Stitches for Christmas

I hadn’t planned on the Christmas traffic and so I was a bit late for work.  “I’m not even on the highway yet,” I phoned my receptionist, “So you might want to call my first appointment and advise them to come in 15 minutes late.”

“Just be glad you’re not early!” she exclaimed.  “We had an emergency run in, and the poor thing was torn wide open from getting caught under a fence, and bleeding all over the place.”

“Are they waiting?” I asked as I sped up well past my comfortable speed.  “No, I sent them to Dr. Elsewhere.  Besides they’d never been here before, and said the dog wasn’t even theirs!”

I’d seen the schedule and knew we were slammed; it was good that they went down the road.  I had 18 appointments scheduled for the abbreviated 3 hour day, and that would be plenty.  Besides, it was Christmas Eve and everyone would be anxious to get home after just a half day.  I was glad I wouldn’t have to feel guilty.

I’ve  come to really enjoy my hour and a half commute.  I listen to lots of audiobooks and, now that I’m enrolled in University postgraduate classes again, I listen to my professor’s lectures a few times as well.  But it does make for a long 13 hour day, and there’s not much of me left when I get home.  My coping mechanism involves an hour of silence, contemplation, prayer early every morning.  And I find myself struggling, pleading, praying for peace and joy from each hectic day.

Some days it’s hard to find much joy.  I’m sometimes immersed and submerged in grief of lost life and love.  And so I plead with my Creator for consolation.  I want to know that it’s not all in vain.  That we’re here for a reason.  That I’m here for a reason.  Give me your eyes to recognize opportunities to love and serve as you would have me.  And that I am living my life as He would want – that the world is better for my having been here.  I’ve been having a bit of a dry spell, and feel like I’m just checking the box some days.

I realize I’ll never cure cancer.  And I’ll never make enough money to create a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to end a disease like rubella.  Or embrace the “humans discarded like garbage” as Mother Theresa did.  And so it would be easy to see my ordinary, everyday life as just that. But I strive to find Jesus with every encounter – every time I smile, touch, or open my mouth.  I pray for patience, and compassion, and the vision to realize who it is that is actually standing in front of me, and overlook their human faults.  I ask for wisdom to recognise those opportunities that I’m given where I can draw closer, but be indifferent to those which push me away.

Sometimes people aren’t very kind, or appreciative, or forgiving of my own faults – my forgetfulness, my schedule, my often sarcastic personality, my tardiness.

And so, I zipped into the driveway, with almost 20 cars already in it, knowing that the day would be another challenge.  My first two appointments were waiting, along with two unplanned emergencies; 6 pets had been dropped off for me to examine “in my spare time,” and over 40 charts were on my desk for me to evaluate lab results and to call to discuss treatment options.

After years of this script, my employees know I have a routine, and to only jump on me if someone is bleeding.  Since they didn’t, I made a dash for the baño and returned the three mugs of coffee I’d inhaled almost two hours ago.  I grabbed my stethoscope, and slid into the first exam room.

Soon I had dispersed, delegated, prescribed, and advised everyone waiting to see me, and was shocked to see no charts in front of me.  I looked at the clock and was confused that I had a little down time in the middle of a busy, busy morning.

As I turned to tackle my stack of charts, one of my receptionists spun me around and said, “Dr. K., the person that came in so early this morning, the one I referred to Dr. Elsewhere is back, and begging for you to look at the dog.  I know what you’re going to say, so I’m not sure why I’m even asking, but she wants your opinion. Remember, it’s not even her dog, and she has now told me three times that she doesn’t have any money.”  The other doctor had told her just to hose the dog’s wound off every day and it would probably heal fine.

I shook my head and smiled, “Tell them to bring the dog in, and I’ll have a look.”

“No,” she said, “They’re too embarrassed to come in with no money.  Can you go out to their car and just have a look to see if you agree with the other doctor.”

“Sure.”

The gash was deep, and blood was everywhere.  There was little chance this would heal on it’s own.  Not without antibiotics, and she really needed stitches.  I looked around and “for some reason” there were still no cars in the parking lot.  The little dog looked up at me and wagged her tail.  I looked at the wrinkled, worried forehead of the couple who had cared enough to bring in a dog that didn’t even belong to them.

