Mabel Bourne was a client I inherited when I bought Center-Sinai Animal Hospital in 1979. She was an elderly lady who owned an ancient apricot poodle whom she adored. Mabel lived within a few blocks of the animal hospital, and as she was too old to drive she would walk to the hospital pushing a shopping cart that was specially rigged out to carry her beloved Coquette. It was quite a sight to see — old Mabel pushing the cart (not the type used in the supermarkets, but the type you would use to carry your purchases home from the market) which was piled up with pillows and perched at the top was Coquette. I always imagined the cart to be Coquette’s personal and portable throne.
It is often said that owners and their dogs start looking alike. That was certainly the case here. Both had off-white/rust colored hair. Mabel’s mane, pulled back into a bun, resembled the pompoms that Coquette sported. But perhaps the most striking similarity was the gaunt facial look that occurs when there are no teeth in the mouth — the toothless pucker which accentuated the cheeks of both females.
Mabel and Coquette were frequent visitors to the hospital, in part because of Coquette’s recurrent allergies, which caused her to scratch and chew on herself, and in part because Mabel was obsessively devoted to Coquette and used any excuse to bring her in for exams.
As I became more familiar with Mabel, she started to share information about her home life. I learned that Coquette was treated as a deity, and that Mabel’s entire life revolved around caring for her pet. Mabel showed me pictures of her modest apartment and pictures of Coquette’s own area. In essence, there was a shrine set up for her, complete with a red velvet throne surrounded by votive candles. All the pictures that were displayed were of Coquette, a veritable anthology of her life. As I viewed the pictures and chatted with Mabel, the thought occurred to me — what will happen to this nice lady after her dog passes away? At eighteen years of age, with organs starting to fail, Coquette could not go on forever.
Surprisingly, Coquette lived to see her twentieth birthday. Mabel celebrated the event in grand style, lavishing on Coquette a birthday party complete with an Alpo cake and candles, as well as party hats for all the canine friends who had been invited.
Alas, no one lives forever, and soon afterward Coquette died in her sleep at home. I felt so bad for Mabel. I called her every day for the next couple of weeks as she made arrangements for the disposition of Coquette’s body. She had decided to hire a taxidermist to bring Coquette back to her former self, and that is exactly what happened as the restored Coquette resumed her place atop the shrine.
Eventually, I asked Mabel if I could help her to find another dog so that she would be able to once again have the companionship she had obviously enjoyed and thrived on. Her answer surprised me then, although as time has passed and I have grown older, I can relate to her concerns.
“Dr. Baum,” she said, “I can’t get another dog ever again. I am so old myself that any young dog that I get will outlive me and what would become of her then?”
When you are in your early thirties, your life seems infinite and the concept of being survived by a pet had never occurred to me. Twenty-five years later I definitely have a different perspective. I asked Mabel if she had any relatives or friends that might consider adopting her dog in the event that she passed away. I learned that she had son who lived in Orange County and some neighbors who regularly looked in on her. She gave me the phone numbers to contact them.
When I contacted all the parties, it was gratifying to hear their responses. They were all very concerned for Mabel’s well being. But while all had advocated for a new pet for Mabel, none realized her real reason for declining the proposition. I informed them that she was concerned about a new pet being orphaned, and they all volunteered to be adoptive parents should the need eventually arise. When they told Mabel about their intentions, she was very relieved, and consented for me to contact the pet rescue groups to find her a new Coquette.
Life works in funny ways. No sooner had Mabel given her consent to the procurement process, than a miracle occurred. A client walked into the hospital with an eight week old apricot poodle and placed her on the reception counter. As she was about to fill in the client information sheet she paused, asked the receptionist to hold the puppy for a second while she ran out to her car to get her wallet. She never came back! The car sped out of the parking lot and we were left with an adorable puppy. In fact, it could have been Coquette’s clone. I’m very big on the concept of b’shert — a Yiddish term that means, it’s meant to be. It was b’shert that this puppy was abandoned here, especially when we were trying to get Mabel a new companion. I’m happy to say that Mabel was at the hospital within minutes of my call to her and she proudly escorted her new friend home in Coquette’s mobile throne.
Mabel lived for eight more years. I didn’t get to see her nearly as often, as her young Coquette was healthy and didn’t need the medical care of old Coquette. I learned of her death from her son who called to tell me the news and to thank me for enhancing the quality of his mother’s life. Young (well, by now middle aged) Coquette had moved to Orange County to spend the rest of her days with Mabel’s son and his family. I always love happy endings.
I owe my daughter, Melanie, the most heartfelt thanks for helping me to discover something really basic about myself.
In response to a fourth grade assignment, she advised me that I was to be the subject of an interview. I was delighted at the prospect and immediately sat down at the dining room table where the interview was about to begin. It was the simplest of interviews, consisting of only two questions.
“Dad,” she began, “what do you like most about your job?” In twenty-three years of practicing veterinary medicine, amazingly enough, I had never been asked that particular question. People usually asked and answered their question before I had even had a chance to respond. “You must love animals,” or, “You must love being a veterinarian,” they would state. They were right, but now I was being asked to focus on precisely what it was that made my occupation my avocation.
At first, the answer was not obvious, but suddenly I was saying, “Melanie, I think that what I like the most is that I get a chance to be helpful– I just love being helpful.” Sure enough, my day was constantly filled with sick animals and apprehensive owners — and ninety-five percent of the time I could remedy my patients’ maladies and assuage the frayed nerves of their human companions — how terrific!!
The second question was immediately forthcoming. “What don’t you like about your job?” Melanie inquired.
