Medicine at the Crossroads

 

        “When you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will.”    Pollyanna

 

I try not to spend too much time on Facebook, but it’s always been a good way to keep up with “friends” in the Scottish Deerhound world.  The deerhound, being a rare breed, tends to link people across the country, and indeed the world, who have similar interests.  Lately though, the deerhound people haven’t been discussing dogs much.  Instead, they’ve been discussing their terrible experiences with the world of medicine.  One owner described being admitted through the emergency room of her local hospital for stroke-like symptoms.  By the evening of her second day of admission, she complained that she had not yet been seen by a physician.  Another complained that a family member had just been diagnosed with Type I diabetes, but was initially given an appointment with an endocrinologist in six weeks—completely unacceptable in this situation by any standard of care.  I am of course compelled by pride to speak up and defend my profession, but not without an increasing sense of embarrassment for what used to be considered a noble calling.

After I published my piece on the fatal shooting of Dr. Michael Davidson, I was contacted by Carey Goldberg, reporter and co/host of CommonHealth (http://commonhealth.wbur.org/) and asked what struck me the most about the nearly 200 comments left on the essay when it was picked up by KevinMD.com.  Here is what I replied, “There were several reasons that Dr. Davidson’s death hit me particularly hard, even though I never met him.  One reason was that I trained at the Harvard teaching hospitals, Beth Israel for Internal Medicine and MGH for Radiation Oncology, so this hit close to “home” especially with my daughter being there.  But more importantly, I come from a medical family–grandfather was a dentist, father (now 89 years old) is a world renowned plastic surgeon–and in my lifetime of 61 years, I have seen the sad decline of public affection and respect for physicians.  When I was a child, people would stop me on the street to tell me how wonderful my father was.  Now, when I sit in on conversations among people who do not know I am an MD, I hear nothing but derision if not outright hatred.  There are many, many more people, as evidenced by the response to my blog piece, who feel slighted not only by “the system” but also by their physicians.”

And why not?  Articles such as this, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/30/business/medicare-payments-surge-for-stents-to-unblock-blood-vessels-in-limbs.html on the front page of the New York Times continue to erode patients’ faith in their physicians to “do the right thing.”  Patients despair when they cannot get appointments to see their doctors in a timely fashion and when they are seen, that their doctors don’t spend enough time with them or explain things to them.  They despair over the cost of care in increasingly difficult economic times. But doctors are in despair also, at the ever increasing bureaucracy of medicine, the insurance conglomerate which makes documentation, authorization and billing a nightmare, the takeover of large segments of medicine by for profit corporations and the heightened expectations for positive outcomes fueled in part by misleading advertising by those same corporations.  Many have come to feel that the sacrifices, both personal and economic, that they made in order to go to medical school were just not worth it.

I do not pretend to have any answers to the multiple crises that contributed to the death of Dr. Davidson, or the current climate in which doctors and patients must function.  I wish I did. But I do have a request for both my patients and others, and my physician colleagues, as well as my Facebook friends and the media.  Let us try once again to see the good in one another again, and not just the bad.  We’re all human, and at some point we are all going to get sick.  For better or for worse, we depend on one another.

It’s Been Awhile

Back in late September, my friends asked me if I was worried about the upcoming move to New Mexico.  I replied, no, it would be a piece of cake compared to my earlier cross country move from Boston to California.  After all, in 1993, I said goodbye to our babysitter of nine years and packed up three kids, a dog and a cat to move to a city where I did not know a single soul.  I will never forget walking into the principal’s office at our new elementary school, filling out the registration forms, and realizing that for the first time ever in my life, I had not a single name to fill in the blank space which said “Who to contact in case of an emergency.”  I was starting from scratch.

As it happens, I had seriously underestimated the effort required to detach from a home I lived in for seventeen years, from my accumulated belongings and from my youngest son and my elderly father, neither of whom desired to join me on my journey.  As sentimental as I am, it was impossible to merely throw things away—old photographs had to be examined and scanned, stuffed animals and dolls needed to be hugged one last time, old movie ticket stubs and playbills needed to reawaken memories before being tossed.  Each time I carried a large green trash bag out of the house, the closets, nooks and crannies seemed to refill themselves.  In the end, I ran out of time, and the movers packed what was left, which amounted to an entire moving van filled with our furniture, and over 300 boxes.  My culling was not very successful.

