As you probably know, I have a bit of a complicated relationship with the PTA moms. Not moms in general, mind you, just the small subset of Pinterest loving, glue-gun wielding domestic lifestyle experts whose expectations I can never, despite my best efforts, seem to live up to. It doesn’t matter what school we’re at, it happens every time. First it was the art project/pooper scooper incident in kindergarten. Then it was the Have a Very Agro Valentine’s Day episode. And now it’s crudite, crudite that torments the soul.
It started simply enough: an email asking for volunteers to bring in food items for the teachers this conference week. I looked on the sign up sheet and put my name next to crudite: veggies and dip. Easy, I thought, a quick run to the grocery store for some carrot sticks and dip and done.
I forgot where I was.
(Not two weeks ago, I found myself in the midst of a malestrom for the fifth grade Halloween party when all the room moms got together and asked the parents to bring in food. I asked my class parents to bring in pretzels and fruit. The other moms showed up with cookies shaped like rotting fingers with almond nails and jelly blood, and eyeball eggs with veins hand-painted on with food dye. My pretzels were shoved under the table.)
So now, a few minutes after signing up for the veggie tray, I received an email instructing me to be creative! which is always concerning. To illustrate her point, the organizer included this helpful photo:
As to what our vegetables should aspire to be.
Now at this point a normal person would laugh and say, “OK, lady,” and bring in a tray from Costco, but unfortunately I still have the sin of pride to contend with on a regular basis, so I instead spent the afternoon standing in line at the grocery store watching YouTube videos of Martha Stewart blanching asparagus. Three hours of cursing later, with piles of peeled burnt chestnuts and carrot shavings dripping out of my hair like Jackson Pollock on a bender, I came up with this:
This is the dogged tenacity that makes people like me get through vet school even when all indicators point to the “why?” factor. We can’t explain it. We just have to.
I shared this with my friends, and they all got a good laugh out of how silly it was, and then later in the day my friend in Ohio sent me a link and said, “See? You’re not alone.” It was a photo of some artfully arranged food items a group of mothers had arranged for their teachers.
It was, upon further inspection, a photo from my very school from earlier in the day. It had already made the Pinterest rounds and ended up in Ohio, where my friend saw it and sent it to me as an example of Moms Gone Styled. I scrolled through it, looking for my contribution.
Notably lacking? The crudite. They were apparently so lackluster as to have not even rated a Facebook photo, and when I returned to pick up the dish I found they had been shoved in the corner in order to make way for some gluten free turkey wraps with hand-whisked dressings in, of course, Mason jars.
At this point, even a not quite normal person would just give up, which is theoretically what I should do, but it’s become clear to me I live in a parallel universe where I am destined to almost-quite get it, over and over and over, but not get it entirely. This is why I am a veterinarian, the almost-quites of the medical field.
So you know what? I’m embracing it. This afternoon I decided to go on a Pinterest binge and make a little Pinterest and dog-friendly crudite platter my way. Hope you enjoy it.
A bright autumn day, full of promise and gently whispered secrets amongst best of friends, calls for sustenance.
Lovingly hand-extruded kibble, with ingredients sourced from local artisans in an organic human-grade facility in Portland by men with bushy beards. In a Mason jar.
We end our afternoon in the garden of delights (it’s water friendly succulents! We’re eco friendly here in drought-parched SoCal) with hand-cut carrot bones from the local CSA, mint from the garden, words of wisdom from the dog sketched in canine-friendly peanut butter hand ground at Whole Foods. And of course, no pet garden of delights would be complete without the coup de grace:
nitrate free ham roses.
You saw it first here, folks. I’m waiting on sponsors for a YouTube tutorial but I think a ham bouquet is a lovely thing.
There was a time, back in a pre-internet era known as the Good Old Days, when two people who had different opinions on a topic could talk about it and, even if they did not come to an understanding, could at least part ways with a better grasp of the other person’s point of view. People with different opinions were still, at the end of the day, people.
I’m not entirely sure that is the case anymore.
Lest anyone doubt me, proof enough should be the fact that we’ve just come off an election cycle. I live in an area with one of the most hotly contested Congressional races in the country, better known to us locals subjected to the campaign ads as “Mouthbreathing Carbuncle-Having Satan Worshipping Slimeball” versus “Luciferous Mucusbucket Festering Wound.” (Definitions supplied by opposing parties.)
It was a close race. I think most of us voted for one or the other not based on deep unabiding adoration so much as we held our noses and selected the one we found less odiferous. Nonetheless, after the Slimeball defeated the Festering Wound by the narrowest of margins, the loser went on the air and graciously wished his opponent “all the best”, which is a strange thing to wish someone you truly thought was the Antichrist. If you truly thought he was the path to death and destruction, you think one would continue to rage against the injustice of it all and exhort people to do something to undo this miscarriage of justice.
But politicians know the truth that a lot us seem to have forgotten. All that bluster is just that, bluster. And at the end of the day they actually have a lot more in common than not:
- both middle aged men of the same demographic savvy enough to be successful in local politics
- Neither advocates overthrowing Congress and disbanding the Constitution
- both against selling tanks to minors
- Both for free sunlight
- Both generally want to work for the constituents in order for people to live well in our beautiful city, though their ideas of how to get there might vary.
