Pamela would always come to the hospital dressed in the same cigarette-smelling clothes. Her entry always amused the members of staff of the veterinary hospital, from receptionists at the front desk to nurses and veterinarians who are supposed to treat people with empathy and courtesy.
I noticed nurses and other veterinarians covering their noses and scurrying away from her. It is unfair. Yet, of course, you can hardly do anything about people’s attitudes.
I saw Pamela at the veterinary hospital where I was employed. She was on the wrong side of her fifties, with large hips swinging both ways, and sagging breasts literally resting on her belly.
When she walks into the hospital, I could expect, as usual, someone from the members of staff to say ‘Hi, your girlfriend is in the corridor.’ They are all happy to let Pamela see me with her dogs.
As for myself, after I came to know her story, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for her whenever she came to the hospital with her dogs. She always wanted to see me until I stopped working in that hospital.
After the Second World War, as a child, she was sent to Australia as an orphan along with many other children on board a ship by the British authorities. Many orphans were brought up in Christian orphanages and some enjoyed a happy life while others grew up to be burdened to the Australian society. It was part of the colonial legacy of Great Britain.
Pamela didn’t marry and was living in a State-owned apartment in the inner suburb of Melbourne, dependent on the financial hand-outs of the Government. Two dogs, Lassie and Jacky, provided emotional support to her and were the only lifelines in her life. I thought Pamela and her dogs were mutually dependent on each other’s well-being.
Whenever she came to the hospital with her dogs, other nurses and doctors who avoided her would tease me. I used to laugh it off and attend to her as usual. Another reason I felt sympathy for her was that a dog that she treated as her own child had died. Jacky had suffered from cancer in the liver and been put to never-ending sleep by me. Pamela was devastated by that incident.
One day she came with her other dog Lassie. She was concerned, since as in the case of Jacky, Lassie had also developed a cough; she wondered whether Lassie had ‘contacted’ cancer of the liver from Jacky. When I examined Lassie, I found her to be in good health but showing signs of asthma. An X-ray showed that Lassie’s heart had a normal silhouette. Unlike humans, dogs tend not to develop asthma so I was puzzled. I sent her home with antibiotics to treat the cough.
Despite the medicine that was given for two weeks, the cough remained. A specialist referral was not an option as Pamela won’t be able to afford the cost of the treatment. I agreed to have another look. I washed Lassie’s trachea in saline and found that the trachea was affected by some sort of allergen. The ambulance driver who had assisted Pamela to bring Lassie to the hospital volunteered the information that her apartment was filled with cigarette smoke. ‘The smell filling her house made my stomach churn,’ said the driver.
Now I could diagnose the reason for the dog’s persistent coughing. I rang Pamela to discuss my findings. I inquired whether she was a smoker, which she readily affirmed. I explained to her that the reason for Lassie’s cough was from the cigarettes that she was smoking and I advised her not to smoke indoors thereafter.
“Doctor, how can I go outside and smoke when it is bitterly cold? I must give up smoking, that is my only option, for the sake of Lassie’s health,” she responded.
I agreed with Pamela that it would not be easy at all to stand outside and smoke in the winter in Melbourne. I was, however, skeptical about her word of ‘promise’ on giving up smoking.
Pamela kept her word and gave up smoking. Lassie was much better after that and the coughing declined in a few weeks.
The sight of women who smoke while pushing their babies in prams and sending down puffs of smoke would make me think of Pamela and Lassie!