My biggest concern about the move itself was how my four dogs, especially elderly Magic in congestive heart failure, would handle the displacement, the two day 1,000 mile road trip and climb to 7000 feet in altitude, and the uncertainties of new territory.  As it turned out, the one that I worried about most surprised me with what appeared to be a new lease on life—clearly the cooler crisper mountain air seemed to rejuvenate him.  It was the little guy, Yoda, my tiny rescued Chihuahua-terrier mix that had some unexpected issues.

Yoda was picked up as a stray in Oakland, CA two years ago at Christmas time.  Starving and loaded with tapeworm, he jumped into the arms of a good Samaritan who stopped traffic on Fremont Avenue to pick him up. My veterinarian friend there made a search for an owner, but when none came forth she neutered him, wormed him and sent him down to me.  He quickly adjusted to life with the three jolly grey giants.  Playful and loving, he never met a soul he didn’t like and never caused us a moment of trouble–until the move.

For the first time ever, on arriving in New Mexico, Yoda suffered from severe separation anxiety.  When either my husband or I would leave the house, he would cry piteously and endlessly, despite the fact that the other of us was still there, along with his Scottish deerhound buddies. He was inconsolable. Amidst the doggy distress, fear and consternation, one thing became clear to me—at some point in his short life, he had been left behind.  And he did not want it to happen again.

Yoda has settled down now and he knows that if we leave the house we are coming back.  But his little trauma has left me with a New Year’s wish for us all:   Be brave!  Make a change.  Take a short trip, or a long journey, with your best friends and your family.  Yoda wants what we all want in our own way–to live, love and laugh—and never, ever to be left behind.   Happy New Year everyone!

Do Dogs Know They are Dying?

Labor Day, 2006, is a day I will never forget.  It was a gorgeous day here in San Diego—bright, sunny and nearly 90 degrees.  I decided it was a perfect day to give the dogs an outdoor bath.  At the time, we had Valentine, the matriarch at nearly twelve years old, Izzy who was four, and the two young  ones Magic and Angelina who were two years old.  We started with Valentine—at her age she’d had a little problem with urinary incontinence, and she needed her bath the most.  We knew that the coiled up hose sitting in the sun on that hot afternoon had enough warm water to bathe her in, so my daughter and I mixed shampoo in a bucket of hot water from the kitchen sink, and just outside the garage, we soaped her up.  She seemed to be enjoying herself, a nice soapy massage on a beautiful day, and then a quick rinse.  As I turned to get the towel to dry her, I heard my daughter say loudly and in a panic, “VAL, DON’T FALL DOWN!”  I turned back around and she was gone, down on the wet pavement, eyes blank.  She never felt a thing.   I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the driveway with my dead dog, brushing her hair until it dried and the crematorium people came to take her away.  Needless to say, no one else got a bath that day.

I once read an essay by an oncologist who said that she hoped that she would die of cancer.   I was baffled by this, because my personal preference would be to go suddenly, of a heart attack or a massive stroke, preferably while doing something I enjoy.  But her reasoning was quite clear:  she said that with cancer, when you know that your days on earth are numbered, you still have time—time to do the things you always wanted to do, time to say good bye, time to make amends.  This has actually been true for most of my patients—when they know that they are diagnosed with a life threatening illness, their priorities change.  If they have the means, they live the lives they always wanted to live, for as long as they are able.  They remember, they forgive and they forget.  The trivialities of daily life become unimportant, except insofar as they struggle to get through them.   Many become the person they always wanted to be, and I hope that if this is my fate, I have the grace to do the same.

