I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian when I grew up. I wanted to fix broken animals. Some of them I rescued; others I broke myself.
Throughout my childhood, I maintained an impressive collection of captive creatures. I hoarded fruit jars, Miracle Whip jars, and peanut butter jars like a miser. I was recycling before the word was invented. All I needed was a screwdriver and a hammer to make breathing holes in the jar lids and I was ready to add to my zoo. I spent long hours wading through the tall grass of the field behind our house catching iridescent dragonflies, tobacco spitting grasshoppers, crickets, ants, caterpillars, and moths. Other makeshift containers held frogs, toads, salamanders, and the occasional baby turtle. My best discovery was a swarm of tiny bullheads I literally walked into one day while wading knee-deep in a stream that ran under a bridge just outside town. This school of undesirables lasted for weeks in a fishbowl next to my bed eating nothing but dead flies. I made it my business to learn all I could about my beloved pets—how they moved, what they ate, how they interacted with one another. And more often than not, they died in captivity—a great sorrow to me. It was no wonder I was drawn to the healing profession.
One of my earliest patients was a Monarch butterfly. I was fascinated by butterflies—especially this species—that came in my favorite color: Orange. I followed them from flower to flower, impressed with the tongues that they could curl up against their bodies and unfurl to drink nectar. I had examined plenty of dead butterflies that I had extracted from grills of cars or on the sidewalks, but they were disappointingly battered and lifeless. Not at all the fairy bits of vibrance that flitted about our yard all summer long. One day, after loitering by a lilac bush observing the pollination process, I couldn’t resist the urge to hold a living butterfly in my hands. I caught one by the wings between my thumb and forefinger and held it aloft as it waved its spindly legs helplessly in the air. Its velvety black body, speckled with white, was breathtaking. And those wings—thin as tissue paper and…why were my fingers orange? Stricken, I realized I had damaged the creature’s wings.
I later learned that butterfly wings are covered with fine scales that come off on your hands like powder. But in my young mind that day, powder was powder and I knew just where to find some to replace what I had accidentally removed. I carried the butterfly into the bathroom and set it on the edge of the sink. It was a little tipsy and listed to one side with a single misshapen leg—something I hadn’t noticed before. First things first: I got one of the tiniest pinkie Band-Aids out of the box in the medicine cabinet and carefully wrapped it around the butterfly’s broken leg as it kicked and struggled—unaware help was at hand. I took a container of baby powder from a shelf behind the toilet and shook some onto my hand before carefully rubbing it onto the butterfly’s wings.
My patient didn’t seem to perk up much as it teetered there dejectedly; white as a ghost and weighed down by a bandaged leg. I cast my eyes about, looking for some way to cheer the poor dear up. I caught sight of a bar of Dove soap, stationed next to the faucet. Inspired, I stopped the drain and filled the sink with cold water. Then I set the butterfly onto the soap and couldn’t help but smile at my own genius. What could be more fun than a soap boat ride? Too bad they don’t make life jackets for butterflies. My first patient, who had no sea legs apparently, drowned.
Another memorable patient was a victim of domestic violence. I was on my way to my Gram’s house when I spied one of her neighbors outside hacking something on the ground with a garden hoe. Never one to mind my own business, I threw my bike onto the grass by the curb and drew near to investigate. The old man was chopping a garter snake to bits.
“Stop that!” I yelled with all the courage witnessing such carnage could incite. The man looked annoyed with this little girl who was poking her nose into his affairs but he paused in his brutal attack.
“Don’t kill it! Garter snakes eat bugs! What’d he ever do to you? Give it to me,” I pleaded.
With a grunt, he flung the grisly reptile to one side and went back to his weeding. (It should be noted here that I do not have an innate fondness for snakes. Oh sure, I had been known to pick one up on the school playground just to scare the boys, but the truth be told, snakes did make my skin crawl.) As I moved toward it, I wondered if the snake was still alive. It flickered the end of its nearly severed tail and I felt hopeful. Gingerly, I gathered up the snake taking care not to leave behind any of its entrails. I left my bike where it was and went straight to my Gram’s house, trying very hard not to cry.