“The rest of the bullshit,” I answered, rather wryly, I thought.
“Dad, I’m in the fourth grade; I can’t say that,” giggled Melanie.
“Mel,” I sighed, “What do you think I meant when I said, ‘the bullshit?’
Tentatively, she replied, “It’s the nonsense, the nonsense that goes on every day.”
“Exactly,” I said with a big grin spreading across my face. “But remember, every job has its nonsense, so hopefully the basic things that you like about your job will make up for anything else.”
The basic truths that emerged from our discussion recur to me almost every day, but the results of getting to help people and their pets are sometimes hard to predict. For example, a woman came in one day with a problem relating to her dog’s urinary tract.
Urinary incontinence is a commonly seen affliction in older, spayed female dogs. The biomechanics of this problem are really quite simple. Estrogen is a hormone produced by the follicles in the ovary. When a female is spayed, (the technical name for the surgery is an ovariohysterectomy—this means that the surgeon is removing (ectomy) the ovaries (ovario) and the uterus (hyst- as in hysteria—thank you Sigmund Freud)). Hormonally speaking, the effect of the ovariohysterectomy is to drastically reduce the blood levels of estrogen. Besides the obvious secondary sexual effects that estrogen controls, there is the not too obvious effect of maintaining the tonicity of smooth muscle in the body. Smooth muscles physiologically function unconsciously — they supply the mechanical functions of muscle without our minds having to take up time to think about our homeostasis (keeping things in balance).
In this instance, the critical anatomic location is the sphincter muscle surrounding the urethra. The normal effect of contracture of the muscle is to prevent the flow of urine from the urinary bladder to points external to the body. The net effect of relaxation of the muscle is to allow urine to exit the bladder. Relaxation is good when you want to be able to urinate, but when you are relaxed and don’t want to urinate— now there’s the problem.!!
When a client brings in a pet, almost always a middle aged (seven year) or older, spayed female dog, the main complaint usually centers on the fact that they are finding moist spots that smell like urine in places where the dog usually sleeps. When a routine urine test is performed and all the findings are normal, a presumptive diagnosis of hypoestrogenism (low blood estrogen) leading to urinary incontinence can be properly made.
The simple remedy for this condition is to place the dog on an estrogen supplement given at regular intervals. As the leaking stops, the dosage of estrogen is gradually reduced to the least amount that is required to keep the condition from recurring.
Occasionally, the initial dose of estrogen may cause some patients to show the external signs of being in heat. As luck would have it, this reaction happened to a fourteen year old miniature French poodle, appropriately named Coquette, who happened to be owned by the parents of a former girlfriend. Coquette’s reaction to a single dose of one milligram of des, was to evince signs of full blown heat within twenty four hours, sneak out of her owner’s yard, only to return a few hours later, having lost her virginity to a ragamuffin terrier who dotingly remained by her side. Coquette’s tryst was short lived, as her young lover wore a collar with a name tag that allowed us to locate his owner and return him to his owner. To my knowledge, Coquette has never seen him again — he has never phoned or written, but at least his owners’ had the good sense to send flowers the next day!
I had always assumed that by rectifying these incontinence problems, that I was simply helping to alleviate a problem which was, at the most, a minor inconvenience. Little did I realize how important this cure would be for one of my clients.
My client was a young woman who had been to see three other veterinarians over a two-year period. She was armed with reams of medical records- all having to do with her elderly dog’s urinary problem — as well as a tale of woe relating to her dog’s incontinence. She related that her dog had been her bedside companion for years, but that as the incontinence had worsened she had relegated her companion to a blanket on the floor adjacent to her bed.
On the several occasions that she had sought veterinary care, she had been told that the dog had a urinary tract infection. Although she had faithfully administered the antibiotics that had been prescribed, the condition still persisted. She was very saddened and kept emphasizing how lonely she was in bed. (At this point I began to be concerned about whether she was hinting that I should become the dog’s surrogate.)
Immediately after hearing her story, I optimistically told her that I felt that her dog had a problem that was easily solvable. After obtaining and testing a urine specimen, which showed no sign of infection, I advised her to start the dog on an oral estrogen supplement. She thanked me profusely, promised to call me in two weeks, gave her friend a big hug and a kiss with the expectation that they would soon be reunited and snuggling on her bed.
Two weeks later, she called to inform me that it had taken about a week for the medication to stop the leaking and that so far it hadn’t recurred. I instructed her to reduce the dosage and to call me again in two weeks.
Faithfully, she called me again two weeks later. This time the conversation went beyond a simple report as to the cessation of the incontinence. She told me that I had changed her life!! Her dog hadn’t wet uncontrollably again and now that they could sleep together, she had gotten the courage to evict her “no good boyfriend.” It seems that her aversion to sleeping alone had led her to tolerate a relationship which was abusive and unfulfilling. Her fear of sleeping alone had forced her to endure “this bum.” She continued, “But thanks to you, Dr. Baum, I’m rid of this idiot forever!”
I was both relieved and happy to have been of help.
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.
Anacapa Island is one of the Channel Islands, a chain of small islands that lie off the Ventura/Santa Barbara Coast. It is accessible only by boat. Several small tour operators regularly run excursions to Anacapa and its neighboring islands.
Recently, my wife, Linda and I drove up the coast from Los Angeles and spent the night at our favorite beach retreat, the inn on the beach in Buenaventura. The following morning we were up by seven, and after scarfing up the complimentary donuts and coffee, drove a short five minutes to the dock where we were to meet our tour boat.