Today we took old Magic to the veterinary cardiologist.  Magic is my eldest deerhound—a big male at 120 pounds, and nearly ten years old.  The last two weeks have been hard for him—we’ve had thunderstorms and he has always been afraid of thunder.  In desperation over his anxiety last week I called his vet for a prescription for a tranquilizer.  It worked temporarily, but on Tuesday we had strangers in the house and he was panting, salivating, and his heart was beating far too rapidly.  I laid a hand on his chest and I knew instantly that his big old heart was failing.  Today the diagnostic echocardiogram confirmed what I already knew—that my big guy has dilated cardiomyopathy, and that he is in congestive heart failure.  We started medication immediately, and I am hoping for a few more weeks, or a few more months with this grand old man who is, as my husband says, “the dog who never did anything wrong.”

Do dogs, like humans, know when they are dying?  I don’t think so.  And in fact, for their sake, I hope not.  Unlike us, they have nothing to apologize for, and perhaps their next meal, or a walk in the park, or in a dream a wild chase after a highland stag, followed by a soft bed and the touch of a human hand is all that they hope for and dream about.  As Magic slowly made his way out of the van today onto solid ground, he was greeted warmly by Queen, Quicksilver and little Yoda.  I can no longer promise him a life beyond his years, but I promised him today that every day from now on will be the best day I can give him—lots of treats, a comfortable place to rest, and with all certainty, no more baths.

To Find, To Have and To Give Away

These days I have begun to separate my life into two separate eras which I call BE and AE, “before eBay” and “after eBay.”  How could there have been so many things in the world which I never knew that I wanted?  I think back to the early days of my marriage, when my husband and I lived in a 1400 sq ft Victorian “doll house” with wide board pine floors and a pitched roof and wonder how I managed to live without so many “accessories?”   It wasn’t until we moved to California, and bought a Spanish style home with very large rooms (“Honey, I shrunk the furniture!”) that the woman who owned the store where I bought my new furniture declared, “Now all you need to do is accessorize!”   And so I did.  Ebay became the source of my many so called “accessories,” previously known to the world of interior design by the Yiddish word “tchotchkes.”  Who knew that thistle themed items could be so attractive, and yet so ubiquitous?

The upside of eBay is that after a while you get to know who the best sellers are.  Everyone makes mistakes at first—I remember the alligator skin antique doctor’s bag which looked SO good in the pictures, but smelled SO bad when it arrived that it went straight into the outdoor dumpster by the barn, usually reserved for horse manure.  Sometimes antiques are charming and full of character.  But sometimes they are just plain old and smelly.  When I got my first deerhound many years ago, I became interested in all things Scottish, and discovered that Queen Victoria of England, was similarly enchanted with Scotland, where the royal family still maintains Balmoral Castle. In the mid to late 19th century, Scottish “pebble” jewelry became immensely popular, formed from polished agate typically surrounding a faceted cairngorm, a type of quartz mined in the Cairngorm mountains.  Brooches of this design, especially the larger ones, were commonly used on kilts, particularly to fasten the shawl or upper portion of the kilt known as the “plaid.”  In addition to beautiful rocks, Victoria also loved dogs and children, in that order– the phrase “children should be seen and not heard” is attributed to her reign. Portraits and etchings of the dog breeds she loved, including the deerhound, abound from that era.  And judging from the walls of my home, I seem to have located most of them!

For the past several years, I have put on an auction to help raise money for our West coast Scottish deerhound club.  The money raised helps us put on our annual regional show and allows us to subsidize our traditional after show dinner.  This year I did it for the National show as well.  I have discovered that my enthusiasm for Scottish and Victorian artifacts is transferable.  I mean, who DOESN’T want to picture themselves as a wild red haired Scottish lassie dancing around the May pole in the rain, or a strong handsome barrel chested kilted lad leaning against the standing stones of remote mountains?  And if you haven’t ever thought of it, tune in to the upcoming new Starz series “Outlander” and you too will be longing for a kilted man, pebble brooches, thistle emblazoned artifacts and an antique etching or two. I have begun to give away some of my collection so that others can share the romance of the Highlands.  Join us and share the fantasy—the best is yet to come.  And by the way, a deerhound puppy is a prerequisite, ye lairds and ladies!

