone temporarily. In nearly all cases the bladder will regain its contractility, but it needs to stay small for a while to re-establish the tight connections between the smooth muscle cells that are responsible for contracting the bladder. Until this happens, the muscle cannot contract in synchrony to empty the bladder, and not only will bladder tone not re-establish, but re-obstruction is a risk. But I have hopes that Zeke will be peeing on his own in 24 to 36 hours.

Zeke having been stashed away in a cage, we get to Butch, who, it is revealed, actually has TWO lacerations, neither of them an inch long (sigh). By great good fortune, both have missed all the rather important tendons and ligaments and joint capsules and vessels in their vicinity. I will need to repair this without benefit of shaving (since this dog is intended to run the Iditarod in a few days and the dog can't have bare skin exposed in that kind of cold). Luckily it looks do-able. I spend a few minutes tracking down the record (the reception staff had pulled the handler's record, not the owner's). We anesthetize our lacerated leader and prep the wound without shaving it. I begin suturing, pleased to see that the wounds are coming together nicely. Meanwhile, the dog handler (who has ceased annoying me, mainly by dint of her genuine and sympathetic concern for poor Zeke), asks me, "Did you vaccinate Raymie's dogs for rabies?"

"Hmmm, I'm not sure," I say, wondering which "Raymie" she might mean. Ramie Reddington? Raymie Smyth? Some other Raymie I have never heard of? Apart from which, I have no idea how many Iditarod dogs I have vaccinated for rabies in the last 2 months, but it was somewhere between "a lot" and "REALLY a lot". I am only half listening as she burbles happily on, but suddenly JG recalls that I DID vaccinate Raymie Smyth's team, because she recalls M helping me, in a slick little tag-team. Now I recall it too... we counted out 17 vaccines (for the 17 dogs we were told he brought) but ended up one short. Raymie and his assistant, another musher, are counting and re-counting dogs and insisting there are only 17, but I am counting 18 - did they remember to count the one in the cab with them? Nope. That's it.

"Yeah, he [does she mean Raymie or his musher assistant?] said the shorter woman who was vaccinating was really good - very efficient. So I thought, I have to see who this woman is," says Raymie's handler now. Well, that would be me - the shorter woman: M and JG are rather taller than I am, as is nearly everyone else at the clinic. But now (apart from being rather abashed that I was short in correcting her on the diet issue, since she really is very well-meaning and clearly loves animals) I am wondering: just HOW does one vaccinate a dog for rabies in such a way as to impress someone enough to mention it? There's really not much to it: grab 'em and stab 'em, basically. Maybe they were just impressed that I was able to count to 18.... Just part of the outstanding service at the clinic, where amongst other things we are all smarter than we look.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Juggling Puppies

[Author's note: this is a story about something that happened a few years ago - as you will no doubt surmise from the May Day reference - but I thought it was too good not to re-tell.]

So, I don't know what it is lately with me on call, but the last 3 times I've had the pager I've had to go in at 3 A.M. every time. This time it was for a very sweet hit-by-4-wheeler pit bull mix (whose owners probably won't have the funds for repair of her two fractured femurs, unfortunately). The owners were out camping on Jim Creek when she was injured - running loose, naturally - and the poor thing dragged herself and her two broken back legs back to the camp site. The man (an extremely handsome Native guy) seems to be the thinker of the pair; his girlfriend was not only reeking of alcohol but was sloppily tearful and faintly belligerent by turns, not to mention that she also appeared to have spent HER camping trip rubbing dirt on her face and clothing. (Okay, in fairness, due to genetics, the guy's skin color - a gorgeous smooth coppery brown - might've disguised some dirt, if he'd had any, while the girl was almost white-blond and pale, a perfect canvas for besmirchment - but he sort of looked like he'd just stepped out of his apartment, neatly dressed, pressed and clean. Maybe it helped that HE wasn't the one who was three sheets to the wind.)

At any rate, I did my best for them, but the upshot was that I was pretty tired come Saturday morning (between that and other emergencies I got maybe two hours of sleep that night - second time this week, so it had unexpected impact). I went in early to take thorns out of the eye of a darling little King Charles mix, which turned quickly into not just doing that, but also taking porcupine quills out of a large and gentle-tempered Akita mix, euthanizing a 19-year old cat and doing a vaccine appointment all before 9 a.m. (when I officially begin work on a Saturday). It sort of took off from there - an exceptionally busy day, with no time to regroup and several dicey medicine cases to frazzle my badly-frayed reasoning skills. By the time 1:00 rolled around I was in a weird sort of daze - slightly removed from my body, nauseated from fatigue and hunger (no time for breakfast OR lunch), and inclined to slow, rolling dizzy spells. It was a little like being tipsy; but that afternoon I kept sort of coming back to myself to find that I was talking to clients with no awareness of what I had said for the last 10 minutes. I could remember doing my physical exam and I'd "come to" hearing myself give correct advice on home care, but I could not remember anything in between. Very disconcerting; makes you hope sincerely that you've confined your comments strictly to the medical.

