doctor ian kupkee holding his dachshund dog grendel


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The Other Side of the Counter

There is a wonderful movie that came out in the ‘80s called “The Doctor”.  It stars William Hurt as a brusque, self-absorbed physician with little time or regard for the non-medical needs of his patients.  When a stubborn cough turns out to be cancer, he finds himself immersed in a world where the roles are reversed.  He is dismissed and snapped at by doctors who have no time for his questions and concerns, and are not interested in his feelings or his fears.  I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice to say, it gives the young doctor a lot think about.   It is one of my favorite films.   Little did I know, it would also become a life lesson.

This past summer, I was taking our little Dachshund Grendel out for her morning walk.  The neighbor’s shih-tzu was roaming about, off leash, and came over to say hello.  They exchanged play bows, and Grendel gave a happy little sideways hop.  I’m not exactly sure what happened next.  She may have gotten her leash wrapped around her leg.  She may have landed at an awkward angle. She may have simply zigged when she should have zagged.  Suddenly, she was howling in pain, holding up her back right leg, and hopping around in a state of panic. 

Many small dogs suffer from a congenital condition that causes the knee caps to slip out of place.  Often, they slide back in on their own, or can be reset by hand.  More severe cases, or cases caused by trauma may require a surgical repair.  Hoping Grendel fell into the former category, I carried her inside and popped the knee cap back into place.  By days end, I had repeated the exercise four times, and each time the level of dachshund drama escalated.  I began to despair as I realized this was not something I could fix.

I did not sleep well that night.  Because I was holding the leash at the time the incident, I came to a very logical and sensible conclusion:  this was all my fault.  I was the worst dog owner in the world.  I should have been able to look into the future and prevent the accident from happening, to prevent ALL accidents from happening!  Sometime around 3a.m. , I came to the reluctant conclusion that my little dog needed orthopedic surgery.  Worse yet, this was a surgery that, at the time,  I was not experienced enough to do myself.  The guilt was overwhelming.

The following morning, my wife and I took Grendel to see Dr. Alvaro Larin, a board certified veterinary orthopedic  surgeon at Miami Veterinary Specialists.  I have known Dr. Larin for years, and have every faith in his abilities and expertise.  Nonetheless, sitting opposite  the front desk was profoundly unnerving.  My dog was broken.  I was anxious.  I was afraid.  I was a client.

Dr. Larin’s exam and xrays confirmed my suspicions.  The knee required orthopedic surgery, followed by 6-8 weeks of strict kennel confinement.  I signed the consent form as my bewildered little pooch was carried back into the treatment area.  She watched me over the nurse’s shoulder, her sad little eyes glued to me until the door swung shut behind them.  Standing on the other side of the counter, I was suddenly, painfully aware of what my clients go through when they bring me a sick pet.  As if reading my thoughts, my wife asked, “So…do you feel like William Hurt yet?”  I did.  I was a nervous wreck.

For the next 24 hours I proceeded to make an utter nuisance of myself to the staff at MVS.  I called (twice) to remind them that she had microvascular displaysia of the liver, a condition which can increase anesthetic risk .  I called for the results of the pre-anesthetic bloodwork.  I called to see if the surgery had been started.  I called to see if it was finished.  My lesson in empathy went to the next level when we visited her later that night.  Groggy and sedated, she feebly wagged her tail when she saw us.  She whined when we left.  My heart nearly broke.

The next six weeks were a challenge.  She came home sporting a large Elizabethan collar and a stiff bandage that stretched from her hip to her toes.  The bandage had to be wrapped in plastic whenever she went outside to do her business, which for reasons known only to her, she could not manage to do while wearing the e-collar.  After several days, we began to understand why clients hate e-collars, and took it off.   She promptly chewed at the stitches, causing an infection.  Feeling suitably chastened, we put it back on.  It was a long summer.

At her final recheck Dr. Larin gave us the good news.  Grendel’s knee had healed perfectly, and she was free to begin resuming her normal activities.  The doctors and staff were wonderful and attentive.   We must have asked a thousand questions, and they patiently answered them all.  We brought them a basket of cookies.  We should have nominated them for sainthood.

Today, Grendel runs and plays as if the past summer’s ordeal had never happened.  For her, nothing has changed.  As for me, I will be forever grateful to my friend, Dr. Alvaro Larin, and the entire staff at Miami Veterinary Specialists.  One of  my vet school professors, Dr. Singh, would often tell his students that nothing in life was ever a waste of time.  I learned a lot this summer.  I learned what it’s like to feel helpless, to have no other choice but to rely on the expertise of others.  I learned that it’s really quite scary.  To my clients, the people on the other side of the counter, thank you for trusting me.  I’ve been where you are, and more than ever before, I understand.

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