The Mating Game

When I was a kid, we lived in the Braeswood apartment complex in Houston, TX, right next to the A & P grocery store.  There were no leash laws back then, and everyone in the complex let their dogs run loose.  I have one distinct memory of dog breeding from “back in the day”—I went outside to play in the central courtyard and saw a beautifully groomed white standard poodle who appeared to be stuck to a large black and tan shepherd mix breed male.  They were back to back, and neither seemed to be able to get away.  All I could think of was the “pushmi—pullyu” in the Doctor Dolittle books.  I asked my mother, “Why are those dogs stuck together like that?”  I was eight and she did not care to elaborate.  The strange conjoined creature finally broke apart, and approximately two months later we heard the poodle owner crying pitifully as her beautiful girl gave birth to eight brown nondescript puppies down in the laundry room.  And that was all I knew for the next forty or so years.

Although I’ve had dogs since I was ten, in 1994 I got my first “show dog,” a Scottish deerhound bitch (yes folks, get used to it—that’s what dog people call them!)  I took handling classes, learned to “stack” and “gait” her, and with the help of some very patient friends, she attained her AKC championship by the time she was two years old, and I decided to become a “breeder”.  I followed advice, bred “the best to the best” by sending her all the way back to New York to breed to a proven sire of champions, and managed to get only four puppies, two of which had short tails which did not conform to the “standard.”  At that point I came to my senses and realized that it is much easier to BUY a well-bred, healthy, beautiful dog than it is to breed one.  I returned to my regular dual careers of raising three children and working as a full time radiation oncologist and was never again tempted to breed another litter until….recently.

Many of you have read stories on this blog of my two Q’s, Scottish deerhound sisters, now AKC Grand Champions Jaraluv Queen and Jaraluv Quicksilver. They are both characters—Queen for her trick of “going through”—when she is extremely happy she celebrates by dashing between my legs, first from the front, then from the back, laughing at me all the while.  Quicksilver has different tricks—she adores her food, and when she hears her dinner being prepared, she dashes into her crate where she is fed, then pops her head in and out until the meal appears.  Queen is probably best remembered for her interview with local news after the famous deerhound Hickory Wind won Best in Show at Westminster—as the newscaster interviewed me, Queen sat like a human being on my couch, calmly picking her toenails while her sister hid behind the stereo speakers.  As I said, they are characters.

Since there were no genetically or phenotypically compatible gentlemen callers within a thousand mile radius, we decided to go with frozen semen/artificial insemination. And I will give a shout out to Carol Bardwick at www.caninecryobank.com for trying her very best. A visit to her place deserves a separate blog all on its own—later, for sure.  We tested progesterone levels, we made sure the “stuff” was shipped in from out of state on time, we made sure to dim the lights and we did our best to create a romantic mood for the “installation.”  Our timing was perfect and once released from their cryogenically sealed containers, those little swimmers were SWIMMING!  I saw them under the microscope with my own eyes.

So convinced I was that the girls were pregnant, that I failed to recognize their typical signs of post season depression.  It was morning sickness—I knew it.  I fed them Wheat Thins with cream cheese to stimulate their appetites.  I made omelets with Havarti cheese and heavy cream.  I cooked filet mignon and wild salmon.   I gained seven pounds in four weeks.  Finally, the suspense was too much.  Favoring expense over stress, I arranged for a board certified veterinary radiologist to come to my home with her ultrasound machine (after nearly buying a used veterinary ultrasound unit myself, thinking that whether they were pregnant or not, I could always check myself for gallstones!)   I watched with dismay as we went from cervix, to body of uterus, to uterine horns, to ovaries—both sides, both girls.  And saw nothing.  Nada.  Not a single puppy.

If I ever try this again, I’ll go with what a fellow deerhounder called YPF, which stands for “young, proven and fertile.”  In other words, a dog that can do what that old shepherd mix did to that poodle back in 1963—climb on and get the job done.  In the meantime, I’ll open my home to another rescue, preferably an old dog that no one else wants, to keep my ten year old Magic and 2 year old tiny Chihuahua mix rescue Yoda company.  After all, a little good karma goes a long way, and who cares about that new white carpet anyway?

