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A Clinic Story

September 29, 2023

Recently, Dr. Kate and I spent the day providing free vet care for the pets of survivors at a domestic violence shelter. We brought Clifford the Big Red Bus, our medical vehicle, to provide exams, vaccines, and medicine. Most people don’t know that almost 50% of domestic violence victims won’t leave danger if they have to leave their pets behind. But it makes sense – to most of us, pets are family. We wouldn’t leave our pets behind in a fire, a flood, or any other crisis unless we absolutely had no other choice. It’s the same for people fleeing violence.

There’s something meditative about these long busy clinic days. Even though each patient is a different creature with different needs, there’s a rhythm to it: Greet client, listen to their concerns, learn about the patient, interact with the patient, fall in love with the adorable patient’s spotted nose or affectionate purr, communicate findings and a plan, then say goodbye. Greet, listen, learn, interact, fall in love, communicate, say goodbye. Repeat.

On this day, the rhythm was fractured. I heard some yelling, followed by a fluster of activity in response to the yelling. When I stepped outside, I saw a woman in agony. Her stress and desperation were overflowing. The woman was raising her voice not in anger but in a cry for help that had not yet been responded to. When our eyes met and she knew I wasn’t going to ignore her, she began to tell her story, and to breathe. She and her cat had been together for 19 years, she said. They were each other’s best friends. They had travelled to hell and back together. Her cat was in pain. She needed help. Right now.

She was hesitant to give me her cat to examine, probably because she didn’t want me to find the problem that she already suspected was there. She didn’t want me to find a reason for her cat to leave this earth, and leave her.

It was evident that the cat was well-cared for, but before I even touched the cat, I could see that she was hunched in discomfort. Slow moves let the cat get used to me, and the woman stood in the doorway of our truck watching everything.

The cat vocalized when I picked her up out of the carrier, letting me know she was uncomfortable. Her spine was the source of her pain. As the exam continued, the woman began singing in a stunning voice. I felt lucky to listen, but knew it was a performance for an audience of one, intended for the sole purpose of comforting her feline family member. The range of her voice, not from high to low but from explosive to melodic was a beautiful metamorphosis, catalyzed by nothing but pure love for her cat.

The exam went on to reveal heart disease and kidney disease, both at terminal stages. The woman received the news with grace. Her volatility was gone and her suspicions confirmed. We discussed her options and she decided to give it some time.

Outside of the truck, I heard her apologizing to others for having gotten upset. I thought, “You don’t have to apologize – you advocated for your best friend of 19 years!” I was sad that she felt shame for loving and protecting what is most precious to her. Love knows no species. Our regard for our cat, dog, children, partner, friends, goats, or gardens is for us to define.

I hope we all get to receive the fierce kind of compassion that this woman showed. I hope someday when my own worn-out body is being examined by a doctor who is about to deliver bad news, that I get to hear such a beautiful voice lovingly singing to comfort me.

Bodies wear out. That’s how nature made us. Consciously or not, with acceptance or not, we live in accordance with earth’s rules and rhythms. We all live the rhythm of greet, listen, learn, interact, love, communicate, say goodbye, repeat. But while these rules and rhythms govern so much of our lives, we get to decide what love looks like for us.

by Dr. Reidenbach

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