“Did you always want to be a vet?”
I get that a lot.
Evidently, there are people in this world who somehow know from an early age just what they want to be or do with their life. I was not that kid. Veterinary medicine was not even on my list of possible careers when I entered college. As a matter of fact, looking back, it seems like there were mysterious forces acting in the universe that patiently, surreptitiously, persistently influenced my situation and shaped my experiences in college until finally, almost begrudgingly, I faced the music and admitted that veterinary medicine might be the career for me. Call it a “God-thing”, but it certainly wasn’t where I thought I was headed when I left Aiken, South Carolina and headed to Clemson University to begin my undergraduate studies.
Nonetheless, I usually begin my answer to the original question with the phrase, “I grew up around veterinary medicine – sort of.”
You may think that would be a good thing, but, it didn’t necessarily always seem so at the time. During my time in elementary school and into middle school, my mother was a veterinary assistant for a veterinarian in Aiken. He was a kind, out-going gentleman who was really just getting his practice off the ground when my mom worked for him. Having little kids often in tow meant that there were times when my sister and I had to hang out at the clinic while we waited on mom to finish her shift. We would sit in one of the exam rooms and work on our home work after school. One of my first paying jobs was counting Lasix tablets into groups of 100 and repackaging them into little pill bottles for rapid dispensing. Dr. Timmerman paid me $0.10 a bottle to count them out. I remember thinking it was the most boring thing I had ever done. I’m sure looking back that he must have gotten numerous call backs from irritated clients whose prescription didn’t last as long as it was supposed to. Or worse, to see a client back for a recheck exam when they should be running out of medicine only to find out they still had 15-20 tablets left in the bottle! That’s probably why I don’t remember that gig lasting very long. However, just being around the clinic gave me an opportunity to take in the sights, sounds and smells of general small animal practice. That alone should have been enough to dissuade me one would think, but I found the experience intriguing. On one occasion, when our Irish Setter, Kelly, was discovered to have an untimely, unplanned pregnancy we took her in to have her spayed. Dr. Timmerman provided my sister and me with the pregnant uterus to take outside into the parking lot for dissection. I marveled at the anatomy of the pregnancy and the barely distinguishable details of the fetal pups in each little amniotic vesicle. I kept one of the tiny fetal puppies in a jar of formaldehyde on a shelf in my room for months afterward. Such exposure certainly piqued my interest and probably should have been a harbinger of things to come, but there was more.
Back home we had more animals than any one family should ever have to care for. My mom, bless her, seemed to like it that way. She was the most selfless, immaterial, generous role model I could ever ask for growing up and I love her dearly, but I think at any one point in time there were no less than 4 cats, 4 dogs, 2 guinea pigs – all of which lived partly inside – 2 horses or ponies and periodically some non-domesticated injured something that mom swore most certainly would not have survived had she not brought it home and confined it to the bathroom I shared with my sister – making an incredible mess I might add – for several weeks while she nursed it back to health. There were injured ducks, squirrels, song-birds – any one of a number of things. I just remember them being frequent “guests”.
Seems like an exciting environment in which to spend your formative years, right? Well, maybe so, but that many animals wreaked havoc on the conditions within the home. We lived at the end of a long dirt road and there were 3 small ponds within a half mile of our house. All summer the dogs were coming in and out of the house smelling like pond scum and “wet dog”. One must not forget either, this was in the 1970’s. When disco music was all the rage, and before brilliant chemists had discovered lucrative molecules for effectively controlling fleas and ticks. When the fleas hatched in the summer time the dogs started itching and the “wet dog” odor took on a more complex aroma of seborrhea and yeasty skin. Every week or so Mom would bring home flea dip from the vet clinic and we would “dip” the dogs in a big galvanized wash tub. For days afterward a strong chemical odor perfused the house. I thought it was terrible until she brought home a brand new long acting flea treatment in an auspicious red and black container. It was called Spot-On. Evidently some brilliant mind in a lab coat at a veterinary pharmaceutical company somewhere decided that applying what I know now to be a potent organophosphate insecticide – that is probably now banned in most developed nations – to the back of your dog’s neck to control fleas sounded like a good idea. When Mom brought it home and applied it we were immediately overcome by a chemical stench ten times worse than the flea dip. I’m surprised looking back that my sister and I didn’t sprout horns from the exposure. The dogs stank. They had a greasy spot on the back of their neck for 2 weeks and the fleas still came back.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, one of the dogs was 14 years old and becoming fecal and urinary incontinent during the era when well-appointed homes had wall-to-wall shag carpeting – usually some shade of green or gold – before the invention of Rug Doctor machines, Spot-Bots or even Resolve. If you can imagine all those odors plus a couple of litter boxes and weekly applications of carpet fresh you can image how our house smelled. When I reached a certain age, probably 12 or 13, I gradually became aware that my friend’s homes didn’t smell like mine. Nor did their once luxurious green and gold shag carpeting sport the same circular designs in shades of green, brown and yellow from the many accidents that an aging population of inside/outside dogs creates over time. Their bathrooms didn’t have remnants of crusty bird poop on top of the shower door and there wasn’t nearly so much hair everywhere. I began to become a little reluctant to invite people over.