And now they will retreat to their corners to do whatever it is they do until they are again required by the tenor of American culture to again start yelling about how much the other person stinks.
Rumble In the Doghouse
We all know this about politics, we all roll our eyes with the silliness of it all, but don’t be mistaken- this “live and die by the sword”, “you’re with us or you’re worthy of a messy death” attitude has permeated many corners of our lives, and it’s not pretty.
The first time I met someone at a breeder’s event, I started talking to a person very involved with the dog fancy world. When she learned what I did, she looked at me a little sideways and said, “So you’re an animal rights person.”
PETA, protesting that abhorrent group of animal haters known as the American Veterinary Medical Association (true story).
“Not animal rights. Animal welfare,” I corrected her, as the person who introduced us (you know who you are, you rotten troublemaker) rubbed his palms together and waited in glee for us to start ripping each others’ hair out.
“What’s the difference?” she asked. So I called her a puppy mill, because all breeders are the same, right?
We looked at each other, hesitated a moment, then burst into laughter as she said, “Point taken.” We’ve been friends ever since.
I suppose in another world, maybe hidden behind an anonymous screen and keyboard, we could have become mortal enemies, but we’d spent too much time face to face to be able to call the other person demon spawn. We both knew we had too much in common, including:
- a love of good wine
- writing long and probably way too involved stories
- thinking dogs are the absolute bee’s knees. We both totally adore and spend most of our free time thinking about, canines.
This friend recently began a Kickstarter campaign to create a website commemorating National Purebred Dog Day. Now, I’m not trying to convince anyone to go and support the campaign if it’s not your thing, no more than I would try and convince someone to donate to a political candidate they did not agree with. But the simple fact that she waited a long time to even begin the campaign because she was nervous about people targeting her for being an Evil Dog Person is honestly, pretty sad. I feel the same way about that as I do people who target pittie advocates trying to end BSL: why would you do that? We are not each other’s enemies here.
A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for Vetstreet about purebreds versus mutts. I wonder if perhaps the editor was wanting me to go for the easy kill, the one that would bring 5000 shares and bloodshed in the comments section: quote people talking about how wrong the other side was, how misguided. But I didn’t want to do that.
Instead, I talked to someone from the American Kennel Club and the ASPCA, and guess what? They said the exact same thing:
We want people to find the right dog for their family so they keep them forever.
They had different ideas about the best way to do that, but they’re both perfectly valid approaches, really, and people have been using both successfully for some time. Let me repeat: at the end of the day we all want the same thing. The rest is just window dressing.
Can you tell which dog is more worthy, loved, or better for my family? I can’t.
Who’s the real enemy here? Apathy. Ignorance. Greed. Say what you want about either the dog fancy or the rescue community (and indeed, the large numbers who belong to both): they are not apathetic people. They care, and they want what’s best. Instead of shaking your fingers at the other side’s perceived shortcomings, listen. There is much to be learned, on both sides. I know this from experience.
It’s very easy to continue to point and shoot at the easy target. Keep on doing it if it makes you happy. It certainly makes life easier for the people at CheapPuppyMillDog.com; whenever someone gets turned off by the antics they encounter at either end of the spectrum, guess who’s waiting with open arms?
We are not each other’s enemy. If you want someone to hate on who really deserves it, I suggest these idiots. Seriously, no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
This is not about Sophia Yin.
I feel the need to say that before launching into a discussion about suicide and depression in the animal community, because the horrible news that she took her own life and the ripples it is causing in the veterinary world is the reason I’m talking about it today. But it’s not about her or her situation, which none of us will ever really know; Dr. Yin’s legacy is the work she did during her life, and it should remain that way. This is not about one person.
Whenever a tragedy like this happens, I see the same posts over and over: “Shocking. Tragic. Hold your loved ones close and tell them you love them. If someone seems to be suffering ask if they are OK.” And so it goes for a day or two, as we hug our kids and our spouse and our dog and then go back to work and assiduously ignore the suffering of those around us. Not that we recognize it most of the time anyway, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
One of the biggest misconceptions people seem to have about stress, burnout, and depression is that it is inevitably obvious to those around the person. I blame Zoloft ads for making us think all depressed people walk around weeping with little clouds hanging over them.
I think a lot of depressed people look like this:
Totally fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.
You know how we always say cats walk around looking like a million bucks with BUN levels through the roof until one day, way past the point it was an issue, it’s finally too much but you never had a clue? A lot of depressed people look like that. So maybe this is a little more accurate:
They do just fine at work, and out amongst friends, and then come home and realize man I am not fine. But we’ve normalized stress in our lives to the point many of us don’t even necessarily recognize the signs of depression in others, and even in ourselves. I sat on the floor of the bathroom for four hours straight one day, when I was suffering from postpartum depression, and still had no idea that sitting on the floor of the bathroom unable to muster the energy to move two feet might be a sign something was wrong (protip: it is).
I don’t like talking about that time in my life, but I will because every time we censor ourselves from discussing these things we perpetuate the stigma that drives people away from seeking treatment. We are more scared of the consequences of admitting depression than we are the consequences of not being treated, and oh my god, how awful is that? I’m pretty sure the mental health professional community has been watching us in horror for years, waiting for us as a profession to finally say yeah, we could probably use some assists here.
