An 80-year-old illustration of why I love my job
We were all told somewhere along the line in veterinary school that we each had a reason for wanting to practice veterinary medicine. It might be money, fame, the challenge of medicine and surgery, compassion for animals or the gratitude of owners when we helped their animals. By the end of our careers, our instructors continued, it would be fairly obvious just what motivated us in this profession.
I have watched 27 years of practice pass by and wondered several times where I fit into this list. I think most veterinarians have a compassion for animals, so that one’s a given. But what has kept me going for all of that time? The case I am about to describe illustrates perfectly why I love this job so much.
Benny was an 80-year-old man I’d never met before. He stood before me with a 20-year-old gelding that had a tremendously damaged left hock. All the skin was gone over the dorsal side of that area of the leg, and the joint was open and contaminated. The gentle old gelding stood on the other three legs with both ears hanging low and a sad expression in his eyes.
“That’s a terrible injury sir,” I said with as much compassion and realism as I could muster. “I’m afraid that joint is badly infected and it looks like it’s been injured a few days already. There’s dirt in the joint and no living skin left to suture. I’m not sure how effective treatment is gonna be, and it could sure run into a lot of money and still not save your horse.”
“What are you saying, veterinary man?” Benny demanded. “I drove 100 miles to get this horse here to you and I didn’t come all that way for a pessimist to tell me it can’t be fixed. I was hoping I had come to a place that had a staff with some confidence and know-how, but it appears I was wrong. I’m an old man, and that horse is my best friend. Now fix him and I’ll be back to get him in a couple of weeks when he’s well.”
My intern and I stood without moving as Benny glared at us from under the brim of his cowboy hat. Eventually he ambled over and got in his truck and drove away. As the truck disappeared down the road, I wondered if that guy had smiled once in his life.
“Do you think there’s any chance of fixing that?” the intern asked.
“It’s bad,” I replied. “I’ve never seen a joint that messed up get happy, but let’s give it a try.”
“That old dude has no idea how bad that leg is,” said the intern. “He seems to think it’ll just be a couple of weeks of hydrotherapy and he’ll be rounding up cattle again. You didn’t even tell him how much it’s gonna cost, and he never asked. Usually when people don’t ask, it means they don’t intend on paying.”
“I bet he’ll pay,” I said. “Get started on it. I don’t think he’s as grumpy as he puts on.”
So we went to work. It was a tough case with many chances for failure along the way. We were about four days into treatment when Benny’s adult grandson showed up at the clinic. He was a kind man with a sincere expression who had seen the injury and knew how bad it was.
He told us all about it—not the injury, but the story of Benny. The old cowboy had cancer. It had been diagnosed about three months ago and it was not a good kind. That horse was his best friend and he rode it every day to check cattle in his pastures. It was the only horse he trusted, and at 80, getting pitched off could be deadly. Everyone in the county had offered to give him a gentle gelding to substitute, but he told them if he couldn’t ride his horse, he wasn’t gonna ride at all.
The grandson said Benny would be in cancer therapy and surgery for the next three months and that if we could get that horse fixed and ready to ride by the time they released him for horseback, it would be better therapy than the entire world of medicine could offer.
Luck was on our side. We worked hard and the horse was a great patient. In three months the leg had healed beyond what I’d even hoped for. But we hadn’t heard a word from the old cowboy. He wouldn’t answer his phone, and we didn’t have the grandson’s number.
One morning I got to work and the grandson was in the parking lot with a trailer. He walked across the parking lot with a halter, ready to take ol’ gray home.
Two days later I got a message on Facebook from the grandson. It was a picture of Benny gathering a pasture of cows on that horse with a smile on his face that glowed like the sun. The caption was simple: “Thank you, doc. You made one old man happy again! First time he has smiled in half a year.”
After 27 years I know the reason I do this every day. Yes, it’s to help that old horse and every patient like him that comes in. Yes, it’s to make money and take care of the people who work with me and my family. Yes, it’s to have some notoriety and face the challenges of hard cases.
But after all this time, Benny’s story may be my true motive. I have 50 close friends who are veterinarians in small towns and giant cities, and I know they feel the same way. There’s just nothing better than watching people smile because some horse, dog, cat or other such critter is still in their lives, and we had something to do with keeping it that way.