All posts by Sarah McGurk

I am a veterinary surgeon and author from the UK. I currently live and work in Norway.

Ognaheia and Valentine

Marian and I had a lovely walk up to Ognaheia on Tuesday. For once it wasn’t raining, snowing or blowing a gale, and for the first time in weeks we were able to have sandwiches and coffee overlooking the lake at the end of the track. How wonderful it is to be able to go out in company with a friend and walk in the fresh air amongst wonderful surroundings. We both agreed it was a far better way to get exercise than on a running machine in a gym. We saw the Highland Cows on the way home, so of course I had to ask Marian to stop so I could take a photograph.

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And of course, yesterday was Valentine’s day. It’s not something we celebrate madly, but we did buy some food from the Thai Take-Away van in the village. It’s the only take-away for miles around, and only appeared relatively recently, so it’s quite a novelty. We’ve been once or twice before, but for some reason yesterday, the food was much spicier than it has been previously. It suited our tastes much better. Here’s hoping it continues. I also made a cake. Well any excuse really.

In addition to the cake and the take-away food, I bought Charlie some coffee beans from Steam, my favourite breakfast coffee shop in Stavanger. In return, he used the beans to make wonderful coffee to go with breakfast this morning. He makes breakfast every weekend, and brings it to me in bed. Delicious toast with a mixture of cheeses melted on top, along with slivers of onion and tomato and pieces of salami. And freshly ground coffee with frothed milk. It’s my favourite part of the week. I’m really very lucky.

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All Change

Things have changed since I last posted. So much so that this is the first time I have been able to sit down and record it. On the calendar downstairs, back on the 24th March, written in pink felt-tip pen, is the name of my nearest veterinary clinic. To distract my mind from my echoing e-mail box, I had wandered in off the street and asked (in my best Norwegian) whether I could come in and “see practice”, just for a week or two. The smiling receptionist, looking bemused promised to get the boss to call me, and I left, feeling, to be honest, like a bit of a tit. After all, I could have made that contact over the phone couldn’t I? Still, later that day, I received the call, and at 9a.m. on Monday morning, I presented myself.

I confess that the first question confused me somewhat. Peering into a cupboard filled with uniforms, the nurse asked me whether I was a small or a medium. How to reply? I was obviously neither. Promising me that the medium was VERY stretchy round the waist (yes but what about the arse?) she handed over the medium overalls and commanded me to change. Shovelling me into a pair of green clogs (more on those later) she started to show me things on the computer. Obviously it was all written in Greek… or maybe Latin. Actually I might have understood those bits, but the rest was a mystery. Being me, I set out to solve it, and armed with a trusty pen and a post-it note, I gradually began over the course of a fortnight to decipher the runes.

I also made some new friends. So much for the much-fabled Norwegian stand-offishness; we spent the next two weeks laughing. And on the Thursday of the second week, I was offered a job. Dagny, the scary boss lady said I should talk to my husband… who of course said “What are you waiting for. Get signed up immediately!” So I did, setting out to work two days a week. The past fortnight has been a whirlwind of bank accounts and tax office visits ( yup, I didn’t have the former and have never paid the latter here) and getting the paperwork together to try to get myself authorised to carry out veterinary work in Norway. Currently I’m working as an assistant, which suits me down to the ground as I am helping out without having to consult, and in the meantime, I am gradually picking up more Norwegian, though there is the terrible temptation to revert to English, especially as some of the clients immediately start to chat to me when they find out where I am from.

It’s a wonderful feeling, picking up the reins of something I used to be good at. Some things come back so quickly. Others are filled with fog. I suspect that when it comes to real knowledge, I have always been very reliant on books, and for the moment, I don’t have the right ones to hand. The BSAVA Manual of Emergency and Critical Care was my constant companion for all the years working in the emergency clinics. It’s at the top of my shopping list as even though there aren’t so many emergency cases during the day, I seem to recall it had a lot of fantastic tips on how to work cases up in the first instance. I’m slowly regaining knowledge, refilling the blanks, remembering the things I was never good at (I can take a mean x-ray, but am rubbish at reading anything more complex than a broken leg or a twisted stomach). I am learning new things as well. Who knew that it was illegal to castrate a dog or spay a bitch in Norway without good clinical reason? Apparently they have to be allowed freedom to explore their wild-side, though how that works when using drugs to prevent ovulation I have no idea. Bang goes the idea of opening a spay clinic in my nearest city!