At any rate, all this combined to make me VERY glad that the owners of the 93# American bulldog didn't have the money for the C-section she so clearly needed. I felt bad for the dog, of course, especially as she had waited over an hour for me to see her (as did every other walk-in we had that day); but I would have been deeply questionable as a surgeon by that time. In addition I had an obstructed tomcat to catheterise, and 3 clients to call back about blood work. So, when we finally closed the doors I was relieved (for her sake and mine) that the beluga-esque form of the bulldog bitch had evidently travelled on to another vet, perhaps the one the owner's mother patronised, who might cut them some slack on billing or holding checks for the sake of the mother's patronage. We had never seen any of them before that very day, and the clinic's policy forbids expensive procedures for non-clients without a deposit of some kind.

I no sooner finished my call-backs when the answering service called to chirpily inform me that the bulldog's owners had borrowed the money for the C-section. Fortunately Dr. J had the pager for the rest of the weekend, so I suggested they call him. I called him a few minutes later to round him about my in-hospitals, and (to my mute astonishment) I hear my voice going: "Would you like me to stay to help you with that C-section?" Dr. J hesitates, but says, "Well, it would be nice if you could, but you don't have to." Well, I'm hardly going to turn down THAT invitation. Not only is he my boss (which means this is a chance to please the guy who signs my paychecks) but that's his way of telling me he'd prefer my skills to those of the on-call tech (flattery will get you everywhere).

Which is how I found myself prepping the bulging dome of this bulldog's abdomen 20 minutes later. The owners were banished to the front but told to stick around in case we needed hands. I prepared baskets with heating pads in the bottoms and a pile of towels, as well as syringes of dopram (to stimulate breathing) and dextrose (since the two commonest causes of neonatal death are hypoglycemia ans hypothermia), while Dr. J made a long incision in the abdomen and exteriorised the biggest uterus either of us has ever seen (well, on a dog, that is.) I am standing by with my towel-draped hands held out like an acolyte about the receive manna from the high priest, while Dr. J opens the uterus.

"Here's two," he says. "No, three." He deposits three slippery bloody water balloons into my outstretched towel, each containing a very large puppy - all of which are moving, I see, as I rush them to the heating pads and start tearing the tough slippery double membranes off them. Amniotic fluid is gushing everywhere, and Dr. J keeps coming in with another pup, and another, piling them into the overflowing baskets and onto the towels. I'm thinking I should have gotten out more towels. I'm ripping gestational sacs as fast as I can (not as easy as it sounds), and trying to keep everyone's mouth above the placentas and the rising tide of fluids. Only when he pauses to exteriorise the other limb of the uterus do I have time to go up front to tell the owners we need hands. They traipse back uncertainly and hesitantly begin to mimic my frantic resuscitory activities (which, due to the mounting puppy count, are sort of like that guy in the circus who keeps all the plates spinning at the same time - except that in my case there's considerably more blood and other assorted body fluids). It is the husband I have to tell three times that he is being too gentle and he needs to STIMULATE these pups; they haven't had the arduous passage through the birth canal to wake them up, and in addition they have had some of their mother's anesthetic across their placentas. His wife and mother-in-law (both of whom have had children) seem to pick up more quickly how much force to use. I thought it was rather dear that he was afraid he would hurt them, and how ginger his handling of them was; but at the same time I was afraid his resuscitatees would die if he wasn't a little firmer with them. But he gradually got the hang.

We are now up to 14 puppies - all alive, and thank God that's the last of them. Dr. J is closing, which means I have to trot back and forth bringing him suture and managing anesthesia, as well as keeping my 4 puppies going. Fortunately the owner didn't wait too long before getting the dog sectioned, so the pups are not severely distressed, and by the time the last one is out, the first one has essayed her first tentative warbling cries. Pretty soon most of them are in good voice, and it sounds like we have Alvin the Chipmunk and 13 of his closest friends all drunk and singing away. The bitch (now about 20# lighter) is covered in blood, and it looks like we slaughtered several chickens in the O.R., but everyone is alive, even the very last pup, who is having a slow start and requires extra help from me.

Dr. J and I carry the somnolent mother out into the treatment area and lay her on a prep table where we can wash the assorted blood and fluids off her. I trade off with Dr. J, who has the instruments and is severing umbilical cords. I wash the blood out of the bitch's white coat. For some reason I have trouble rolling her over. The surge of alertness I had borrowed from my adrenal glands is fading and I am puzzled. After two or three attempts I realize one of her nipples is caught between the bars of the treatment table rack. (Yikes!) Fortunately she is still asleep for the most part. I free her (noting that now there is milk mixed with the blood and fluid in the sink under the rack.) Well, hey, at least she's got good milk production. I proved it. But I am a bit glad no one saw me do it.