A sea voyage, for me, is always a formidable obstacle to overcome. Anyone who has experienced that wonderful feeling known as sea sickness knows what I am talking about. Due to no lack of foresight, I had in my possession one full pack of Bonamine tablets. As I opened the pack and popped four tablets into my mouth (I was taking no chances on a nauseating journey). I was immediately surrounded by a diverse group of fellow travelers, all looking enviously at my remaining cache of pills. As I could easily commiserate with their pleading looks, I munificently distributed the precious stash.
With the susceptible population suitably “Bonamized,” the boat left port and began the two hour voyage across the channel which would take us to Anacapa Island. The ride over was pleasant. A bright sunshiny day with the faintest hint of whitecaps dotting the ocean’s surface, periodically broken by the appearance of groups of dolphins and seals. As we disembarked upon our arrival at the landing dock, we were met by a most surprising sight.
Copiously dotting the island were what appeared to be large cotton balls! Closer inspection soon revealed these puffs to be the white plumages of thousands of fledgling sea birds in the process of hatching from their shells. Everywhere we looked we saw evidence of the recent hatchings — cracked eggs and downy chicks teetering about.
Before our main tour of the small island commenced, our group was shepherded into the ranger station — the only building on the island. One of the park rangers briefly discussed the history of Anacapa. Except for a few years after World War II, the island remained as an uninhabited area. It was frequented only by California gray seals who found shelter on its rocky shores, and sea birds who found the island’s isolation perfect for hatching their eggs.
We were given leave to wander around the island for the next two hours, with the sole admonition to stay on the foot trails to avoid damage to the ice plant and scrub chaparral covering the surface of the island. The path around the perimeter of the island was approximately two miles. Additional footpaths criss-crossed the island at various intervals.
As we strolled leisurely around, I began to notice that interspersed through the celebration of emerging life that surrounded us, there was evidence of the final act in the cycle of life — corpses of dead birds in various states of dismemberment and decomposition littered the landscape in a random fashion. Many of the dead birds were victims of an internecine rivalry for the available nesting sites.
As we approached one sector of the island, I became aware that we had inadvertently chanced upon what seemed to be the main bird graveyard. There were literally thousands and thousands of bones heaped in layers upon each other.
I authoritatively proclaimed to my wife that we must have uncovered the ancestral graveyard for the seabirds, rationalizing that those individuals who were able were drawn to this sector of the island to die after having been mortally wounded during combat.
Imagine my surprise when Linda gently replied that the bones appeared to be chicken bones, and that in spite of my veterinary background, I didn’t know what I was talking about.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. How could she be so insane? There were dead sea birds littered about. Her husband, the veterinarian, was identifying the bones as those of the sea birds. There wasn’t a chick in site on this island, yet she persisted in her belief that there were chicken bones! How crazy!! How ignorant!!
As we made our way back to the ranger station, our bickering continued. I was anxious to speak to one of the rangers so that Linda could be proven wrong emphatically.
Upon encountering Ranger Bill, I immediately launched into a quick recap our discoveries and the subsequent disagreement, all the while using a tone of voice which invoked visions of amused condescension for my obviously misguided wife.
Ranger Bill broke into an amused grin as he gazed towards our bone pile and explained, “We call it Colonel Sanders’ Graveyard.” The first cracks began to appear in my pompous expression as he continued, “The Oxnard City Dump lies eight miles across the channel, and the Colonel has an outlet there, and they empty all their garbage there. The birds pick up the bones that contain scraps of meat, fly over here with their delectable morsels, clean off the meat and leave the bones in Colonel Sanders’ Graveyard.
My humiliation was complete.
As a doctor, I have always been somewhat obsessive about trying to avoid giving medications to pregnant animals. I never vaccinate any animal that is pregnant. During my wife’s three pregnancies I bugged her about even the drinking of one glass of wine. How did I get to be this way? What went wrong?
During my tenure at veterinary school the large animal department was doing an epidemiological study on a particularly peculiar birth defect that was occurring with alarming regularity in local sheep herds. The lambs that were born with this defect were affectionately being called Cyclops, for the deformity that was present had effected proper fusion of the facial bones resulting in a single eye in a deeply recessed socket over a small trunk-like nose, no upper lip juxtaposed with a normal lower jaw. These lambs were viable at birth although most were euthanized by flabbergasted farmers. Amazingly, the cause of this malady was traced to the ingestion of a certain plant, Veratrum californicum. But what is truly incredible is the specificity of the timing of the plant’s ingestion. It turns out that there is only one day during the pregnancy when consumption of this plant would produce this abnormality — the thirteenth day of a 150 day pregnancy – and it is at this time that the facial bones would normally be fusing, embryologically speaking. To this day it astounds me that the ewe could dine on Veratrum c on the twelfth or fourteen day with impunity. The implied lesson was that no matter how innocuous something seemed, by a strange quirk of nature, there could be a fleeting moment in any pregnancy where the fetus’ development could be affected.
There is a second syndrome that also deserves mention here. Kittens born to queens that have either been infected with or vaccinated with a live virus vaccine for feline panleukopenia (cat distemper) will exhibit the Tumbler Syndrome. Severely affected kittens are continuously rolling like beach balls because their equilibrium has been affected by a failure of the cerebellum to develop properly. The cerebellum, the smaller lobe of the brain, controls, along with the middle and inner ear, the body’s ability to balance oneself. The virus has an affinity for cells that are multiplying rapidly and the cerebellum, which continues to develop even after birth, is the unfortunate target for the virus in the body of the fetus or the neonate. The malfunction is proportionate to the stage of the pregnancy when the virus was introduced — the earlier the exposure, the more severe the syndrome.
