A Case of Mistaken Identity

I was introduced to the importance of proper patient identification in a rather unique way.  At our first lecture on avian anatomy, the professor exhorted us;  “Fellas,” he began, “It is so important for you to learn this material as the standards of care are changing.  Years ago, the standard treatment for any disease of the parakeet, would be to flush them down the toilet and replace them with a bird of the same color.  You can no longer do this as today’s owners would not be fooled — they can actually tell one bird from another!”

Today we live in a world were precise identification is not only possible, but in most instances is desirable, and in some instances, mandatory.  Computer microchips, injected under the scruff of the neck, have enabled my staff to reunite several dozen strays, which were brought in by good Samaritans, with their owners.  Recently, several European countries have made the microchip identification a prerequisite for entering the country.  The technology is cheap, easily applied and widely available.  However, it wasn’t always this way.

Years ago, in the town of Stanton, a veterinarian with a very kind heart had a practice.  He also had a good sense of humor.  One day he was confronted with a dilemma in the form of a rather truculent woman and her young son.  In her hands she had a fishbowl containing an obviously dead goldfish floating on its side.  Her attitude made it plain that although she knew that the goldfish was dead, she didn’t want to be the one to tell her son, and expected the doctor to be the heavy in telling her son that the goldfish was dead.  He was not willing to do what he felt was a parental duty and instead told the woman and the child that he would try his best to save the fish, and asked the pair to return in about an hour.  The stunned woman couldn’t say anything aloud in front of her now hopeful child.   Within the allotted hour a new goldfish was procured from the local pet store and placed in the original fish bowl. It was presented to the delighted child when he returned.  Though the incident smelled fishy, she realized that she had been outwitted in this identification game and begrudgingly paid the one-dollar fee.

In the neighboring town of Fullerton, there lived a veterinarian with great vision.  He knew that there was a need for a simple identification system.  He realized this while doing surgery on a dog that he had spayed a little over a year before.  One month earlier, the owner had brought the dog in because she appeared to be in heat.   Now, this normally shouldn’t occur after a dog has had her ovaries and uterus removed, but sometimes an ovarian remnant can be left behind and months later it can be producing enough estrogen to cause an actual heat to occur.  Our doctor offered to retrieve the suspected tissue once the heat was over and it was safe to reoperate.  But what he found during the surgery surprised him.  Instead of having to explore for the tiny piece of ovary, he found an entire reproductive tract.  He suspected that this might not have been his former patient.  He didn’t think that the client was deliberately trying to be deceitful; after all, she had a long friendly relationship with the clinic.  When he called the client to inform her of his findings he asked if, by any chance, could the dog have been out of her care at any time during the past year.  She replied, “Only when she ran away for those two weeks a few months ago.  We were so happy to get her back!”   But it was now obvious that her real Sasha hadn’t returned.  But the imposter, by now regaining consciousness from her surgery, was in fact, so close to the original, both physically and temperamentally, that the dog was able to successfully integrate in and fool the entire family!  From then on, any animal that that the good doctor spayed received his trademark brand – one single stainless steel suture was placed in the abdominal wall to close the incision.  The stitch would be palpable for many years, a sure sign that the doctor had been in!

Years before the plethora of cat rescue groups that have deservedly arisen in the last several decades, veterinarians were pretty much on their own when they attempted to place unwanted or homeless animals.  Our hero, who practiced in the Mid Wilshire area of Los Angeles, faced difficult choices not once, but twice, in the course of his attempt to do the right thing.  He faced his longtime client, a sobbing elderly woman recently devastated by the loss of her loving husband.  Fearing that she could not care for her cat properly she brought the cat into the hospital and requested that the doctor euthanize her pet.  She had always been a religious lady, but right now her faith was running on empty.  The kindly doctor offered to keep the cat for a few days in order to try to find a new home.  “Tom has always had the freedom to roam outside, please don’t keep him in a cage for longer than a week,” she implored.   The doctor agreed to comply, but in spite of his best efforts, he could find no one to take the cat, and as the end of the week’s time approached, he was faced with a tough decision.  What he decided to do was to place the cat onto the grounds of a nearby park-like cemetery.  There, he felt, Tom could live out his years in idyllic surroundings.  He released the cat and felt good about it.  Several weeks later he got an unexpected call from the now reenergized elderly woman.  “God has sent me a cat just like Tom!” she exclaimed.  But our doctor knew in his heart that somehow, some way, Tom had managed to find his way back home.  To be sure, he offered a free exam for her foundling.  When his examination confirmed Tom’s true identity he wondered whether he should play along with the charade or tell the truth and risk upsetting the lady.  He opted for the truth and revealed the entire story, to which she replied, “Then I’ve been doubly blessed.”

She continued to bring “her cat sent from heaven” back to the clinic for many years.

And they all lived happily ever after.


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