Several of the pups are making lusty attempts to crawl over the edge of their baskets and plummet to their deaths (or at least a good splat on the floor), so I rummage around in the back and find a Rubbermaid bucket that a client left us, which might fit all 14 pups and two hot water bottles. After I set it up I have one of those moments of dawning consciousness that have dappled my afternoon and I see just how big a mess we have made. Not only is the O.R. streaked and spattered with blood and smears of green and black from the placentas, but there are trails of gore traipsing back and forth from the O.R. to Treatment, where we did our resuscitations. Both treatment tables are liberally painted in red and green and black, and stripes of blood trail down the sides of both. Heaps of sodden towels are wadded everywhere, slimy with blood and fluids, and gelatinous black and green placentas are scattered amongst them like some malign species of jellyfish. The newly-recovered bitch is now laying sternal on the floor, a pool of dark blood gathered under her tail (and no wonder, poor thing, what with the number of placentation sites she has to involute). I don't even want to think about the state of Jack's shoes, which I have noticed are making squishing noises as he walks. A strange little smile breaks over my face. For some reason I think all this is hilarious. I go get the mop and start in, giggling quietly to myself. (Fortunately everyone else is engrossed in the puppies, trying to decide which ones look most like the father.)

About the time I notice I am starting to bump into things, I decide I might just have enough juice to get home if I leave NOW. I make sure Jack has things under control and weave on out to my truck (don't remember much of the drive home, but there are no new dents on the truck, so it must've gone okay). On my return home I have an invitation to a May Day party at Wildwood Farm on my answering machine, but I am now so tired I want to burst into tears, so I decline and pitch headlong into my bed. I slept like the dead and today I feel somewhat restored, but in the back of my head I have the niggling question: just what DID I say to some of my clients yesterday? (Sigh). Unless it's embarrassing, we'll probably never know.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sticking Up For The Underdog

So the other day I was zinging around at work, in a freakishly cheerful mood (and after several days of that, I think I'm starting to annoy the more sour-puss types at the clinic), and for some reason it reminded me of this from my intern year.

As an intern, I worked at a hospital group htat had several different hospitals including two 24-hour care centers. One weekend day I'm manning one of those, and L, my tech, comes back and says I have an appointment in room one.

"What is it?" I ask him. He gets A Look on his face.
"A woman with her finger in a dog's mouth," he says.


"Ummm... did she say WHY she had her finger in the dog's mouth?" I ask, wondering if we should be calling the human ER, plus or minus the local nut hatch.

"She says if she takes it out the dog will die," L reports, shaking his head - just the once, mind you, but that's a lot coming from him. Apart from being a top-flight tech, he is also well-nigh unflappable. I've seen him take the most hysterical and unreasonable clients, not to mention the most difficult patients, right in stride. I can only imagine the bizarreness that has him shaking his head.

Well, as it turns out, I CAN'T imagine the bizarreness. Even with the description, I wasn't QUITE prepared to see a woman standing calmly in the exam room with her index finger inserted to the last knuckle into the mouth of a Chihuahua.

Now, you have to picture this. Here's this little Chi standing on the exam table with an entire human finger in his mouth. Naturally he can't turn his head, thus restrained, so when I walk in he rolls his buggy and protuberant little eyes (perhaps a bit MORE buggy and protuberant than usual, in view of his current oral circumstances) in my direction. I detect a distinct note of alarm in them, but for once it seems not to be directed at me - arriving in my white coat and no doubt armed with an absolute plethora of rectal thermometers just waiting to be pressed into duty (so to speak) - but instead to be focused on the woman who has his little head gripped firmly in one hand, and the (handsomely be-ringed) index finger of the other pushed quite far into his little mouth.

"What seems to be the problem?" I inquire with a cheerful grin (which is mainly engendered by the ridiculousness of the tableau, but which luckily passes for bedside manner).

"He's having seizures. I stopped them by putting my finger in his mouth, but if I take it out, he starts having another one. I'm afraid he'll choke to death," the woman reports.

Hmmm. Well, apart from the fact I don't recall the head of Neurology ever mentioning anything about finger-down-the-mouth being a preferred treatment for epilepsy, I am having a hard time imagining what kind of seizure might be precipitated by NOT having a finger down your mouth. Hence (and here I know you'll think I'm being rash) I conclude that the dog is not having seizures and instead has some other problem, as yet undetermined.

I get a bit more history - young dog, no prior seizures, otherwise healthy, but as it turns out, not her dog. He belongs to some friends, currently waiting in the parking lot, too upset to come in, in case I say the dog needs to be put down. It just happened that she was with them when the behavior started and was the only one cool-headed enough to do something when they all returned to their respective cars after getting Slurpees in the 7-11. She's had her finger in the dog's mouth ever since, though - this having understandably impaired her ability to drive her own car - they all piled into one to make the trip to the hospital. I nod as she tells her story and do a physical exam, working around the woman's fingers. The Chi watches me as best he can, rolling his eyes to and fro to follow my movements, now more white-walled than ever with fresh alarm.

"Okay, take your finger out of his mouth, " I tell the client.
"I can't, he'll have a seizure," she protests.
"You have to; I need to complete my exam," I tell her patiently. "Besides, you're at the hospital," I add soothingly. This apparently does the trick, because she removes her (somewhat dog-slimed) finger from the Chi's mouth.