Both of the conditions discussed here are called congenital abnormalities, which simply means that they were present at birth. They are not hereditary conditions and have nothing to do with the genetic make up of the parents or their offspring. These individuals were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. As we know, timing is everything.
And who would that be? It’s gotta be my Gadi!
Melanie describes Gadi as “socially awkward.” In his seven years he has never given any family member (other than Fessie) anything resembling a lick, much less a kiss. In times of turmoil, he’s the first one to run to his bed, usually carrying a stuffed toy as a security blanket. The women in his life, his wife Fessie and his daughter Modi and his granddaughter Laila, are constantly clamoring for attention while he is content to watch from a distance. Accidently bump one of his feet and he screams as if he is being murdered. But, as good as the girls are as patients, the events of this week surprisingly show Gadi to be the real champ.
Gadi’s travails started about two weeks ago. He started blinking his left eye and tearing. He got some relief from antibiotic drops to the eye but using the island in the kitchen as an exam table along with Melanie’s high powered dental loupe light source, I could see that his cornea had a superficial ulceration. I increased the frequency of the drops but it was to no avail. Periods of normalcy were followed by a return of the symptoms. To make matters worse, a small skin mass (that was initially misidentified as a tick) popped up on his inner thigh. By the end of the week, I decided to bring him to the hospital to remove the mass. I hoped to do it under a local anesthetic but didn’t really know how Gadi would deal with the situation.
To my amazement, Gadi couldn’t have been better. Not only did he not flinch or resist when the local anesthetic was administered, he lay still during the entire ten minute procedure. And when we found a smaller version of the same lesion on his left dewclaw his exemplary behavior continued. A follow-up exam on his eye revealed partial healing of the ulcer as evidenced by early vascularization of the area. (The cornea, or clear part of the eye’s surface, has no blood supply. In order for healing of a wound to occur, it is imperative that small blood vessels that originate in the sclera, or white globe of the eye, infiltrate into the cornea to bring the necessary healing materials.) I was relieved to see this and felt that healing was now a matter of days. And then the second guessing began………………
“You’re not giving him the right medicines” Linda and Melanie said accusatorily. And it looked like they were being proven right as his eye got worse over the weekend. I decided that enough was enough and made arrangements to take Gadi to see Dr. Farrar, a local Veterinary Ophthalmologist.
She quickly determined that Gadi had an indolent or non-healing ulcer. This generally occurs when the new surface cells that are trying to cover the corneal defect fail to adhere to the deeper tissue. The treatment for this condition involves use of a scalpel blade to scrape away the non-adherent layer of cells of the cornea and go deep enough down into the healthy tissue to make a suitable surface for the epithelial cells to bind onto as they come to repopulate the area. And all of this was to be done under a local anesthetic drop applied to the surface of the eye, while the patient remained awake!!
To say that Gadi was good would be an understatement. To say that he was fantastic would be an understatement! For goodness sake, not only did he keep his head in a fixed, rigid position but he didn’t even blink!! He didn’t even rotate his eyeball!! That’s how great he was. But that was not all. When the scraping and flushing of the eye was finished, a soft contact lens was placed over the surgical site!
I brought home an inflatable neck collar to be used if he starts to rub at the eye. As of now, it’s still sitting on the table because the Champion during the procedure has been the Grand Champion of recuperation.
One final note about motherly compassion. Several years ago, both my son Stephen and I had wisdom teeth extracted. We were given Vicodin to take post operatively to relieve discomfort. We were only permitted to take a single dose before Linda hid the medication under the guise of preventing drug abuse. Yet, with Gadi, she not only makes his pain relief medication available, she is insistent that he get it regularly.
For more photos of Gadi and his family:
A lifetime of doing crossword puzzles, compounded by the seemingly endless vocabulary lists that I studied in high school, eventually led me to Stamford, Connecticut, where I participated in the New York Times Annual Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
I started doing these puzzles from the time I was seven or eight years old, inspired by watching my mother tackle the daily puzzles in the New York City newspapers. The more that I did them, the more fascinating they became. Rudimentary puzzles present clues that are more knowledge based and straightforward. As the difficulty of a puzzle increases, it is the clues that change in complexity. This wordplay is often expressed as puns and anagrams (my favorites) or obscure second or third definitions of a word. As puzzle master, Will Shortz, said to the contestants at our welcome dinner on Friday evening, “Solving a crossword puzzle is not just pure intelligence, rather it’s a unique kind of intelligence that allows the solver to see things in a unique, and slightly perverse manner.”
In preparation for the tournament, I was doing three or four puzzles a day. I also was timing myself, and depending on the difficulty of the puzzle, a 15 by 15 grid, the size of a daily puzzle, I was solving them in anywhere from six to twenty-five minutes. (Traditionally, the difficulty of puzzles increases as the week progresses. Mondays are the easiest and Saturdays are killers.) Sunday puzzles have a larger grid, 21 by 21, and have the difficulty comparable to a Friday puzzle. As the tournament approached, I was doing the Sunday Times puzzle in under 45 minutes consistently. Always in ink, always. Hot stuff, or so I thought. The approximately four hundred contestants in attendance came from all areas of the United States. Not surprisingly, there were a disproportionate number of contestants from my alma mater, The Bronx High School of Science. Most of the people were very chatty and in the course of our repartee, it became obvious to me that I was not going to be one of the elite solvers. There were people in this crowd that were completing Sunday Times puzzles in twelve minutes! That’s right, twelve minutes! The names of President Clinton and John Stewart came up frequently, both men being lauded as people who could solve the Sunday puzzle in twenty-five to thirty minutes.
