27 May 2019

Dog eats hearing aids and other rural yarns

Grumpy Old Doctor Rural

Dear Julia,

Greetings from my latest farming town where the locals are omnivorous, have simple Anglo-Saxon names, talk to each other in the waiting room and share their lives with animals.

My appointment list on the first morning promised meetings with Bob, Bernie, Barry, Doug, Frank, Ned and Rob. The women were represented by Catherine, Lillian and Joanne – who also wanted her two children, Annabelle and Alexander, seen.

With no tricky elocution to concern me I approached the waiting room with confidence, called Bob, and was completely ignored. Bob and Barry were animatedly reviewing last week’s cattle sale. Catherine is Joanne’s aunt by marriage and was bringing her niece up to speed with a blow-by-blow description of her recent hysterectomy. Annabelle and Alexander were bored and stared mutely at their phones.

It was an easy morning’s work. The medical problems being, in keeping with the names of their bearers, common and uncomplicated, I found time to do a few extra little things; like making sure that all the allergy lists were up to date.

Doug comes out in a rash with penicillin, but apart from that I drew a blank.  Everyone else seemed able to tolerate whatever they could swallow. The food allergy phenomenon has not caught on in the country. Lactose intolerance is unknown, coeliac disease unheard of (no-one identified as being even the tiniest bit “gluten sensitive”) and everyone can eat eggs.

I did hear of one kid at school with a nut allergy. His name is Kaiden and his family moved here from the city last year.

There are also no vegetarians – which doesn’t mean that animals are seen only as a source of protein, their relationship with humans is more nuanced than that.

It took some shouting to summon June, not because she was deep in conversation, but because she has a new dog with expensive tastes.

“You’ll have to speak up doctor! I’m as deaf as a post! The dog ate my hearing aids and they cost me $1000 each.” And to make matters worse: “I found my bottom dentures on the floor yesterday; the little bugger had been having a go at them too. Can’t afford to keep him at this rate, he’ll have to go.”

Fortunately, June’s experience is the exception. Dogs here are plentiful and generally coexist in respectful harmony with their owners. I have seen no cats, but the capricious creatures are out there, biding their time before attacking unsuspecting innocents. Henry turned up on the weekend with a nasty infected hand, his wife’s cat having decided to have a piece of him while he was quietly watching the evening news.

Pets can be a health hazard, but working with sheep and cattle on a commercial basis is pretty safe. On a typical grazing property the sheep outnumber the farmers by 3000 to one and the cattle by around 100 to one.

Dog-to-farmer ratios are a little more in the farmer’s favour, but the rarity of stock-induced injuries is still remarkable. I spoke to one 86-year-old cattleman who has “been in the game for 70 years and only had two busters with cows”.

On the rare occasion that sheep and farmers do clash it tends to end badly for both. Ken was knocked over by a big merino ram in the sale yards and was not happy. “No bastard would help me, doc. I’d just brought the ram too. I told the auctioneer to shoot him, staggered over to me ute and drove home in disgust.”

Relationships between men and horses seem more hazardous. Horses can break bones and bank balances, and make the owner look very foolish in the process. There are many badly broken horse breakers. The most experienced have monogrammed moon boots, bespoke back braces and can always tell the locum where to find the closest orthopaedic surgeon.

I have been told that the sport of kings is not what it once was either. “Racing used to be full of villains, but they were honest villains; you can’t trust any bastard now,” said one punter and “the two things guaranteed to make a fool of a man are women and horses”, according to another.

Bill’s experience franked the latter truism. An avid racing man, Bill bred his own thoroughbred on the farm. He confided to his wife: “He’s a ripper you know. I reckon I might race him”. “Yeah, and I reckon you might beat him,” she ungraciously replied. Three years, four trainers, $40,000 and no prize money later, Bill conceded defeat.

And then there are those unpredictable and untrustworthy feral animals. Arm young men with guns, alcohol and testosterone, set them loose among wild pigs and bloodshed will surely follow, and not just from the pigs.

Herding wild goats is physically safe but psychologically challenging. A goat’s agility, intelligence, ability to be two thoughts ahead of the game, unknowable eyes and cat-like personality can permanently warp the human mind.

Wild camels are just very big and very dangerous. It does not pay to upset a camel. An ex-rodeo rider sought my opinion on his “crook shoulder”. He had caught and hobbled a large bull camel with a view to retraining it as a racing animal. The camel resented the idea. “The bugger tripped me up. The hobble chains got wrapped around me leg and I went arse over and wrecked me shoulder.”

Country women generally enjoy a more harmonious alliance with animals than men do. Hence Tammy wants to “die in the show ring or the shearing shed doing what I love”, and 14-year-old Sharron is aiming to “become a Koala Spotter “(yes, the job does exist) when she leaves school.

To protect your offspring from allergies name them sensibly, surround them with animals and feed them meat.

Keep it simple,

Love, Dad

 Dr Max Higgs is a former country GP, a current rural and remote locum and a collector of stories