The effect is immediate. The dog throws his head back and whips it from side to side, making gnashing motions with his diminutive jaws, at the same time as tongue-thrusting so vigorously that it appears he is hoping his tongue is all grown up now and ready to be out on its own.

"Okay, you can put your finger back," I say, which the client does promptly, because I have ascertained the source of the mysterious seizure disorder. There is a stick jammed between the upper carnasial teeth, and the dog's gargoyle-esque facial contortions are his attempt to remove it with his tongue.

"Hmmm, I think I have something in the back that will cure him completely," I tell the client, who is suitably impressed that I can cure seizures with some exciting new advancement in medical technology. "Wait here."

I go in the back to grab a hemostat. L looks up from his treatments.
"Did she take her finger out of its mouth?" he asks; I nod. "What is it?" he asks.
"Stick in mouth," I reply, to his chortling glee. I snag a handy pair of hemostats and return to the room.

"Okay, take your finger out, " I say, wielding my hemostats. The dog goes immediately into his gargoyle routine, jaws helpfully opened to their fullest extent, and I nip in and pop the stick out in under two seconds.

"There," I say with satisfaction. "Cured."

The client goggles at the stick, now clenched between the jaws of my hemostats, and then at the Chi, who is magically restored to complete equanimity by stick removal, and is now standing quietly on the table having his first unimpeded look around. The woman bursts out laughing.

"Oh, I can't WAIT to tell them," she says. Evidently her friends had gotten some kind of jerky which is impaled on a stick like a kebab skewer, and the Chi, yielding to his gluttonous instincts, decided to eat it. All of it, including the stick.

With admonitions to watch for other stick-related disorders, we release our miracle-cure Chi to his grateful (and uproariously relieved) owners. That was by no means the only stick I've pulled out of a dog's mouth, but I have to say it was one of the most dramatic, thanks largely to the patient's facial gyrations. It's also not the only time I've cured "seizures" by taking something out of a dog's mouth, but that's another story....

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Knik 200 Part III: Endrace

When the call came in about the accident, I decided I'd better eat faster. I wasn't sure what kind of accident it might be, but I figured if they were tapping MK right off the bat, it had to be something where either a musher or a team was injured (or possibly both), and if so, I might be needed. I finished up about the time MK got back to the Roadhouse and was taking the call. He gave me the thumbs-up: dogs hurt, but no bleeding and no apparent broken bones. After he got off the phone he relayed the information he'd been given: a snow machiner had hit one of the teams on the Yentna river. Two dogs were not walking, and two others were pretty stiff. The snow machiner, we are told, disentangled himself from the team and took off. There is a description of the machine and the helmet.

"So do they need me to fly to them, or are they okay to go down to Knik and just meet me there?" I ask MK.

"I'm not sure, but if I were you I'd be ready to roll," he says. I trot upstairs and spend about 28 seconds cramming my gear into my backpack (as most of it was there already this is a simple task), and then trot downstairs again to re-assemble the medical kits, another 2 minutes' work. Since the medications for the dropped dogs have already been dispensed into individual ziplocs with a 3x5 card detailing the instructions, and the ziploc is taped to the drop form so it goes with the dog, I'm not worried that CS will need anything more than she has already. MK gets the follow-up call: they don't immediately need me, we can stick to our plan. I'll fly out on the second load to Knik and examine the dogs at the finish line.

CS and I go out to examine and medicate the dropped dogs. I'm out there no more than five minutes when MK tells us they want a vet after all. That'd be me. I go grab my medical kits and my gear.

We can't snow machine to the strip; the dropped dogs will be using the snow machines (a chain is strung between two machines, several dogs attached to it at intervals by their neck-lines, the short leads that would normally be attached to the gang line if they were pulling a sled. The machines are driven at walking pace to the strip so that the dogs, all of whom are ambulatory, merely walk with the chain down to the airstrip.)

At the plane, MK has us clip the dogs to the ski rigging (cables that run from the fuselage to the skis) so the dogs can get used to the plane and each other before we tie them down inside. There's not that much room in a 180, and the dogs will be cozy in there. It'll be better for everyone if they are Kosher with the idea. MK has a number of little rings bolted to the inside of the plane on the floor and the sides (not sure if you call it a bulkhead in a small aircraft) - I don't know if these are standard parts of the plane or additions MK has made to accommodate flying dogs, but they work just great. We lift the dogs in one by one and MK clips them to a tie down. One makes a bid for freedom, launching his wiry 50# athlete's body over the shoulder of the volunteer standing in the doorway of the plane. By some miracle the volunteer (B, who has worked like a dog himself all night bedding in and caring for the drop dogs, after having snow machined the 90 miles in to the Roadhouse) snags the dog with his right arm, even though he is holding another one in his left. I am up by the propeller and see only a furry lunge over his shoulder. Ducking around the wing strut, I make a grab for the dog. MK has some hold of him from the other side, but they are slippery as eels and wild as march hares, some of them, and wiry and strong from hundreds of miles of training, so this in no simple task. Added to that is the reality that a small percentage of sled dogs will readily bite you if panicked, so a certain amount of caution is in order. I shove hard against the straining chest of this dog, and MK gets a better hold and hauls him back. B meanwhile has dropped his other sled dog, but makes a rather athletic dive and tackles her before she takes off. This is something of a relief, because chasing a sled dog on foot is a losing proposition. No matter how tired they are they can easily outrun any human, particularly if you're burdened by cold weather gear and heavy boots, not to mention distinctly disadvantaged by the footing (which troubles the dog not at all).