This reluctance was compounded by my parent’s disdain for air conditioning. We had a perfectly functional heat pump from 1973 that cooled our house beautifully when it was turned on. If you’ve never lived in the south in the summer you may not have an appreciation for how oppressive the humidity can be. The wet, heavy air caused mildew to form on anything organic that sat unused for a few days at a time. We all become accustomed to wiping the mold off our Sunday shoes in the summer when we dug them out of the back of the closet. The pages of the books on my book shelf developed a gray/green fuzzy film and became stiff and wavy about the second week of July.
Bedtime could be tough too depending on the weather. I remember many hot summer nights listening to the whipperwill outside my window while sweltering in my bed begging the sun to disappear below the horizon so the air outside would start to cool down. I lay spread eagle trying to keep my arms from touching my sides or my legs from touching each other because it felt like if they touched they would stick together permanently. We had an attic fan that did a wonderful job of drawing the cool evening air in through the windows once the sun had finally set. The rhythm of the motor and the low, whooshing sound of the blades lulled me to sleep many nights as it gradually made the micro climate in my bedroom tolerable for sleep. On those particularly hot, humid nights the sheet would be damp with dew when I woke up in the morning. My parents explained it thus, the air conditioner was expensive to run, we never had a/c as a child and “fresh air” is good – at least as fresh as it can be with all those animals in the house. That, of course, meant the windows stayed open all summer long. Dad even installed storm doors with screens so Mom could leave the doors open too. The storm doors all had spring closers that made them slam shut with a loud, flimsy, aluminum SLAP every time one of us ran in or out. I think all of our cats had surgically shortened tails from not being quite fast enough on the way in or out to avoid having the tip caught in the aluminum storm door as it slammed shut.
Speaking of the cats, in the event that I did have someone over to visit at mealtime it could be an amusing adventure because of the “cat door” in the breakfast room window. I use that term loosely because it really wasn’t a door at all. The window stayed open all summer and because the cats always ate on the kitchen counter – yes – the kitchen counter. Mom said the cats had to eat on the counter or the dogs would get the cat’s food. At 6 years old, I took her at her word. At 13, I was a little incredulous. Nonetheless, the cats could see their food from outside the window and it didn’t take long for them to scratch a hole in the screen so they could come and go as they pleased. Mom thought it was terribly convenient. She didn’t have to get up to let them in anymore, and the hole was relatively small. Mom, was convinced that very few mosquitoes or flies would really be able to find that single opening in the screen and she wasn’t worried about the few that did. Over time, the hole in the screen began to resemble a multi-colored, cat fur, Christmas wreath from the little cat hairs that stuck to the torn edges of the screen as they came and went. Unsuspecting guests would be enjoying their meal only to be startled by the sudden appearance of a cat in their peripheral vision in the window right over their shoulder. It could be a little disconcerting for the visitor, but the family found it terribly amusing.
The open door policy with the cats created the opportunity for some other unique experiences as well – such as the time I was awakened bright and early in my bed one morning by the faint sound of little high-pitched squeaks and grunts coming from somewhere near my head. Imagine my surprise when upon opening my foggy, morning-glazed eyes I saw a tiny little wet, disheveled, orange kitty head, eyes shut tight, on top of my chest peeping at me over a fold in my comforter. I slowly sat up and saw Callie, one of our momma cats who liked to disappear for a few days at a time only reappear just as suddenly and randomly, curled up behind my knees nursing a litter of brand-new kittens that she had birthed on my bed during the night. Needless to say, it was a bloody mess and the sight of placentas strewn about on my bed spread was a bit disconcerting for a 10 year old boy. But, the kittens were cute and healthy. The comforter came clean after a couple of washings, and, if memory serves, we kept at least one of the kittens.
The breakfast room table was also one of the places where Mom liked to hang out to read in the late afternoon. I think it was attractive because with the front door and the cat window open there was a little cross ventilation through the foyer and the breakfast room. That cross ventilation helped considerably to keep those rooms tolerable which was especially important for Mom because she had a Chihuahua named “Babe” that had to be under her shirt whenever she was sitting down. In the summer, having that little dog under your shirt had to be like having a heating pad with you everywhere you went. But, Mom never made her get out. Before the days of doggy Prozac I think hiding under fabric may have been the only thing that kept the dog sane. As soon as Mom left the house and took her shirt with her, Babe immediately ran upstairs and got onto my parents bed where she burrowed into my mother’s pillowcase until she returned home. In Babe’s defense, Mom brought her home from the vet clinic a few hours after she was born and raised her from birth on a bottle. I think the mother dog may have died after a complicated c-section, but I could be wrong. In any event, Mom was the only mom Babe knew. I guess it makes sense that she was so attached.
