Taking Back The Cat

 

Boston can be a cruel city, and not just because of the weather, although it is forty degrees, windy and raining right now.  It is an expensive place to live and eat, the drivers are daunting, and everyone always seems to be in a hurry.  A year ago I spend three anxious days here with my daughter, a newly minted MD, desperately trying to find a place that was reasonably close to the hospital she is training in, affordable, and cat friendly.  As they say, “two out of three ain’t bad.”  We found a boxy one bedroom in a high rise a short distance from the Longwood area, and for a mere two hundred dollars extra deposit, she was allowed to bring her cat.  But affordable, this place is not.

 

Medical school can be a difficult and alienating experience, and if you’ve lived your whole life with warm fuzzy creatures all around, as my daughter had, there is only a brief period of excitement about a new city and a new endeavor before you begin to miss the cat curled on your lap when you study, the dog whining for attention and giving you an excuse to give up your books and go for a walk.  Despite the uncertainty of her future, my daughter found herself at the Houston Humane Society, staring into the cage of a ten month old kitten too old to be particularly cute and too plain to attract the attention of the numerous seekers dotting the rows of cages filled with sadness and longing.  A few hours later, she brought the malnourished and worm ridden little gray-brown tabby home, and christened him “Bitty Kitty.”  Several vet visits later, the worms were gone, but the effects of early starvation were not, and he has remained, as an adult, a very tiny cat.

 

A year later, with every month just a little bit more money going out than coming in, my daughter realized that if she stays where she is, her life savings will be completely gone before she finishes her residency.  She looked long and hard, in every spare hour she had, for a less expensive place, still close to the hospital, where she could still keep her cat.  Again, she achieved two out of three goals.  She found the perfect place, much less expensive than where she is living now, within walking distance.   But the cat is verboten.  No cat, no way, not even a tiny one that doesn’t cause any trouble.  She called me weeping, for advice.  I said, “I’ll take the cat.”

 

History has a way of repeating itself.  Thirty-five years ago I was accepted into a residency program at the same teaching hospital she is training at now.   I had a dog, the very first dog I bought, raised and trained all by myself.  Shandy was a collie in the old tradition of Lassie, and he was beautiful, and intelligent and my constant companion.   When I heard on Match Day that I was going to Boston, my only thought was to find a place where I could keep my dog—a large dog at that.  I came and I looked and looked and trust me, there was NO apartment within 20 miles of the city that would let me keep a large dog, or any dog, locked behind closed doors all day, and sometimes all night, because interns keep terrible hours.  I came to my senses when I realized that I knew no one in the city, and that it would be unfair to my dog to keep him.  Heartbroken, I did my best to find him a good home, with a surgeon who later moved to Ohio.  He did not keep in touch.

 

It’s been awhile since we lost old Timmy Tom at nearly eighteen years of age.  Although I have missed having a cat, I have not missed cleaning up kitty litter.  Still, I felt myself weakening recently when I spied a large male orange tabby being offered by a local cat rescue group. He stared at me and purred. But something made me hesitate, and now I know why.  On Wednesday I will depart Boston for San Diego with Bitty Kitty in hand.  He may be small, but he is mighty.  Those deerhounds better watch out.  The cat is back.

Closing up Shop

They say that as we age, time accelerates.  Those endless waits for summer vacations, Christmas and our birthdays that we experienced at age six, become a mere blink of an eye at age sixty.  And if you’re approaching sixty, you will remember, like I do, those old Kodak commercials:  “Turn around, turn around, turn around and they’re gone.”  Indeed they are.

 

A few weeks ago I visited a good friend in Arizona.  We were talking about her horse, a beautiful and rare Fell pony that she bought as a two year old stud colt, mahogany bay and full of promise.  She has had very little time to train or ride him, and now gelded, he lives on her small ranch, solitary and unworked.  I asked her, “What are you going to do with Scooby?  He’s six and a half now, and he’s being wasted.  Surely there are people who would love to have him as a riding or driving pony!”  She protested, “There is NO way he could be six years old already!”  I replied, “Oh yes, he most certainly is—I remember driving with my daughter from California to Texas four years ago when she started medical school.  We stopped in to see your new horse. You had just gotten him—he was two and a half. You know she is graduating in two months.”  She was completely taken aback.  How is it possible that four years have gone by this quickly?