We get all the dogs stashed and I clamber into the right seat - an operation considerably hindered by the bulk of my boots; there's not a lot of room up there to begin with, and I've worn my Sorrells, my second-warmest boot... warmer but less comfortable than my every-day LaCrosses, more comfortable than my bunny boots but not as warm. Thermally the perfect compromise for the weather, but they're as big as boats. The trick is that you typically end up with your torso curled up like Quasimodo as you try to tuck yourself in to the low cabin, your right foot balanced by the barest toe-hold on a step about the size of the palm of your hand, your right knee cocked as far to the side as you can get it, and yet you still have your left boot jammed between your right calf and the seat. Luckily for me the erstwhile B, expecting this, gives my left heel a helpful shove and it pops free into the plane before I actually fall off the step and crash face-first onto the hard-packed snow of the runway, no doubt clocking my head on the step (or something else) on my way down. Try explaining THAT black eye to your clients.
Them: "Jeez, Doc, what'd you do to your eye?"
Me: "Lost a fight with a Cessna."
Them: "Riiiiiiight. Uh-huh. Sure."

However, I get settled without incident, buckling in and donning my head set, and Mike taxis us out. In my head I'm running scenarios, trying to ready myself for what I might find, reviewing emergency procedures and where I've stashed the drugs I might need. I'm mentally geared up for an emergency, complete with a small adrenaline squeeze, but even so, as soon as we start that run down the airstrip I am a happy girl. No matter what might await me at the other end, in the air I feel just fine.

The reality of it is that there's nothing I can do until I get to the dogs, so I relax and enjoy the flight. The dogs are settled in quietly (rather remarkably, since you have eight dogs who do not know each other and may not like each other snuggled cheek by jowl in the narrow V of the tail section of the plane). When I look back at them, they are mainly sitting or lying down, some of them having a look around, some of them dozing, some sitting with eyes half-shut and the occasional yawn.

Like most pilots, MK has some interesting stories about flying. Unlike some, he's a good storyteller, drawing your interest, laying out the details so you can picture how it might have been, making you wait for the upshot so that you have time to savor the tale as you go along. As much as I'm a cut-to-the-chase sort of girl, I have to say I love a good story, and except when taking a medical history, I'd just as soon let it unfold leisurely. Typically it's the details that make it interesting. Anyone can lay out the facts. It's the rest of it that makes it a story. My friend YT is so good at that part of it that I dread meeting people she's told stories about me... I'm certain she makes me sound about 50x as interesting as I am, and I hate to disappoint them when they meet me in person.

At any rate, I was entertained while we made our way back to Kink. We set down smoothly on the ice (me wondering if there was any legit excuse to get back in the plane to go pick up the injured dogs on the Yentna... Hmm, nope. Oh well.) I no sooner step onto the ice than at least 3 volunteers are there, asking if I need anything - a cup of coffee, something to eat, help with dog treatments. The dropped dogs were transferred onto the ground (a delicate operation, as they are inclined to make a break for it the minute the door opens, and there is a tendency for them to hang themselves by the collar). All the dogs make it to the drop chain without incident (although two of them manage to free themselves before very long and go loping away into the woods... not to worry, one is quickly recaptured and the other is flirting around the margins of a nearby dog lot, eating the bait thoughtfully provided by the musher, and no doubt laughing at us all from the edge of the woods. She'll be rounded up in the next day or so, and since it's now running around an unseasonable 35 at night and 45 in the daytime in the vicinity of Knik Lake, I know she isn't suffering from the cold.)

I check whatever dogs need my attention while MK flies off to pick up the injured team. The wife of the musher in question is on the ice, worried about the team and her husband (evidently in that order, bless her heart). They're back before long, the throaty roar of the Cessna bringing me out of the Knik Bar to see what's up. One of the leaders has sore wrists, and several of them are walking like they hurt, but I can find no broken bones and only one small pad laceration, and as an added bonus all the dogs are now up and moving under their own power. One of the dogs is reported to be urinating blood, but no one knows for sure which one. I palpate abdomens but can find nothing alarming. We load the dogs into their boxes and wait for the musher, who is snow machining in with one of the ham radio operators who line the trail (evidently the one who radioed in for help when the accident came to light.) They'll drag his sled behind the machine so that MK is free to go back to Skwentna to pick up and transport more dropped dogs (not to mention T and CS). Daylight's a-wasting, and we've just heard that another musher has three dogs in the basket and a fourth that needs to be. He wants help (which means he is scratching from the race), so MK has at least 3 more trips to make.

