As the PBS television series “Downton Abbey” nears the end of its six-season run, I can’t help but think back to another time spent vicariously in the same county of Yorkshire, England. In 1937, only 11 years after Downton’s conclusion, my veterinary and literary hero, James Herriot, began practice there.
I first read his “All Creatures Great and Small” series of books as a teenager, often before school, and almost always while flung back in my dad’s favorite recliner. The images painted by his words as he described the beautiful English countryside, and the many colorful characters he encountered, both human and animal, were fuel to my fire to become a veterinarian like him. I so much wanted to be part of that world.
One of his patients was an overweight, overindulged Pekingese named Tricki Woo. Tricki was owned by a wealthy widow, Mrs. Pumphrey, herself a holdover from the Downton era. Together they lived in a large, fancy house with servants and the whole nine yards.
Tricki often suffered from impacted anal glands, a condition Mrs. Pumphrey called “flop-bott.” James repeatedly blamed this on Tricki’s dietary lifestyle which consisted of everything except proper dog food. Many pages of the books were devoted to the fine line James traversed as he tried to be an advocate for Tricki’s health, whilst not offending Mrs. Pumphrey, who was renowned for her generous hospitality during home visits. That, and the fact that Mrs. Pumphrey had once told him that Tricki referred to him as “Uncle Herriot.”
As a fledgling student, I didn’t realize what an integral part of veterinary practice this balancing act is. Seventy-five years and a new century later, that aspect of veterinary medicine really hasn’t changed much.
I, too, have a patient who experiences recurrent bouts of “flop-bott,” although she is not nearly as overweight, nor as overindulged as Tricki. A delightful Maltese named Bella, she lives with a very nice family in Van Wert who love her dearly. I see her several times a year, usually accompanied by Susan and her son, Nicholas, for problems concerning Bella’s skin, ears and those aforementioned anal glands. This triad of ailments is characteristic of a dog with a food allergy.
When Bella sticks to her special diet she does pretty well at keeping her symptoms at bay. It’s the “sticking” part that’s the problem, however.
Like many food allergic dogs, Bella’s Achilles heel is chicken. She has a weakness for it, and according to Susan, Bella’s father has a weakness for giving it to her. Whenever she has a skin flare-up, I only have to mention the word “chicken” and Susan gives me a confessional sheepish look. Bella is awfully cute, though, and it would be difficult to deny her anything, including the dreaded chicken. But owners of food allergic pets must be steadfast and resolute. Do not look at those adorable, begging eyes. Put them in another room at mealtime if you must.
A few months back, Bella developed a fairly large sebaceous cyst on her back. When it began to open and drain, Susan and Nicholas brought her to be checked. As I entered the exam room and saw the lesion, which was not unlike a volcano spewing its contents, I exclaimed, “Oh, my God! She looks like Mount Vesuvius!” Nicholas quickly added a much better moniker. “Bella St. Helens!”
Instantly I became a little jealous. I always wanted a cool nickname like that. I think Bella kind of likes it, too. She is quite a character.
Our chicken issue aside, working with Bella St. Helens and her family has provided some of my most cherished moments as a veterinarian. During a recent visit, Susan mentioned that while getting Bella ready for her appointment, she inadvertently told her she was going to see “Uncle John” instead of “Dr. John.” And just like that, no time-travel machine necessary, I was back in Yorkshire with James and Tricki Woo, and all the wonderful memories from those magnificent books.
Oh, I would have become a veterinarian with or without James Herriot, but without him I don’t think I would have been able to fully appreciate my clients, and enjoy my patients as much as I have. I am honored to be your veterinarian, Bella. I must admit, though, I’m honored even more to be considered your uncle. Thank you, Susan, for the ultimate compliment.
Dr. John Jones practices at Delphos Animal Hospital.