Fence Gash

“Field stitches” are something that I learned from my boyhood mentor as I “helped” around the neighborhood vet clinic, a lifetime ago, working on cattle and horses, and most certainly aren’t taught in medical school.  They are fast, and require no general anesthesia.  I looked at the huge gash in the little dog, and realized that it most certainly wouldn’t be the best medical care, but one hell of a lot better than hosing it off every day.  Besides, I could shave and disinfect the wound, inject some lidocaine, place a drain, and “field stitch” the dog in about 20 minutes.  (To do it properly, with acceptable sterile technique would require anesthesia and over two hours of surgical time).

OK, so it actually took 30 minutes, and by then about 4 or 5 people were waiting. But, as I placed the final stitch in her neighbor’s dog who hadn’t even flinched, and gave her a shot of antibiotics, I knew it had been the right thing to do.

Her husband had looked at the floor most of the time we were in the exam room together, and finally, looking up, spoke with a cracking voice.

“I’m not sure why ya done this fer us, and I told you I didn’ haf any thing ta pay ya with. Would it be OK if we came back and paid you a little bit each week, when I get m’ check?”  He seemed to fear my response and was clearly embarrassed.

I was a bit moved by his offer.  I had known they couldn’t pay when I invited them in.

“No,” I said, “I only ask one thing.  Don’t go around and tell everyone that we work for free.  ‘Cause if I did this very often, (pointing to my nurse) she’d have to work for free, and then her family wouldn’t get to buy food.”

“What?” they were both clearly a mess now.  “You done all this fer nuthin?”

“Nope. We did it because we were supposed to.  Thanks for coming in today, and … Merry Christmas.”

I gave them each a hug, and high fived my nurse as I left the room.

She smiled bigger than I did.  She knew we hadn’t done it for them.  It was for me.  I’m selfish that way.

Clearly, a businessman can’t give things away on a regular basis, or he wouldn’t be able to pay his staff, and give raises, and pay for health care, or the mortgage.  But sometimes you can.  And it feels really good.

None of this is about “telling people about our good works so that others will know how good we are.”  It’s simply opening our eyes so we can see.

It’s not about doing good, or “giving back,” because others have been good to us.  No, that’s simply the “exchange” of Christmas gifts.  Tit for tat.  And as such, although trades are extrinsically good, they don’t really add good to the world.  The balance shifts when we do good where there is no possible way for the other to repay.

At the end of the day, isn’t that what Christmas is really about anyway?

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son …

JN 3:16

The original gift of Christmas was one given with full knowledge that it could never be repaid, and clearly there has never been that expectation.  We don’t do good because we owe God anything.  Or because we’re afraid of Hell.  We do good because God is good, and in our design we are programed to enjoy doing so.  There are no mistakes in our design.  He did this for a reason.  We are here for a reason.

Centuries ago, Blaise Pascal (consider also Pascal’s Wager) formulated a concept later described as a “God shaped hole” in our hearts.  We seek and try repeatedly to fill this longing with things of this world, trying to satisfy the craving, and fill the void ourselves. Sixteen centuries years ago Pascal observed power-lust and self-centeredness, with the resultant narcissism and addictions.

This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
– Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII(425)

Only by recognising what “fits” in this hole do we “satisfy that longing.” Only through love and service for others are we truly happy.  What we did on Christmas eve was really no big deal.  Everyone can, and must reach out those around them.  Maybe you can’t stitch up a stray dog.  But you can help someone fix a flat tire, or unload their groceries, or shovel their snow, or give a blanket to someone who is wandering and cold.  Or just stop and, with a conversation or a smile, show a stranger that they matter.

ed. note:  I considered for a week before I wrote this. Last year a similar post about Betty and her dog Baby (Rude) resulted in a considerable number of folks being put off by what they saw as “attention seeking, and patting myself on the back for doing something we should all do anyway.” But that was the entire point of She Wasn’t being Rude, if the reader had actually read it and made it down to the end of the post.  Of course we should do good, and what I (and every other veterinarian I know) am able to do sometimes, is a blessing – to me.

After tragedy enters someone’s life, they see the world through a much different lens.  Everything takes on a new color, with depth and detail that was never before noticed.  When the bleeding stops, everything has purpose;  life becomes deeper and meaningful, and appreciated.

