Saturday, 29 May 2010

Really Wild Show

Whilst we're on the subject (see my blog...okay, rant...below about natural things) let's talk about wildlife. Ah, wildlife. What to do. How can I best express my feelings about wildlife work?

Best place to start is read my previous blog post, the one about natural oil. Yes, yes, I go on about that tea tree oil a lot, don't I? Sheesh, what's my problem with it? Never mind that. Keep reading. Get to the bit about pain and suffering. What do you mean you didn't get that far? Well go back and read it again! I haven't got all day.

All done? Okay. So now you know what I feel it's like to be in 'the wild'. It's bloody horrible. When I get creatures brought in from outside, you know what I think of them? They're not fluffy, cute animals. They're wounded soldiers. They're on the front line. It's war out there for them - literally, a life and death struggle every single day of their lives.

I once heard a story from an acquaintance of mine who just found out that I was a vet. She had found a wounded sparrow in the garden, attacked by a cat. It was very small, and weak. My friend and her daughter decided to take the sparrow in, and put it in the sink of their bathroom. They gave it a little water, tried to help it recover. It was too ill to drink. It was too ill to do anything. The sparrow died after a day or so.

So I asked why my friend had not taken the sparrow to the local vets, who were literally just up the road, and she said 'I was worried that they would put it to sleep.'

Stop and consider that for the moment. Stop and think about what that sparrow experienced from the moment it was injured, until the moment it died. Put yourself in that sparrow's position.

I'm spelling this out because, if I had been the vet on duty in that practice, then my friend's worst fears would have been confirmed. I would, absolutely, have put the sparrow to sleep. And you know what? I'd also do it for about 90% of the wildlife you would ever bring me. And if you can explain to me why doing that is worse than what that poor sparrow went through in my friend's sink, you have a different view of morals and ethics than I do.

So there, I've said it. All that preamble, so that I can reveal to you that I will, with a clear conscience, kill nine out of ten wildlife casualties that are brought in to me. As for the lucky 1 in 10, well, there's usually nothing wrong with them, and I'll tell you to take them back where you found them.

The animals that are brought to me are not pets. They don't behave like pets. They are scared of humans. They are scared of confinement. They are scared of just about everything in the world, because just about everything in the world is trying to kill them, directly or indirectly. If I see, for instance, a blackbird that has been attacked by a cat, I have a few choices. One is to say 'Let's just see how it goes overnight', give it a few jabs, and not worry about it until the morning. The other is to put it to sleep straight away. One of these choices is immediately very tempting for me, because (despite what you might believe after reading the above few paragraphs) I don't actually enjoying killing things. In fact, it would be fair to say that I bloody hate doing it.

But that won't stop me making choice number two. The overnight option is much easier, nicer for all concerned, and when I come in the next morning to find the blackbird has died overnight, then myself and my nurse can say 'Ah, well, we tried.'

Except that I can't do that. What I'm thinking about is that blackbird, alone in a cage. Terrified and dying. What kind of a night do you think it had? Any better than the sparrow in the sink?

What about the ones that wouldn't have died overnight? Well, firstly, it's less than you probably think. I didn't always adopt this attitude, you see. I've had my fair share of nocturnal deaths. It's not a good feeling. Secondly, remember what I said earlier - these are soldiers. I'm patching them up the get back in the fight. If I can't guarantee that this bird, or mouse, or whatever, won't be at the absolute top of it's game when I release it, then I am condemning that animal to die, either at the hands of a predator, or from starvation.

A lucky few of these wounded soldiers will be adopted by people, and become their pets. Well, that's fine. If they're never going back to war again, then I'll do all I can to help them. Some species also seem to cope better with captivity than others - hedgehogs, for instance, often cope a little better than some others once you've got them through the first few days (they bloody hurt to examine, though!) But that isn't the way for most of them.

And so I kill, or to use the polite term, euthanase, most of them. And I feel sorry about that, because I don't like doing it, and I don't like death, but I don't feel ashamed about it, because it's the right thing to do.

T'aint natural!

There is a substance on Earth more ubiqitous than water, more precious than gold, and more magical than Harry Potter's pants. Apply it to any wound, scrape, blemish, graze or scald in existence and all ills and pains will melt away (like that cool bit in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Indy pours water from the Holy Grail onto his Dad's gunshot-wounded belly, and the wound is washed away). There is a name for this fabled mystical ointment, and it is spake thus - Tea Tree Oil.

I am daily reminded of the power of this wondrous elixir by clients of mine, who have invariably rubbed/poured/applied it on/to their faithful companion's skin. Well, let me pose the heretical question - if this stuff is so bloody good, why are you coming to see me now, eh?

Now, listen, I don't have a problem with tea tree oil (previous paragraphs to the contrary); I'm aware that it smells quite nice, and that your friend recommended it, y'know, the one who's son has got that terrible eczema, and the man in the health food shop said it worked for his irritable groin, and there's a nice picture of a leaf on the bottle. I would simply suggest that you can't go wrong with a nice bit of bathing in warm salty water, that's all. Pint of warm water, teaspoon full of salt, bit of cotton wool and bajinga! Robert's your mother's brother.