So while asking someone if they are ok and offering virtual hugs is lovely and kind, I really think the time has come to try and do something a little more impactful. Open dialogue is a good place to start. So let me share some things that I have discovered over time, watching us wring our hands in despair over and over while we wonder what we could have done differently:
1. You would not believe how many other people out there are going through the same thing.
People at the top of their field, with lovely families and good jobs and beautiful dogs. People who seem to have it all together. And maybe they do, if they have good treatment.
2. I wish someone had told me about these things in vet school.
I thought I was the only person plagued by worry and self-doubt in school. In retrospect, ha! That was really not the case. Nonetheless, a little peer-to-peer support or support from people already out there would have been very reassuring. I believe we need to start letting people know at the start of their career, not at the middle or end, that stress/anxiety/depression/burnout are common, but solvable problems.
3. There’s support, although it’s hard to find.
Do you know what the hardest part was for me about getting through my depression? Figuring out who to call. My OB didn’t help, the psychiatrists she gave me the numbers for didn’t take on new cases, I wasn’t actively suicidal, and by the fourth call I was too tired to deal with it any more. So I laid on the bathroom floor for a few more days until I had the lightbulb idea to call my primary care physician, who was horrified and got me in that afternoon and life got a lot better after that.
I feel like our profession is still in the same place. Help should be very visible and easy to access, a rope already floating in the water instead of a life preserver someone has to yell for when they are drowning. Want to really do something to make our profession better? Help me figure out how to make that happen.
So you think you’re depressed/ burned out/ feeling off? Take a deep breath, you are in good company. You do not stop being a successful professional and accomplished person. Life can be good and you can still rock out and kick ass and laugh till your cheeks hurt. Here’s some places to start:
1. There is active peer support, through VIN, and on Facebook. A closed group has been started on Facebook for people dealing with these issues as well as their family and friends- to request membership, click here. Peer support is fundamental, though of course it is not a substitute for-
2. Calling your primary care physician, who if they cannot handle it themselves can at least get you where you need to go. I guarantee you every mental health professional out there is going “uh, of course,” at every thing I have said because they are experienced in these things, while we are not.
3. Stop googling. Seriously, all you will do is come out blaming yourself for not juicing enough and while it is a lovely way to get vitamins, it’s probably not going to be enough. Talk to a pro, just like we tell people to stop treating their dog’s ear infections with diluted alcohol that they read about on a yahoo group and go to the vet. Right?
4. VetGirl has offered their excellent webinar about suicide awareness available for free, for everyone. It is well worth the watch not for anyone who works in the field to help increase your understanding of the issue. You can find it here.
5. VIN is offering a webinar this Sunday at 9 pm PST to honor Dr. Yin and discuss “Dealing With You and Your Colleagues’ Stress and Depression.” My understanding is that this webinar will be made available to non-VIN members as well, so stay tuned as I get more information. Both webinars, by the way, are taught by mental health professionals who know their stuff.
I will be honest and admit I hate overly sentimental statements accompanied by soft-focus ocean pictures like “fall into my arms and I will catch you” and “the world is full of hugs if you just ask for them” and all that other stuff, so I will offer you my own personal unfiltered thoughts on this:
Depression sucks, and it’s real, a physiological crap storm of neurotransmitters, and if you are reading this experiencing a dawning sense of dread with unasked-for tears rolling down your face as you desperately say nonononononono I’m fine, you might not be. So call someone who can help so you can stop feeling miserable, ok? Do it today.
OK maybe one overly sentimental picture. But just one, and only because kittens. And with that, I demand some good news so we can get back to our regularly scheduled program of fur removal device discussions and derpy dog pics.
This has been an almost unbearably terrible week for those in the veterinary profession, and those who love animals. First the awful news that Dr. Sophia Yin had passed away, and then not one day later, we learned of the passing of another tremendous voice and educator, Dr. Lorie Huston.
Like many of you I considered Dr. Huston a friend. She was extremely well regarded for her work online as the Voice of Pet Care with the Pet Healthcare Gazette, her many contributions to various publications, and most recently her position as president of the Cat Writer’s Association. But I think even more than her fantastic work, she was admired for her kindness.
Her gentle manner and empathy were unrivaled, and a shining example of the compassion that veterinarians so often extend to animals but sometimes struggle to extend to each other. She never had an unkind word for anyone. I don’t know how she did it. She made me want to be more like her.
As a denizen of the online community, I have nothing tangible to offer in condolences, no casseroles to deliver, no walls to place a white flower upon. All I have are words, those intangible, ethereal ideas that seem so unremarkable in the face of such sadness, and my attempt to express them in the hopes that in some small way they help someone else understand what Dr. Lorie was all about. And because I cannot bear to cry any more today, I want to instead share a story that will maybe make those of you who knew her smile a little through your tears.
The Marble Room Incident
A couple of years ago, the AVMA national convention was in San Diego. I touched base with Dr. Huston and learned she would be attending, and made plans to meet up with her at the Winn Feline Foundation booth, where Dr. Huston was sharing the work the foundation is doing to advance the health and well-being of cats. Dr. Huston had six cats, six well-loved, adored felines.
“Shall we go get dinner?” I asked, and she said she thought that would be a good idea. We walked a little bit through the Gaslamp district, and as I was starting to get tired I saw the name of a restaurant I had been to before and said, “How about the Marble Room? They’re great.” Lorie agreed.
