Saturday, February 22, 2014

All Creatures Great and Small

An unexpectedly good follow-up to my last post:

This past week I visited the Anglophone Northwest region of Cameroon, winding an intentionally tortuous route back up to the Adamaoua and my new post.  I met up with a friend from training, Michael, and traveled with him from the regional capital of Bamenda through the verdant mountains to his post of Mbengwi.

On the way, he mentioned that his cat, Dee, was very pregnant. "We might come home to a pile of kittens," he warned.

Instead, we walked into his house to find Dee prone on the couch in a puddle of kitty vaginal secretions. Michael bent over her, then straightened up quickly.  Something was very wrong. The tiny tail and one leg of a clearly dead kitten had been delivered, but the rest of the body remained lodged in her birth canal.  Dee was no longer having contractions-- in fact, she was no longer moving-- and from the almost-rotten stench, it seemed the stillborn kitten might have been there for hours.

Being a health volunteer in Cameroon, one inevitably encounters medical emergencies in less than ideal conditions, and learns to deal with them as efficiently as possible.  Within minutes, Michael and I had washed and gloved up and constructed an impromptu veterinary operating theater with a deep plastic tub, an old pair of pagne pants, and a Maglite weapon-grade flashlight.  As I balanced the light and held Dee down, Michael gently worked the body out of her birth canal, easing the second back leg around before pulling the upper body out in a gush of foul-smelling fluid.  We phoned Julie, a volunteer veterinarian, who recommended the correct dosage of antibiotics to combat possible septicemia; Michael fetched a syringe and gave Dee a subcutaneous injection of saline solution to ensure that she rehydrated as quickly as possible.  As I gently stroked the camel's hump of saline wobbling over Dee's shoulderblades, I felt sad for her trauma, but proud of us.  We had handled the situation.

There was, however, a mystery that remained: what had happened to the rest of the litter?  Michael was sure he had felt at least three kittens kicking in Dee's belly, but searching in and around the house turned up nothing.  We concluded that they must have also been stillborn, and that Dee had eaten them (this being, it seems, something that cats do).

The next day we spent with Caitlin and Emily, the other volunteers in the Mbengwi cluster.  We hiked up a mountain to get a view of the town spread out below us, buildings interspersed with lush palm and eucalyptus groves.  It was a lovely spot, and we spread out a picnic of fresh bread that Michael had baked the night before, buttery avocados, and bananas.  Hiking back down to a bar, we met up with some friends and colleagues of the three volunteers, and drank and danced into the evening.

Once back at the house, Michael and Emily found their way to bed, but Caitlin and I stayed up talking.  Suddenly we heard a clattering in the kitchen, followed by a chorus of piercing mews.  We turned to see Dee trotting into the salon, something gray and wriggling in her mouth.  Mouse! I thought at first, then, horrified, Dead kitten!

It was neither; Dee, it seemed, had successfully birthed at least one of the other kittens, and hidden it away somewhere in the brush behind Michael's house.  Once sufficiently recovered from her exhaustion, she had apparently remembered her kitten and fetched it again.

The kitten, eyes still shut tight, was mewling frantically, but seemed unable to nurse. We tried to guide it several times to one of Dee's six nipples, but each time it crawled blindly over her body, a little ball of writhing need.  Dee was no help, purring contentedly but seeming not to know what to do with her own offspring.

Caitlin and I, again thrown into the role of impromptu vets, mixed powdered milk and made a makeshift nipple out of a plastic bag.  We drippily fed the kitten until it quieted down, then tried again to guide it to Dee.  This time it found a nipple and clamped on, kneading Dee's stomach with its tiny pin-prick claws.

And once again, I was proud of us.

Is it bad that I want to name this guy Adolf?  Maybe we can compromise on Charlie.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

When Childhood Dreams Come True

Growing up, I wanted badly to be a large animal vet.  This was entirely inspired by James Herriot books and a vaguely romantic idea about stomping around barnyards in Wellington boots and birthing cows— which could probably only seem romantic to someone who, like suburban pre-adolescent me, had never actually seen a cow up close. 

In time this was discarded, to be replaced by subsequent desires to be a novelist, a Broadway star, a singing waitress (let it never be said that I don’t adjust my expectations realistically), an Egyptologist, a socialist historian, a Peace Corps volunteer (arguably the ultimate way to put off knowing what you’re doing with your life) and now, in what will hopefully be my last pivot, an environmental conservationist.  (Or a writer for National Geographic.)

I bring this up because I finally got the chance to live the dream, so to speak, when my bush dog, Scipio, passed the six-month vaccination mark and simultaneously went into heat for the first time.  I had been half-heartedly planning to take her in to the nearest vet in Guider for her rabies shot for several weeks, but the thought of trying to transport an almost-fully grown dog on a moto for an hour was enough to encourage my procrastination.  That changed when she started getting lethargic and drippy, emanating a musky smell so strong even I noticed it—as did every male stray in Mandama, to judge from the rustling and whining around the back door each night.  After three straight nights of being woken around midnight to Scipio howling in the salon, and the successive check of windows and doors to assuage my paralyzing dread of Boko Haram, I decided it was time.  Skip and I both needed for her to be fixed.

