I admire veterinary doctors. It’s hard enough to learn human anatomy and physiology; to me, it’s remarkable that anyone could accumulate the much broader knowledge a vet applies to so many other species.

Humans can eat chocolate, dogs can’t? Who knows how many other foods and drugs are OK for one species, harmful to others? The vet does.

There are some places where the services of a vet are scarce, due to geography, the overall supply of vets, or a maldistribution of vets. The Northern Cheyenne Rez is one such place.

Occasionally local groups sponsor a visiting vet to spend a day performing pet sterilizations. Feral critters can be problematic.

People sometimes tried to enlist such limited animal expertise as a doctor of humans could provide. In my case, that wasn’t much, but we do what we can.

One night a knock sounded from our back-porch back door. I flipped on the light, which illuminated a pair of senior adults and a gaggle of youngsters, one holding… a cat.

I happen to be allergic to cat dander. It’s tolerable in an open, outdoor setting, but indoors the cat-spit-soaked flakes of shed skin rise in the air and settle everywhere. After exposures to cat as a kid, I spent more than one night propped up in bed until dawn, wheezing, chest heaving. Even tiny quantities of dander can provoke the reaction, and way back then, all we could do was “let it run its course,” as the doctors couldn’t offer an effective remedy. I could have died.

So even now I’m leery of cats, and it has nothing to do with the fact that cats are supercilious twits. I’m even nervous when we drive past feline roadkills, though at some level I revel in the revelation that there are fewer cats in the world.

John and Lucille Whitehawk were “traditional” in their lifestyle and speech. They seemed uncomfortable conversing in English, for one thing. That made it hard for me to explain why I wouldn’t do the hospitable thing and invite them in. Most of the Whitehawk family – these grandparents, their kids and grandkids – were long-time patients of mine.

But as I sat on the back steps and held court, a child handed me the cat.

The kids’ favorite kitten had begun limping, and nobody could figure out what was wrong. They wanted me to check.

I had no “history” to assist my exam – had the kitten caught its paw in a door? Did anyone hear a loud squall, and find the cat near a heavy fallen object?

Arguably, a doctor’s most sensitive diagnostic instruments are his fingertips, though too often these days the doctor doesn’t even touch the patient, except for a handshake proffered in greeting.

So I gently ran my fingers along the cat’s lower leg until I reached the wrist – is that even what they call the joint between a cat’s paw and front leg? The cat was strangely cooperative, probably sensing that I wouldn’t roadkill it so long its family was present to bear witness.

A subtle depression circled the leg above the paw. I asked “does this hurt?” but the cat did not answer.

Gesturing my reassurances, I went back inside to fetch a small hemostat, a surgical clamp with curved jaws.

Just as office workers’ homes somehow tend to harbor an inordinately large stock of paper clips, sticky-note pads, and pens bearing their employers’ logos, doctors’ kitchens and bathrooms seem to accumulate hemostats, scissors, scalpels, and forceps.

Always busy, we drop them in our pockets, remove them when we do the laundry, then absent-mindedly forget to return them to the clinic. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

I slid the hemostat tip along the skin under the cat’s fur, until I could feel it sink down a little at the edge of the circumferential groove I’d felt. Something firm had sunken into the groove; feeling my way carefully, I worked the tip under it and lifted.

One of the kids had placed a tight rubber band there, but forgot it. I snipped it, and as far as I know, the cat had no post-treatment complications.

In his spare time, our maintenance guy, Earl, broke horses, his own and his friends’. One day a few horses got spooked into a barb-wire fence. What did the damage was the steel fence posts. Lunging and rearing, the horses gouged themselves when they crashed against the sharp top end of a post.

Exiting the clinic, I grabbed up a couple bottles of a long-acting local anesthetic, syringes, hypodermics, and a “needle-driver” to manipulate the suturing needle.

Earl positioned the horses lying down, while I splashed disinfectant, then infiltrated anesthetic beneath the cut edges to avoid painfully puncturing the skin. Nylon kite string closed the gashes in muscles and skin.

Wary of the horses’ massive strength, I flinched backward at any twitch or kick, much to Earl’s amusement.

Alas, I didn’t think to treat these deep cuts as I would in a human – by placing a hollow “drain” deep in the wound, so that tissue fluids could escape instead of accumulating. These wounds got infected and began to suppurate. Earl summoned George Magpie, who successfully used “Indian medicine” to fix them.

That was my sole attempt at horse-doctoring; after that, nobody sought my services in that capacity.

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and lives outside Hays.

hauxwell@ruraltel.net