Hey Doc was initially a project intended to explain to my kids what the office, that they shared their mother with, was all about.
Here, we share a couple of chapters with you for your amusement:
Chapter: We Are Dalhousie
On the freeway of life, there is no reverse, you can’t stop the car, and you have to fix all flat tires while moving. The action is out the front window.
– Terry Paulson
I remember when the announcement came that the paper mill was closing. It coincided with David’s birthday, his first away from home, as he was just beginning university. I was at the Royal Bank on William Street, across from the mill, when someone walked in looking poleaxed. “She’s gone. It’s over,” the man said to the lineup waiting to be served by the lone teller. With that stricken look on his face, I didn’t know if his wife died or left him. It wasn’t his spouse that he was referring to. It was the lifeblood of the town, the Bowater Paper Mill.
The announcement took the town by surprise. Dalhousie was a mill town since 1929. The mill was its economic engine, providing employment to generations of workers. Everybody’s son, husband, father, or grandfather walked up that staircase to those big brown doors at the entrance on William Street. Its whistle dictated mealtime or when the kids were to make their way home. It was unthinkable that it was going to close, and as one old timer put it, “Walking feels as if we've got no legs -- they took the legs from underneath us -- we counted so much on the mill for our lives. Now it's turmoil.''
The mill officially stopped operating in January 2008, the same month that a horrific accident rocked Bathurst, a neighboring Northern New Brunswick community. The incident made international headlines. That was of little solace. The area was in mourning, as everyone knew the affected families. Our kids played on the same sports teams, we travelled the same road in similar conditions.
Many was the evening that I saw the sign “Welcome to Bathurst” and breathed a sigh of relief as my little family was almost home from an athletic tournament. It was a fact of life. The Northern kids had to travel to the South for major sports events. We hit the road, good conditions, or bad. We still do, the difference being that that sign now does not signal a homecoming but a remembrance for those who didn’t make it that cold January night, not so long ago.
Those were dark days for the North Shore and the economy spiraled downwards as the chemical plant, the power plant, and the Bathurst mine closed in succession. Blow after blow the area absorbed, but the resilience of the people here kept surfacing. Descendants of Acadians who escaped cruel deportation by the English, Irish settlers who fled the famine, and Scots who immigrated to begin new lives in a challenging, rugged area, the people of Restigouche and Gloucester retain their ancestral toughness. They come from self-sufficient stock, and they have a genuine love for the area’s hills and rivers. It became common practice for our people to leave to find work but, like the salmon that navigate the Restigouche, they come home to retire.
The economy gradually shifted away from heavy industry to tourism, smaller enterprises, and retirement homes. Our kids were compelled to leave to find employment or to further their education; the men went to St. John, Wabush, or to the oil fields in Alberta in order to find work. It was like wartime in the Thirties and Forties where the menfolk sent their pay home and the women kept things going on the home front, the kids counting the sleeps until dad returned. It wasn’t ideal, but the community limped along. It made a difference on what people could do with their animals, or what they actually did with their furry charges. These were challenging times.
I had always practiced Depression medicine: not cutting corners, just regulating what few resources we possessed and maximizing their use. No, I didn’t have air blowers and fancy mattresses to warm up an animal in shock. I did have bottles that we filled with warm water and a hair dryer that we put between a sheet to accomplish the same result at a fraction of the price, though.
We helped out how and where we could, trying to keep prices within reach so that the basics were covered. We weren’t the only ones hit by the economic downturn. The profession was hard hit across the board in the Great Recession. Maybe the fact that the North Shore had known hard times for what seemed forever helped us out, as we didn’t have to transition from luxury to necessity. We made things work because we had to, because people counted on us to do so, because it mattered that we did.
There was a trend towards urbanization, partially because a centralization of services is more economical. That said, being in a densely populated area isn't for everyone. Unfortunately, those off the beaten path usually have to be more self-reliant, since service options thin out as they move to the cities, and infrastructure wears down without getting repaired or replaced.