So into Guider we went, Skip squashed onto my lap on the moto, head resting on the driver’s shoulder—a more intimate but equally windy version of the head-out-the-window.  I took her to the Délégation d’Elevage, the Ministry of Animal Husbandry, an officious name for a peripatetic large-animal vet, or Guider’s very own James Herriot.  The walls were plastered with posters advertising various bovine prophylaxes, vaccinations, and vitamin supplements; all featured glossy photos of glowering cattle and smiling herders.  Beside the office door, a notice warned against avian flu.  “THE SALE OF DEAD BIRDS IS HIGHLY ILLEGAL”, it blustered unnecessarily (really, who would buy an already dead but not cooked chicken in 105-degree heat?  This isn’t the Safeway freezer case we’re talking about).

The vet, a kindly man with small glasses and an unexpectedly professional air, had to rummage through his cabinet to come up with the rabies vaccine.  He didn’t get many dogs, he explained—sometimes cats, but mostly his clients were goats and bulls.  I asked about getting Scipio fixed, and his face fell.  Ah, yes—well, there was no surgical theatre on the premises, and that was a fairly intrusive procedure.  If this were a male dog, no problem, he could do it right here in his office (this accompanied by a snip-snip motion of the fingers), but no, he could not help Scipio.  Was there such a thing as canine birth control? I asked.  Some shot, or pill?  At this he laughed heartily.  “If you need family planning,” he chuckled, “go to the hospital.”

And so I did.  I tied Skip to a tree outside, hoping that none of the moto drivers lounging around waiting for clients would harass her, and walked up to the font desk in the triage area.  “I’d like to buy Depro,” I announced, knowing from my own health center that the three-month contraceptive shot would be widely available.  The nurse immediately shushed me, leaning in to whisper, “If you need family planning counseling, go down the hall to the second office on the right and ask for Dr. Abdoulaye.”  It hadn’t occurred to me that I would be the assumed recipient, and while I was glad to see the staff treating a topic so taboo in Muslim culture with sensitivity, I felt a need to correct her misapprehension.  “It’s not for me,” I told her, realizing as I did so that this was about as plausible as “I got this black eye walking into a door”.  She nodded, and smiled knowingly.  “Right.  For a friend?”  Sensing that this might not be the time to introduce my menstruating dog into the conversation, I agreed, and went in search of Dr. Abdoulaye.

The doctor, head of family planning services in Guider, ushered me into his office and closed the door tactfully behind me.  Feeling a little embarrassed by the thoughtful yet unwarranted level of discretion being shown, I introduced myself, then launched in: “I want Depro, but not for me, I already have an IUD.  C’est pour mon chien,” my dog.  Dr. Abdoulaye frowned, confused.  Pour ton… chef?”, your boss?  “No, no,” I corrected him, “mon chien.”  He looked startled, glancing under my chair as if he thought I might have smuggled a dog into the office beneath his notice.  “She’s outside,” I explained, hooking my thumb towards the entrance.  “Should I bring her in?”  The doctor considered this, then shook his head uncertainly.  “Umm… tell you what, I’m just going to sell you the medicine and a syringe.  You work at a health center, you know what to do.”  In fact, I didn’t, having expressly avoided being trained in administering shots; I’m not certified to give clinical care, and had felt uncomfortable being asked to do so.  I didn’t press the point with Dr. Abdoulaye, however, relieved that he had not ordered me out of his office in anger. 

I paid for the needle and small vial of birth control, and was about to turn and leave when he hesitated, seeming torn by some internal struggle.  Finally his highly trained bureaucratic instincts won—Cameroonian doctors are above all civil servants—and he flipped open his register.  “What is your dog’s nom de famille and prénom?” he asked formally, and thus Mlle Scipio Skove officially joined the Guider Regional Hospital Family Planning Services Depro program, with a return visit scheduled for April. 

I got back to Mandama and immediately sought out Benjamin, our emotionally volatile nurse.  We are good enough friends that I figured I could bully him into doing me this favor, although I was sure he would mock me for days about it.  Unfortunately, he had left for Mayo Oulo.  The chief of the health center was already at the millet beer cabaret, deep into a calabash of bilbil.  Wishing I had agreed to take shot training after all, I read the tiny print on the bottle, uncapped the needle and vial, and loaded the syringe with milky medicine.  I was surprised how much resistance the vacuum created by the empty syringe and sealed vial gave, and nervously faltered, letting bubbles into the syringe.  Cursing, I finished drawing the liquid up out of the vial and pulled the needle out, pushing the plunger gently down to force the excess air out.  When a white drop of Depro appeared on the tip of the needle, I shook it off and took a deep breath.  It was as ready as it was going to be.  Glad this was an intramuscular administration rather than an intravenous one, I pinched up the skin on Skip’s left haunch like I had seen the vet do with the rabies shot, slid the needle in, and began to push the plunger.

Beads of white liquid appeared on Scipio’s side, sliding down her long hairs.  I had slid the needle into fur, but failed to pierce the skin.  Thinking how much easier this seemed in theory, I readjusted the needle.  This time Scipio yipped, and I knew I had hit my mark.  She began to squirm, and I used my left elbow to pin her down while I finished giving the shot at a steady pace. 

This presumably won’t solve the problem of Scipio going into heat, but at least I can feel less like a father with a teenage daughter, hovering around the porch yelling at the strays to bring her straight home, and no fooling around in the car.  I don’t think I realized how much maternal instinct having a dog was going to bring out in me; every time she trots off to chase guinea fowl in the bush, or disappears to hunt out fallen cow horns, I worry about her.  There are so many things that could go wrong!  Angry cattle!  Angrier herders with machetes!  Roving bands of feral dogs!  Honestly, how do people ever survive having children?