My move from conventional veterinary practice to animal physical rehabilitation was based on many factors. A decade ago I was faced with some serious health issues which precipitated my decision to sell my share of the veterinary practice in which I was involved. It became apparent to me that not only did I need to reduce the number of hours physically worked, but that I also needed to better manage my emotional involvement in my clients and patients.
The emerging field of animal physical rehabilitation caught my attention and I began to investigate further. As vets, we perform complicated orthopaedic procedures on our patients every day, but when it came to the recovery process, there is a surprising lack of alternatives. Following injury, humans visit a physiotherapist as a matter of course but with animals this option is not available, and as a result, the outcome of surgery is compromised.
Sometimes, we are drawn to options for reasons that end up having only some of the reality we expected. My original journey into rehab was based on a belief that there would be less intimacy and emotional engagement than with my conventional veterinary experience. Needless to say, I was mistaken in my anticipation of the two-way connection that would arise between me and my animal patients and their human families. Which brings me to my chosen patients for this story.
Miller is a large, lovable, yellow Labrador. He was 18 months old when I met him. Miller has elbow dysplasia and the veterinarian who made the diagnosis predicted that Miller would be a cripple at 2 years of age, and euthanasia would follow soon after that. Fortunately, Miller’s ‘Mom’ was listening to a conversation on the radio about hydrotherapy for dogs. One of my existing clients had phoned into the station with her experiences and thus, Lindi was able to trace me. As for many of us with animal companions, Miller is like a child to Bennie and Lindi, and they quickly decided that they were not prepared to accept the prognosis of his condition. We began weekly swimming sessions with Miller. He has such a huge personality. His regular slot is on a Thursday afternoon by which time the members of my staff are arguing about who swims Miller! He has become our therapy dog. I digress...
When Miller’s fifth birthday was imminent, he was still incredibly healthy and limp free! Bennie and Lindi decided to take the family to the beach. Upon their return I was presented with a photo of Miller running full tilt along the beach. What a fabulous celebration! Miller is now going on for 9 and still as strong as an ox.
Obelix is a Beagle who was diagnosed with angular limb deformity in both of his front legs. This required numerous surgeries (which involved cutting and plating the bones) in order to straighten the legs. He came to me for post-op rehab and strengthening. Obelix is such a giving and gracious patient. We progressed well but a few months into his program he started to limp on one of his back legs. X-ray photos revealed bilateral hip dysplasia! This was bad news for an already physically compromised dog and all the more reason to continue with a physical therapy program. Obelix’s ‘parents’ are brilliant in their unstinting care for him! They have researched and undertaken as many options as they possibly can: he has undergone stem cell therapy; he visits every 7 – 10 days for an exercise session; and he is walked with his siblings on a regular basis. More recently he developed back pain because of compensatory movement patterns which we have been able to control with acupuncture.
I was delighted to receive a Christmas card this year from Obelix and his human family. On the front was a photograph of Obelix exuberantly racing across a field. The photo was taken a just week before.
So often we choose a path (for reasons that seem compelling at the time) and often, reality turns out to be different from what we anticipate. Instead of protecting myself with emotional distance, I realise that I am an integral part of the lives of my patients and their human companions. I have also realised that it is a two-way street. As much as I am vulnerable to feeling their pain and loss, I am also blessed with their joys and successes. I am humbled by their devotion to one another. I am in awe of the beautiful beings that I treat. I am truly grateful to have them in my life and I wouldn’t change any of it for anything in the world!