Case in point? We used to have a local airport, a train station, a daily bus, and a hospital right in town. Now the nearest airport is in Bathurst (when you can land), the trains run three times a week, the bus service operates as an on-again, off-again venture this far north. If I was to have David today, the boy would be born in a snowbank as opposed to the door of Outpatients. Bathurst is the nearest place that has an Ob/Gyn.
I have my own snow blower, mounted on a diesel tractor, so I can get out in an emergency; a four-wheel drive truck, as the roads are not plowed as they used to be; and a generator, as the power outages are becoming longer and more frequent. The area’s long-neglected tree branches, growing over electrical lines, come tumbling down with regularity, taking the power with them.
Where we used to have a shopping mall and various retail stores, we now have the Internet and post office. In a city one can see and do a lot of things, as choices abound. Good thing that I am not an ardent opera or film frequenter (but then, again, how many times have you walked a trail by an open bay with only the honking of a flight of geese and the rhythmic panting of the Malamute beside you breaking the silence?).
There is a depopulation/migration from here due to a lack of employment. Then there is a recovery of population due to the return migration of retirees. As one local put it, the area is beautiful, but you have to be able to afford to live here – meaning having your own way to support yourself, or bringing your own job with you, as there are none to be had otherwise.
I was once asked if one could live here and not become a part of the community, or not be from here and truly be accepted as a native.
I think that the best way of answering that question is to talk about Lynn's mom. Originally from Québec, Sylvia not only integrated but influenced the population. She identified with the town, and it, in return, acknowledged her place in it. Deputy mayor and businesswoman, she volunteered in many capacities. The one that she was most known for was the Relay for Life for the Cancer Society – she had lost her son to that disease when he was barely an adult. Only Lynn was left.
I thought that yesterday was going to be an emotional drain. Strangely, it wasn't. Yes, I was the only dry eye in the house, but looking around me I saw what community is, and what it means to be connected. With flags at half mast, we said goodbye to Sylvia as she, too, lost her battle to the disease that earlier claimed her son, Scott, and, barely a month ago, felled her husband Ivan.
There was an honor guard composed of her Relay for Life team. Older ladies, all "survivors," they lined the isle, wearing their t-shirts, tears streaming down their faces. All but one. She must have served in her earlier years. Ramrod at attention, she appeared to be the stoic guardian. Closer inspection would have revealed that she was using the high backed pew surreptitiously as a means to lean, and her chin was quivering as she struggled for composure. On parade, as old habits die hard, she held it together, but one could see what an effort it was.
A lunch followed, tradition as a group of volunteers prepares sandwiches and trays of squares. There wasn't one person in the hall who wasn't connected in some way, or who was a stranger to me. Conversations flowed and laughter pealed, as we exchanged stories – inevitably the comparison of origins: so–and-so is the cousin of this one, the daughter of that one, or the ancestors trekked here across the bay in winter, braving the ice and wind to settle on this side of the shore. This community gathering would probably not happen in a metropolis, but many a small town’s inhabitants could identify with this scene, and the feeling of solidarity associated with it.
I left there to do an errand run, driving to the Royal Bank in Campbellton, and was welcomed as one would a long lost family member. I rarely go in that branch since closing the Campbellton satellite office. The bank staff asked why the visit and I explained the appointment with the accountant and my closing for the day due to the funeral. All began exchanging stories about Lynn's mom – the tellers, manager, and those in the queue. Large area, small population, all connected.
The same thing happened at the grocery store, as I was greeted in each aisle of the Superstore, doing a consult in between the turkey and back bacon. Community, and one's part in it. Not an anonymous face in a crowd, but one that is acknowledged with a nod, smile, or question. And this is not just me. No one is anonymous, unless they choose to be – and even at that, they have to work at it.
It's pouring out: windy, cold and dreary. Debris drapes over the Bar like a bumpy blanket stretching over the pavement as the tide surges over the breakwater. Snow-and-blow are closing in fast. After a full day at the Clinic, I’m off to remove a layer or two of blood, guts, and gore. I look like I've been in a barrage.