I had been to the Marble Room with my husband shortly after it opened, a throwback steak house type place with amazing truffle fries. That was how I remembered it. No one told me they had changed ownership.
We sat outside since it was a pleasant evening, which in retrospect was an error since had I gone in I would have seen the new theme: old timey bordello masquerading as a saloon. Within a minute, what I thought was a streetwalker but was instead an embarrassed-looking server in a too-tight corset and can-can skirt asked us what we would like to drink.
“Iced tea,” Lorie said with a pleasant smile, as I sat horrified. “Me too,” I squeaked out. “Are these uniforms new?”
The server nodded with a frown, trying not to catch the edge of the menus on her fishnets.
A quick Google search would have helped immensely in this situation.
So Lorie and I shared a pleasant meal of not-quite-as good as I remember truffle fries while we talked about the role social media played in the evolution of veterinary medicine.
As always happened when we spoke, I was blown away by how sharp she was- never mind her calm and quiet demeanor, her brain was always churning away a million miles an hour about what the next big step was in improving the human-animal bond. Her greatest gift, as many of you know, was in explaining these complicated health concepts in concise and clear language. She made medicine accessible, and to those like me who knew medicine, she made social media accessible too.
Midway though dinner, she excused herself to find the ladies room. When she returned, she assured me that she located it just fine. When I followed suit a moment later, wedging between red leather banquettes towards the back, I saw that the hall leading to the ladies room was hard to miss as it was covered in, uh, tasteful I guess, nudes. I paused a moment to dab my forehead with cold water, mortified that I took poor, sweet Dr. Lorie to the world’s tackiest themed restaurant for subpar potatoes.
Seriously, naked people everywhere.
When I returned, Lorie was talking to the server and quite kindly ignoring her attempts to hold her top up as she cleared the plates. “I am so sorry,” I said. “This is not the place I remember.”
“Oh no, it was delicious,” she said kindly, ignoring the rest of the situation. “The truffle fries were excellent. Thank you.”
And that was Dr. Lorie, always. Gracious to a fault. She was generous with her friendship, advice, and compliments, even when they were not deserved, even when her friend subjected her to an awkward, PG-13 rated evening out after a long day at the conference booth.
She will be missed.
When I was in school, I accumulated a lot of textbooks. Books from the titans, the Nelsons and the Feldmans and the Fossums. I stood in line at the bookstore with these heavy tomes weighing me down, and noticed every other person in line with a tiny mahogany text balanced on top of their piles.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“The Nerdbook,” they said. “I heard you can’t make it through vet school without it.”
I had an earlier edition, because I’m old.
They were right. I spent many hours in rounds with my Nerdbook balanced on my lap, trying to look up answers to questions before the clinican called on me. It was unlike any other book I ever owned: concise, easy to navigate, organized by clinical signs to be completely usable. I heard it was written by a veterinary student, which made sense because it was so perfect for the way we used it, but also made no sense because who had time to write a book in vet school?
“Some gunner student a few years back,” I was told. “She was brilliant.” The author? Sophia Yin.
It was the only book I brought to the teaching hospital each and every day, taking it with me the following year into clinical practice: highlighted, scribbed on, well-loved. One time, I made a diagnosis that my clinician, a man who had been in practice for 167 years, said was impossible. “How did you know to put that on your differential diagnosis list?” he asked, before telling me I would be an amazing internal medicine resident. “Oh you know,” I said, but the answer was it was in the Nerdbook. Dr. Yin told me. The Nerdbook was everything. My techs used to hide it from me sometimes just to watch me panic for a few minutes.
Dr. Yin’s name popped up again soon after I began work, this time as a behavior expert. When she got into practice, she again sensed a void: a need for reasoned, science-based behavior approaches that would keep pets in homes and out of shelters. It’s hard to imagine now, but in the early 2000’s behavior was held in lower regard than specialties like neurology or internal medicine, a fluffball elective. “Nothing in life is free”, the foundation of positive reward based training, was in its infancy. Alpha rolling was still the norm in many circles, and training programs based on shock collars were being franchised left and right.
She helped lay the groundwork for what we now view as the best science-based approach to training, one of the most fundamental paradigm changes in our field in the last decade. Dr. Yin became a world-renowned behavior expert and fierce advocate for positive training, an amazing communicator whose lectures were always overflowing into the halls by an audience who finally recognized that her advice, when passed onto clients, was saving lives.
Though she was often known as a dog behaviorist, I remember her most for a series of cat lectures I attended at Western around the time Apollo was marking in the house. My husband was about to lock him permanently in the garage. In one hour, she gave me enough actionable tips to fix the problem, for me, and later on for clients and blog readers. Those tips keep animals out of shelters and in homes.
Dr. Sophia Yin- you are missed.
Dr. Yin’s latest work is, again, revolutionary. As a board member for Dr. Marty Becker’s Fear Free Practice movement, she is one of the key figures teaching us low-stress restraint techniques that change the way we practice medicine. It makes sense, right? Why do we just accept the fact that pets hate the vet? Why do we not try to make it better? Just this week I used a technique of hers I watched on video to help bring a frightened cat out from under the bed; he was already ill and the last thing he needed was more terror. Dr. Yin’s reach and her influence is everywhere, her touch felt every day in the way we practice modern medicine with compassion.