When the musher from the hit-by-snow-machine team comes in, he tells me that he was mushing along not paying that much attention, hearing the snow machine (which you commonly do out and about) but paying it no heed. When he realises that something isn't right, he turns to look, but the snow machiner is already on top of his team and hits the gang line just in front of the wheel dogs, wrapping them and the next two dogs around the machine and slamming them against its sides. He tells me he was thrown to the ice, rapping his head a good one and stunning him, and that by the time he gained his feet to run to his team, which had been dragged about 50 feet, the snow machiner had disentangled his machine and was taking off. Looking at the musher, I see that his left eye is bloodshot and he looks like he's been dragged through a hedge backwards, but he's basically okay. We re-examine the dogs he felt were the worst injured, and I advise him to get the one that is urinating blood in to be X-rayed that day.

[There was some significant controversy about this story; at least one person questioned the account given by the musher, on the grounds that they could not see how a snow machine could fit in the gap between one pair of dogs and the next. As race vet, when this story was disputed, I was obliged to bring it to the race officials. In the end, no one who was not there to witness it in person can be certain what happened, and the race marshalls decided to leave the account as given in the records.]

After that there's not much to do til the next load of dogs comes in or the next musher crosses the finish line with dogs he or she wants examined. I go sit in the warm bar, chatting with volunteers. Lance Mackey is our race winner, followed by John Little and a Norwegian racer whose name I can neither spell nor pronounce. Peter Bartlett has run 4th, and I believe Jason Mackey 5th. After that I kept track of the order no longer, just going out to check teams as needed. The warmth of the bar was a major soporific and I was having trouble staying alert. Every time I went out, the cold had the opposite effect, but after you stand around on the ice for a while with nothing to do, you start drifting away mentally again. I solved this problem for a while by talking with MK's wife JK (who I swear has been using the interval since our last meeting to get younger, although she informed me her birthday happened to be that exact day). JK and Ruby (their dog, a sweet and lively Golden) kept my flagging wits perked up for a good bit (although suddenly I remembered JK's excellent cooking and I started to get hungry).

The next load of dropped dogs came in with T the checker and a little bad news: one of the dropped dogs backed out of its collar while clipped to the plane and was running loose in Skwentna. This is most likely not a disaster; generally the dog is readily lured to the roadhouse, where food and straw and the presence of other dogs goes a long way to tempt them in. In addition, Skwentna is a small community (maybe 200 souls) and everyone knows what's going on and pitches in to help. I asked which dog was loose so we could tell the musher, but the collar (with name tag attached) was left in Skwentna in anticipation of catching the dog.

The last load of dropped dogs (and CS, who I was glad to see, since I was tiring badly on the mental front by then) came in and we split up to do our dog exams. There was a bit of a tantrum by the musher whose dog had gotten loose in Skwentna, accusing everyone of incompetence and disinterest; no doubt he was tired and worried for his dog, and later at the musher's banquet he apologised to everyone publicly. CS had gone so far as to tighten all the collars on the dropped dogs (I will point out that this is NOT her responsibility, but the musher's, and goes to being above and beyond the call) but this collar was a padded type and she was unable to tighten it any more. The musher's wife (who I know and like) is a tenderhearted sort and was nearly in tears at the thought of her dog running loose in the wilds of Skwentna. MK (bless him) agreed to take her back to Skwentna to look for the dog. He told her he could give her a half hour on the ground before he had to leave to pick up the 4 dogs in Yentna, but he ended up leaving her there; daylight was fading, and the dog wasn't ready to come in from the woods yet. It's a good thing he did leave her, since he had trouble with fog at the Yentna, and thought it unlikely that he'd have been able to pick up those four dogs (which turned out to be eleven, the entire team) if he'd been even five minutes later. (The loose dog came to the owner about 40 minutes after she got there, and MK flew in and picked them up the next day.)

About 6:00 I had to pack it in. Besides needing to do laundry and having my own dogs to care for, I was scheduled to be on call Monday night. This could mean no sleep at all between Monday morning at six and Tuesday night at 7 p.m., so I needed to get home and make sure I got at least one night of uninterrupted sleep that weekend. CS had had the opportunity to nap in Skwentna while I was doing dog checks on the ice in Knik, so I turned the reins over to her at that point. I wanted to wait til MK got back with the dogs from the Yentna, but I was already an hour past the time I'd promised myself I would leave, so I consigned their well being to the powers of providence and CS's capable hands and home I went, with a detour to pick up my dogs (who were overjoyed to see me, and really rather muddy from racing around in the yard at the clinic all weekend, since the yard was swimming in water. In February. In Alaska. I ask you).

For my inaugural sled dog race (particularly given that I jumped right in as head vet with no prior race experience) I think it went pretty well. Skwentna checkpoint ran like clockwork the whole time I was there, and the volunteers did an outstanding job. Without them it could have been one disaster after another, but they know their business and they made it easy for me. The weather was perfect (from my point of view, anyway) and held just long enough to finish the race. Monday morning it shot up to 38 degrees at my house, and by Monday night it was raining. BB, the race coordinator, told me that the last of the volunteers were snow machining off the Yentna as it was breaking up around them.