This may seem trivial (okay, okay, it is trival, but it segues me onto a wider point. What is the reason behind the supposed majestic power of tea tree oil? I know the answer. I get told it several times a day.

It's because it's natural, that's why. And natural has got to be good, hasn't it?


I really don't understand Joe and Jane public's obsession with things being 'natural'. In fact, I'm pretty sure they don't understand it either. Natural. What exactly does that word mean?

Here's the dictionary definition (according to Encarta, anyway) - present in or produced by nature; of, relating to or concerning nature.

Well, I don't know about you but I don't remember the last time I was walking through a forest and I was hit on the head by a bottle of tea-trea oil shampoo falling from a ripe tea-tree oil shampoo tree. I don't want to labour the point of this particular product, but my point is that tea trea oil, like any other product, must be produced - extracted from the tree (melaleuca alternifolia, if you must know; no, I'm not writing it again) via a commercial and highly mechanised industrial process. It may be present in or produced by nature, but it's also produced by a lot of machines, manpower and energy, then put in a plastic bottle.

Good thing, too. You know what 'natural' means to me? It means dying alone from septicaemia contracted from an infection you got from a thorn in the foot. It means watching your baby cubs be mangled to death by the new male lion who's muscled his way into your pride. It means getting very nasty cramping diarrhoea and vomiting from taking tea tree oil internal, as it happens to be toxic.

'Natural' isn't great. It's horrible, because nature is horrible. It might look very nice having a picnic in a buttercup-strewn field on a summer's day, but try spending the same day in the same field as a field mouse and see how much you enjoy it. If you end the day with some food in your belly and not dead, then you're having a good day. Even then you'll probably get even by an owl overnight.

It's war out there. If there isn't at any one moment within a few hundred yards radius from where you are sitting now a large amount of creatures fearful, starving, killing or dying, then you're probably sitting on Pluto (in which case it's probably you doing the fearful and dying bit unless you're in a space suit or you're an alien - in which case I'd like to say - Greetings, my alien masters! Spare me, and I'll give you the rest of them! Ahem.)

Nature is pain, and death, and starvation. It necessarily follows from evolution - you're either the absolute best at extracting a particular kind of resources out of your enviroment, or your dead. So don't come to me with your 'natural'. Your arnica cream might be 'natural' (although it isn't), but so is getting your arm bitten off by a polar bear. Take your pills, and thank God for Western medicine. It's not perfect, but it's a bloody sight better than the alternative.

Friday, 14 May 2010

One of those days...

It's been, as the cliche says, one of those days. It was one of those days, in fact, that made me start this blog in the first place. I don't know where those days come from, but wherever it is they can piss off back there, as far as I'm concerned.

It was the kind of day, in fact, that reminds me that we are, all of us (except for our mighty Robot Overlords, of course) basically fleshy machines, and that when something goes wrong with a bit of the machine that happens to house you, well, it's not great news.

Not a revelation to rival the Buddha's, perhaps - but it is a very obvious fact, the more you work in any kind of medicine. We're machines. Very complicated, self-repairing, self-aware and quite amazing machines, but machines. And machines break. And there's no reason behind this any more than there was a reason behind my Xbox breaking (THREE TIMES you bastards Microsoft! Ahem. Sorry.)

And that's the point of this blog. In fact, it's a bit of a cheat of a blog because it's really just an introduction to my very first blog, which I had to delete from my site (you'll find out later why. Just keep reading, you inpatient bugger. Or skip to the end. I'll put a joke there, I promise.)

So, the reason I'm in that kind of mood today - I came in this morning to find one of my inpatients, a very sweet cat called Humphrey (it really shouldn't matter whether he was sweet or not, should it? He didn't deserve what happened. But I'm getting ahead of myself, hang on...) feeling very poorly indeed. He'd been on intravenous fluids since Wednesday, and this morning his blood results were waiting for me from the lab. And they were not good news. Humphrey was very severely uraemic - that is, his blood urea and creatinine were something in the order of fifteen times the normal upper limit - that is, Humphrey's kidneys were buggered. He hadn't passed urine since he came in, despite all the fluids we were pouring into him, which meant his kidneys had pretty much shut down. Maybe better medics than me could save a cat like Humphrey, but I've never managed to get a cat in this state any better.

So, with a heavy heart, I phoned the owner (who must have seen the number calling, because she answered the phone with a hearty 'Hello! How are you?', which made me feel great). Humphrey was five years old, and I had no idea his kidneys would be in anything like the state they were. Fortunately, being the cautious chap I am, I had admitted him straight away for fluids, which was the right thing to do in such a situation. Unfortunately, for Humphrey especially, it hadn't made a blind bit of difference.

Now, there's not many things that can balls up a young cat's kidneys so severely and so quickly. A blocked bladder would do it, but Humphey had been peeing fine before this happened. Which leaves a rather short list, top of which would be poisonings. And top of that list would be antifreeze.

