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Who’s Smarter than a Fifth Grader?

The pager on my hip erupted in a cacophony of beeps and vibrations. I cursed under my breath. I was on call. I knew better than to plan anything. It...

The pager on my hip erupted in a cacophony of beeps and vibrations. I cursed under my breath. I was on call. I knew better than to plan anything. It was still frustrating. I had hoped to get a project I was working on in the garage a little closer to completion. It was 2:30 on Sunday afternoon. I put away my tools. The callback number was familiar. It was the dispatcher from the local Sheriff’s office. Our practice was in a small, rural community of middle Georgia. We were the only vet clinic in town. When worried pet owners called 911 with a pet emergency, 911 called us. The dispatcher had limited information. Someone’s dog had been hit by a car. They were waiting for me at the office. I climbed in the truck headed that direction.

The clinic sat at least 150 yards off the road. Woven wire fences lined each side of the straight, white, concrete driveway with dairy heifers grazing placidly on either side. I didn’t see a car in the parking lot. I thought for a second it might be a false alarm. Then, I caught a glimpse of two people sitting in the shade against the building behind the shrubbery to the left of the front door,  a woman and a young girl. A dog lay on its side at their feet, not moving. I parked the truck. They stood up and looked in my direction. The woman was wearing cut-off jean shorts, flip-flops and a tank top. Her shoulders and cheeks were lobster red from a day in the sun with no sunscreen. Her long, brown hair was gathered haphazardly into a half bun/half ponytail arrangement. Big sunglasses hid her eyes. Her cheeks were wet with tears and she clasped her hands together in front of her in an anxious posture. She reeked of liquor. The girl was probably 7 or 8 years old, less sun-burned. She was wearing a swim-suit, flip-flops and a knee length cover-up with Hanna Montana on the front, a mother and daughter I presumed.

“Are you the vet?” Mother-figure pleaded.

“Yes,” I replied. “Come on inside. Let’s have a look at your dog.”

“Thank God!” She exclaimed. “He can’t walk. He got hit by a car. He’s barely breathing. He acts like he can’t hear or see.”

The whole time we were talking the dog just lay on his side in the pine straw. He looked young, a tri-color, male Australian Shepherd. His respiratory effort was not labored or rapid. A thick thread of bloody saliva dangled from his partially open mouth. I touched his abdomen and he tensed, but did not turn to bite or acknowledge me. I parted his eyelids and examined his pupils. One was slightly larger than the other. I touched the inside corner of his eye and he blinked. I whistled and he made an attempt to lift his head. Other than the blood from his mouth and some abrasions by his ears and eyes, I couldn’t find any external signs of trauma. The long bones of his limbs were intact and I could detect no pain or swelling. I maneuvered around behind him and carefully slid an arm under his chest, cautiously watching his reaction. He stiffened but did not turn his head. I slid a hand under his hips and continued to watch. He seemed comfortable and content with being handled. I scooped him up and carried him inside the clinic. Mother-figure and the presumptive daughter followed close behind. 

Once inside, I placed the dog gently on the exam table, gathered my pen light, my stethoscope and donned a pair of latex exam gloves. I began to complete my exam, starting at the head. Mother-figure and the presumptive daughter stood against the wall of the exam room. Mother-figure shifted her weight nervously from one foot to the other, glancing anxiously side-to-side, sunglasses still on her face, making the occasional snuffle one does after a cry. The presumptive daughter watched my every move. 

The dog’s injuries appeared to be confined to the head. He had broken teeth and abrasions around his eyes. His pupils were detecting light, but they were not the same size. He had some puncture wounds in his tongue where he bit down when he was hit. I couldn’t feel any fractured facial bones. His chest sounded fine and his abdomen palpated normally. His mentation was definitely abnormal. I’m sure he had a concussion. I hoped he didn’t have an active intracranial bleed. I was almost through with my exam when Mother-figure blurted out with a thick southern accent, much more loudly than necessary given we were 4 feet apart, “Can I use your phone?”

“Of course,” I replied. I pointed to the phone on the wall in the pharmacy area. With trembling hands she dialed the number and chewed on a finger nail while she waited for an answer. After a few rings the call must have gone to voicemail. She stomped a foot and looked at the ceiling with a huff of exasperation. “Donnie, answer the phone! Please! RJ has been hit by a car. I don’t know where I am! I’m at a vet’s office in, in…” She cupped her hand over the receiver and turned to me, panicked and wailing with overwrought emotion, “Where am I???”

“Greensboro,” I replied, puzzled at the bizarre nature of this whole encounter. I suppressed an eye-roll.

“I’m in some God-forsaken place called Greensboro!” She wailed into the receiver. “I don’t know what to do! I need to talk to you! I don’t have my phone! Please call me! At, at…” She turned to me.

