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Life Arts    H2'ed 2/25/11

Veterinarian Nicholas Trout on "Ever By My Side, A Memoir in Eight Pets"

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My guest today is Dr. Nicholas Trout. Welcome to OpEdNews, Nick.  You're often compared to James Herriot, [aka James Alfred Wight, 1916-1995] who wrote All Creatures Great and Small. It's understandable:  you're both veterinary surgeons and British-born authors of best-sellers based on your work.  Your latest book, Ever By My Side, A Memoir in Eight Pets,  is a humorous and loving look at your childhood as well as your veterinary practice and later life in the States. We learn that your father has always been a major force in your life.  It seems that he also succumbed to the Herriot bug. Can you tell our readers about that?

Nick and Meg    photo credit: Deborah Feingold

For my father, everything James Herriot became something of a religion.  He read the books.  He could recite verbatim huge chunks of the acclaimed BBC TV series -- this became compulsory viewing in our house.  His accent transitioned toward that of a Yorkshireman (even though he was actually born in what is now Zimbabwe) and, these days, he and my mother live in a small cottage in Wensleydale in the heart of Herriot Country.  I think, for any parent, it doesn't get much sweeter when your son or daughter feels that they have found their calling, as I did with veterinary medicine.  Your child has a goal, motivation and, with luck, a career they are destined to enjoy for the rest of their lives.  Given the timing, it was easy for my father to be seduced by stories of obstreperous farmers and ornery livestock, by the romance and the pathos that Herriot captured so perfectly.

Despite your father's love affair with all things Herriot, it was no foregone conclusion that you would become a vet. Based on your experience with Marty, it was doubtful that you would even become a dog lover. Then, there was Cleo. Can you talk about your early years with these two very different dogs?

Marty and Cleo were the first pets I ever knew -- Cleo, a gentle, portly and appreciative Dalmation, Marty, a snappy, untouchable and vindictive (at least it seemed that way to a small boy) Toy Poodle.  They were my Grandmothers' dogs -- at the time, my immediate family had no pets.  Cleo was a buddy, an insight into what it meant to have a dog as a companion.  Marty was more akin to a zoo animal -- a creature to look at but never dare to touch -- Marty was the pet you could not pet.  The thing is, as demonstrated one chilly day on a beach when my mother's mother leapt into a roiling Irish Sea to save her Marty from drowning, what I felt for Cleo was clearly what my Grandma felt for Marty.  Though these relationships looked and felt so different to me, this incident made me aware of something magical that could develop between a human and an animal, something worth risking your life for.   

Your parents each viewed dogs very differently. While you and your father hankered for a dog, your mother put the kibosh on it. Yet, somehow your parents ended up with one after another, sometimes even two at a time. How do you explain this intriguing dynamic?

My mother had always been vehemently opposed to having a dog.  Ultimately, our first family dog, a fantastic German Shepherd named Patch, was acquired without her consent.  In order to save face, she had to maintain a façade of indifference, a façade Patch slowly wore down thanks to his winning personality.  How else can I explain her desire to rescue a Lab Mix puppy with her head trapped in the railings of a school yard?  Alternatively, my real mother was abducted by aliens!

Interesting theory! You've been a practicing veterinarian surgeon for many years now and you've picked up a lot along the way. What do we learn from having pets and why do we need them?  

In the twenty-first century, we lead complicated lives and to me, our relationships with pets have become increasingly important because of the simplicity and purity of the emotions we get to share with them.  Pets can be trusted.  Our time together is uncomplicated by disapproval, resentment, or conflict.  Their attributes are clear, easy to retrieve and, despite the fact that pets are never with us for long enough, the feeling they instill in us will remain long after they are gone.  In our world of doomed and dangerous relationships, pets offer love without the risk. 

Clarissa Leahy/Getty Images and Soren Hald/Digital Vision/Getty Images

I wholeheartedly agree!  You write about the interesting differences between pet owners in the UK and over here. Can you share your observations with us, please?

Twenty years ago when I was working in the UK, I had a sense that British pet owners were very trusting of their veterinarian.  A nationalized health care system may offer many things but you tend not to question protocol and you certainly lack a sense of how much things cost.  Not so on the other side of the pond.  When I first started working in the States, I was struck by how well informed pet owners were, how they questioned my decisions and forced me to justify my treatment plans.  It wasn't long before I came to the realization that animal health care is at its best when it becomes this kind of focused, collaborative effort rather than a product to be dispensed and accepted without question.

Because you're a surgeon, the service you provide is different than that of the 'regular' vets. Was it hard to give up the more day-to-day care frame for this specialty? And how did you end up being a surgeon, since you write that, growing up, you were never very gifted with your hands?

Surgery simply felt like a good fit for me.  I liked the notion of being "a closer', being a go to person for medicine and oncology and emergency care.  Fortunately for me, surgery is like playing the piano, with lots of practice it can be learned. Some veterinarians are gifted in the "jack of all trades' demands of general practice.  I wanted to try to be really good in a specific field.  It was hard to train for this specialty.  It was not a hard decision, although, looking back, you always wonder what you might have missed out on, my path being so very different from the dreams of an authentic veterinary life.

When you were young, someone changed your life and made you want to be a vet. Mentoring can be so powerful. Can you tell us about your experience?