Curmudgeonly Me

I didn’t like my flu shot very much this year.  Some years they hurt worse than others, and I haven’t yet figured out whether that depends on which nurse gives me the shot, or which strain I am being vaccinated against.  This year was a bad one—within 24 hours my arm was so sore that I couldn’t raise it above my head.  I received it on a Friday and with it, my little sticky badge to be placed on my hospital ID that proudly proclaims me duly vaccinated and safe to see patients. The next day I left on a Southwest flight to Albuquerque.  It is rare that I ever check luggage these days, after an unfortunate mishap in 2006 when my family ended up in New Haven, CT for my daughter’s college graduation, but our luggage went to Florida. As I hoisted my own suitcase into the overhead rack, I felt an acute twinge in my shoulder anteriorly in the region of the biceps tendon, same side as the flu shot.  By that evening, I couldn’t sleep because of the pain, and two months later, it still hurts. My husband says it was a coincidence.  I am not so sure, but I have no choice in the matter.  If I want to keep working, and seeing patients, an annual flu shot is mandatory.

This past Friday through Sunday I was in Palm Springs, CA for the Palm Springs Kennel Club dog show.  For those of us who show dogs, this is one of the biggest shows of the year, the “kick off” to the dog show season, and the prelude to the Westminster Kennel Club show in February.  If you win at Palm Springs, there is a very high likelihood that you will be winning at Madison Square Garden.  Or so they say, because I don’t travel in those rarified circles.  Still, many of my friends were slated to show their deerhounds, and even though I didn’t have any puppies to show, or adults who haven’t finished their championships, I had nothing else to do so I hopped in the car for the two hour drive on Thursday night, leaving my own dogs at home.  Dog shows are ever so much more fun when you don’t have to walk, feed, bathe or groom your own dogs.  I was there to have fun, and maybe do a little shopping at the big outlet mall at Cabazon.

My friend and oft traveling companion Rachel had delivered the last puppy from her recent litter to a woman in Texas who had just lost her own deerhound to osteosarcoma a few days before the Palm Springs show.  By Monday of the show week, Rachel complained of a sore throat and upper respiratory congestion.  She really should have skipped Palm Springs, but she’s a tough one, Rachel, so on Thursday early she loaded two dogs in her car and headed from Arizona to California.  By the time she arrived in Palm Springs, she had a severe cough, fevers, shaking chills, a headache and muscle aches so bad that she couldn’t stand for very long.  I arrived after she did and brought her four bottles of water, which she managed to keep down, but she couldn’t eat anything—the masseter muscles in her jaw hurt too bad.  I said, “Rachel, did you get a flu shot this year?”  I had just seen the television reports Thursday that H1N1 flu was at epidemic proportions in Texas.  She said “No, I never get flu shots.  They make me sick.” By Friday she was feeling faint, and barely managed to get around the ring with two dogs.  One of her puppy owners lives near the show site, and she insisted that I drive her to visit the nice man and his puppy.  Midway through the visit, she turned pale, broke into a sweat and I rushed her back to the motel to see if I could get her rehydrated and some food into her.  As she wiped her brow with her forearm, before making an emergency bathroom stop, she said, “I’ve never been this sick in my entire life.”

Bingo.  That’s the flu.  All these folks who go around with the sniffles saying, “I’ve got the flu” or when your co-worker says, “I spent the weekend goin’ and throwin’—I had the flu”—that’s not the flu.  That’s a cold, or a GI bug, or “I want to take a sick day.”  But when your friend who has served time in the Army and who has driven an 18 wheeler cross country professionally says to you, “I’ve never been this sick in my life”—now, THAT’s the flu, as in influenza.  Get your flu shots folks.  There’s still time if you’re not sick yet.  Don’t delay, because I won’t be around to nurse you through it.  I wear my “flu shot” badge proudly, and hope that my shoulder isn’t still hurting in the spring.

Ring Out The Old

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying cloud, the frosty light:

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,

Ring, happy bells, across the snow:

The year is going, let him go;

Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind

For those that here we see no more;

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,

And ancient forms of party strife;

Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes

But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,

The civic slander and the spite;

Ring in the love of truth and right,

Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;

Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;

Ring out the thousand wars of old,

Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,

The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ring out the darkness of the land,

Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam

 

 

As an aficionado off all things Scottish, it is ever so tempting to quote Robert Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne” tonight, especially when I remember that poignant scene from “Out of Africa” where Baroness Blixen, aka Isak Dinesen, realizes on a fateful New Year’s Eve that she is no longer in love with her husband, but with the handsome and unattainable Denys Finch Hatton.  But as always, I tend to wander from the main theme of tonight, which is a theme of thankfulness.