“454-7448,” I answered, mumbling short phrases of frustration under my breath. I flung them in her direction with a quick sideways glance. She was oblivious. I waited impatiently waiting for her to get off the phone.

“454-7448, please, please, call me!” She pleaded. She hung up the phone, put her face in her hands and sobbed. The presumptive daughter just stood and watched, seemingly indifferent. I waited a second for her to compose herself, not sure if I was witnessing mental illness, mundane intoxication or both. “RJ has a head injury, and some broken teeth,” I explained. I can’t know the full extent of the injury. I suspect he has the equivalent of a severe concussion. He could have bleeding around the brain. It may get worse, but it’s been a couple hours since the injury and he appears stable. I think his chest and abdomen escaped major injury. We should get some x-rays to be more certain. His broken teeth will need to be extracted, but they are not a high priority at this point. I’ve given him some medications to help reduce swelling that might develop on his brain. Unless, you can get him to the vet school in Athens, he will either need to stay here, or go home with you. Which brings me to my next question. I didn’t see a car outside. How are you planning to get home?”

The distraught, intoxicated Mother-figure with the sunburn and sunglasses paused. “I hoped Donnie would come get us,” she snuffled. “But, I can’t get him on the phone. We were staying in the camper down on the lake this weekend. Susie and I decided to take RJ for a walk. We let him off the leash out on the entrance road. He’s bad about chasing cars. One came by, and we didn’t grab him in time. He got run over. The driver stopped. She said she knew a vet close by and offered to take us. She dropped us off here.”

“Which campground?” I asked. There were several.

“Something station. I don’t remember.” She gave a defeated shrug. 

“Cary Station,” I replied, then paused. “It’s not far. If Donnie doesn’t call by the time I’m finished with RJ, I’ll take you back to the campsite.” I glanced at my watch. My Sunday afternoon was evaporating.

I finished getting x-rays and treatments for RJ. The presumptive daughter watched my every move. Donnie didn’t call. I suggested they leave RJ with me, and let me take them back to the campsite. We could meet in the morning to finalize the rest of the plan. We were in agreement. All three of us climbed onto the single bench seat in the cab of my practice truck. 

Fifteen minutes later, I pulled up to the guard gate at the entrance to the campground, and stopped to explain to the ranger that I was not parking, only dropping off passengers. When he saw my passengers, a curious look spread over his face. He looked at them and looked at me, looked at them, and back at me, his eyebrows telegraphing a sense of concern. “I’m just dropping these folks off and I’ll turn right around,” I explained. Mother-figure leaned over to my side of the truck, “We are camping here this weekend. My husband and some friends,” she offered.

The ranger paused and pushed his hat back slightly, “I’m afraid your people are gone.”

“What!!??,”  Mother-figure wailed. “How!!?? They can’t be!!”

“Things got a little out of hand here a couple hours ago,” the ranger explained. “The sheriff got called. They were not cooperative. Ended up taking everyone into custody and impounding the vehicles. Sorry ma’am.” He shrugged his shoulders. Mother-figure burst into tears. I sighed, cursed my luck, thanked the ranger, and turned the truck around. My afternoon had quickly gone sideways on me.

“I don’t know what else to do except take you to the Sheriff’s office,” I offered. “I’m sure they either have some accommodations there or maybe they can put you up in a hotel for the night.” It was supper time at this point. “Are either of you hungry?”

“I am,” the presumptive daughter piped up.

I pulled into a gas station for a snack. “What would you like?”

“Chips,” she said without hesitation

“You sure you don’t want anything,” I asked Mother-figure again. She shook her head without looking up.

We resumed our journey to the county jail, the presumptive daughter munching on chips, Mother-figure staring out the window, despondent. 

“What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?” Mother-figure moaned quietly, rhetorically. “I just don’t know what I’m gonna do.”

Then, unexpectedly, a clarion call, like a ray of light through an opening in the clouds, wisdom from a child prophet, the ultimate mic drop, between loud, crunchy bites of potato chips, words indicating a knowledge of our criminal justice system and judicial proceedings far beyond her years, betraying the fact this scenario must have played out on more than one occasion during her young life.  “Well, momma. I guess you’re just gonna have to post bail.” She shoved another hand full of chips into her mouth. Mother figure sobbed louder.

Awestruck, I turned my head toward the side window to hide my expression. Caught emotionally somewhere between amusement and pity, I just nodded my head. 

The sheriff’s department took good care of my passengers that night. Mother-figure showed up at the clinic the next day, sober, showered and a little less red, hand-in-hand with the now confirmed daughter. RJ recovered from his head injury and we got his broken teeth taken care of. Turns out, he was quite vicious when he wasn’t concussed. Made me thankful all I lost in the whole encounter was a Sunday afternoon, and a little faith in humanity; not a finger or a hand.


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