Animals are such a great equalizer, aren’t they?
I’m from a small town in Wisconsin, where no one locks their doors and your neighbor may show up with underwear on their head as part of a dare and ask to borrow a bottle of ketchup. (This is a true story). I graduated from a class of just over 40 kids – in the whole grade. Current grades in my alma mater high school sometimes don’t reach the lofty populace of even 20 kids. Lush fields of green corn stretch deep and verdant under the summer sun, rolling along the ridges and winding through the coulees. Cows chew complacently on their ever-present cud as they survey vehicles passing by on the two lane country roads. Miniature donkeys can be observed rolling joyfully on their backs in dirt, kicking up clouds of dust in their simple happiness. Down between the farms on the back township roads, you can see the bright winks of the mighty Mississippi River shining up at the farmers working the fields. Chickens scratch in the dirt like they are meant to, and children are known to playfully ride on the backs of big sow pigs. Winter brings furry ponies and dairy cows with hoar frost forming on their whiskers, born from the warm hay scented breath and fed on the icy air. Barns are warm oasis points then, yellow lights marking the refuge from the bitter cold. Cats drinking extra milk and cow tails switching in a metronome of agriculture.
When I put on the navy blue of EMS and the oh so glorious boots of my chosen profession, I drive “to town”. Where the coulees lead me to the less bucolic realities of urban existence. College town equals some interesting nights and some new knowledge for this small town medic. Cars and homes are generally locked, neighbors aren’t always as involved in one another’s lives. I have seen things I had previously never heard of, and I’ve driven home disillusioned more than once. I’ve also seen the shining beauty of the human spirit exemplified over and over again. What I’ve learned more than anything is that humans have both an incredible capacity to heal the souls of others, as well as the heartbreaking ability to crush and devastate their fellow man.
But the animals. Sometimes on a scene, a small kitten tumbles out of nowhere to bat at my boot, or a regal old dog leans a head against my leg. I’ve met the world’s biggest guard dog (I swear it seemed so), standing silently steely eyed over the unconscious body of its diabetic owner. I’ve had a monkey reach out and pull my hair as I made my way past his cage to the still breathing body of its owner. On one of the more memorable scenes, two beautiful brindle dogs lay silent, shot by their owner before he turned the gun on himself. Those dogs are still the first thing I think of when I see a brindle dog.
No matter the walk of life from which we all hail, the animals are our common bond. I’ve walked a Pekingese before its elderly owner would let us take her to the hospital, where she definitely needed to be seen. I wondered what the cars driving by that four lane thought, a uniformed lady walking a small dog on a bedazzled, sparkly pink leash while in the driveway the ambulance rumbled in high idle. Firefighters have joined in an operation on one scene that I drew some comparisons to the team penning activities I used to do full speed on horseback. In that case, it was the panicked horde of nearly feral cats inside a residence that were making it virtually impossible to tend to the patient’s needs properly.
Owners, be they old or young, male or female or any other variable, they for the most part love those pets like children. I’ve found common ground with gruff men who did not call the ambulance, do not want to talk to the ambulance lady, and are certainly NOT going to the hospital. Petting the dog on two such occasions made the glare of recalcitrance fade from their eyes, and they eventually went with me for the medical care that they too, so definitely needed. In the case of one terminally ill woman up in an idyllic coulee, I promised that if she went in with me and were to unfortunately pass away from her illness, as she feared, I would adopt her Shith zhu, which bore a striking resemblance to mine.
Years ago, though, I met the be all and end all of animals. His name was Mr. Whiskers, and he was having a very bad day. The tones had gone off just as we sat down to supper. I was a volunteer then, and the accident scene was closer to my home than the station. I stuffed my feet into boots at the door, threw on my jacket and made my way up the road about seven miles. On scene were a couple of passersby and one officer arrived just after me. Taking my kit from the trunk with its bare necessities, I made my way up to the driver’s side door. Seatbelt still in place, the driver looked exactly like the lady who owns Sylvester and Tweety. She had slid off the road and rolled the car once, landing back up on her wheels. Glass had spider webbed and everything within was in disarray. Aside from the smaller details however, she was not bad off. She had a few banged up places on her face and head, and one wrist was almost certainly broken. However, calm and collected she was, and after I punched an ice pack and handed it to her, we began to be acquainted. I dabbed blood and she told me the story. Halfway thru her recounting of the reason for her trip through our neck of the woods, I heard it. A low, small but businesslike growl from just behind where I was now seated in the passenger seat.
“Oh, that’s Mr. Whiskers”, my patient said with a grin. “He’s a good boy, he wouldn’t hurt a soul. I think he’s scared.”
I do not doubt he was. In the country, it takes a bit here to get an ambulance and when one arrived, the patient was appropriately immobilized – back then and definitely there, selective spinal immobilization was unheard of. Having been capably bundled in the KED, she called my name in sudden panic.
“What will happen to Mr. Whiskers?!”
I looked at him, sitting stoically in the backseat. I heard myself volunteering to take him home and return him to her upon discharge from the ER, only 20 minutes away. She agreed. I reached for Mr. Whiskers.
He promptly sunk all of his pearly white tiny teeth into the fleshy area adjacent to my thumb. I yelped, she assured me as her voice faded, being placed onto the stretcher and carried away, that not to worry, Mr. Whiskers was an angel. I surveyed him; he surveyed me, growling again. I realized that the commotion, the smell of blood, his owner’s vulnerability and my presence soon after the rollover had clearly made him draw conclusions in his furry cute head which did not include warmth and love for me.
Ultimately, I had to put a blanket over him and carry him, vociferously furious, to my car. As I drove home, he emerged after a brief fight with the blanket. Seated on the passenger seat, he glared. Clearly I had lived up to his bad expectations and now he was in a vehicle that smelled unfamiliar and his beloved owner was nowhere in sight. Returning home, I could not get near him with the blanket. My husband went out to the vehicle and carried him inside without incident, getting chin kisses the whole way. He expressed profound disbelief that such a lovable furry little dog was quite the meanie I’d experienced. Mr. Whiskers slept at his feet that night and was eventually returned to his owner the following morning. I kept my distance.
Now when I approach a patient with a pet, I always pause and think of Mr. Whiskers.
Scene safety. That’s all I’m saying.