My vision is with other eyes now.  Mainly those of my father and my son.

myeeye2

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Dr. Sam

The 12 year old boy stood alone, looking around frantically, unable to think clearly. Why had he ever asked for this? He had begged and pleaded to be trusted with such a big responsibility, and after 3 years had finally been given that opportunity.  How could this have happened?

“Big Red” was an old Snapper riding mower that only Johnny Byford was allowed to operate.  He had been Dr. Sam’s “vet assistant” and the general fix-it and maintenance-man around the animal hospital property for over ten years.  Today he’d be going out to help Dr. Sam work 800 head of cattle, and so the property maintenance would be postponed for a day or two.

Billy had wanted to be an animal doctor for as long as he remembered.  He had begged for years to have a dog, but the pleas were always met with a resounding, “No, it would just too big of a responsibility for the entire family (translation: you’re a pretty irresponsible kid, so grow up a little).”  When Billy’s big sister had gotten a kitten for Christmas from her boyfriend, that broke the ice.  Within 6 months, his persistence had paid off, and Billy had his first dog, “Pooch,” the ugliest, most pitiful, miserable little wretch anyone had ever seen.  Even then, life was fleeting and ever so precious.  Within six months of “Noelle” dying from feline leukemia, Pooch was found poisoned in a neighbor’s yard.  And so a steady progression of relationships with the small-town veterinarian were born, as Roger, Wolfie, Sam, Sean and Mandy became successive members of the family.

Having thus become acquainted with Dr. Sam, as the dorkie little kid with the ever-present “wow” big eyed look behind his wire glasses, Billy finally got up the nerve.  He asked if he could volunteer sometimes out at the clinic, “Just to help clean up and stuff.”  Hair thinning at the top, even at 30, Sam looked down, “How old are you young man?  When you get to be about 10, I’ll put you to work!” (This was well before minimum age requirements, or at least before they were really enforced).  Sam thought for sure this would be a few years off, and by then the silly little kid would have long since moved on to washing dishes, or mowing lawns.

“Great,” Billy almost shouted, I’ll be ten this summer!  August 27th!”  Johnny looked at the scrawny little brat and laughed, relieved that it was at least 4 months off.

Billy home sick with Wolfe & Noel 1972crop

August 27th of 1969 fell on a Wednesday, and Billy was sitting on the front steps when Jackie the receptionist arrived, without a clue as to the importance of the date.

Billy was mainly a bothersome pest that just wouldn’t go away, everywhere at once, always asking questions, and basically a pain in the ass.  But Sam was a “stand-up” man, and they had a deal.  Besides, Sam didn’t have any children yet, and Billy was growing on him.  The weeks turned into months, and weekends turned into summers.  He really wasn’t allowed to do much in front of the clients, but he gave most of the baths, walked the dogs, scooped the litter-boxes, and kept the runs free of feces.  This was the perfect job.  Except he knew he really wasn’t allowed to do anything important, anything of real responsibility.  That would soon change.

Billy used the push mower around the edges and behind the clinic, watching with envy as Johnny got to ride the big riding mower and do the “real” lawn work.  How he longed to do something that cool – when nobody was watching, he’d sit on the mower in the barn and shift the gears.  Such was the innocent stuff of little boy’s fantasies in 1971 Sikeston, Missouri.  Billy’s imagination was startled as he clipped a rock with the rotary blade and sent it hurtling across against the metal building.  Johnny’s head turned, and Billy sighed to see him laugh at his carelessness.

Dr. Sam bounded out the side door with his arms filled with syringe guns, castrating instruments, blood tubes, and rolls of cotton.  As he walked towards his Bowie Vet Truck, he motioned to the boy to come over.  “Dr. Sam needed to talk to me!  Maybe he’s gonna take me with him to work the cattle!  I’ll be such a big help!” his mind racing as quickly as his little legs.  “Johnny and I won’t be back before quittin’ time, so when you’re finished mowing, just go in to see if Jackie needs anything before you leave for the day.”

“Yessir,” he replied as he turned and hung his head, walking back towards the push mower, kicking the ground.  If not for the approaching shadow, he would have walked right into ol’ Johnny, rushing towards the truck after putting Big Red up for the day.  That would have been really funny to them.

The next morning Billy had to ride his 10 speed Schwinn the 3 miles to work, because his Mom was teaching a remedial summer class, his daddy was at the farm, and siblings were all busy.  He arrived just to see Dr. Sam and Johnny cleaning up the instruments from working on a limping bull, and he braced for admonishment for being a few minutes late.  But Doc simply said, “After you get the kennels cleaned, Billy, I need you for something big.”  He looked up to see a serious face, but Johnny was behind him smiling.