To tell you the truth, we all wondered what they were going to do for Iditarod that year... there was no snow at all at the designated race re-start, and it was kinda questionable that it would be much better in a month, even though February/March is the snowiest time of the year. Maybe, we all figured, if they start it in McGrath...

Friday, January 9, 2009

Kink 200 Part II: Midrace At Skwentna Checkpoint

So, when last we saw our heroines, they were watching the first team mush in to Skwentna....

Lance Mackey was the first musher in, at 5:38, about seven and a half hours after he left Knik, which makes him doing a bit better than 10 miles an hour. CS and I went down to see if he needed any attention for any of his dogs. (Here I will freely admit that despite my status as "head vet" - ie, the ONLY vet - on the race, I am less experienced in trail vetting than is my 'technician' CS, who managed the whole gig by herself last year, and I am watching closely to see what she says and does so I can at least LOOK like I have an effing clue what I am doing.) Fortunately it's not that complicated; you ask the musher if he has any dogs he wants looked at, and if you see something he (or she) has missed you point it out and go after it. On a short race with only one dog drop point, the mushers are usually inclined to drop the dog if in doubt, rather than take it along and have it slow them down. If the dog has trouble out on the trail, the only alternative is to either put the dog in the basket and carry it, or to call for outside help - which constitutes scratching from the race. On a longer race, there is the temptation to keep the dog in the team in the hopes that by babying it along for a day or two you can return it to working soundness and use it later on the trail. But the Knik is a two day race, so that's a lot less of an issue.

Lance is (justifiably) pretty happy with his team and gets immediately and cheerfully to the business of bedding and feeding his dogs. He sets his snow hook, trundles swiftly down the line pulling booties before the dogs are settled in to rest, then reverses his course, deftly passing out snacks (usually frozen salmon steaks or frozen meat). No one is allowed to help the musher in the checkpoint; he has to drag over his food bag and his bale of straw and haul his own water without assistance. Lean and whippy as he is, Lance is made of steel springs and high voltage batteries, and in truth any assitance would only slow him down, even if it were permitted within the race rules. Only the vets are allowed to handle his team unless he drops a dog; once the dog drop form is signed, anyone can handle it. But Lance isn't ready to drop anyone, and there's nothing for CS and I to do but watch him settling his dogs in and look for problems that might pop up. There are none, and before long Lance's brother Jason (another member of the Mackey mushing clan) is arriving, soon to be followed by Peter Bartlett, one of our clients. We leave Lance to his chores, heating water and mixing dog food, and go look over the other teams.

Some of the mushers will drop a dog that is young and just learning his job even if he's physically sound, to avoid burning them out mentally. Others have seasoned veterans who are starting to feel the miles and may just be a little off. Some dogs are sore in their wrists or their shoulders, some have pad abrasions, some have sore backs. All of them come into Skwentna a little tired (though nowhere near exhausted) and ready to lie down in their straw, snack, doze, drink their hot soup, stretch out, lick their feet, roll in the snow. None of them have the hunted look of a dog pushed past its internal limits. I start to relax; despite my unfamiliarity with the trail and the medical demands thereof, the tension of the unknown is quickly submerged by the accustomed rhythm of medicine. After the first few minutes I've forgotten that I'm vetting the race: I'm just vetting. I know what to ask, my hands know their job, my brain is collecting information from the musher and from my hands and eyes and nose and ears, weaving it together just like it always does. I know how to do this. This is just medicine, my intimate companion for more than a dozen years now, and whatever strangeness there is in the setting is quickly lost in the entirely familiar business of medicine.

We start to lose the diffuse silver-grey light of afternoon. Somewhere along the line MK comes in with the last load of personnel and supplies; this is a happy circumstance, since until the checker comes in CS and I are it for officials: we have to check the mushers in (the time is important since there is a mandatory 6 hour layover), handle the drop forms, do the medicine and generally appear calm and in charge (sometimes more of a stretch than others.) But it isn't long before the experienced and eminently capable T the checker is there. He takes over the checkpoint duties, and after that for CS and I it's just the medical part.

Because of the (relatively) long daylight and the good trail conditions, we have quite a few mushers coming in in the early pack. There is a lull around 7 or 8 p.m., at which time I wander into the Roadhouse, which is now noisily packed with mushers and volunteers, not to mention other guests. They are serving dinner - at which time I am unfortunately not hungry, so I settle for a glass of water and some conversation. Every so often I go have a look around to see if anyone is coming in, or else someone pops in to say a musher is arriving. It is amazingly warm; in fact, it feels warmer now, 90 miles inland, than it did at the start, which is quite near the maritime buffering of the Inlet. After a while I quit donning my coat every time I go out. I rapidly become too warm in it, and it's just annoying bulk. I'd guess the temperature to be in the mid 20's, maybe warmer. My beaver mitts are laying forlornly in my pack and my down coat is tossed carelessly on the floor by the medical kits. I will point out that I was wearing a turtleneck, a scrub top, a fleece anorak, a fleece headband and a good pair of boots with wool socks. But to be running around Skwentna at 10 at night on the first of February in that little gear - no coat, no hat, no gloves (no need) - that was a bit of a surprise to me.