Dr. Yin was the best of what veterinary medicine is all about, a passionate veterinarian, a dedicated revolutionary, a person whose accomplishments knew no bounds, an inspirer of colleagues. Her unexpected passing has left so many saddened; I hope her family and friends know just how much she was beloved by so many people. Thank you Dr. Yin for everything. You will be sorely missed.
My first year of practice, I was talking to an owner in an exam room when I saw her eyes go wide and she yelled, “SPIDER!”
I looked down and saw a large arachnid crawling across the table towards her poodle. Without missing a beat, I grabbed a large drug compendium and put an end to the assault. The lady looked up, cocked her head, and said, “I guess you don’t love all the animals, then.”
I felt terrible, actually. My grandmother would not have approved. She would capture daddy longlegs in little glasses and transport them outside, or just as frequently, leave them alone. “They eat bugs,” she said. “It’s bad luck to kill them,” she said.
But I didn’t live with my grandmother, my dad’s mother. I lived with my mom, who learned from her mom that the best way to deal with a spider was a Dr. Scholl’s sandal, the one with the big wooden sole.
I think about that day, and how I would have to make up for it lest I be followed through my life by angry hordes of spiders. As you are about to see, I think I’m still paying.
Yesterday, the kids called me in to assess a spider situation in the guest bedroom. It was, they claimed, a huge spider, which could mean anything from “dime sized” on up. I went in, and yes, it was actually a huge spider. Probably an inch or two across, I didn’t get too close.
The good news was, it wasn’t a black widow or a recluse, and in the interest of being good to my grandmother’s memory I told the kids, “let’s just shoo it under the armoire. See? It’s as scared of you as you are of it.” I did not notice the tiny peals of laughter from the spider as it ran away. I did not realize she was simply approaching us with a familial sense of pride to show off her brood.
A couple of minutes later, my son came out again. “There’s a bunch more,” he said.
“What?” I asked. “Spiders?”
“Yes,” he said. “Like, 8.”
I went back into the office, a sense of disquiet taking over me. “Where?”
“On the bed,” he said.
And there, crawling all over the guest bed, was an army of teensy tiny baby spiders, which had apparently just hatched from whatever hellspawn was hiding under my armoire.
No. I do not love all the animals. This I can say now with great certainty.
Since I can’t find my flamethrower, I was stuck with simply tossing the entire set of bedding out into the courtyard with a scream and spending the next two hours vacuuming every nook and cranny in the room, stopping only long enough to call my husband on his work trip and freak out into the receiver. The mother spider, of course, was now nowhere to be found. Her work was done. For now, at least.
I was up until three in the morning startling at every shift of the bedsheet. If anyone can recommend a good pest control service in San Diego, I need one out stat. *shudder*
I remember this about September 11, 2001: I felt very lonely.
It was my senior year of veterinary school. My husband, who had only been my husband for about 2 months, was far away in San Diego. My mother was the one who called me, waking me up to tell me to turn on the news. She was alone too, as my father was on a rare business trip in Texas, one he ended up having to drive home from. We held the phones to our ears together until there was nothing more to do, so I said, well, I guess I ought to go to school.
I was doing a rotation in a lab that week, spending my day alone in a dark basement underneath the medical school looking at slides. Every few minutes I’d wander upstairs where I could get radio reception, and the other lab denizens would join me for a few minutes before we retreated back down to our holes.
Later that afternoon, after I returned home, there was a knock on the door. It was two nicely dressed missionaries. “How are you?” they asked.
“Not so great,” I said.
“Why?” they asked, genuinely concerned. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Do you have any idea what’s going on?” I asked. They shook their heads in confusion. I shut the door.
Behind me, Nuke gently pressed his head into my hip. I had adopted him the year before, thanks to my friend Dan. “I want a dog,” I had said. “A Golden, maybe, or a pug.”
“I have just the dog!” he said, before referring me to the radiology department and the 10 year old coonhound who had been getting irradiated on a weekly basis as the vet students learned how to take films.
“He’s not housebroken and doesn’t know what outside is, so he’s a little addled. If it doesn’t work out, it’s ok,” said the tech. “They were going to euthanize him so I figured, I’d give it a shot.” No pressure.
He was a little addled. He was the dumbest dog I’ve ever had. He was neurotic and howled if he was outside for more than 2 minutes because he was scared of open spaces. He refused to learn ‘sit’. I loved him.
In those long and sad days after September 11, he was my greatest comfort. He died of cancer shortly after I graduated the following year. I miss him.
This Sunday marks National Pet Memorial Day. I hope you’ll join me in thinking of those we lost, or sharing a memory below. They leave this earth but they never leave our hearts.
A week ago, I called my husband on a business trip in China for the urgent assistance in locating my DVD of Aladdin.
“Why do you need it this very second?” he asked. “You haven’t watched that in like 15 years.”
“I know,” I said, “But our daughter is singing a song from Aladdin in summer camp this week and she really, really needs to see this movie.” She’d seen it once before, years prior; my son hadn’t seen it ever. It was an unforgivable omission, one I felt an almost irresistible need to fix.
