Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 July, 2007, 12:00am

This week: Giving hope

I have been a veterinarian in Hong Kong for a long time. It is not all work and no play while being a vet on the job; there is a lot of socialising that goes on with clients. I find that talking to someone about things not related directly to the animal's problem can often settle a client who could be nervous in the alien environment of the consulting room.

The chit-chat also can reveal a lot of information about the lifestyles of the owner and the pet that can indicate the quality of husbandry practices at home. It can also reveal the ability of the client to apply treatment as instructed. Owner non-compliance is one of the biggest obstacles to successful treatment. But sometimes things get a little too personal and unexpected.

I vividly remember a lovely old Chinese lady that brought her Pomeranian in for a check-up because it kept vomiting after eating and it was discovered in an X-ray that the dog had stomach cancer.

We then arranged for surgery to excise the mass from the stomach during which it was part of my job to explain the situation and give appropriate options to the client. It was also my job to console the client and reassure her that it wasn't anyone's fault that this had happened and that it was pretty much unpreventable.

She was very depressed and everyone at the clinic took turns to talk to her and try to get her through this unhappy time. Surgery was eventually performed and we ended up removing almost half the stomach to make sure that we got all of the cancer.

The dog was lucky because were able to catch it early and the mass wasn't as big as it could have been. Also, the lab results from the mass revealed that we had clean margins on our excision, which meant that we had removed all of the cancer. With a little luck the dog will survive to bark another day. It took the dog a week to recover sufficiently to go home and during that week we really got to know the old lady. She would make us breakfast in the morning and snacks during the day.

Even after the dog went home, she would come by daily with snacks and treats for the staff.

On an unusually cold and rainy wintery afternoon, about three weeks after the surgery, the lady came in all dripping wet to bring her dog for a scheduled check-up and I immediately noted that she looked much sicker than the dog and was very pale and had a bluish hue to her skin. While I was leaping around the consulting table to give her a hand, she fainted right there in front of me. We rushed her off to the hospital next door and it turned out that she had just been there in the morning to receive chemotherapy for leukaemia.

We then realised that this nice old lady was going through much more than the pain of her sick pet. She had been unwell all the time. The reason she was able to bring us snacks so frequently was because of her frequent revisits to the hospital. I cannot even imagine the shock she felt at the discovery that her beloved dog had cancer as well.

But I then understood her growing elation and hope at seeing her dog, during the short course of a month, recover from what seemed a terminal illness.

We returned to the clinic after her family arrived at the hospital and realised she had left some sweet buns in the reception area for us. I remember that I couldn't hold back the tears on seeing the sincere thank you symbolised in those sweet buns and all those snacks she had brought us during that past month.

Shortly after, we had a phone call from a family member to inform us that she had died that afternoon and with her dying breath had told her family to thank us for saving her dog's life. We closed the clinic for the rest of the day as none of us could work anymore.

During the eulogy at the funeral, her daughter explained that even though the doctors were not able to heal her mother's sickness, the veterinarian in treating her cancer-ridden Pomeranian had healed her heart and given her hope.

Her mother, during those last days of her life, had found focus and reason to live. I totally broke down at that moment and I felt that gave me focus and a reason to continue to do my best in treating those under my care.

The Pomeranian during subsequent years came back for annual vaccinations and check-ups.

The family had a practice of booking an appointment time just before lunch so that after the consultation we would all go to yum cha and talk about the old lady, the dog and its life.

The Pomeranian eventually died at a ripe old age four years after the surgery from problems unrelated to the cancer. I can still remember the aroma of its owner's cooking every time I walk into my clinic.