About 11:00 I go sit down for a bit; my lower back is tired from the uneven footing I've been schlepping over all day. In some places the snow is hard-packed by snow machine traffic, but in others it's less firmly packed. There you find yourself punching through the surface unexpectedly, lurching and catching yourself. After enough people do this, the snow takes on the granular consistency of sugar and walking through it is like walking through sand dunes. Except, of course, for the fact that the underlying footing is uneven, so you're perfectly likely to find yourself suddenly lurching about like a drunken sailor, pitching gracelessly into anyone unfortunate enough to be walking next to you. Additionally, the lack of resistance means you work twice as hard to go half as far (not to mention looking like an idiot doing it).

Inside, the Roadhouse is clearing out; mushers and volunteers are trickling away to their rest. CS is wired, she tells me, and can't sleep, so I should go rack out while she mans the trenches. This sounds good to me (although it sounds a bit less good when I get a load of all the snoring going on upstairs) and I make my way to my bunk and try to roll into it without waking anyone else up (a courtesy observed more in the breach than you might think, given the number of times someone popped in to loudly inquire as to whether or not so-and-so might be sleeping in there).

About 1:30 CS wakes me up; mushers are starting to leave and when they do, chaos may ensue. Some of them will decide to drop a dog at the last minute, which means that you have to scramble to get the forms filled out and signed, get the dog out of the team and onto the drop chain, and (with luck) get out of the way before the musher and his by-now rejuvenated team of leaping, straining, furry rockets have a chance to run you over on their way out of Skwentna. To their credit, not many mushers waited til the last minute; most made up their minds with time to spare. But in fairness, some dogs are teetering on the keep-or-drop decision point, and it might not be until all the rest of them are up and straining at their harnesses that you can know for sure that this one or that one just doesn't have its heart in the race anymore. Better to drop the dog at the last possible minute than to try to make it run the 90 miles back to Knik.

It's now cold enough to need my coat. The area around the roadhouse is waking up, headlamps bobbing all around, the dogs beginning to key up with excitement. Some are standing in harness, barking and howling to run, screaming and squealing and making abortive lunges into their harnesses, trying vainly to pull the snow hook so they can hare down the trail after dogs that are leaving now. HC, the race Marshall, is geared up to snow machine down the trail back to Knik. The first mushers in will be there hours before me, since I will fly back after daylight, but HC will pass racers already departed and be there to meet them at the finish line. He looks amazingly cheerful for someone who has just bounced his kidneys over 90 miles of trail and is contemplating doing it again in reverse order any minute now. He makes several gallant and apparently sincere remarks to me (evenly divided between my medical competence and my increasingly-ratty hair, which now resembles a fright wig from a low budget swamp monster film) and off he goes into the night.

CS sacks out and I run the show til about 3:30. I figure I'll go til I can't anymore, then wake her up again. Ravenous, I ask the inexplicably cheerful Roadhouse cook for something to eat. She seems all too happy to cook me up anything I might want (at 2 a.m., thank you very much, after having helped feed at least 45 people at dinner, not to mention having to help clean up afterwards). I have a burger, which seems just right despite the weirdly inappropriate timing. I am interrupted only twice while eating it to go take care of dropped dogs. There is a lull around 3:00 which has me working to stay awake. I tiptoe up to the room and try to silently sneak my paperback out of my backpack (I am foiled in this by the creaking of the door, which evidently has ambitions of starring as a creepy sound effect in a Hitchcock film, and is willing to make up in volume what it lacks in experience.) I stare dazedly at the pages of my book for a bit, when for unknown reasons CS wakes up and comes downstairs ready for more. I crash again a little after 4:00 and sleep soundly til 7:15.

All the mushers made it in to Skwentna by about midnight, and all of them made it out again by about 6:30, so all I have ahead of me at the moment is breakfast (which smells marvelous) and treatments for the 20 dropped dogs, until it is time to fly back to Knik. The plan is to send T (our checker), plus a load of dropped dogs, down first, to check the racers in at the finish; then me (with more dropped dogs), to handle the medical needs of any incoming dogs that might require it; then CS, who will stay til last to take care of the last batch of dropped dogs. This sounds like a dandy plan to me; it is just coming on light, and there will be no flying til MK says it's light enough, and I am happily contemplating a plateful of eggs. My arms and legs and shoulders and back are pleasantly sore from yesterday (my knees less pleasantly sore, but tolerable), and I am feeling a delicious lassitude that comes from not quite enough sleep after a good long effort in the cold. MK has gone out to his bird to do whatever it is he needs to do to get it limber for the day's flying. I am having a luxurious stretch and reflecting that so far it's all run like clockwork, and far better than I had expected. About that time the call comes in. Someone go to the airstrip and get MK. There's been an accident.

[Next time: Knik 200 Part III: Endrace.]