To all of my friends and family who kept me somewhat sane during this difficult past year, much of which I have shared with you on this blog, I say “Thank you.”  To all of the readers whom I’ve never met but who put up with my quirky musings on cancer, family, dogs, cats, horses and life in general, I am ever so grateful for your encouragement.  Next year I hope to continue to inform you, to make you laugh and cry and above all, to make you wish that you, like Baroness Blixen, had a Scottish Deerhound, or two, or perhaps even three.

As a radiation oncologist, it’s been a very long time since I took call on New Year’s Eve. I am at home tonight, with a nice glass of wine in hand, getting ready to cook dinner and watch the last few episodes of “Breaking Bad” on Netflix—a little sadly because I don’t think everything is going to turn out all right in the end, and I for one thrive on happy endings.  But before I sign off on 2013, I want to thank the good people who are out there “in the field” tonight, taking care of the rest of us across the country and abroad—the ER doctors and trauma surgeons, the nurses in the emergency rooms and in the ICUs, the firefighters and paramedics and police officers who are all vigilant and on high alert tonight, and of course, our armed forces at home and far away.  I wish you all a Happy, Healthy New Year.  Live long and prosper, and stay safe out there!  With gratitude, Miranda.

The Case of The Missing Chicken

It happened two or three weeks ago, and it’s still bothering me so I might as well write about it.  Harvest Ranch Market, in Encinitas where I work, makes a pretty good rotisserie chicken.  I don’t have much time to cook during the week, so many Sundays I’ll head over there and pick up two whole cooked chickens.  On Sunday night, I separate the breasts from the legs and thighs, and tear up the dark meat and skin for the dogs—that is, what I don’t eat while I’m doing it because secretly I like the dark meat better, even though it’s not as good for you.  I put the dark meat into a Tupperware container and the chicken breasts, plump and juicy on a plate, cover them with saran wrap and use them in salads and sandwiches during the week.  That is my routine.

Sunday nights are also TV nights around here.  Dexter’s off the air now, and Game of Thrones’ new season hasn’t started, but Homeland and The Good Wife keep me occupied so that I can delay laundry and bill paying until the wee hours, the better to put off Monday.  So two weeks ago on Sunday night, I did my chicken thing, and then settled down to watch my shows.  I must have been a little distracted because I have no recollection of putting the saran wrap on the chicken, or opening the refrigerator. By the time I was done with TV for the evening, I folded laundry, cleaned up the kitchen and went to bed.

Monday morning I went to feed the dogs, and the little dog Yoda, who never liked kibble, waited patiently for his ounce of chicken breast.  I opened the refrigerator door, and looked for the chicken breasts.  I did not see them, which is not at all unusual in my refrigerator, which is even less well organized than my desk.  So I shrugged, gave the little dog some dark meat and went off to work.  But the fact that I couldn’t find the two pounds of cooked chicken breast in my own refrigerator was bothering me, so I called my husband who works from home.  I said, “Please go look in the refrigerator and tell me that the chicken breasts are there that I cut up last night.”  He dutifully went to the refrigerator and reported back, “No, I don’t see any chicken breasts.”  I said, “I KNOW that I put 4 half chicken breasts on a plate.  But I don’t remember what happened to them after that.  Could I have been so distracted I threw them away?  Please go look in the garbage can in the garage.”  I heard a sigh on the other end.  Moments later he said, “The chicken breasts are not in the garbage can.”  I said, “Did you REALLY look for them?”  He said, “Yes, I really looked for them.”

My youngest son had stopped in Sunday evening to pick up his mail.  He was there while the chicken was being dismembered.  I said to my husband, “Please call E. and see if he was hungry and took the chicken breasts.”  He said, “I don’t think he would have taken an entire plate of chicken breasts.”  I said, “Call him!” Twenty minutes later he called me back and said, “E. didn’t take the chicken breasts.”  I had a long day at work, but when I got home at seven I did not go into the house to change my clothes.  I went directly to the garbage can, in my nice brown wool suit and my silk blouse, and I rooted around.  I knew that those chicken breasts must have been accidentally thrown away, probably by my husband, who likes to clean up after me.  Twenty greasy minutes later, I confirmed that indeed, there were no chicken breasts in the garbage. Or in the refrigerator.

