Hillbilly beard

July 20, 2020

Sometimes you just can’t predict how your veterinary clients will respond.

Dealing with people is the part of veterinary medicine that many of us can never truly say we are good at. Some may profess to be comfortable with it, but most will agree that it is the hardest part of the job. Many clients simply don’t respond to certain life situations as I would, making it difficult to know what they might do next.

I was still early enough into my career that every phone call coming into the house didn’t send chills up my spine. One Tuesday night at nine o’clock found a sobbing man beckoning me from the other end of the line. He was explaining that his dog Hamburger was very sick and needed immediate attention. Every attempt on my part to find out what the dog’s clinical signs were was met with a stonewalled answer that help was needed immediately.

I met the couple at the clinic several minutes later. Here was the scene: A man about 50 years old, skinny as a rail, beard down to his navel streaked with gray and black, was clutching a small mixed-breed dog wrapped in a towel with only two legs visible. The dog/towel unit was embraced firmly against the man’s upper chest extending to the chin area. The wife was a rather large woman wearing a pair of skin-tight nylon shorts on an evening with temperatures in upper thirties. Her middle two upper teeth did not exist and her tongue seemed to always occupy the space where they used to be. 

They were both sobbing and talking so fast in unison that I could not begin to comprehend what had happened. After what seemed to be 10 minutes of talking in circles, it became apparent that the dog had not eaten or moved for the past 3 days. Any question from me was met with a high-pitched wail from the man and a series of rapid tongue thrusts through the tooth void from the woman.

I was a bit worried. These people were beyond reason when it came to this dog. I asked to see the critter and was met by loud objection. He told me that I could only see the dog if I promised to fix him so he could eat hamburgers again. What do you say to that?

I was handling it all pretty well until I noticed fleas, and I mean a lot of fleas, darting through this man’s beard. That is not normal. The next thing I noticed was that the two legs that were visible looked a bit stiff. In fact, they had not moved from any position except straight the entire time they were telling me the story.

I finally talked the man into placing the dog on the exam table. He kept Hamburger wrapped in the towel and set him down in a standing position on the table. The dog was stiff as a board. I had not yet seen his head or body, but his legs were so rigid that when he set him down, he just stood there like a plastic farm animal toy.

Before I ever touched the dog I was aware of what was happening. The dog hadn’t eaten or moved for the last three days for a reason. The fleas were leaving the dog and migrating through the man’s beard for a reason. The legs were stiff and the dog was a sawhorse for a reason. It was dead.

Oh my, what now? How am I going to break this news? I reached over and got the stethoscope, gently placed it under the towel and over the dog’s heart and listened intently. I kept it there for a long time trying to figure out how I was going to break the news. The dog was room temperature, stiff, and obviously without a heartbeat.

I gently slid the scope out from under the towel, conjured up my most caring facial expression and tone of voice, and said, “I am sorry, but Hamburger is beyond repair. He has passed away.”

The man hit the floor like someone had shot him. He lay flat on his stomach, legs apart and arms flailing. He kept screaming over and over, “No he ain’t! No he ain’t! He can still stand up.”

He jumped back up, grabbed the dog, tucked him under his chin again and started heading for the door.

“You’re just as dumb as that last vet that looked at him yesterday. I can’t believe they ain’t putting out vets from that there school that know what they are doing. Come on, Momma, let’s go to Amarillo, they got some vets there that can fix him.”

With that, they scurried out the front door and off into the night. I was left standing there, stethoscope still in hand, wondering what I should have done. People just don’t respond to things the way you might anticipate.

Bo Brock, DVM, owns Brock Veterinary Clinic in Lamesa, Texas. His latest book is Crowded in the Middle of Nowhere: Tales of Humor and Healing from Rural America.

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