This week started badly. I tried to anaesthetise a dog without having the machine fully switched on. Never a good idea. Worse still, it transpired that the green clogs actually belonged to the boss lady. Well I always did like to walk in shoes that were hard to fill. I’ve bought my own now. And Dagny has not yet used the whip on me that I took in for Irene to use on Jan-Arne.

Been out walking (the picture at the top is taken from south of our village, looking up the coast) and skiing, both downhill and cross-country. I would like to say that I didn’t fall over once, but sadly I can’t. Still things are looking up on all fronts. There might even be some movement on the book, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself so I’ll leave that for next time.

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Wussy Malone and the Mystery of the Missing Courage

It’s a strange thing, but one of my weirdest adult terrors has always been with taking my car to the garage to have work done. Obviously it’s ridiculous, a mature, well educated woman who turns into a cowering wreck when faced with a man whose job is changing oil and windscreen wipers for a living. Please don’t get me wrong, being a mechanic is a job requiring skill and dexterity and some mechanics really are wonderful, it’s just very sad that a few of these men seem to take great delight in their ability to patronise any woman who dares to set foot inside their realm. For five years now, we’ve used the same garage for all the work on our car, and they have mostly proved to be reliable and honest. There was the time when I arrived at eleven in the morning to book the car in, only to be told to come back in an hour when they had finished their sandwiches, and the patronising way the owner treated me when I first went in and he assumed that because I didn’t know the Norwegian for head-light, that I was generally an idiot, but on the whole they good has outweighed the bad, hence the reason we have continued to return.

The first inkling I had that I might have to go back in this time after the service was when one of the small light-bulb-covers over the number plate fell off when I closed the boot, just the day after the car had been returned. When I looked at it, it had obviously been broken at one end, and rather than order another, they presumably stuck it back in place and hoped that we would just never notice. I wondered whether I should go in and say something, but it seemed such a little thing that I shoved it back in place, and hoped that it would stay on.

The next setback came when we received the bill. Checking through it, I noticed sadly that they had charged me for new windscreen wiper blades. All very well, but the blades had been changed literally the day before I took the car in for service. Obviously that sounds stupid, but I was due to drive to the airport at night, and stormy weather was forecast, and they were really awful. So bad that driving with them was a nightmare. Again, I wondered about going in, but was put off by thinking that really it was my own fault for not telling them when I took the car in that the blades had been changed. I went to see my friend Lynne on Monday, and she said she would go in and at least ask… and again I toyed with the idea and procrastinated because of my fear, and the additional mental block I have because I know that if I go in, I would have to try to ask in Norwegian. There is definitely something about speaking a language not my own that makes me feel insecure when going in to discuss anything. I even use English when I go to see my GP because he patronises me a whole lot less when it’s him that’s struggling to find the words.

Anyway, several days later, and yesterday another midnight trip to the airport, and another dreadful drive because one of the dipped headlights wasn’t working, and that was the last straw. This morning I finally took a deep breath and marched into the garage with my list of woes. I managed it all in Norwegian, and I don’t know if that was what tipped the balance, but the garage owner couldn’t have been more helpful. He has ordered a new cover for the light, he changed the bulb in the headlight without charging me (he’s charged me twelve pounds before once for doing it) and best of all, he told me that as Charlie has already paid the bill, I should remind him next time I’m in, and he won’t charge me for the wiper blades. Given that they cost about fifty pounds, that’s a significant saving. I left the place with my heart singing. I’d like to think that the next time I have a problem, that I will sail through, but I suspect that my innate cowardice might reassert itself.

When I popped into the Co-Op afterwards I was delighted to find that they had both lobster and sashimi salmon going cheap, so there’ll be a good (and easy) dinner tonight.

In other news, Marion is too unwell today to go for our Vernal Equinox celebratory walk. I’d very much like to return to a place we went on one of the evening walks from Charlie’s work. It would be lovely to see it in daylight.
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Marion and I have done a few good walks lately, so here are some pictures.
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Hope you feel better next week Marion.

And now I have to go and bake. Due to my poor housewifery skills, I have somehow managed to let some milk go sour. I can feel some scones coming on. Anyone for afternoon tea?

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Bodies

Language is an odd thing. Now I am using Norwegian more often, I notice strange things occurring with greater frequency. For example, I sometimes have conversations with people and afterwards thinking back I can’t recall which language we used. More confusing still is the phenomenon which occasionally occurs when a sprinkling of “English” words are scattered amongst the Norsk. For example, I saw a headline in the newspaper the other day. “City løftet trofeet!” It said. Trofeet? I ran it through my mind. Not sure about that one. Something to do with three? Løftet meant lifted. I knew that. So something about a city being lifted? What could it mean? An earthquake? I was trying to work out how this incredible feat of tectonic activity had occurred without my being aware of it when I noticed the accompanying photograph of a bunch of football players and it suddenly crystallised in my mind. So much for earthquakes. I was halfway up the stairs before I registered that the Norwegian word for city is “by” Had I registered that City wasn’t even a Norsk word, I would have realised that this was all about the Norwegian obsession with English football. City had lifted the trophy.