The first day of the tournament consisted of eight puzzles. We were given fifteen minutes to solve the 15 by 15 grids and 45 minutes to solve the 21 by 21 grids. The scores were posted early the next morning and the top three scorers were then pitted against each other to solve the final puzzle while standing on stage in front of the rest of us. (For those of you who are curious, I finished two hundred and fifth out of the four hundred and twenty participants). This year’s contest ended in dramatic fashion with the ultimate winner earning the championship after having finished in the top three seventeen times before. Her past performances had earned her the moniker of “The Susan Lucci of Crosswords.” And now she was the Champion. This particular edition of the tournament later became the focus of the film Wordplay.
Two months later, back home in Los Angeles, my friend asked me whether I would like a chance to meet the now former President, Bill Clinton, who would be in Los Angeles for the purpose of fund raising for the gubernatorial campaign of Grey Davis. “Bring a check for twenty-five hundred dollars and meet me at the home of super market magnate Ron Burkle at nine in the morning tomorrow.” That evening, I contemplated how I would present myself. I didn’t want to be one of the usual supplicants that the President was used to meeting and posing with for the obligatory snapshot. I decided to give President Clinton a gift that I hoped would give him some enjoyment and that would somehow distinguish me in his memory. What I decided upon was making a copy of all the tournament puzzles to present to him the following morning.
There was a big tent set up on the lawn of the Green Acres estate and at exactly nine a.m. the president made his entrance. I was the first person to walk up to him, and as I introduced myself and shook his hand I said, “Mr. President, everyone here this morning is here to ask you for something, but I am here to give you something. I just returned from competing in the New York Times National Crossword Tournament and everyone was talking about what a good solver you are, so I made copies of the puzzles for you and I hope you will enjoy them.” He started grinning and chuckling and responded, “I don’t know if I will be able to do them.”
“Mr. President,” I responded, “everyone said that you were an ace at solving, but don’t worry, I’ve also included a copy of the answer grids for you.” And with that, I gave him the envelope containing the blank puzzles and the answer key, as well as a pen bearing the name of my animal hospital and my name.
Six weeks later, upon returning from a mountain biking trip to Moab, Utah, my wife, Linda, gave me an envelope that had arrived which she had haphazardly torn open. In it was a typewritten note, signed by the President, thanking me for my kindness and thoughtfulness and expressing how much enjoyment he had from solving the puzzles. I called Will Shortz to tell him about what had happened and asked him to set me up with a constructor that could customize a puzzle for me to send to the President that would invite him (and Hillary) to our house for Shabbos dinner the next time he was in Los Angeles. I sent this unique puzzle to the Clinton offices in Harlem, but never heard back. Who knows whether he ever got the puzzle with the myriad of correspondence that he receives.
But several years later, I had an experience which confirmed that I had given him the right gift at our meeting. When visiting the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas this past summer we eventually made our way to the gift shop. I did purchase a coffee mug but what touched me the most was a gift that was given to the visitors – a crossword puzzle with the clues created by one William Jefferson Clinton!
No…it’s not what you think. This has nothing to do with seeing my last patient. Rather, it concerns me being the last patient, of my daughter, Dr. Melanie Baum DDS.
She had decided to leave general dentistry and embark on a three year residency in Orthodonture at Montefiore Hospital, in The Bronx. Her acceptance into the program stirred mixed emotions for Linda and me. Who knows how our lives would be when she returned, if she returned.
Happily, I rarely have a dental problem, and my teeth are in good shape. So I had no occasion to avail myself of Dr Baum’s services during her year-and-a-half tenure at Trident Dental in West Los Angeles. Other family members and friends had gone to see her for various procedures, and their glowing reports made me even prouder of her accomplishments. Linda, having a fierce loyalty to her longtime dentist, remained a proud mother, rather than a patient. When she finally realized that she would forever miss out on the opportunity to be her daughter’s patient she patronizingly tried to set up a cleaning appointment for Dr Baum to do. Of course, at that point, Dr Baum didn’t do cleanings anymore, for that was the responsibility of the hygienists. I compared making an appointment with Melanie doing a teeth cleaning to making an appointment with me to do a nail clipping, and Linda understood.
It looked like I, too, would miss out on experiencing Dr Baum’s professional services until I chomped down on a tootsie roll that had been left on my desk at work. Out came a large filling, leaving a cavernous defect in my left lower premolar tooth. There was no escaping it – it would need to be seen by the dentist. Luckily for me, there was no pain involved as a result of the incident, and after Melanie checked it out during Shabbat dinner that night, I made arrangements to see her at her office the following week.
The first thing that I noticed during Melanie’s initial exam was how small her fingers felt in comparison to the stockier (and hairier) fingers of the male dentists that had previously worked in my mouth. As a dental patient, I never employ the head phones or videos that are available to distract one from the dental procedures. Rather, I just recline and close my eyes. Ironically, I keep my mouth shut by keeping it open. During the procedure I was able to listen to Melanie as she calmly and clearly gave her assistants instructions. Her manner and tone those were of a confident person. But what made me proudest was the kindness and consideration that she showed to her support staff; she always said “Please” and “Thank you,” and complimented them on tasks well done. No wonder she had happy and pleasant people working along with her.
