CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 35. . . .May 13, 2011.
Williamís Gift: One Veterinarianís Journey.
Renfrew, ON: General Store Publishing House, 2011.
251 pp., pbk., $24.95.
Douglas, Helen, 1954-.
Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.
Review by Ruth Latta.
I think about William and what he taught me about myself. The changes and losses I have experienced in my life have made me stronger. The passings I have witnessed...have made me more compassionate. I readily admit to being moved by what animals do for people over and over again. It hits me at the most unexpected times and always reminds me of William. Whether racing, jumping, pulling or teaching, they serve and tolerate us. Whether on our laps, guarding, playing with or indulging us, they epitomize love. More than just giving to us, they give us the benefit of the doubt. How could I consider it any less than a privilege to have served them?"
William, a horse owned and beloved by veterinarian/author Helen Douglas, was in the lead in a steeple-chase at Keeneland, Kentucky, when he fell. He didn't survive. Dr. Douglas pays tribute to him and other animals she has known in her well-written memoir, William's Gift. As a student in Guelph, ON, she started writing stories about her experiences, adding to the manuscript over the years and finally developing it into book form.
Dr. Douglas always knew that she wanted to be a veterinarian, although in the late 1960s, when she began, it was still unusual to find a woman in this field. While still a student, she and the experienced veterinarian for whom she was working went to a farm to help a sick cow. When Douglas emerged from the dark barn, the farmer realized for the first time that she was a woman and said, "Shouldn't you be a nurse?" Even later in her career, Douglas found herself in a couple of work environments where, though fully qualified and experienced, she was cast in a nurse or technician role.
Dr. Douglas has had many unique experiences. One involved a young elephant who needed his foot x-rayed. On another occasion, the owner of a travelling snake show sought her aid. Then there was the challenge of collecting horse semen with a "phantom" (fake) mare. She has treated injured deer, and during a rabies epidemic, vaccinated feral cats brought to her clinic in burlap bags.
Students nearing the end of their high school years and making career choices will find this book informative. Dr. Douglas even provides a glossary, which includes definitions for such terms as "tube worming", "purulent" and "collapsing trachea", to give just three examples. The publicist's claim that William's Gift is "perfect for young animal lovers," is too general; however, it depends how you define "young." In my view, the book is not suitable for children or young teenagers. Douglas is a skilled writer who balances medical stories with anecdotes from other parts of her life, but accuracy demands that she be fairly explicit about her work, and these incidents are not for the squeamish.
Clearly Dr. Douglas loves her work, but her story shows how demanding it can be, emotionally, physically and economically. Early on, she learned to "stay cool in emergencies, to act and not feel even when [she] needs to most." Physical dangers are ever-present; on one occasion, Dr. Douglas was hospitalized after being kicked in the head by a horse. Whether one is an employee of a clinic or in practice alone, there are economic challenges. Veterinarians who have their own practices must not only treat sick animals but also run a business. Economics may require a vet to be flexible about the type of practice, too. Dr. Douglas preferred to work with horses, but in a couple of locales, when the demand for her services for large animals slackened off in winter, she worked as a small animal vet.
On the whole, though, the satisfactions of Helen Douglas's career are many. She began riding in 1965, and her love of this sport has taken her all over Canada, the US, Ireland and South America. A vet for over thirty years, now living in Carleton Place, ON, she has travelled extensively but has returned to the Ottawa Valley, saying, "There is nothing you might want out of life that you can't get in Lanark County."
Recommended with reservations.
Ruth Latta, author of Winter Moon (Ottawa, Baico, 2010) and other books, is very fond of her cat.
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