I love my deerhounds, even though at times they’ve been known to steal and hoard.  Izzy was famous for taking ALL of the toys and stuffing them behind the seat cushions of the couch.  He also stole everyone else’s bones, and buried them in secret places where they still wash to the surface during a rainstorm, white and glistening, two years after his death.  My old boy Magic has never done a thing wrong.  He is a huge dog, 34 inches at the shoulder, but he is unfailingly polite, waits his turn for meals, never once chewed on the furniture and never peed in the house.  He uses the kitchen counter as a chin rest without even a slight stretch.  But two pounds of chicken breast, right after dinner?  And as I said, he’s never done a thing wrong.

Looking back, I was a little distracted by that Homeland adrenaline rush.  Those chicken breasts are around here somewhere.  I just hope I don’t run into them tucked behind my leather armchair’s cushion, or under a far corner of the rug.  Queen and Quicksilver aren’t telling, and Magic just grins when I ask him.

Happiness is a Warm Puppy

I had promised my friend Rachel two months ago that when it came time to let her current litter of Scottish deerhound puppies go to their new homes, I would come to Arizona for the big send off. I bought my ticket to Tucson cheap but life has been hectic lately, between the pressures of work and the constant buzzing of the chainsaws at home—we’re five weeks into major tree trimming and repairs of a seriously neglected irrigation system.  By the end of last week, I had serious qualms about leaving for the weekend, and I expressed them to my good friend and traveling companion Robin who had also had some second thoughts.  In the end, we both concluded that it might be good to get away, and so with promises to one another that NEITHER of us was taking a puppy home, we embarked.  Some promises are harder to keep than others.

Rachel lives in the far southeastern corner of Arizona, where a triangle of towns including Sierra Vista, Bisbee and Tombstone serve up a little piece of the old West.  Fort Huachuca, anchoring the western end of the triangle, is a living history museum.  There, General Nelson Miles fought off Geronimo in 1886.  In 1913, the fort became the base for the famous “Buffalo Soldiers” of the tenth Cavalry Unit, comprised entirely of African Americans.  Later, and to this day, the base has become a center of strategic command and military intelligence.  Needless to say, the area is not easy to get to, which makes it remarkable that prospective puppy owners made the long trek by car from Colorado, New Mexico, and California to claim their prizes.  Some of us, including Robin and me, were there just to visit,  to help educate new owners on the ins and outs of this rather quirky breed, and let’s face it—to smell the puppy breath.

What is it about a puppy that can melt the heart of a full grown man?  Is it the remembrance of boyhood hours spent in the company of a scruffy dog, walking back roads while kicking a can, and trailing a stick behind?  Is it the potential fulfillment of a primordial urge to hunt—to “bring home the bacon” by partnering with a sentient being who is fleeter of foot and keener of eye and nose and ear? Is it that need to nurture which is largely suppressed in our culture where it is not “manly” to be kind, and sensitive?  I forgot to take my camera last weekend, but my cell phone is now full of pictures of happy new owners, their faces shining wet with kisses, and arms filled with awkward deerhound pups whose feet were nearly as big as their heads—puppies who will indeed make their owners feel like “The Laird of the Manor.”  After they are through destroying the living room couch and shredding the oriental carpets.

Despite my insistence that I am not in the market for another dog, I found myself under the spell of the runt of the litter, a little girl with a blue collar and a kinked tail.  She was feisty, that one—seeking attention from and bestowing kisses upon the gathered humans, yet fierce in mock battle with her brothers—a future Queen for sure.  I was happy to be flying home, because if I had driven the temptation to put her in the car might have overwhelmed my good judgment.  Still, I could not help feel a twinge of regret when Rachel called me today to say that the couple from New Mexico were so pleased with their male puppy that they were coming back for Little Blue Girl.  Good choice on their part—I am quite certain that despite the tail she will knock ‘em dead in the ring and on the field.  For me, there will be another puppy, another day.  Count on it.