Complimenting and positive reinforcement to her support staff was a message that I had repeated to her ad nauseum, and obviously the message had gotten across. Ironically, she never got to see me employ this behavior in my own practice as she never visited me while I was working. But I now realized that the message had gotten through to her all the same. All the while as she was drilling the tooth to prepare it for the new filling, I said a silent prayer that the narrow cusp that was left of the original tooth would not fracture, and my prayers were answered. Incidentally, I received feedback from the good doctor complimenting me on excellent tongue movement which made the doctor’s work easier. I was so impressed by the experience that I asked her to check three other areas in my mouth where there were food traps. On inspecting the areas, she made what I assumed was a standard dental quip. “It looks like you have a whole meal in there,” she said with a chuckle. But, it turned out that it was the humorous ad lib of a relaxed and confident person. “I can fix everything for you by replacing the fillings that are not fully in contact and by replacing a crown……I’m a perfectionist, you know.” And so, I scheduled the work for the next week….on the last day she would be practicing as a general dentist.
The next appointment was a marathon four hour event, but in the end, I left with two new fillings that abutted perfectly, as well as a new crown that was made during my appointment. Thanks to the excellent work of my daughter, I expect to see a precipitous drop in tooth pick purchases. Her future orthodonture patients will be lucky to have such a kind and competent doctor.
Two months ago, just before Father’s Day, my wife and I bought a French Bulldog from a breeder in Apple Valley. I had met her brother during an exam and found out that his sister’s purchase had fallen through and that she was now available for a buyer with cash in hand. There was an instantaneous bonding and the fun has just begun!
I named her “Fessel” — a loving Yiddish term meaning chubby — as in “Eat, Fessel.” My kids thought that I was being mean to name her that but I told them, “When your grandma used the term for your mother, it was meant with love and that’s how I mean it here!”
My whole family can tell that I’m crazy for Fessie, as she is usually called. My wife and kids have complained that I have never kissed them with the same ardor that I have showered on Fessie. But I really don’t think that they want to experience a big cheek suck.
Housebreaking hasn’t been one of Fessie’s strong points — but — we are getting better! An interesting irony is that originally, my wife Linda, in deference to her well manicured garden, wanted a dog that would only go on the cement and not on the grass. Well, with Fessie, she got just that, but be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. Linda found out that this was a high maintenance behavior. Training is now aimed at luring Fessie back to greener pastures.
Although Fessie is a terrific specimen of her breed, what really sets her apart is her personality. She gets along with everybody and is just as at home with new visitors as with familiar friends. At family gatherings she is passed like a baby to sit in the laps of the guests. (Many family friends are like us, nascent empty nesters). When she plays with Jacques, our fourteen year old Toy Poodle, she shows the respect and gentleness befitting the situation, but when she plays with Bella, my daughter’s ten month old Pit Bull-cross, she’s like a low trajectory cannon ball.
Whether I’m taking her for a walk along Ocean Avenue or bathing her in the kitchen sink, the basic point is that I get a lot of enjoyment from these activities. We even went to compete in a dog show last week. By creating so much fun in my life, Fessie’s biggest gift is allowing me to reconnect with why I became a veterinarian, and why I have enjoyed practicing for the last thirty-two years. I think the net effect is that Fessie’s helped me be a more effective doctor, better able to empathize with patients’ and clients’ needs.
Additional point of information: Fessie was born on Valentine’s Day 2003.
Last Saturday night, while en-route to see a play in West Hollywood, luck was with me. As I attempted to make a left turn off of Santa Monica Boulevard, my wife, Linda, screamed out, “There’s a French Bulldog!” I immediately swerved across two lanes of traffic to the right, to overtake the dog and his master. As I approached, I immediately noticed that the dog had a full scrotal sac! Linda rolled down the window and shouted, “Do you want to mate your dog? I have a picture of his girlfriend!” The somewhat astonished owner came over to the car, admitted that he was looking for a special friend for his dog, but after one look at Fessie’s picture, he was smitten.
The traffic behind me had started honking impatiently, so I suggested that we move the conversation around the corner. And it was there, on the east side of the West Hollywood City Hall that I got to meet David and his buddy, Cousteau. You could immediately see that not only was Cousteau a fine physical specimen, but he had a friendly and outgoing personality. He was slightly smaller than Fessie, but was built like a little muscleman. In contrast to other potential suitors we had met, he conducted himself with poise and decorum. His light cream coat was a great counterpoint to Fessie’s dark brindle, probably assuring a litter that had a potpourri of colors and markings. David and I exchanged phone numbers with the intent of setting a play date in the near future. Perhaps the most ironic thing about the whole affair, considering the location, were David’s parting words, “I can hardly wait to tell my wife.”
David and I spoke again on Monday and set up a rendezvous for Sunday afternoon. As fate would have it, Fessie’s body chose this time to break out with a case of acne. Fessie was literally going to the prom and there she was with a case of pimples! It didn’t seem fair. Luckily for her, her daddy knew what to do and within a couple of days on antibiotics her blemishes had vanished. We could hardly wait for Sunday to come.
Cousteau and his parents, David and Amy, arrived right on time. Fessie and I greeted them at the door and escorted them into our yard where they met the rest of my family as well as our fourteen year old miniature poodle, Jacques. The bulldogs immediately hit it off and started wrestling like a sumo and his sumorette interspersed with playful bobbing and weaving. They even took a water break together and lapped from the same bowl simultaneously! The requisite pictures were taken of the dogs at play as well as posed snapshots of the young couple sitting on the laps of their fathers. David told us that Cousteau came from Arkansas and was from championship stock. Amy had flown there to pick him up after they had seen pictures of him on the Internet. While the dogs played, David mentioned two interesting coincidences. First, he related that his father also had a poodle identical to Jacques that was named for Jacques’ namesake, Jacques Cousteau. Secondly, his street address number, 1203 was identical to my street address! Cousteau’s visit also produced a change in attitude among my family members who had, in spite of my objections, considered Fessie to be a bit of a chubbette. However, when she stood side by side with Cousteau it was apparent that both dogs had the physiques of body builders.