So we sat down and watched it, this movie that came out when I was still in high school, and I marvelled. The computer animation looked so dated now, the pop culture references flying over the kids’ head like a magic carpet. But it worked. It still worked, and it was all because of Robin Williams’ genius.
He wasn’t a person who had been in my thoughts much in recent times, though he was a fixture of my childhood from Mork and Mindy through Good Will Hunting, Patch Adams, Good Morning Vietnam. Watching Aladdin rekindled my interest in his unique body of work and I’ve been on a Robin Williams binge this last week- Aladdin followed by The Birdcage, Good Morning Vietnam, and Mrs. Doubtfire scheduled for later this week. Robin had, in addition to his brilliant improvisation and manic energy, an exquisite ability to layer melancholy and sweet, delving into the deepest pains of humanity in a way that made you hopeful despite its ugliness, a compassion that balanced the sometimes cruel realities of being alive. He inhabited those characters in a way few others could. Williams and Alan Alda, the actors that defined the genre for me.
That level of perception and intuition about the human condition, often begets a certain creative brilliance. Comedy relies on it. It also, as we all too well know, often drags along behind it a heavy dragline of depression. It is the contrast upon which such artistry must be laid in order to make it pop. It takes an awful lot of mental energy to wield the two simultaneously, I suspect. No one described it better than, well, himself:
Phenomenal cosmic power!
iity bitty living space.
Depression is not a fight that can be won, a demon vanquished. It’s simply there, a weight people carry around and manage the best they can. Robin wrought his depression like a kettlebell, swinging up and down and up and down and in the process put out the energy that was-is- his legacy. I can only imagine how exhausting it must have been, but he did it, over and over, though his life. He made it work for him.
He was a dog lover, you know. Of course he was, right? When you live with that kind of pressure and expectation from those around you to be on all the time- why aren’t you saying something funny?- the presence of an unconditionally accepting creature is a comfort and a joy.
Having so recently been drawn back into his life and his work and his bright eyes that never entirely belied the stormy grey beneath, I was so enjoying re-experiencing the creative rush of his work, immersed in how much he gave of himself to make others smile. Today was a shock, in many ways.
And I guess that is why so many of us are so insanely devastated, at least I know I am. He always made his depression work for him, turning the swirling rivulets of thought and extremes in his brain and transforming them into art. I see in the world the same sort of wide eyed despair that followed Kurt Cobain’s death, that sense of hope snuffed out. I think a lot of people looked up to them both. They were proof positive of the transformative power of creative will, but while Kurt succumbed at a young age, Robin managed to persevere, and that made him even more infallible in our eyes.
I thought he had it figured out. With all his success and fortune and mastery of substance abuse, he was a tick mark on the list of success stories with this particular type of chronic disease. I thought he had won the battle. I was wrong.
We are reminded today, yet again, that depression is a fire that never gets put out completely, a smolder you can never turn your back on. Never, ever.
We’ll never know why this time was different, why today was insurmountable when every other day was a day to soldier on, but the world is all the dimmer with the Genie flown back home to the Cave of Wonders, beyond the horizon and beyond our grasp. All we can do now is celebrate the shimmer he left in his wake.
Look out for one another, friends, help one another. It’s a rough world out there, and we need all the joy we can get. We need each other. Tolkien said it best: “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.” We do not.
RIP Robin, kind sir. Thank you.
In the olden days, people used to turn to carnival medicine men or the back pages of Look Magazine for the latest way to solve all of their problems. People don’t change, just the technology. Now we have the internet to turn to. If the web is to be believed, and it always is for some reason, there is a new cure for all the world’s ills. That cure is coconut oil.
It’s good for your hair, your skin, your GI tract, your dog, your mental health, and your aura. It’s anti-inflammation and pro-synergy. You can rub it on your scalp, then scrape it off and use it to cook, or sit on the leather couch and make it more supple. I don’t think there is a single malady out there that someone has not suggested coconut oil can fix:
Dry skin? Coconut oil.
Dry face? Coconut oil.
Yeast infection? You guessed it.
Alzheimer’s? Eat up.
Athlete’s foot, acne, depression, hemorrhoids, anxiety, UTI, weight loss, heartburn, autism. I guess what I’m saying is you could nuke your local CVS and be just fine as long as there was a Whole Foods next door, because coconut oil’s got you covered.
I’ve done a Whole 30 challenge, which is a no-processed food crossed with a tinge of Paleo, so I’m no stranger to coconut oil. I’ve cooked brussels sprouts in it, stirred it in my coffee, used it to make paleo pancakes. They were good.
Sadly, at the end of a jar I have to say my life has not substantially changed. Everything broken in me before is still broken. Coconut oil, while delicious and no doubt healthier than, say, margarine, has not eliminated my need for my allergy inhaler. I asked my doctor if I could try shoving coconut oil up my nose instead, just for a little while. It’s way cheaper than Dymista. She didn’t think much of the idea. When I told her I was just joking, then she sighed and said, “I get that question a lot.”
While coconut oil is unsurprisingly gaining steam in veterinary medicine, we have an equivalent that already enjoys legendary status in the home remedy category: pumpkin.
Long treated as the pet pepto-bismol, pumpkin is the go-to far various GI maladies spanning the range from constipation to diarrhea. It’s a great thing for the colon. It’s a great source of fiber and most pets will eat it. Pumpkin is Metamucil in a more holistic package.