I was an hour and a half behind; we were beat, and it showed. It was a make-up day as I had closed for yesterday’s funeral. A couple in the waiting room, sensing our fatigue, started to chant "You can do it." Brandi, Sonia, Linda, and I looked at each other and with one voice just said, matter-of-factly, “We are Dalhousie.” The audience nodded appreciatively as we dug in and plowed through the remaining appointments. No award, no plaque, no fading parchment means as much as the faith of somebody in us, and no stronger motivator beats the desire to live up to it.
I appreciated their understanding. Now to hit the hay and not do any twilight zone surgery. Brandi dreamt last night that she assisted on a C-section. She was wiped before we started attending to the incoming, after passing clamps and warming pups in her sleep all night – apparently there were twelve.
That is what makes the team so special - they care. Many was the time that a client commented on the atmosphere of the office or how one or another of the staff acknowledges an animal or gets down and engages in play or appears genuinely jumping with joy to see one recovered from an illness. This is no marketing ploy, no product of rehearsed empathy. You don’t get to work here if compassion doesn’t come with your other job skills. Someone here because it is just a job wouldn’t last a week. We are Dalhousie. We are survivors. We fight all odds. We prevail.
Chapter: Changing of the Guard
The more you feel, the more you hurt; the more you feel, the more you live.
— Chester Darbee
It’s a hard, cold and unrelenting fact. An animal’s lifespan is shorter than ours, and we oftentimes repeat the cycle – the excitement of a new pup/kitten, the companionship of the mature pet, then the heartbreaking loss of a sick senior animal.
Animals are people’s solace, their link to a loved one passed on, and, sometimes, the reason for getting up in the morning. How often have I heard, “She’s all I’ve got, Doc, you’ve got to make her better.” No pressure, there, no, not one bit. The staff tries hard, giving all that they’ve got, but sometimes we can’t postpone the inevitable or bend the inviolable rule: All things die.
At home my own limit was four dogs, as that was all that I could devote the time to. In later years, the furry companions were rescues who needed rehabilitation, which takes even more time, effort, and patience. It seems that as soon as I lost one, another equally deserving case appeared, compelling me to fill the void.
I lost Mollie to a rare neurological form of Lyme disease. It would have been a fascinating case, if not for that trusting, black, floor-eating canine presenting it. The condition is passed around here from an infected tick falling from a migratory bird, dropping into the long grass along the shoreline.
Ticks hate light and dry areas. They usually thrive in the forest under rotting debris, or in tall grass, as the base is humid. The infected insect bites the dog and thus transmits the disease. People get it, too. Usually the symptoms are much worse in humans than in canines, which usually present with the owner just saying, “Doc, my dog just doesn’t feel right.” Mollie was her usual self, a bit slower, but her age was showing, too.
I noticed that she was having trouble keeping up, and when I touched her, she seemed to have melted away. I never saw a case of Lyme progress so fast, but apparently the nerves to her muscles were affected. Only a small percentage of infected dogs ever show clinical signs of the disease, and neurological symptoms were even more rare, but the test results were conclusive. I consulted experts, we treated her, and her kidneys – target organs for the issue – were doing well. She ate, wanted to play, wanted to live, but as much as the spirit was indomitable, her muscles were wasting away.
Mollie was struggling to walk. She tried to keep up. She was determined to jump on the bed, to climb the stairs. Val built a ramp for her, but to no avail. She wasn’t getting better, and her struggle was getting harder each day. Gamely she would fight to move, but it was getting beyond her capacity. We lifted, we carried, but it was time.
With Val holding a vein and cradling her buddy, I ended Mollie’s life, with her licking my hand, as trusting as ever. I felt like I just betrayed my best friend. There was no choice, and with that I made peace with myself. It didn’t make the hurt any less, or the empty collar any lighter.