In short, it was a great first date. More play sessions are being planned, and at the end of the day everyone left knowing that the fix up was a success and that two nice families were coming together.
The Saga continues: Episode 3
Almost immediately after getting Fessie I knew that I wanted her to have puppies. Friends and family are already requesting her progeny. Considerable thought is being expended in the selection of her mate. But unfortunately, in the world of dogs, a tryst is less like “Strangers in the Night” and more like things that go bump in the night. Hey, where’s the love? I announced to my family that we must find a local dog with which Fessie could develop a friendship. Play dates and everything. The specter of serving her up during her heat period to a complete stranger didn’t appeal to anyone. So everybody is looking and so far nobody seems right for her. (If I’m like this about my dog, I can’t even imagine how I’m going to react about my beautiful daughters.)
The fellas all seem too small or too frenetic or they just don’t have the right markings. My daughter Hillary has come up with the most leads because she is a frequent visitor, along with her dog, Bella, to local dog parks in Runyun and Franklin Canyons as well as Brentwood. But even she is beginning to be discouraged. “It’s going to be so hard to find a match for Fessie’s terrific personality and impeccable conformation,” she said. She also had this advice, “You must get her out more often — she is a fine bitch!” The local search will continue, but just in case, we are making contingency plans.
My brother is also a veterinarian and he practices in Lynchburg, Virginia. During one of our long distance conversations he mentioned that he had just delivered a litter of French Bulldogs. He had felt particularly invested in this litter, as not only had he performed the caesarian that brought them into this world, but also he was the quasi-father of the litter, as he had artificially inseminated the dam. He raved about how nice the parents were and he suggested that should my efforts at matchmaking fail, I could always contact the breeder and arrange for a shipment of frozen, American Kennel Club DNA-certified semen to inseminate her with. I’m glad that the alternative exists but I still want her to have a special friend.
As the conversation with Sam continued, I asked him whether the c-section had been done out of necessity or whether it had been an elective procedure. I know that if Fessie needed to have any operation, I would be an emotional wreck and that I would have to have one of my associates do the procedure. He told me that it had been elective and that this particular breeder never allowed her pregnant bitches to deliver naturally for fear of complications when narrow pelvic females deliver puppies with big heads and shoulders. He lamented this trend and said, “If this continues, these dogs will be just like the turkeys.” I didn’t understand what he meant, so he quickly explained, “All of the commercially raised turkeys in this country are bred artificially.” In the quest to engineer the ideal bird, the turkeys had developed breast muscles so large that the act of copulating became a physical impossibility.
But Fessie in no turkey! This little butterball is presently involved in a physical-conditioning program in order to facilitate an easier delivery. By walking the hills of Bel Air, we are strengthening those abdominal muscles that are so important for forceful contractions. The exercise also improves her breathing, and even though dogs use a Lamaze technique naturally when whelping, a little extra help never hurts.
UPDATE: The Saga of Fessie, Episode 4.
It’s over. Finally. I thought that we were finished two days ago. Then we found several new small specks of blood on the sheets that have been covering the couches and chairs for the last month. But now it is really over and the heat period that had featured twenty-nine days of bleeding could be put behind us. After all, this was to have been the time for mating Fessie with her boyfriend Cousteau, but due to a conflict between Fessie’s expected delivery date and the out of town wedding of a dear family friend, the Cousteau-Fessie nuptials had to be postponed until her next season.
The onset of Fessie’s heat period is always a catalyst for lots of discussion about the pros and cons of motherhood for Fess. The women in my family worry about potential complications for her during the pregnancy and the delivery. They also fret about the effects on her body. Will she lose her puppyish playfulness in fulfilling her maternal responsibilities? Will her titties remain saggy after nursing for six to eight weeks? We are all so in love with her that it is easy to become paranoiac about any potential glitch. Yet it is the very same love for her that empowers us to override our sometimes irrational fears.
Caring for her during her this time is quite an effort. Fessie doesn’t have the build for us to buy clothes off the rack and her pants with diapers have to be customized. During her first heat, my wife Linda bought several outfits for her to wear. The results were quite comical as fitting Fessie into these get ups was like trying to fit the proverbial square peg into a round hole. For starters, things just didn’t line up well. The hole that was supposed to allow a normal dog’s tail to stick out as well as to allow the wearer to defecate lined up with her oozing vulva, ironically the very spot we wanted to cover. But it was Kotex Light Days Panty Liners that saved the day. At last count, on this heat alone, we went through one hundred and eighty of the absorbent pads. Using the adhesive strips on the underside of the liners we would combine three of them to cover the opening. There was, however, a flaw to this system that Fessie was able to exploit by doing the “Fessie Roll.” The slow swaying motion of a bottom-heavy punching bag characterized this movement, with Fessie using her rear end as the pivoting point. This allowed her to snag the exposed adhesive strip that traversed the opening in the pants on the underlying rug or carpet, which in turn allowed her to literally walk out of her pants. She even started doing the “Fessie Roll” without her pants on which prompted some members of our household to accuse her of actually pleasuring herself. After that she always seemed to have a guilty expression on her face when she was caught in the act.
