I postponed the second surgery because I was heavily committed on the lecture circuit all summer, including two weeks in Switzerland and two weeks in Hawaii. If a postsurgical complication developed, I did not want to disappoint attendees. Even more important, I didn't want to disappoint my wife, Debby, or myself. Switzerland and Hawaii are our two most favorite places on Earth.
So for six months I've been hobbling around on crutches and using airport wheelchairs. My lecture audiences are always surprised to see me come to the podium on crutches, so I explain to them that I had surgery for left hindlimb stifle lameness. Then I tell them that the operation failed and will be redone and that this time I'm going to have an M.D. do it instead of a veterinarian.
I can tell by their expressions that some of them take me seriously, so I explain that I did the surgery myself and had to do it with one hand. I had to use my other hand to hold the twitch. I add that it was painful—the twitch, not the surgery.
At this point, most, but not all, people understand that I am jesting. When I say that at one point I kicked myself in the belly and fell because I had both legs off the ground, even the slowest people catch on.
Humor aside, I hope this will be a temporary disability. But two profound realizations have come out of this situation as well.
First, many of my vintage are concerned about the loss of civility in our culture, most obvious in young people. However, as I struggle around on crutches, most youth hold doors open for me and ask if I need assistance. I didn't expect this, and it has been a reassuring experience. Good manners may not be what they were half a century ago, but, apparently, compassion has improved. I think this also manifests itself in the increased concern for animal welfare, in the activism against child and spousal abuse, and in the enormous improvements in civil rights.
So while I share the concern so many older folks have about the many negative aspects we see in our culture, I am also aware that other things have improved.
Second, I have long been a supporter of the therapeutic horseback riding movement. I have always believed that physically and mentally impaired people receive enormous benefits from being ambulatory on the back of a horse. However, it was not until the past few months, in which I hobbled out and struggled aboard my horse Scooter several times a week, that I fully identified. On Scooter, I am fully mobile again. I am young and active and, most important, I do not feel impaired or dependent.
This experience makes me think of a lady I met years ago in Oregon who is paraplegic and enjoys riding horses. She has only partial use of one hand to hold the reins; however, she rides in the Cascades alone, strapped in a saddle with a cantle that goes up to her head, on a gentle horse. I frowned when she first told me this. I thought she was taking an unnecessary risk, and I told her so.
"Dr. Miller," she said, "how can I make you understand what it means to me, a completely dependent person, to be able to go into the forest alone, to hear the birds, to find a waterfall?"
I didn't understand then, but I do now.
Robert M. Miller, DVM, is an author and a cartoonist, speaker, and Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board member from Thousand Oaks, Calif. His thoughts in "Mind Over Miller" are drawn from 32 years as a mixed-animal practitioner. Visit his Web site at www.robertmmiller.com.