So a day or two later, I should probably have been more alert to this phenomenon when I was looking for the soap. I found Irene and asked her where it was. “Det er I skapet der bodies holdes.” she told me. My mind worked that one out. It was in the cupboard where the bodies were stored. That much I registered. But really? The soap was in cold-storage with the bodies? It couldn’t be. Or did she just mean in the room? Was there another cupboard in there? I shook my head in confusion and she must have taken pity on me because instead of trying again, she led me into the prep-room, skirted round the piles of dog food that were sitting there and opened the cupboard where the clean laundry was stored. “There!” She pointed to the big container. I just stared at it. “What?” she asked, looking at me still. “But the bodies?” I asked her. She took out one of the “Bodies” a cute little item of clothing that we use on dogs when they’ve had an operation. It was again at that point that I realised that the Norwegian for body is “kropp”. When I told her, she just laughed.

I received my authorisation notice last Friday. So now I am allowed to do official vet things like operations. I love operating. The vets here are fascinated with the way I sterilise cats. I learned a really nifty method for castrating cats years ago that involves tying a knot in the blood vessel and vas deferens using only a pair of artery forceps. Once you’ve done it a few hundred times, it can be done in about ten seconds flat. And much to their interest, I have always spayed cats through a hole in the flank. Here they go in underneath through the midline. Guro, whose middle name is Moira because secretly she’s actually Scottish, decided to jump right in there and we spayed a cat together on Thursday. Apart from the classic first-time error we managed to make when we failed to go right through into the abdomen and found ourselves having one of those odd moments when it seems the cat had no abdominal organs, the whole thing went very well. I’m glad to work with such open minded people who are keen to try different things.

Another big event on Thursday, seeing my first patient alone. It was a dog with a broken claw. Not so much to go wrong I thought. But when I looked at the dog, it was hard to tell what I should do. Dim light from the window and a dog the colour of Yorkshire jet meant that I had only the faintest sight of the claw I was examining. Happily Magnificent Magne rode in to the rescue… and switched on the light. I felt just like a new graduate again: a mind so filled with uncertainty that common sense was as elusive as the light had been. The uncertainty was replaced by a booming knowledge, reflected in the client’s eyes… “Oh no. This one’s clueless.” Still, I managed to sedate the dog and the ring block around the claw worked perfectly. The patient never even twitched as Magne gouged away the outer layer of the claw using the dental instruments. The usual frustration entered my mind as I bandaged the foot without dressing or K-Band (how am I going to survive without K-Band????) but the finished product looked neat and tidy. And the next time could only be easier surely? And so I thought, that was my week over, but on Friday morning, as I sat in bed contemplating a lovely relaxing day, a message popped up on Facebook. “Are you there?” said Irene. Wondering whether she would be eaten alive by SBL for using Facebook at work, I replied that I was. “I didn’t have your telephone number,” she said. “Guro has rung to say she can’t come in. Could you come instead?”. I was tired from a midnight run to the airport, nevertheless I like working Fridays, so I wasn’t going to turn this down.

And so I found myself in a room examining my second patient. It was one of Guro’s and she has an interest in small pets such as rabbits and guinea pigs and this one was a hamster with a lump on its bottom. I was amazed when I took it out of its cage to find the “lump” was actually the most enormous pair of testicles that I have ever seen. If a bull had an equivalent pair, they’d be dragging on the ground. Aside from their massive size, everything seemed to be normal but as Madam Self-Confidence had still not installed herself in my head, I scurried off to get a second opinion. I found Vivek first. She was probably trying to hide, but there was no escape. Scouring the books in the back-room, we couldn’t find a thing, but happily Google Images came to the rescue. Apparently these gigantic appendages were completely normal. Of course, with the client now in “Oh no. This one’s clueless” mode, I couldn’t saunter back in and casually tell her that everything was quite in order, so happily this time Vivek came in to reassure her. One day perhaps I will manage to see a patient on my own again.