What pumpkin is not is everything else, like an anti-emetic or anti-inflammatory or something that will teach your dog to talk. Like, it’s no coconut oil or anything.
On a friend’s Facebook page, she recently asked if it was possible for a pet to develop an allergic reaction to a food they’ve been eating for years.
10 people chimed in (correctly) that yes, this happens. Then someone said, “Why do you ask?”
“Because my dog’s been throwing up every time he eats all of a sudden.”
As a veterinarian, my mind immediately collates a list of the differentials when I hear something like this. 3 year old pit bull, history of being a destructive chewer, clearly the problem is “pumpkin deficiency.”
Which is exactly where the comment thread went.
“OMG! You need to give your dog some pumpkin.”
“Seriously! My dog loves it.”
“Pumpkin cured my dog’s farts.”
“Pumpkin is a great source of electrolytes.” And so on and so forth.
Don’t get me wrong, I like pumpkin. As far as advice on the internet goes, it’s one of the more benign things I’ve read and unlikely to cause harm. My only concern is that people recommend this in lieu of something that might actually work, such as starting with a correct diagnosis. Fortunately this person has multiple veterinary professionals on the thread, and somewhere in between pumpkin recommendations she got some solid advice.
A couple of weeks ago, my neighbor came over with her adorable 6 month old Golden Retriever. She hopped back and forth on her toes before asking me if I had any thoughts about her dog’s diarrhea.
“How long has it been going on?” I asked.
“Go to the vet.”
“We’re going tomorrow,” she said, “but in the meantime……do you have any pumpkin I can borrow?”
I did. It’s on the shelf next to the coconut oil. Hope springs eternal.
PS The dog improved dramatically … once the vet diagnosed Giardia and started Flagyl.
I am training for a half marathon.
I thought about training for a full marathon, but then the reality what that was like the last time I attempted it kicked in and I remembered that oh yeah, I don’t like to run. I think you can do a full marathon once when you don’t like to run, just to say you did (Rock n Roll 2001 for me), but after than there’s really nothing to prove other than, “oh yeah, this hurts.”
A half marathon though, is doable. Still not fun, but manageable. I have decided, along with my friend from the gym who I kind of hate because she keeps inviting me to things such as “Summer Boot Camp!” and “Half marathon! It’ll be fun!” and I keep saying yes, that should we complete this without killing ourselves, maybe, just maybe, we will try and tackle a triathlon before our 40th birthdays.
Do they let people leisurely triathlon these days? All my competitiveness gets used up in my professional life so I have none left over for this.
Anyway, the point is I am doing this and it’s a grind, but I keep remembering that health is a gift and blah blah blah; I’m training with a group because it’s the only way I will drag myself out of bed at 6 am for the long Saturday runs.
Brody doesn’t come with me on those. He can manage shorter distances, but he’s made it clear he’s not yet ready for anything over 3 miles, tops, despite his summer cut. I appreciate that.
This Saturday I ran (‘ran’?) 9 miles, which sounds alternatively fantastic and psssshaw depending on where on the running spectrum you fall. To me, this is the longest distance I’ve done in a single day since I staggered off Mt Meru a few years ago, and that was because I had to since there was no oxygen up at the top.
I’m hunched over because I couldn’t straighten up, not because I voluntarily felt like standing that way. Teri is hanging on for dear life.
So after 9 miles, at the end of which I realized my entire body was numb from the waist down, I came home and sat on the floor to stretch. Soon enough I was laying on the floor, like one of those crime scene outlines.
020 0120 7141 023 0123 7173 Small is Beautiful Floor Black Still Life, by Steve James on Flicker
I began to appreciate why dogs do this, this splat sort of positioning. The wood was cool. Soon I melted and became one with the floor. Why don’t I do this more often? I wondered, and when my daughter asked me why I was doing that I realized it was not really possible for me to make it onto the couch at that particular moment.
Brody was excited I was in his domain, plopping down nose to nose and looking at me like, “Hey! What are you doing here?” He stared at me for a while, and then I decided I needed to stretch if I ever was to have hope of standing up again.
It went about as well as you’d expect.
Dogs don’t understand why we would come into their territory for any purposes other than play, and Brody was having none of it. He laid on my foot, licked me in downward dog, and dumped a soggy tennis ball on my stomach when I tried to stretch out my hip. It’s clear I’m not alone in this.
Dogs are awesome at many things, but sitting quietly by while you sit on the floor and bend into weird shapes is not one of them. If you’re going to goof off, they figure, might as well let me in on the fun.
Anyone else have a dog who simply won’t let you on the floor by yourself?
When I took my son in for his first routine eye exam, I had no idea he needed glasses. Neither did he. He seemed fine, wasn’t running into things, was reading fine in school, but nonetheless the optometrist suggested glasses. OK, I said, let’s give it a shot.
One week later, his glasses arrived and we went into the office to pick them up. He picked them up dubiously, slid them over the bridge of his nose, and stood there for a moment, blinking as the refracted light hit his retina in new and improved ways.
He spun, slowly, taking it all in. His lips twitched, burbling with something important. When he could no longer hold it in, he opened his mouth and shouted, “I CAN SEEEEEE!!!!”