“Buy a pup and your money will buy love, unflinching.”  Rudyard Kipling

The Thundershirt

“Thunder and lightning, very very frightening–me”  Queen

When I woke up this morning, they were already at it, and I walked into the kitchen and immediately slipped in a large pool of saliva that had apparently been dripping from the mouth of big Magic, my 125 pound scaredy cat Scottish deerhound.  When I say “they”, I mean the tree workers who are up in the giant eucalyptus trees which blanket our property—I would call them arborists but I know better—they’re just very brave guys willing to climb up 100 feet with a chainsaw in hand to hack off the large branches hanging over the house, the horse pastures and our driveway.  Tree work is expensive, and the eucalyptus grow like weeds.  They need to be trimmed every three to five years minimum, and since there have been many other things I needed to spend money on in the last ten, namely, putting children through college, those gargantuan trees had had a bit of “deferred maintenance.”  Sometimes I need to be smacked in the face to pay attention to what is right in front of me, and this is exactly what happened the weekend before I left for Jamaica.  We had what is known around here as “Santa Ana conditions”, where a hot wind blows off the desert from the east, instead of our usual cool ocean breeze from the west.  As leaves and debris flurried like snow, I went out to check on the horses, and heard a crack.  I put my hand up to shield my face from the falling branch, and received the force of the limb with my hand and arm, which were nicely black and blue by the time I arrived in Kingston.  Three weeks later, the chain saws are still singing.

Magic has been afraid of fireworks and thunder since he was a puppy.  The first Fourth of July celebration came when he was eight months old.  As I heard the sound of fireworks, I went outside to call the dogs.  Magic was nowhere in sight, and a thorough search of the property found him shivering and wet, hiding under the bridge over a small creek that flows through the back of the property.  We brought him inside, dried him off and tried to comfort him as best we could.  As he aged, his fears escalated and translated into terror of every large repetitive or continuous noise, to the point where we just stayed home any time we knew there would be fireworks. Fortunately thunderstorms are rare in our neck of the woods, but holidays were problematic, and the usual solutions—closing the windows, playing music loudly to drown the sound, Bach’s Rescue Remedy—were only partially effective. Two years ago when we had a new roof put on the house, the constant hammering and banging overhead put old Magic over the edge.  His fears became uncontrollable to the point where we thought he would hurt himself so in desperation I called my veterinarian for tranquilizers.  She said, “Have you tried the Thundershirt?”

If you are familiar with Temple Grandin’s work, you will know that she is autistic, but with a unique gift which allows her to empathize with the way frightened animals feel and think.  Her designs for humane slaughter of cattle have revolutionized the traditional way that our food animals are led to certain death.  When she was young, she used to comfort herself by enclosing herself in a homemade device which literally held and squeezed her between two walls.  The sense of enclosure, and pressure calmed her panic, and allowed her to function in college and subsequently in society.  The inventors capitalized on the same concept—that perhaps being wrapped tightly in a stretch jersey fabric fastened with Velcro would calm a panicked dog.  We bought one for Magic, just before a scheduled visit to the East Coast and left my adult son in charge of our household with instructions to put it on the dog if he became anxious with the roofers.  A couple of days later, I called to ask how things were going at home.  Brandon replied, “Mom, he comes to me and begs for his ‘special shirt.’”

I arrived in Jamaica to find the rainy season in full swing.  Unlike San Diego, when it rains there the lightning flashes brilliantly across the darkened horizon and the rolling thunder cracks are bone shaking. My host Dr. Spence has four adult Catahoula Leopard dogs, and the dominant male Ludie was like Magic on a very bad thunder day, whining, trembling and salivating.  I told her about the special shirt, and she wrapped him tightly in a blanket, which seemed to help a little bit.  Today as I cleaned off the slimy floor, and pulled out the gray jersey Thundershirt and wrapped up my dog, it occurred to me that maybe this is not such a novel concept after all.  Maybe when we are faced with scary things beyond our control, all that any of us need most is a tight hug from someone who cares.