When I was a little girl, I was certain I’d be a veterinarian when I grew up. I adored our cats and loved tagging along with my mother when she took them to the doctor’s office for care or checkups, and I dreamed of helping others keep their beloved pets healthy. (My little sister, always a good sport, agreed to be my receptionist.)
That dream started unraveling as I got older and it became clear that I was unfit for the toughest parts of being a doctor; I couldn’t bear the thought of dissecting innocent earthworms and frogs in junior high, to say nothing of mammals, and I knew I’d never be able to euthanize animals, even when it was clear that it was the most merciful thing to do. I settled for living vicariously through vet memoirs like James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small and got an English degree instead.
When I got out of school and moved in with my fiancé, there was (surprise!) no clear career path for a would-be poet who specialized in Shakespeare and the failure of companionate love in 20th-century British theater.
There was, on the other hand, an opening for customer service staff at my veterinarian’s nonprofit hospital. Hey, I could work with animals after all! I leapt at the chance, I got the job, and suddenly I was surrounded by cats and dogs all day every day; my inner eight-year-old got her wish at last.
My outer 22-year-old got a lot more than that. I worked a full-time weekly schedule of 10-hour shifts, and each extra-early morning began with an X factor. On one day it was a cardboard box of kittens left on the doorstep, on the next it was a bewildered city bus driver who’d found a live chicken hiding behind his brake pedal, on the third it was a frantic family who’d accidentally squished their Chihuahua in their waterbed.
Dozens of clients passed through the chaos of our two waiting rooms for regular appointments each day, and dozens more rushed in with emergencies. We saw everything from cats with tapeworms to dogs with gunshot wounds. Everyone did a little of everything at the clinic, so I learned to sterilize an exam room in less than five minutes and how to coax a spaniel’s eyeball back into his socket.
By the end of my first year, I was preparing medication with the clinic’s overwhelmed pharmacist in her tiny dispensary and showing clients how to administer fluids. I felt quite accomplished: Though I couldn’t offer the expertise our vets brought to the hospital, I could empathize like a champion with our clients, and I fancied myself a solid member of the medical team’s support staff. Perhaps, I mused, vet school was in the cards after all.
My reality check kicked in when I awoke one morning to a too-quiet bedroom. Though he’d been at my feet when I’d gone to sleep, our cat Chuck was nowhere to be found. After an exhaustive search of every Chuck-sized space in our apartment, I finally heard a hoarse meow in response to my call … when I opened the back door to our third-floor unit. Our poor cat must have pushed his way through one of the windows I’d left cracked in the living room (though I never figured out which one; to this day I don’t know how he got out) and fallen to the pavement below. I found him huddled and miserable in a crawl space, at the end of a terrifying trail of blood. I’d always assumed that clients who came in with “high-rise kitties” (the vet techs’ brutal shorthand for cats who fell from windows) were careless and terrible people, but I was, apparently, one of them.
I bundled Chuck into the car and ferried him across town to the hospital in minutes, which felt like hours. I burst through the clinic doors with my cat in my arms, made a beeline for the treatment room, and rattled off what I hoped was a useful description of his condition at the techs surrounding the stainless steel operating table. Then I repeated it, and repeated it again; at some point gentle hands took Chuck from me and guided me back to the front office, where I pulled my own file from the wall and admitted my cat to the hospital, my face as expressionless as a sleepwalker’s.
Each bit of shorthand I added to his chart felt like part of an incantation, something I could repeat to make him safe. I haunted the treatment room for the rest of the day: Was there anything else I could suggest, anything else I could do? Anything else they could do? What if I just lurked in the corner with a spooky blank stare? Would that help?
Chuck came home with me the next day. His fall had fractured his palate, according to his X-rays, but his doctors expected him to make a full recovery from his injury — as he ultimately did, despite my well-intentioned but obstructive attempts to take charge of his care at the hospital.
I remained an enthusiastic staffer until I moved to New York City, though I decided to stop trying to be the client and the vet at my own cats’ appointments.
My sister grew up to be a French translator, and I couldn’t be more pleased; though I will always love James Herriot’s tearjerking tales and ask my cats’ doctors unnecessarily complicated questions, I will never need a receptionist. I suffer from an utter lack of cool when it comes to animal emergencies, which has given me the courage to stand up for their rights in advocacy — as well as volunteer work. I think the cat-crazy little girl I was would be more than all right with that.
How do you handle vet visits with your animals? Tell us in the comments.
Read more by Lauren Oster, and read more about veterinarians on Catster:
About the author: Lauren Oster is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She and her husband share an apartment on the Lower East Side with Steve and Matty, two Siamese-ish cats. She doesn’t leave home without a book or two, a handful of plastic animals, Icelandic licorice mints, and her camera. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.