“Animals are such agreeable friends – they ask no questions; they pass no criticisms.” – George Eliot. And as a Hong Kong vet finds, they can also help you make friends.
At the start of my veterinary journey, I was somewhat lost to humans. I was an introvert and remain so even now. On the other hand, my love for and connection to animals has always been undeniably real. I truly believe that their worth, in pounds and pence, in dollars and cents, is no measure of their actual value. Humans seemed only ok, but all that gradually changed as I became a fresh veterinary graduate.
To this day, I remember facing my first consult. Alone. The adrenaline washed over me. My heart thumped. I forced out the pre-rehearsed questions I’d learnt and heard so many times over the years. Thankfully, there was nothing wrong with my patient. He was a healthy 3-year-old terrier who had come in for a vaccine.
Flash forward to the future. I am having dinner in a five-star hotel to say goodbye to one of my dearest clients, and my friend. The first in Hong Kong I considered a friend.
Gideon first came in with Spotty, a rather senior mongrel, when I was working a night shift. Working nights is uncomfortable for vets, to put it mildly. Spotty had G.D.V., which means her stomach had filled with gas and twisted. When this happens, nothing can exit. There is a massive loss of blood pressure and a bunch of other terrifyingly shocking symptoms that can lower the survival rate. Trying to explain this to an understandably worried client, while feeling like I was having a heart attack myself through a veil of sleep deprivation, was a rather testing moment. With my heart about to burst out of my chest, I went ahead and performed the operation.
Spotty survived the surgery. Though her recovery had its rough patches, she pulled through. At the end of the week, she was able to return home. That, I thought, was that. So many patients you simply never hear from again.
Then, weeks after I’d recovered from my nocturnal labour, Gideon brought Spotty and his other dogs to see me! Given her advanced years, I had to see Spotty often, until, at a fairly ripe old age, she finally passed. Over the years, caring for her and Gideon’s other dogs, our friendship grew. Even when I changed my workplace and he was no longer a client, we kept in touch. We’d discuss his dogs and their medical care as needed. Now, though he has moved halfway across the globe, he still sends me videos of his dogs. When I’m having a bad day, I watch those videos of them playing in their new home and it gives me solace.
Sometimes, in the course of veterinary work, you can even win over a difficult colleague. A year after I was out of university, I joined a clinic that was previously owned by a much-loved member of the community. The new owners were corporate vets. I was a mere junior doctor, 24 years old, wet as the dewy morning grass and twice as green. The corporation I worked for could not find a more senior vet for a number of months and so, I became the face of the new management.
I faced resentment as I had to implement changes as required by the new corporation, mainly raising surgery prices. The nurses at the clinic were in their 40s, smoked like chimneys and were part of the community they served. They didn’t appreciate a less-experienced vet making their friends angry. I understood their passion came from a deep love for their jobs, and their animal and human clients. At one point, I heard that one of the nurses was close to being fired. I stepped in and helped prevent that. From that day, I was no longer seen as a corporate sell-out. I left the clinic after a year, but I’m still friends with all three nurses. Often, when I return to Blighty, I visit them for beers, to enjoy some passive smoke and to reminisce.
I can’t offer that interpersonal relationship to everyone. Not everyone will become a friend and I won’t stay in touch with everyone I meet. Perhaps the answer to the question of the meaning of life is that it’s not the destination, it’s not the journey, but it’s the fellow travellers you meet along the way.
Veterinary work exposes you to all of society. I’ve treated the pets of the poor and even the homeless. And I’ve been driven to the mountain home of a client by their personal chauffeur in a Porsche. What unites them all is the love they have in their hearts for their animals.
I have the pleasure of working with three charities in my current employment: the Lifelong Animal Protection (LAP), Hong Kong Dog Rescue (HKDR) and Kirsten’s Zoo. Some of the most inspirational women I’ve met head these organisations. They’re all a bit different, but they all share kind hearts, steely resolve and a rather indomitable spirit. I am always a little in awe of all of them. Sheila McLelland of LAP is probably the most mild-mannered and always sets me at ease.
When I wrote the first draft of this article a month or so ago, I’d just had a rather stressful day at work. I got news at around 2:30pm that there was an emergency. A pregnant cat from LAP needed a caesarean. The operation thankfully went smoothly, and the wonderful nurses I work with managed to get the two rather blue and tiny kittens breathing, and the mother recovered quickly. I worried that these kittens would pass away as a first-time mother often struggles – even more so after a caesarean and the associated pain and recovery. But I am delighted to report that they are all doing very well (do watch the video, it will warm your heart!).
I can’t save every pet. But I can appreciate the care, the bravery and the empathy of their loving owners and rescuers. What I have found while treating animals is that humans care, humans feel and humans love. I am no Genevan philosopher. Unlike Rousseau, I didn’t always believe in the natural goodness of people. And so my unexpected appreciation for humanity is perhaps the thing that makes me happiest about being a vet.