As I said earlier, this was the heat period that we had decided to mate Fessie. Dogs generally come into heat once every six to seven months. The heat is characterized initially by a swelling of the vulva and the onset of vaginal bleeding which usually lasts for ten to twelve days with ovulation occurring just as the bleeding is stopping. The egg remains viable for about seventy-two hours so the mating must take place during this window of opportunity. Pregnancy usually lasts about two months. You can imagine my chagrin when Fessie started swelling on July first, knowing that I was due to be in San Francisco for a wedding from September fourteenth to seventeenth. I called Cousteau’s family to let them know about Fessie’s condition. They were very excited at the prospect of fatherhood for their boy, but were deflated by the news about the wedding. I told them that unless she ovulated by the tenth of July the due date would be too close to the wedding date and that we would need to wait for the next opportunity, which would probably be in late February or early March. (God forbid, there may even be a potential conflict there as my daughter, Melanie, is due to graduate from Berkeley in May, so let’s all hope that Fessie stays on schedule). I dutifully checked vaginal smears from her every few days and the changes in the structure of the cells indicated that she would be ovulating on the fourteenth of July. Of course, that quashed any chance of mating this time.
But the biggest irony turned out not to be the conflict with the wedding, but with the fact that on the very day that Fessie was ripe for fertilization, I was going to the convention center in San Diego to attend Comic-Con. Guess who lived across the street from the Convention Center? None other than Cousteau and his family! Before leaving from San Diego I called the bride’s mother with the admonition, “She better get married on schedule. I’ve postponed Fessie’s breeding!” (Amazingly, five days later, another wedding that I was to attend in San Francisco was abruptly cancelled four days before the ceremony!).
The following day, when I returned to work I was lamenting the bad timing of the heat and the wedding to many of my clients in the course of their visits. To my surprise, when I mentioned the bride’s name and the date of the wedding, one client revealed that he was a childhood friend of the groom and that he and his wife would be attending the wedding, too. Small world.
And the heat went on…and on…and on.
It was getting crazy. Fessie continued her bleeding and it seemed to be picking up in volume. My girls informed me that Fessie smelled like a woman during her period. I laughed, because in all the years that I had been in practice, I had never taken the time to literally and metaphorically smell the flowers, and thus had had no accurate comparison until now. It really came as a surprise since the source and significance of the bleeding is so different. During a woman’s menstrual cycle, the bleeding is a sign of infertility; the discharge coming from the uterus as it sloughs its life supporting lining. The bleeding from a dog (or any animal that has an estrus cycle) is an effusion of life as the blood that seeps from the engorged vagina is a signal that the reproductive tract is preparing itself to accept and nurture the fertilized eggs that will hopefully follow.
And the heat went on…and on…and on.
As the month of July wound to a close we were completing a refurbishing of our bedroom. While the room was a construction zone, it didn’t matter that the ecdysiast Fessie would lose her pants and leave her marks on the carpet and fabrics that were going to be replaced. Now that the new stuff was in place Fessie was a pariah, a persona non grata if you will. But she was too hard to resist and neither Linda nor I had the discipline or the heart to banish her. Instead, we layered old sheets, towels and carpet remnants throughout the entire room to accommodate Fessie and allow ourselves the pleasure of her company.
And the heat went on…but just a little while longer.
Just when you think that you’re the only person in the world that must contend with a particular dilemma, something always happens to put the whole thing in perspective. Consider my surprise when in the course of an office visit, a client came in with her two Boston Terriers. Liberty had been in heat for a week and was wearing the identical pants that Fessie had been wrapped in for the past month. Now when I describe the physical differences between French Bulldogs and Boston Terriers, I frequently describe the Frenchy as having the conformation of a Boston on steroids, owing to the increased muscularity of the French Bulldog. But the basic shape of the two breeds is similar enough to create the same difficult fit when it comes to doggie apparel. And sure enough, Liberty also needed modification of the opening of her panties. I liked the solution even better than what Linda and I had done with Fessie. The opening was simply sewn closed thus allowing the adhesive of the panty liner to adhere only to the underside of the fabric and prevent its interfacing with any underlying rugs or carpets.
This particular visit also presented another unique situation. The reason that the two dogs had been brought in was that they had failed in their attempts to mate naturally. As Liberty was now ovulating it was obvious that I would need to perform an artificial insemination. The first step in this process is to collect a semen specimen from the male. Normally, this is easily accomplished, as the male is generally hyper-stimulated by the scent of the female and with a little manual manipulation an erection is followed by the ejaculation of approximately one to two teaspoons of semen. This in turn is placed into a syringe with a thin catheter that is inserted into the female’s cervix where the fluid is deposited. However, in this case, Spike was either not in the mood or was inhibited by his lack of privacy and for the first time in hundreds of attempts, I couldn’t obtain the specimen. I briefly gave the two ladies a lesson in how to masturbate their dog, hoping that he would be more relaxed in his own environment. My hunch was correct as two hours later two giggling ladies reappeared with the “lover’s” semen specimen in hand (well, not quite “in hand” but in the syringe casing that I had provided). They became so good at it that two days later they returned for a second breeding, again with the specimen “in hand.”
Fessie teased us a little over the last few days. The discharge stopped for a day and then two days of mild spotting followed. But finally it was over. The sheets, towels and carpet remnants came off and were put away for future use. Fessie was now free to roam the house unencumbered. We were all happy to have her back. Now if only she would cooperate and come back into heat by next February.
To find out the next kink in this tail, click here!