I often tell people that the hurt that they feel is the pain that their animal isn’t experiencing anymore. I tried to tell that to myself, but somehow it probably works better if the words are coming from someone else. There is no one else to end my animals’ lives, just me. So I do it, as quickly and as painlessly as possible. I put down a dog today and the owner just sobbed and sobbed, finally saying, “You just don’t understand.” She then looked into my face and whispered, “I’m sorry, Doc, yes you do, and that’s why I’m here…”
Val couldn’t have a dog where she lived, which was on the main highway, so we shared them. She’d come down and walk them, and I’d feed and house them. Mollie was hers. Mollie was the kids’ – and how she loved them. The next take-home candidate would have huge paws to fill.
The loss of Snowbear also left a huge void. He was my companion, my walking partner, my early warning system for detecting lurking bear on the trails. I was at a vaccination clinic when a lady presented a beautiful Malamute. Anuk was gorgeous. She looked like a diminutive Snowbear.
I asked the owner where she purchased the pup and she replied, “in the southern end of the province, in a place called Elgin. “I was afraid,” she began. “I was in the middle of nowhere and this guy that must have been almost seven feet tall came out of the house. His directions were that it was the house with the burned out truck in front. Once we began speaking, however, I found that he was really nice and the dogs were all he said that they were.”
I never thought anything more about the conversation, but something made me go online, a few months later. To this day, I don’t know why. I stumbled upon an advertisement for Malamute pups for sale. I checked the address and it was in Elgin. What were the chances that this was the same guy?
It was. He repeated the breeding, and it was his last one. I asked for directions and made arrangements to go down. There was a meeting scheduled in Fredericton, so a side trip to Elgin was doable. Paul-André was home on vacation, so he offered to co-pilot, so as to give me a break driving. Translation being he wanted to go with me to get the pup.
The lady was right. The house was in the middle of nowhere. Being a vet, I’m used to country roads, but this was really off the beaten path. The landmark of the burned out shell of a truck was still there, and I made my way up the winding driveway. The house was newly constructed, and on the stairs were eight fluff balls and three huge Malamutes cooling off in the shade. A big, burly, sickle-tailed male came to investigate and he was impressive. I waited until the owner made an appearance before my boy and I went to make our introductions.
Again, the lady wasn’t kidding. The owner was a big, tall, bearded individual, but once he started to speak, one could tell how genuine his interest was in his dogs and how important it was that they be properly homed. This was no puppy mill, no fast-buck operator. The paperwork was in order; the vaccinations were done. The pups were squeaky clean, clear-eyed and full of mischief.
One caught our eye, a wolf-grey male with a massive set of paws. He wore Snowbear’s markings and looked like a little bumbling clone. Home he came, nestled in my boy’s arms as they both snoozed the whole way back to the North Shore.
What to call the little cub? Snowbear? No, that name was retired; there could be no other. One of my buddies, going online and scanning through native names suggested Tupit as a suitable handle. She thought it meant friend (actually it refers to tattoo lines). I retorted, “Sure, say it fast: Tupit, Tupit, Tupit. I’m not calling it something sounding like stupid with a lisp.”
I settled on the name Kavik, who I eventually referred to as “Air Cav,” as he floated over the snow as if in midair. The pup grew, but Annie was too old to play. Qimmiq, too, was one day older than Moses and preferred to snooze than to be bothered with a gangly puppy. Another call, another rescue. I was at three, so there was room for one more, and one more landed with a vengeance. Her name was Noushka.
It was well known that I am partial to huskies. I’ve owned northern breed dogs for decades, going back to the early 1970’s. One only needed to walk into the office and see the pictures, the décor, and see documentary evidence of an attachment to the North.
One afternoon, a client called with a big problem. She rescued a Siberian, but couldn’t keep her. She insisted that I take a look at her. Against my better judgment, I did.
Noushka was a rack of bones. Her coat was so sparse that Hannah made a jacket for her, since the dog lacked any protection against the frigid wind and plummeting temperatures. I scheduled her for an immediate spay, as she presented a vaginal discharge. No small wonder as there was a dead pup inside. After the surgery, Noushka picked up. She was no ordinary Sibe.
