By Bill Stork, DVM
Claire will text during office hours with client questions, new calls, or when she senses the technicians are staging a coup. My wife is the queen of concise, and very respectful of business hours. Unless, she’s spotted a broken-down farm sink, She-Shed, or homeless monkey. So, when the Samsung pings more than three times, it’s either Uncle Scott on a political rant, or a message from a client with a vomiting dog, down cow, or a 7-gram turtle who’s passed an eighteen-inch tapeworm.
Our service converts voice messages to text and drops them in my phone:
"Hi, Sue Nelson Alba first time effort and she had been milking really good, but she's dropped way off and can feed him the last day or two time, just would really like a check. So I don't know if she's got pneumonia Christie at that maybe da but when she did Coop this morning. So 608-555-1212 thanks."
Thank goodness for technology?
I migrated north of the Cheddar Curtain in 1992 to care for dogs, cats, cows, and horses, and for love (four out of five is eighty percent). Thanks to a Herculean family effort, I graduated from eight years of college debt-free. My starting salary was not chump change, but I was looking to live lean. A perk to the love deal was a farmhouse in Johnson Creek for $300/month.
My friend Jack Stachnik is a retired Air Force fighter pilot. He now flies freight for Federal Express. CEO, truck driver, or pilot, every new Federal Express employee starts on the line, sorting, loading trucks, and delivering packages. After weeks of working from the bottom up, they get to their corner office or cockpit.
The initiation process at Lake Mills Veterinary Clinic was less structured. A Wisconsin graduate named Dr. Myron Kebus and I started on June 15. Joyce Kuhl had been the receptionist at LMVC since the State Farm office was a blacksmith’s shop. She’s aged like Dick Clark. Several years ago she moved to Trinity Pines Senior Living center. I’m pretty sure she mows their grass and shovels snow.
Day one she sat behind the desk fielding phone calls. She covered the receiver with her left hand and glanced at the appointment book, “Good morning, men, Richard Maahs and Joe Spoke have cows off feed and Jim Flood has a milk fever. Dr. Anderson says everything you need should be in the basement.”
We fumbled in the dark for thermometers, fluids, IV sets, and syringes and threw them into our Craftsman tool boxes with the stickers still on. In 1992 a Garmin GPS cost $2500 and couldn’t find the Sears Tower on a sunny day. We had plat books, and Joyce:
“Turn left out of the clinic, wrap around the north end of the lake, veer right at Dick Tarnutzer’s place, go under the interstate. Keep trending left until you get to the barn with the Redbird mural on it, turn left, go back under the interstate, past St. John’s Lutheran church. He’s the first farm on your left, at the end of the long drive. Joe can tell you how to get to Richard’s.”
Dr. Kebus and I stumbled through a half-dozen dairy barns armed with clipboards, stethoscopes, and shoulder-length latex gloves. With the collective confidence of a lab pup in a lion’s den and the efficiency of a government sub-contractor, we generated our list of differential diagnoses, contemplated treatment options, and eventually managed to medicate two cows for ketosis and a displaced abomasum, and amuse the heck out of a handful of dairy farmers.
Myron and I had questioned whether Dr. Anderson’s hiring two greenhorns to commence on the same day was predicated on demand or desperation. The answers came quickly. The two-way radio wired to the whip antenna on his rear fender mysteriously quit the very day we started. Well into his sixties, Dr. Anderson resorted to cafeteria-style practice. He’d arrive first, put his initials next to a configuration of calls that painted the corners of our practice radius, and route past Zweig’s diner on Tuesdays for their meatloaf special.
Dr. Anderson did not like pickup trucks or work boots. He drove a slow ark into the parking lot in his late aunt’s Oldsmobile Delta 88 diesel, squatting like a Catholic family to Easter service. He’d removed the back seat to carry fluids, foot trimming equipment, and a block and tackle for pulling calves. Dr. Anderson kicked the Tingley rubber overshoes off his Allen Edmonds and offered us a shot of plastic-bottle Scotch. Continuing the baptism-by-fire initiation process, he offered to take care of overnight emergencies, but he’d be at a meeting for the rest of the week. “The two of you can handle things just fine,” he said with misguided faith in the Universities of Illinois and Wisconsin.
There were questions I should have asked.
He asked for our telephone numbers so Joyce could call-forward. I only made it to 6-9-9 when he looked at me like I’d just farted in his daughter’s face on our first date, “Well that’s a Johnson Creek telephone number,” he growled.
Looking to appeal to the Scotsman’s tendency to pinch a penny into copper wire, “Yes sir, it’s a local call, and I’m eleven minutes from the clinic by interstate”.
The other half of Dr. Anderson’s Northern European family tree was German. “It is assumed that an employee of the Lake Mills Veterinary Clinic will have a local address and telephone number.”
Compromise was not a component of Dr. Anderson’s negotiating style, so Myron and I found a room in an old-folks home near the Catholic church for the nights and weekends we were on call.
When Dr. Anderson was on call, so was his wife Mary Lee. If Bob was pulling a calf for the Wollins when the Schultzs called in with a down cow, she took the message and waited for him to find a barn phone and call in.
For my weekends and nights on-call, I had no Mary Lee, or equivalent. (For the record and those who knew her, Mary Lee Anderson was a force of nature; there was no replacement.) I had an answering machine. When I had to mow the grass, I’d make four rounds, then idle the tractor and run inside, across the newspapers on the floor to check for a blinking green light.