I think a great mentor can take someone who is curious and open-minded and let them feel the excitement and joy in what they do for a living.  Dr. Ryan James took an ambivalent schoolboy and in a single day made me feel important, instantly and profoundly connected and integral to his work of healing sick animals.  It was virtually impossible not to get hooked!

Have you tried to be a mentor yourself?

I try.  We constantly have visiting high school students, college and veterinary students rotating through our hospital and they come from all parts of the world, including countries like Israel, Italy, Spain, and Sierra Leone.  I lecture at national and international veterinary meetings, I've also done high school career days and in May I have the privilege of giving a commencement address at the Western State School of Veterinary Medicine graduation.  Occasionally, I think I make the connection that lets me know they get it.

Where did the writing come from? When did you decide you wanted to add that to the mix?

I started to think about writing some seven or eight years ago.  Every veterinarian can tell you a funny, sad, shocking or emotional story about an animal or a pet owner they have worked with.  This job provides a writer with wonderful material.  I began writing them down.  Then I began to think about how these interactions made me feel, what I could learn from them.  Take this to the next level and you have the beginnings of a story.  Writing and the publishing industry is so different from my day job it makes for a great escape.  Writing will quickly teach you to handle rejection.  First time around my bestseller Tell Me Where It Hurts was rejected by every publishing house I approached including a long list of small university presses.  Thank goodness for a little book called Marley and Me!

I loved Marley and Me and I'm glad to hear it opened doors for you. But, I guess what I'm asking is what made you think you could write? Anyone can jot things down, but crafting it all into a compelling whole is something else entirely.

I  have absolutely no reason to think I can write.  I like to tell aspiring writers that my formal education in English finished when I was sixteen years old (i.e., if I can do it, anyone can!).  I've talked to my editor about taking classes in creative writing and she has insisted I do not.  I just "see" the story, the way to get the message across.  Besides, my editor makes me look a lot better on paper than I really am!

That's a heck of an editor!  Let's talk about your family a bit. When your daughters were growing up, each one ended up with a dog of her own. The way you got the dogs and the kind of dogs they were mirrored each girl's taste and circumstances. Can you talk about that?

Sophie and Meg                 photo credit: Emily Trout   

To understand the reason behind each dog I need to clarify that my youngest daughter, Emily, was diagnosed with the incurable genetic disease, Cystic Fibrosis, when she was two years old.  This will change any parent's perspective on life and has you questioning everything.  To some extent, Whitney, my older daughter by seven years, got a little lost, even forgotten, in the struggle to come to terms with our new future.  This would not do, and so my wife and I set about guaranteeing Whitney would always have a chance to confide, share and vent, with a creature who would become her sounding board and best friend -- Sophie, a Jack Russell terrier.  It wasn't until Emily was older and lying in a bed in Children's Hospital, Boston, that she made a very specific request for a canine companion of her own -- "Daddy, do you think you could buy me a yellow Labrador?"  Let's be clear, there is no reneging on the promises made to a child in a hospital bed.  It cannot be done.  And that's how Meg joined our family!   

Buster and Doris taught you a priceless lesson about how to live with chronic illness.  Can you share that episode with us, Nick?

Buster was an American bulldog, owned by a homeless woman, Doris.  Doris was a smoker, lived in a beat up VW Bug, and one night she fell asleep while smoking.  She escaped unscathed while Buster sustained second and third degree burns over about 30 per cent of his body.  Buster became my patient.  At the time I was fund raising for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.  There I was trawling for a few dollars here and there, a father who would do anything for his sick child and when the local newspaper ran the story of Buster and Doris, thousands of dollar were donated to the dog's recovery fund overnight.  I wasn't in a good place, it felt like a slap in the face for everything I was trying to do for my daughter.  Fortunately, Doris and Buster changed my perspective.  When I saw this dog melting in the arms of this homeless woman, everything changed.  Since when did helping sick animals and restoring happiness to their lives make me unfaithful to my daughter?  Here was a woman with nothing else to offer this dog but herself.  She had distilled their bond down to its bare minimum and what was left was joy and a future that opened up all kinds of possibilities so long as they had each other.  Wasn't this precisely what I owed my daughter?

There's a lesson in there for all of us, I think. May I ask how Emily is doing?

She's doing well, thank you.  Heading off to college later this year.  An interesting transition for all us.

I'm so glad to hear that. And yes, empty nests are a mixed bag.   You wrote this book and dedicated it to your parents and your sister.  What did they think of it? Do they see themselves as you portrayed them? Do they see it as the gift of love that it is?

I was worried about how my mum, dad and sister, Fiona, might feel about this book.  All I can say is they unanimously agree that Ever By My Side is the best of the three I have written, but they are totally biased!  My mother is yet to forgive me for derogatory comments about her British culinary skills!  I was most anxious about how my father would react since there's a good deal about our relationship and what binds the two of us.  On this score I can say he loved it.

What a relief! Anything you'd like to talk about that we haven't touched on yet?

I've been criticized in the past for not writing enough about cats.  Ever By My Side features several chapters on the first feline love of my life, Reginald C. Cat.  I hope cat lovers will appreciate that I too share their enthusiasm.  I hope all readers will appreciate that you don't have to own a pet to enjoy this book, an interest in discovering the joy in every facet of life will do just fine.

Thanks so much for talking with me. I've enjoyed it.

Many thanks for the interview.


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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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