She was a runner. Noushka climbed the fence like a ninja and took off for the hills or bay, especially if there were seals on the ice. I received a call one Saturday from a lady who said that there was a dog on the ice, asking if it was mine as it was a Husky? Sure enough, Noushka had scaled the fence, and the trench that I dug around it. I headed out, alerting a neighbor who joined me with a steak offering, slipping and sliding over the rocks and fallen tree trunks along the shore.
We were soaked, and there was no dog in sight. It was spring and a sloppy mess of wet snow, sleet and sneet was coming down from the heavens. It was a great day to be inside by a fire, not outside chasing a renegade. What made matters worse was that there were breaks in the ice. We thought that the Husky was a goner, as it was easy to slip into the open water. The seasonal smelt shanties were long off the ice, as it was getting very thin and dangerous.
I went back to the house with the neighbor, a mile away, scanning the shore with binoculars, now from the warmth of her kitchen. I scoured the beach in front of home and saw where the tracks doubled back, headed to the water, but saw no other traces. The wet glop that was falling did great work at erasing the dog’s prints.
Soaked to the bone, I slogged back up from the beach. Reaching the house I bellowed one last time “Noushka you #*#*, come home,” followed by a whispered entreaty “just come home” muttered under my breath. In the completely opposite direction, I saw two pricked ear tips appearing from over the knoll.
Noushka sprinted to the back door as if on the last leg of a race. Tongue lolling, she bounded up the stairs, drained the water bowl, shook her wet fur as I tried to dry both of us up, and then settled down in the kitchen for a snooze. I called the neighbor to tell her of the prodigal’s return. She was frantic, asking me if she had hypothermia, was she going to be all right?
Curled up in a tight ball as if on an ice floe, Noushka was snoring, as contented and as carefree as could be. I could only shake my head.
I often do work for the SPCA. One day they brought in a young, black female dog of mixed Lab origin to be spayed. Seized from a bad situation, she appeared to be pregnant, but not so far along as to contraindicate the surgery. The attendant brought her in. She was a black dog, like so many at the shelter. Unspayed, she had no chance. Once spayed, her chances leapt from nil to slim.
She immediately snuggled up to me, demanding attention. I complied, but after the surgery, she went back to the shelter. Two Huskies and the Malamute were at the homestead, and I tried to convince myself that she’d be rehomed. I just rescued a Husky, who was in miserable shape; I really didn’t need another dog.
The next week, I went with a sales rep to visit the shelter to see if there was anything that her company sold that could be of use. The little black dog was loose in the building, spotted me, and came running. I looked at her trusting brown eyes seemingly pleading, as the shelter manager slipped a leash into my hand. She came home, was dubbed “Mollie Junior” or MJ and is resting beside me as I write this.
What is it that drives us to share our lives with these pieces of fur? Why do they drive us to the depths of despair, when hurt or lost, or frustrate us to no end with their misadventures?
It is hard to explain the human-animal bond, like any emotional tie. It does not necessarily follow logical parameters. It just is. It ties us to these beasts under our guardianship and can be as strong as any familial link. That bond can sustain individuals through periods of stress, loneliness, and loss.
For many the care of an animal parallels that of a child, one that never grows up and retains a certain amount of dependency. One big issue with the bond, as I mentioned at the onset, is that the lifespan of a cherished pet is much shorter than our own. Maybe Kipling summarized it best in his poem, “The Power of a Dog” where he wonders aloud why we give our hearts to a dog to tear.
We do. We repeat the cycle, each animal bringing into our lives a personality, a shared journey, a reason, for some, to get up in the morning. They serve us, protect us, and are devoted to us. There are pallets of books and studies on the human animal bond, each work trying to quantify an emotion. It is what it is, and its strength varies from animal to animal, individual to individual.
For me, it is simply summarized in one line read years ago: May I be the person that my dog thinks that I am. Goodnight.