(which reminds me - please please don't use antifreeze in your nice water features in the garden. Cat's love running water. Antifreeze kills cat's kidneys, followed fairly quickly by the cat. Learn to love your frozen over water feature!)

But, talking it through with the owner, it wasn't antifreeze. Here comes the heartwarming part of the tale (I'm using a sarcastic voice here, if you wan't to read it to yourself like that. Ta.). The other poison that destroys cat's kidneys very quickly and irreperably is lilly pollen.

And as it turns out, Humphrey's owner's house had a lot of lillies in last week. On account of her father dying suddenly and unexpectedly the week before.

I put Humphrey to sleep today, because he licked a lilly plant last week. Because his owner's father died the week before.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is - there's no blame, there's no malice or hatred, or anything, behind any of these events. They just happened. Just like one day, they'll happen to us. I don't know why we seem to have this inate feeling, this need that life should be fair. To the point where if it isn't we tell each other its our fault that it isn't, because of what we like to do in the bedroom, or because we eat fish on the wrong day, or pray pointing in the wrong direction, or some other crap like that. I see, every day of my life, that life isn't fair, it isn't anything other than life, and it still surprises and upsets me when it isn't.

My wife has had a bad day too. A Staffordshire Bull Terrier that she operated on today, and removed an enormous tumour from it's spleen, died suddenly a few hours after it woke up, likely from a pulmonary embolism. It was less of a shock, because we already knew that the tumour had spread to the dog's liver (and possibly heart), and it almost cetainly wouldn't have lived more than a few months. They would have been comfortable and mostly normal months, though, at home with his owner, and he had them all snatched away in the space of a few seconds.

So, in the spirit of that, I'm re-instating my old first blog post, which was inspired by much the same sort of thing, and it expresses it better than I'm managing here. It might be grim, but keep reading! I promised that joke at the end, didn't I?

* * *

Life, death, and blogging.

As I walked into work today, I was immediately rushed downstairs by Chris, to help one of my vets. On the operating tablet was Maisie, an eighteen-month old Dogue du Bordeaux (if you don't know this breed, think of a slightly more canine version of Bungle from Rainbow and you won't be far wrong. Man, Bungle used to scare the crap out of me when I was a kid)

As I rushed into the theatre, wrestling the stethoscope from around my neck, Maisie gave a great shuddering cry, and vomited copious stinking bloody fluid all over the floor, and all over Jenny, one of our junior vets.

Several minutes later, despite much ER-alike injection, pumping, tubing and thumping, Maisie was dead. Not one of us could do a damn thing about it. When we opened up her abdomen, her guts were purple, and stinking. She had an intussuseption - where the intestines telescope into themselves, effectively causing a blockage - but this was likely secondary to the inflammation in the bowels.

Two hours earlier, Chris had walked Maisie out from the practice to go to the toilet - Jenny had admitted her the night before to keep in for observation for her vomiting - and she had wagged her tail, and walked (if slowly) out to the grass verge opposite the hospital, sniffing around in the way that dogs do to show they know more about the world than you do.

Jenny and I have both spent the rest of the day feeling miserable and useless. Partially because it's one of those cases where we feel there are no lessons to be learned - if we saw a case like Maisie's again tomorrow, we wouldn't have treated her case any differently. There was never any indication to operate before - Maisie's abdomen felt normal, her temperature was normal, she was bright and wanting to eat - but mostly because it was just so damn unfair. What did Maisie do to the world to deserve to die in such a terrible way? She wasn't even two years old.

Is there a point to this blog? I'm not sure. Nobody ever said the world was meant to be fair. I deal with death and suffering ever day of my life, but there's still some part of me that's hard-wired to think that there should be some justice in the world. Today I had yet another reminder that life is fleeting, and precious.

So I'm starting this blog - to remind you all of this simple fact, possibly the hardest one for any human to digest. The blog is primarily about my work life. I'm hoping to show you what it's like being a vet in a world like this. Hey, it's a living.

Also to vent my spleen. Trust me, I'm a vet, spleens need to vented regularily or damage will ensue.

More tales from the front line to come.

* * *

Okay, you've made it to the end! Well done! Hopefully you don't need counselling at this point. The reason I deleted that post originally was because the case concerned, and both myself and Jenny, became the subject of a Royal College investigation at the request of the owners. This was sad, but not surprising - you've just read how I felt about the case, imagine how the owners felt. It was a senseless death, very depressing and very unexpected.

I can post it again because the investigation concluded that we had done nothing wrong, and there was no case for us to answer. The owners don't believe that of course, and without understanding, neither would I. The simple fact is, we did our best to save her, and she died anyway. It's a hard thing for our society to accept.

Right, you've made it through all the depressing stuff, now here's the joke....

There isn't one! It was a cruel literary subterfuge all along to further illustrate the point of life's unfairness. Except in this case it was a quite deliberate unfairness orchestrated by me. So it doesn't really make the point at all. Sorry.

Ah, never mind. I'm getting a drink. Anyone want one?