“Gram—there’s an emergency!!" I called as I marched into her living room with blood all over my hands. "I need Band-Aids, quick!” Relieved to find the blood was not my own, she gave me the entire tin of bandages and shuddered as I left the house. My Gram hated snakes.
Out in the yard, I yanked handfuls of grass from the lawn and used it to line a small cardboard box. Then I set to my grim task; carefully poking the snake’s innards back inside where they belonged, swaddling it in layers of bandages. I knew I was done when I ran out of Band-Aids. I tenderly placed the half-dead snake in the grass-lined recovery box and went in the house for a cold drink. I had done all that could be done. All that was left now was to wait.
When I returned a short time later, horror of horrors, my patient was MISSING! Where had that poor, broken animal gone? How had it managed to drag its vinyl-covered body over the edge of the box? I combed the whole yard on my hands and knees and never did find it. My confidence as a professional was shaken.
I decided what I really needed was my own clinic. Imagine my delight when, one day on a routine tour of the back alleys of the local businesses, I was lucky enough to discover a large cardboard box that had once held a refrigerator. I decided THIS would make a perfect clinic. I dragged it back to my Gram’s and set to work with a serrated knife, cutting windows with working shutters, and stating my intentions in indelible ink: The Doctor is IN.
I felt it was time for me to specialize and so I began with what I did best: removing wood ticks from dogs. Gram had replenished her supply of Band-Aids, (thankfully) and I supplied my cardboard clinic with the new, unopened can, some Q-Tips, and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. My first patient of the day was our own miniature schnauzer, Fritz. He submitted willingly enough to an all-over body search for parasites. Whenever I found a fat tick, I’d pull it off—taking care to remove the head, and then clean the site with alcohol. Next!
Dogs in those days roamed freely about town, unhampered by a leash law that was never enforced. I managed to coax a few of the friendlier mongrels into my clinic for a free exam. The sun was high in the sky and business was beginning to wane when along came Mike Nelson, a Shepherd/Boxer mix, from across town. I lured him into my box clinic but he seemed to find the close quarters a bit claustrophobic. The first tick I pulled off made him back into the wall, tipping the clinic on end and causing me to spill rubbing alcohol all over both of us. Maybe a clinic was a bit ambitious after all…
One summer evening, just as the sun was setting, I was outside in the yard enjoying a cozy moment with my dad. I was perched on top of our redwood picnic table, which Dad had covered with newspaper, ready to assist with the cleaning of a stringer of sunfish--a procedure that seemed an awful lot like surgery to me. Dad took the first sunny from the pail and laid it flat on the newspaper, securing it with his free hand. I leaned in as he made an incision just above the tail and just below the gills, preparing to fillet the fish. I watched the fish struggle briefly, then stare blankly ahead, working its mouth, desperately trying to breath air.
“Um…Dad? Aren’t you hurting the fish?” I broached.
“Nope. Fish don’t have feelings,” he answered, matter-of-factly, trying to finish his job before dark.
I looked at Dad’s face to see if he was telling the truth. I smacked a mosquito on the back of my neck. Dad kept working. I looked back at the fish. It didn’t look at me. I wished that fish could close their eyes.
Dad removed the skin from each fillet and put them into a pan of cold water to soak, piling the fish heads and guts to one side of his work space. When he was finished, he went around to the side of the house to wash his hands with the garden hose. I drew a thinly encased sack of organs toward me with one tentative finger for closer inspection. I craned my neck to see where Dad was and then deftly took the fillet knife and sliced open the organ sack. A tiny red object smaller than a pea fell into view onto the bloodied paper. It was moving. I leaned closer. It was a beating heart. I dropped the knife, nauseated, and ran into the house. I had nightmares for a week.
Maybe I was not cut out for a life of medicine? Maybe I would buy a horse and become a jockey instead?