As the boy scrubbed the dried feces off of the concrete kennel floor, he couldn’t help but imagine, “Is today the day he’ll actually get to do something big?”  As Billy squeezed  the floors dry, the idea fell apart as Dr. Sam said they’d be leaving soon to finish at the feedlot where they had been yesterday.

“Since you’re pretty much finished up here, come on out and let Johnny show you how to run Big Red.  This grass is gettin’ mighty tall an’ it really shouldn’t wait another day.”

Billy’s heart was bursting with excitement, but he did his best to look unmoved, answering matter-of-factly, “Sure Doc, that shouldn’t be a problem.”  Johnny rolled his eyes, because he knew this was a big deal for the little brat.

Johnny had actually already showed him what everything was, and how it worked , many times, in anticipation of this glorious event.  Johnny made a point to let Billy know that it was his suggestion yesterday, as they pulled out of the clinic parking lot, that he thought he could be trusted with the big mower.  So within about 4 minutes, Billy had mounted the trusty steed, and was doing “manly work.”

What everyone but Billy knew, was that Big Red was a rust bucket.  This thing was over twenty years old, and always breaking down, throwing a belt, or getting overheated.  Nuts and bolts constantly loosened and fell off, and just last spring, a wheel had fallen off.  But to Billy this was the most responsibility he’d ever been given, much like the little kid in the movie A Christmas Story, summoned by his father to help change the flat tire.  He is entrusted with the hubcap and lug-nuts until he loses his balance, flinging them into the dark, and utters the famous expletive.

Billy puffed his chest out as he had suddenly become a valuable employee, riding the trusty steed on its first lap around the field in front of the barn.  He watched Doc and Johnny loading up the truck for the day.  “When,” he dared wonder, “would he be considered for a day of that – now that’s what he really wanted to do, his life’s mission.”  As he pondered these dreams, basking in the glory of the moment, the tension rod holding tight the belt connecting the engine to the transmission snapped in two.  The belt fell off the camber, and into the path of the blade.  As the mower coasted to a quick halt, the belt wrapped around the blade, quickly chewing it into black rubber pieces, sprayed all over the driveway.

Billy’s head spun around to see the reaction of those who had trusted him.  They hadn’t seen a thing, but were inside getting another load of medical supplies.  He jumped off the machine, frozen in panic.  He wasn’t sure what he had done wrong, but (he thought) nothing like this had ever happened before, and somehow he had screwed up his first real chance to prove himself.  He had begged and pleaded to be trusted with such a big responsibility, and after 3 years had finally been given that opportunity.  And failed.

Billy had no idea what to do, but more than anything, he didn’t want to face them, and just wanted to run.  Dr. Sam was supposed to teach him how to be an animal doctor, and Johnny Byford had trusted him.  He had let them down.  As he raced through the possibilities, he saw his bike leaning against the building, but before he could consider the consequences of racing away, the door opened and out ran the two men.

There was fear and panic, dread and disappointment.  But it was all Billy’s.  The consolation from Dr. Sam’s response would be remembered, valued and put to prose some 40 years later.  There would by no tears, or hugs – these were three grown men.

I looked up to my mentor, my role model, and my friend with tears, I’m sure, in my eyes and said, “I’m sorry.”  Johnny was smiling, probably relieved that his little pal hadn’t been hurt.  Dr. Sam, who’s initial reaction appeared to give me a hard time, suddenly realized this I just a little kid, and this was one of those serious moments where you don’t mess around.  But I anticipated his change in body language was now be one of regret, that I was too little for such a chore.

He squatted down beside me and said, “Billy, this is not your fault.  Even if it was, the only people in this world who never screw any thing up are people who never do anything.  I’m proud of you for wanting to work so hard.  Now help Johnny get this mess cleaned up and put Big Red up ’til tomorrow.  We could use a hand at the feedlot today anyway, so after you’re done here, get you’re boots on and get in the truck.”

Much Love.

Engraved pavement brick at the WhiteHouse Jesuit Retreat, Saint Louis, MO

Engraved pavement brick at the WhiteHouse Jesuit Retreat, Saint Louis, MO