Later on I found myself helping out Jan-Arne. He was going to see a few more of Guro’s clients and so I examined a dog with him that was in for a biopsy of a lump beside her bottom. Obviously a day for it. It felt to me a bit like a lipoma, albeit in an awkward position, so I asked for permission to remove the whole thing, rather than doing the biopsy, if on inspection it turned out to be just that. And it was. It came away beautifully. My satisfaction was complete when I saw the owner’s face when I told her that it had been a benign fatty lump. To me, it was a small, if very satisfying operation. To her, it meant so much more. It is those moments that make life as a vet worthwhile.

Shameless

So life is going on and work is getting better and better. Tuesday was a bit mad because Kari Anna is on holiday this week. She’s the clinic’s resident veterinary nurse, and like most veterinary nurses, when she is there, she flits calmly around the practice and suddenly all the mess has disappeared and everything is under control. On Tuesday morning there was just Gerd (a veterinær assistent like me … well actually not much like me because she is sensible and mature and… well you get the picture) and me there, and Gerd was busy on reception where the phone was ringing madly and about a thousand people were waiting to be helped. So I found myself rushing around, trying to make sure everything was reasonably tidy. Unlike Kari Anna, I was unable to do this invisibly and just in case I thought I was doing rather well, mid-morning Jan-Arne came up to me with a look of confusion and asked why I was doing so much cleaning up today.

Anyway into the midst of all this came scary-boss lady herself [hei Dagny!!!!] and demanded asked very kindly that I should get theatre ready for two cat sterilisation operations. Despite the fact that I had done it before under the steady eye of Kari Anna, immediate panic set in. I knew which surgical kit it was, but which size of drape had I been told again? And which suture materials? What size was the pack of gauze swabs, two or five? So many things to go wrong. Worse still, as I commandeered the last two surgical kits from the shelf, I realised that very probably I should have put the other kits that I had so carefully sorted out into the steriliser, because if any other operations were coming in immediately afterwards…

AAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaargh!

So with my head spinning round on its axis like the child from the Exorcist, I started to hunt around for everything I needed. At that moment, Magnanimous Magne (the other boss) stuck his head round the door and asked whether I could help him with a blood sample. I’m sure I snapped “No” rather rudely, but he didn’t seem to notice anything untoward, and a few minutes later, fortunately I found a spare minute to set up the haematology analyser and run his test for him. The operations went smoothly and there were no screams from outside theatre, so presumably nobody needed another kit during the time we were busy. It was with relief that I finished with the surgery and was left to sort out the two patients and clean up the theatre while Dagny went to get on with other vetty things.

As soon as that was all clear, I rushed to the autoclave. Now what was it I had to do again? I had to drain some water out of one of those little tubes but was it the water from the tube on the left or the right? I thought it was probably the left, but when I tried to open the tube up for emptying, I couldn’t get the rubber bung off the end. Was it meant to come off, or was it attached and needing to be twisted or opened somehow? I didn’t want to rip it off and then find I’d broken it. And was it the left tube? There didn’t seem to be anything in that one. So it was probably the right. Gerd was still stuck with her three million clients, and there was nobody else around, so taking my life in my hands, I approached my scary lovely boss and asked her if she knew. Very helpfully she came through. She hadn’t used the machine for three years, but she would try to remember. Within moments she had successfully removed the bung from the right tube as I had asked. With a triumphant nod she left me to it.

It was only when I was still standing there, with about a gallon of water in the bucket at my feet that I began to have some disquiet over whether it really was the right tube. When Kari Anna showed me, surely there had only been a little drainage? Now there was something approaching a flood threatening to overwhelm the bucket. Shoving the bung back into the tube, I rushed through, and happily Gerd was able to spare me a moment. I had, she confirmed, as I had suspected, made a brave attempt at emptying the entre autoclave, but fortunately all was not lost. There was enough distilled water to refill it and no harm done. Better still, she even showed me how to make more distilled water. Lets face it, by the time I have to do it, I’ll probably have forgotten, but I’ll deal with that when it happens!

Thursday and Friday weren’t so fraught thank goodness. This afternoon I even had a brief period when I wasn’t sure what to do. Irene was being terribly efficient, and there is another girl doing work experience who was rushing round after everyone tidying up, and as I don’t like to sit around doing nothing, I went in to see if Jan-Arne needed a hand. He was examining a cat with mastitis so I helped him to sedate her. As he was cleaning out her wound, Irene put her head around the door. Was I available, she wanted to know, to help with a dental? It was Jan-Arne she asked. Did he really need me, she wanted to know. Jan-Arne looked up with a grin. “No,” he said, “I don’t really need her, it’s just more fun when she’s here.” ** And really, when all is said and done, that’s good enough for me.

