Spay flambé

2013-09-18 00:00

IT was the morning of November 20, 26 years ago. I remember it clearly because his second child had been born the day before, a fine and bonny son, pink and healthy, with a pair of lungs that made his musical father very proud.

He had been present during his wife’s Caesarian procedure and had rocked up for work the next day bubbling over with glowing praise for the surgical skills of the attending doctors. His beaming smile showered the clinic with an aura of happiness and I could hear a loud whistle emanating from his lips as he prepared the bitch for spaying — Local Hero, the Dire Straits classic. Appropriate for the occasion and one of his favourite tunes.

“You should have been there,” were his opening words to me that fine spring day. I was not sure if my presence would have been appropriate, but I did not want to deflate his enthusiasm. “There was no blood — no blood I tell you! They had the hyfrecator burning even before the capillaries thought about leaking claret.” (The hyfrecator, allow me to inform you dear reader, is an electrical apparatus used for cauterising bleeders. It looks like a soldering iron, but instead of heating, it releases little sparks that burn any offending capillary into submission.) “When the procedure was finished there was not even a hint of a stain on the drapes,” he gushed.

The happy tune became muffled as I peered through the doorway of the operating theatre, in time to see him fit the surgical mask over his face. The rest of his torso billowed with a couple of layers of green surgical gowns and I suppressed a smile as I took in the sight. A mint Pavarotti? The patient was lying on her back on the operating cradle, anaesthetised and blissfully unaware of what was going on around her. He had smothered her tummy with so much alcohol that the place smelt like the shebeen down the road late on a Friday night.

“You can’t be too careful about infection,” he crooned, obviously preoccupied with yesterday’s surgery. No self-respecting bacterium would have set foot in the room, so pungent were the alcohol fumes. He then proceeded to drape the bitch with a multitude of green sheets. Even King Tut would have been claustrophobic. By the time he was finished, the operating area resembled an Irish rugby scrum. Even the hyfrecator, usually reserved for major surgical procedures, was covered in its own sterile wrap with just the tip protruding, ready for action. The only breaks in the green monotony were his white, sterile gloves and the twinkle in his eye. As I left the room, he was instructing the assistant to pour more alcohol over the incision site.

I proceeded to attend to my own work in the room next door, but could hear the happy labour emanating from next door. “That’s the way it always starts, sitting here and waiting on the beating of my heart”, — the whistle had become a song. It is hard to purse your lips when your face is covered with a mask. It was momentarily quiet when he made the first incision.

Then all hell broke loose. The sharp, staccato of the first hyfrecator spark was followed by a dull “woof”, the sound you would expect to hear when someone pours petrol on your braai fire. The tune from his lips was replaced by a roar from his throat as I ran into the surgery. Flaming drapes were flung across the room and he was trying to stamp them out, dancing on the burning greens like an oversized leprechaun around a ceremonial fire. Holes had been burnt into his surgical gloves, his mask was skew on his face and his sterile cap sat far back on his head. The alcohol fumes had now been replaced by the rancid smell of cooked hair. The bitch lay peacefully on her back, totally unaware of the fuss, a small incision on the mid-line dribbling a little blood and her tummy hairs all burnt short, like tufts of grass after a veld fire.

As I recall, he eventually swabbed the patient clean of alcohol residue, completed the procedure with minimum fuss, and she left that afternoon, no worse for wear, but her bottom line shaved bare of hair. About a week later, another colleague was overheard talking to a client over the phone.

“Yes, Madam,” he said. “We do perform hysterectomies. In actual fact, we offer two procedures. The conventional approach, and our speciality, the spay flambé.”

• The writer is a practising vet.

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