During the dog days of summer, partly to combat the heat and partly to make it through her mountain of reading material, Mom was fond of getting ready for bed early, which created some additional logistical issues as far as having friends over. Around 4 pm or so – just when it was getting uncomfortably hot in the house – Mom would slip into her summer night gown. They were always loose fitting numbers made out of thin cotton fabric. They had some lacey trim around the neck line, short puffy sleeves and a little more lacey trim around the hem which came to just below the knee. I don’t think she ever had more than one and it got worn until it was thread bare before she would venture to J.B. White’s department store during a clearance sale in the dead of winter to find whatever summer nightie they might still have in inventory. Then, Mom would get her book, her giant Tupperware cup full of iced tea sweetened with Sweet and Low, and park herself at the breakfast room table with the front door open, feet stretched out in one chair and Chihuahua under her nightgown, to read and relax until time to cook supper. Slipping into a summer nightie, of course, meant slipping out of a brassiere. For that reason, my friends had strict instructions, if they ever came over late in the afternoon during the summer, come to the side door!
The early evening presented some challenges during the growing season as well. Mom always planted a huge garden and just before dusk she would often head out to tend to it – in her nightgown of course. As you might image, it was a little inconvenient to make her way around and between the plants. Her nightgown kept getting hung up on the leaves and stems as she made her way between the rows pulling weeds and picking vegetables. Mom, however, was terribly resourceful and she thought of the perfect solution. She simply tucked the hem of her nightgown up into the leg holes of her underwear all around the front, sides and back. With her nightie successfully contained, she was free to keep right on picking and weeding, weeding and picking. It was a sight to behold.
It was our horses and ponies, though that were most influential for me. I got my first pony when I was six years old. His name was Mister. He was a stubborn little snot with a mean streak a mile wide and it would be years before I was strong enough to actually make him behave. That didn’t stop me from trying to ride him, however. His one really annoying habit was that once he got about a mile or two from the barn, he routinely, and without warning, would decide that we he had gone far enough. He would stop, lift his head, perk up his ears, look from side to side and then he would spin 180 degrees on his hind feet like a little mini-tornado and run as fast as he could back to the barn. If I managed to stay on when he spun, I would usually fall off in a heap in the ditch on the side of the dirt road after his first few strides. Dirty, scraped and bruised – I would walk all the way back home. It got to be such a regular occurrence that my mom or dad started following in the car whenever I rode away from the house so I wouldn’t have to walk home when Mister decided to jettison me and head for the barn. I’m sure in this modern era it would be considered child neglect or abuse or something to let your 8 year old ride a pony by himself all over creation, but this was 1979. Seat belts weren’t even a thing. Looking back, it’s amazing anyone survived childhood.
Nonetheless, on the back of a horse I experienced a freedom that was exhilarating for a boy who craved speed and adventure! They could take me places that my bike couldn’t go at speeds that made my heart pound and my eyes water. Their long, loping strides carried me away on countless expeditions through the woods and fields far and wide around my home. I created trails where there were none and ignored imaginary boundaries between property lines in the brazen spirit of exploration. Spirited away on their backs I felt like we were one, and though they were not magnificent steeds by other people’s standards, for me there were none finer. They were my transportation, my companions, my comfort and my inspiration. Over the years their names were Honey, Mister, Taffy, Sham, Rebound, Bumblebee, Stetson and Flea Market. On quiet afternoons when the weather was warm on more than one occasion I ventured to the pasture with my school books, distracted and bored of studying indoors, to be in the company of my horse. One old appaloosa mare would let me climb up on her wide dusty back and straddle her facing backward so I could lay on my stomach with my chin in my hands and my book spread open on the broad, ample expanse of her rump. I relished the way that she smelled and the soft warmth of her spotted coat. I read my assignments as she moseyed around the pasture picking grass, swishing her tail and stomping flies.
As I got older, I began to be more interested in competition and I discovered show jumping and fox hunting. The feel of the immense power of a horse underneath me as we launched over fences four and half feet tall was intoxicating and exhilarating. It captured my interest well into college and I spent many afternoons after class at the barn riding or cleaning tack and mucking stalls. Eventually, when my first couple of potential career choices felt empty and uninspired, I allowed myself to consider the possibility that I might want to spend my professional life caring for the animals that I found so impressive – athletic and regal.
Needless to say, my experience as a child shaped me – or maybe mis-shaped me – nonetheless it prepared me for the crazy, mixed-up, slightly chaotic, always interesting life I now lead as a veterinarian. In retrospect, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place too perfectly for it not to have been God’s plan for my life. I felt a peace in my soul the day I decided to go to vet school, and from that moment on, scholastically I excelled. My affinity for all things animal has been a consistent common thread through the tapestry of my life. It provided me with a passion for a profession that sustains me. It allowed me to expand my interests from the equines that were my first inspiration, to beef and dairy cattle and dogs and cats. It even helped me feel connected with and attracted to a beautiful young dairy farmer’s daughter who eventually became my wife of 23 years. I’m convinced it was more than just the benefit of having grown up around all sorts of animals and exposed to veterinary medicine at a young age. My childhood experience gives me great empathy, understanding and insight into the importance of the human-animal bond and the idiosyncrasies of the pet owning public. It has proven invaluable during my years in practice in helping me to form close relationships with the pet owners that support me and entrust to me the care of their fur family. Looking back, it may not have been my first choice, but sometimes the last choice, ends up being the best choice.