Boy did I feel like a horrible mom as the assorted clients turned to see this blind boy get his sight back.
Later that week I was sharing this story with a friend. As we were talking, her daughter picked up my kid’s glasses and put them on just for fun to see how weird things looked.
She came over and tugged on her mom’s sleeves. “Hey mom. Things look pretty good with these things on. I think I can’t see too well.” Then I felt less bad. It happens to us all.
We thought things were fine, my kid thought things were fine, and then someone with tools I didn’t have access to and the ability to evaluate things said, “Actually, life can be even better.” And it was.
I think of this all the time when people say, “Oh, Buster’s doing fine, he doesn’t need an exam or meds or anything.” To a client’s eye, he is fine. His gait is the same it’s always been. But I can pick up things they don’t, that slight crunchy feeling in the knee, a stiffness when I extend the leg. It took some doing, but we convinced that lab’s owner to try some Rimadyl.
Or the dachshund who came in for a routine dental. “He’s fine,” the owner reported. “He eats kind of slow but he’s been that way since we adopted him two years ago.” When we opened his mouth, the fetid odor of eight rotting teeth hit my nostrils, teeth held in by tartar more than by tissue at that point. It took some doing, but we convinced the owner to let us remove them.
In both cases, we got a call about a week later to marvel about this new dog in the house. “He’s like a puppy again! I can’t believe his energy! Who IS this dog?” Like my son spinning around in the optometrist office, they had a problem they didn’t even realize existed lifted from their shoulders, and got to experience something better for the first time.
In the year since their last eye exam, both kids seem to be perfectly fine, but I took them in dutifully anyway. Both of them need new prescriptions. This time, I don’t feel so bad. Big things we notice- small ones? Not always.
It isn’t my job to evaluate such things in my kids, or to be able to recognize the more subtle signs of something needing help. All I need to do is get them to someone who can, on a regular basis. Next stop: orthodontist. Lord help us all.
Just a little reminder to everyone that there is a reason we recommend yearly (twice yearly, for older pets) checkups at the vet. We’ll probably find things you weren’t aware of, and that’s OK. That’s what we’re here for! Every pet deserves the revelation of improved health.
In the depth of my despair when Apollo was dying, the medical resident at the specialty hospital made a comment I will never forget.
He was dying of a blood clot, a sequelae of hyperthyroidism and heart disease. I was in shambles, having come home from the gym to find him immobile on the couch, and rushed in straightaway, sweaty and spandex-y. I scribbled his medical history as quickly as I could, which the resident pored over with her intern as I sat in the room planning to say goodbye. I knew at that point it was coming, I was just waiting for confirmation of the diagnosis.
I had checked ‘yes’ to allergies, in the interest of being thorough.
“What allergies?” the resident asked.
“Food allergies,” I said. “Chicken.”
She paused, and shared a knowing glance with the intern. “And how do you know this?”
I blinked. “I’m sorry?”
“How do you know he has food allergies? Did you just assume, or did you actually test him?”
“I….I did an elimination diet, 10 weeks…not the full 12…. but it was obvious by that point,” I stammered, though what I really wanted to say is “WHAT THE HECK (ok maybe another word) DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH THE PROBLEM AT HAND?? WHO CARES HOW HE WAS DIAGNOSED WITH AN UNRELATED MANAGED CHRONIC CONDITION A DECADE AGO??”
But you know, I just sat there because what are you going to do.
OK sure, let’s talk more about Hills z/d and then can you please get this cat some morphine?
Now, I understand that a teaching hospital is going to teach, but from the patient perspective I suppose I would appreciate the teaching being limited to the issue at hand instead of using an emergency cardiac event to make a point on dermatology. I don’t know if it was that, or the way she asked the question as if she were sure I was going to give the wrong answer, that rubbed me the wrong way. I also had to tell her not once but twice that I didn’t want to hospitalize him on the off chance his clot might dissolve enough to give us another month at home. We didn’t hit it off.
Fortunately I didn’t see her after that and was turned over to the lovely cardiologist who looked and talked like Oberyn Martell and understood when I said, “Please confirm my suspicion so I can give him a peaceful goodbye at home”, but it really reminded me, from the other side of the table, how hard it is to be a patient advocate for our pets. I knew what I was doing and I still had to push a little. It was a lonely experience.
It’s even worse in human medicine, as this ER physician who was hit by a car will attest to. Without someone who knows what’s going on to oversee the process and keep the focus on the overall wellbeing of the patient, things fall through the cracks. Flustered and underinformed family members get confused. Specialists focus on this problem or that problem and not the patient. How can we do better?
Um, no, actually.
In human medicine, many hospitals now have designated patient advocates who serve as an invaluable liaison between a family and a healthcare provider. In veterinary medicine, it’s not something I’ve ever heard of, so we’re stuck with ourselves, the vet clinic, or the internet to help us make sense of complicated issues, to understand why the vet wants to do this or that and to empower clients to make informed decisions, including “No.” It’s not the ideal system, clearly.
I wonder if people would benefit from a neutral third party patient advocate group in veterinary medicine. I think things are only going to get more complicated from here on out, and as both a patient and a vet I think that sort of thing could only help. Food for thought.
Have you ever felt confused and not sure how to proceed with your pet? Would it have been helpful to have a pet care advocate to serve as a liaison?
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