 

Four years ago we came to Texas and looked at condominiums to buy.  Texas is very supportive of its young doctors in training—if you become a homeowner, after one year you qualify to become a state resident, and the cost of attending medical school drops by two thirds.  Texas of course, has that Texan way of thinking—if you live here for a few years, and grow to know and love the state, you won’t ever want to leave.  In many cases, it’s true, and those of us who eventually do leave feel pangs of regret and forever when asked, we say, “I’m from Texas.”  Four years ago, we looked at my parents condominium—empty and unused after they retired and left for the mountains of Aspen, Colorado.  The maintenance costs were too high, and we settled on a nice one bedroom within walking distance from the Texas Medical Center, the Museum District and the live oak shaded avenues around Rice University.  My daughter has loved living here, in this light filled place with her cat perched on the eighth floor windowsill.

 

My parents’ place is now “under agreement” and I spent the day Thursday sorting through their possessions that remain there.  Today my daughter and I will do the same for her place, and this afternoon we meet with a realtor.  Four years—still a near eternity for her, with the rigors of medical school being what they are.  For me, a mere blink of an eye.

Cold Roast Beef

Just when you thought I had finished talking about Thanksgiving, here it is again. A few weeks ago, between patients, I was catching up with other physicians’ blogs. Yes, readers, I have discovered that I am not the only one, nor am I the most articulate or humorous or erudite MD to put fingers to keyboard. Some of my fellow writers are very very good, and when I can figure out to get a blog roll going on the sidelines of my page, I will share their sites with you. Anyway, I came across an essay by a medical student where she thanked her cadaver for allowing her to learn by his donation of his body “to science.” For those of you who don’t know what happens when one donates one’s body to science, I can tell you that most of the time the final resting place is the medical school anatomy lab. Here the alpha of gross anatomy is the human upper arm, where the ropey bundle of nerves which makes up the brachial plexus is dissected free in order for the student to understand the complexity of how we use that delicate instrument, the human hand. The omega, or the last body part dissected, is the brain.

 
So the thing about her essay which really struck me, besides her sincerity, was one sentence, paraphrased here—“I don’t think I’ll ever eat roast beef again.” That one line took me right back to medical school and my own gross anatomy lab where I too dissected a human being, thirty seven years ago. Back in those days, before the Health Information Privacy laws of 1996 gave us the right to keep sensitive health issues anonymous and long before we willingly gave up that right by broadcasting every sniffle and sneeze on Facebook, cadavers were actually sent to the anatomy lab still wearing their hospital bracelets. My man’s last name shall remain with me, but his first name was Herman and I even knew his birthday. Before you exclaim, “How AWFUL!” think about it. To me and the preceptor and the three other members of my team, this man was not just a body to be dissected—he had been a living breathing human named Herman who had thought enough of the process of training young doctors to give us himself—all of him. It was personal.

 
In death, the body gives up all of its secrets. Herman gave me my first experience of seeing cancer from the inside out. He died of lung cancer, and his lungs were full of tumors, as were his liver, his bones and even the soft tissues of the muscles of his body. We dissected and discussed our findings during the long days, reeking of formaldehyde. Gradually through the course of a semester, I discovered the evil and relentless nature of his disease. One night after anatomy lab I dreamed that I took him home with me. I laid him down on my living room couch. He did not talk; he did not move. He was just there, with flesh the color of old roast beef. The dream was very real and I woke up half expecting to walk into my living room and see him there on the couch. It was years before I could eat roast beef again.

 
Three years ago at Thanksgiving, I decided that I would cook a whole beef tenderloin, in addition to having the traditional turkey. After all, I’m a carnivorous Texan and red meat is not that bad for you if you don’t eat it all the time. This year, with a twenty five pound turkey, a four pound beef tenderloin and only nine people to feed, we had lots of leftovers. As I loaded a plate with sliced beef, done to a perfect medium rare, I had a transient moment of discomfort, a slight sensation of nausea, and a very brief flashback to Herman and anatomy lab. Next year, perhaps I will do a lasagna, or a nice fettucine alfredo instead!