Here he is:

Jan Arne and pig

That’s him on the right….

And what is it that is shameless? Well I shamelessly stole Jan-Arne’s beautiful photograph of a foal for the top of my page. Who could possibly resist?

**Technically he said it in Norwegian, but it’s a near enough translation.

Humour and Humanity

I have seen a lot of SBL and Magmatic Magne this week: a lot of time in theatre, though I also endured some sessions with Mr Ikea, trying to follow the instructions for putting together a small and inoffensive chest of drawers. The thing had been undergoing assembly over several weeks now and the already-completed drawers had been huddling on a table in the corner, minding their own business except for the odd occasion when it was necessary to squeeze past them to get to the dog food. As is the tradition with Ikea furniture, a small error had been made at a crucial point about half-way through, thereafter it followed that everything else was just far enough out of place that the finished product wouldn’t go together. Dagny, active in this, as in all things was the perpetrator of this tiny error, and Magne had seized upon the opportunity to remind her of this fact, every time anyone went near. Still finally the thing was done, and all the drawers were in place. My first achievement of the week.

About an hour later, I found myself managing the anaesthetic for a mammary tumour operation. Dagny asked me to get theatre ready, and when she asked “Are we all set,” I replied (with the honesty and diligent self-confidence I try to maintain at all times) “I hope so.” In fact I wasn’t. I had failed to check if she wanted to use gaseous anaesthesia (a lot of the operations are carried out with a combination of deep sedation, local anaesthesia and propofol infusion) so she went and switched the machine on herself. A few minutes later, with the dog prepped and installed, I noticed the ominous stillness of the patient’s chest. She wasn’t breathing. The usual sense of consternation kicked in. Just work through it logically, I told myself, trying to remain calm. I checked the dog’s colour. It was pale, but it had been pale before we began. That meant that it was even more urgent though to discover what was wrong. I checked the level of anaesthesia. The eye was rotated down. Fine. I grabbed a stethoscope and listened for the heart because the heart-rate monitor wasn’t detecting anything. The heart was racing, as at this point was my own. It was at that point that Dagny quite casually pointed out that the rebreathing bag had filled up completely because the pressure valve hadn’t been reopened after testing. She hadn’t been aware that the dog was not breathing, and in her calm assessment, had just noticed what I was failing to pick up. Panic is a terrible thing. I can recall a time in the emergency clinic when whatever life threw at me, I knew I could handle it but five years off has sent me tumbling back into “starting out” mode.

Dagny talked a bit about her life during the operation. She told me that she was only six years old when she decided that she wanted to be a vet. Despite discouragement from those around her, who thought that as a woman she should do something less ambitious, more feminine, she planned out her life with ruthless efficiency and finally achieved her aim. No wonder then that with such determination to succeed, she ultimately went on to become a partner in the very first dedicated small-animal clinic in Norway.

By Thursday, I started to feel everything was more under control. I assisted Magne with a cherry-eye operation. It’s amazing to see him putting in the tiny sutures, ensuring that nothing is left to irritate the eye. Just before lunch a dog came in which was in respiratory distress. To my amazement my self-confidence suddenly kicked in and I was easily able to help out and even offer guidance. At one point, I suggested the possibility of draining the chest and Magne and Irene looked at me as if I had suddenly sprouted green bushy eyebrows. How odd it seemed, and yet it brought it home to me that despite the irony of the situation, I am much better with a frank emergency than with anything routine, and perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising given my history of working in an emergency and critical care setting for the last few years of my career in Scotland.

Later I found myself back in theatre once more, as Dagny and Magne, without even the benefit of Ikea instructions, set out to fix a fractured humerus in a young dog. After the lunchtime emergency, I managed to impress Magne once more with my astonishing ability to intubate a dog without a laparoscope. This has never seemed like any great achievement for me. I started out, all those years ago, in a small animal practice where everything was on gas, and everything was intubated and I don’t think I ever even saw a laparoscope. As with everything else, a good nurse and the correct positioning is essential, so thanks to Irene for that. When Magne returned from the hunt for the missing laporoscope, he found to his amazement that the dog was already in theatre, fully hooked up to the machine and almost ready to go.

“You know,” he said to me as he walked to the table, “you’re really quite useful to have around. I think you should work more hours!”
I felt rather diffident about this. I actually like just working two days a week and keeping my options open for overtime. “Well maybe I could come in and work Fridays as well,” I offered.
He just shook his head. “That would be no good at all,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “I don’t work Fridays,” and with that, he turned away and started to cut.