I spent the extra fifty bucks at Best Buy to get an answering machine with remote access. If I had a midnight calving, I could call the machine and retrieve new messages, if the farm had a touch-tone barn phone. Then I’d hope no one called during the thirty minutes it took to scrub my boots and drive home.
I heard from clients that in event Mary Lee was gone to a Michigan football game or NASCAR race, Dr. Anderson had a battery-powered squawk box. For the majority of the barns that still had rotary phones, he could hold the little device to the receiver and it’d mimic the security code for his answering machine.
After a year of prolapsed uterus’ and keyhole cat spays, Dr. Kebus gathered the courage to pursue his passion. He became the state’s first and only dedicated fish vet and opened Wisconsin Aquatic Veterinary Service (WAVS). German Persistence being as it may, Dr. Anderson’s only option to not be on call was the flat-topped, flannel-wearing flatlander. I politely explained that I’d be pulling my alarm clock and answering machine out of the nursing home on College Avenue that Myron and I had been hunkering in.
Dr. Kebus’ departure was coincident with an advance of technology. Google says the first mobile phone was around 1973. It took another twenty years to make it to Jefferson County, Wisconsin. My father-in-law helped hard-wire a Motorola car phone into the dash of my powder blue half-ton Chevy WT.*
By the mid-1990s, my phone detached from the dashboard and into a bag the size of my grandma’s purse. Which would not pass for carry-on luggage, but I’d challenge any TSA agent to take it from her. From the door yard, or near a window, on a sunny day, when I could visualize the tower, and if a flock of birds didn’t fly past, I could get ahold of HQ. I think I had one brick phone. It was approximately the size of the Panasonic AM radio I listened to baseball games on as a kid. They did not float, and were not particularly water-resistant, and the battery lasted about one short story.
Which was just fine, because in short order came the flip phone.
Flip-phones are compact, durable, and had superior reception, but the best part is the move. Us rednecks would use the side of our thumb while it was still down low. The white-shirt types would retrieve it from their breast pocket, step aside, cock their elbow and flick it open just before arriving at the ear. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is worth three billion dollars. He, Warren Buffett, Scarlet Johansson, and Ryan Haack still use them.
Then came the pager. As fashionable as khakis and Crocs, the little black box on our belt would vibrate or ping, alerting us there was a message to be checked. They were also a valuable prop. If there were three baptisms tacked onto the end of eight-o’clock mass or wind-bag Jim was droning on during a Rock Lake Improvement meeting, I’d grab the pager from my belt, hit the button, stare at the display, crease my brow, cross myself, and hit the door.
We were liberated while on call. We could ride our bikes, go to the beach, or split firewood. If there was an emergency, the service would call.
For a while the service was a real-live person who answered for the clinic, took a message, and called us. When they could stay awake. Jim Erb called with a dystocia at midnight. The service pinged my pager. When I attempted to retrieve the message, the phone rang to nowhere, for four hours. When Spicolli finally answered, “Yo, sorry dude, it was a slow night and I was hangin’ hard. I must-a fell asleep.” (Yes, seriously.)
The next day, Doreen was in the market for an automated system. For the next several years we used The Woody. Jim Woodward installed a system the likes of Air Traffic Control at O’Hare International. He was the only man on the planet who (kinda) understood it. The Woody worked well, unless there was a thunderstorm over Kansas or a moped hit a power pole down by the Culver’s. Well into the era of Facebook, Amazon and the smart phone, to switch messages or recipients required traveling to the clinic. When it came to romance, it was the functional equivalent of taking the babysitter home. If I wanted to be off long enough to take Sheila to Norm’s Hideaway for fish for our anniversary, I had to drive to Lake Mills and hit three buttons.
Confession… Nearly as soon as car phones became cell phones, they could ring, vibrate, repeat and had their own voice mail. Why do we insist on using Spicolli, Woody, and Hal? Because clients-in-need will leave messages. Folks calling to find our hours, make appointments for a nail trim on Thursday, or find out how much a 13lb bag of Urinary SO is, will not.
Which brings us up to 2018. Mittsy found a new system by Nextiva. She spent enough time in teleconference with their programmers to be common-law married, but we can modulate the system from our cell phones. Hal has yet to miss a message. The system translates what the computer perceives the client’s voice message to be, to text. It captures their telephone number electronically and never misses. While I can almost always pluck a key word like, vomit, diarrhea, or bleeding out of the message, the context is usually really entertaining.
I received a call Saturday afternoon. The text translation read, "Hi, my name is James Brown. I see my daughter Casey Tuesday or shepherds are paid and ask for the last few days of mutton. He's been really itch and Adam Popper on detail the end of a sale towards of anal area and he's pretty much screwed up all the hair and it looks kind of quasi. I'm not real sure what to do. I did put a call 921 keep irritating that please call me at 608-867-5309. Thank you."
Hal also sends the voice recording. What the above caller actually said:
“Hi, my name is Jessica Baratti. I have a six-month-old Shar Pei-Shepherd Cross. For the last several days he’s been itching at the base of his tail. Kind of near his anal area. He has the hair in the area nearly chewed off. I put his cone on him, and I really don’t know what to do, if you could give me a call, I’d really appreciate it. Thank you.”
*My father in law was nothing, if not thorough. That dash mounted Motorola withstood a full-on assault from a hallucinogenic Blue Heeler in full-on attack and shit mode.