Back in the early 1990s, a veterinarian came to work at the clinic I worked at (he actually was hired to fill in for me while I was on an extended maternity leave but was later hired on full-time). Prior to meeting him, Howard was described to me by someone who knew him well as the “Santa Claus type.” He had a white beard, but physically, that was about the only comparison to Santa Claus that I could see. But like Santa Claus, he was a jolly old soul. He laughed a lot and when he laughed, he’d throw back his head and laugh loud from his belly. He was known as being a little eccentric but there was just something about his laughter that was contagious and you just couldn’t help but be happy when Howard was around. Clients, for the most part, adored him. It didn’t take me long to learn that there was just nothing in the world that this man wouldn’t do for another human being. He would, without a doubt, give you the shirt off his back.
I first met Howard late one night while working an emergency at the clinic. A German Shepherd had come in with a paraphimosis and I was having a time with it. A paraphimosis is the inability of a dog to retract its penis back into its sheath. This German Shepherd was in trouble. He had had this condition for hours (after breeding a female in heat) before presenting and his penis had endured a lot of trauma. It was edematous and abraded and very discolored and starting to slough in places. And the poor pooch was miserable. When Howard walked in, I had just anesthetized the dog, cleaned up the traumatized tissues, and had applied a 50% dextrose solution to try to shrink the tissues back down to be able to replace the penis back in the sheath. The sugar acts as a hyperosmotic agent to draw the fluids out and to shrink the tissues back down. After applying the Dextrose and using lots of lubrication, I had gently tried to replace the engorged penis back in the sheath but it wasn’t going. Howard walked in and we introduced ourselves. I was 8 months pregnant and I was fatigued and really starting to worry about this dog. Howard looked curiously down at my patient on the table, and said, “What you got?” I replied, “A very stubborn paraphimosis.” His eyes lit up and he said, “Hey, I’ve never seen one of these before— would you mind if I hung around?!” I told him by all means, I was more than happy for him to stay, that I was having a great deal of difficulty and would appreciate any suggestions he had. So Howard grabbed a pair of gloves and jumped right in to help. He suggested ice packs. So we iced packed with no results. Then we tried short ice water soaks. That didn’t work either. Finally, I went to our break area in the clinic and found several little sugar packets. I just started sprinkling Pure Cane Sugar on this dog’s discolored, engorged penis, and the tissues finally started shrinking but we still could not get that penis back in the sheath. I ended up doing an episiotomy of the prepuce and that did the trick. Whew. I catheterized the dog, did a purse string suture of the prepuce to prevent this from reoccurring, and gave the dog an antibiotic and anti-inflammatory injection. I knew he was going to be one sore fella for a few days. The next morning he was wagging his tail, urinating with no problems and eating and drinking well. Dogs amaze me.
So that’s how Howard and I met…. over a paraphimosis-from-hell case. And we laughed and joked about that for as long as we knew each other. My husband and I became fast friends with Howard. I think what I liked about Howard was that he was such a genuine person. He lived and breathed to help people. Howard was so real, he was sincere, and he was honest. There was nothing fake about him at all. I don’t think I can actually say I know too many genuinely “real” or sincere people. Not like Howard anyway. It seems to be a rare quality these days. Sincere people do what they say and say what they mean. That was Howard. No fluff. If he said something, he meant it. If he said he liked your hair, your outfit, your make-up, well…. he did! If he complimented you on something, he sincerely meant it. He generally spoke his mind. Sometimes, this got him in a wee bit of trouble with his veterinary clients because if he didn’t like the way someone was taking care of a pet, he was very blunt with them. And they didn’t always like that. Like the time one of our clients with a little dog named Miss Twiggy was way overfeeding her dog. The dog was severely obese with joint problems and a blood sugar that was heading towards diabetes. She had been counseled by every veterinarian in the practice about diet and feeding and had been told that she needed to cut back on the amount she was feeding or she was soon to have a diabetic dog. She always laughed when the dog’s weight issues were brought up and personally, I never understood what she found so funny about a morbidly obese dog. Her dog looked like an engorged tick ready to explode. Howard called her in one Saturday morning from the waiting room and watched the poor dog pitifully hobble into the exam room. He shook his head while staring down at the dog and informed the owner that she was killing “Miss Piggy” with love. The owner laughed aloud and corrected him on the dog’s name and said, “It’s MISS TWIGGY” to which Howard raised his eyebrows and replied in a very serious tone, “NO, IT’S MISS PIGGY!” Let’s just say tactfulness was not one of Howard’s strong points when he felt an animal was being mistreated.
I always called Howard my walking encyclopedia. He had a genius I.Q. and there just weren’t many topics that he couldn’t carry on an intelligent conversation about. I loved talking to this man. He had done so much in his life— like fighting wildfires in California, and serving in the military. He did three tours of duty as a Medevac pilot in Vietnam. He went to veterinary school in his 40s. He had this deep beautiful voice and sang in the symphony chorus. We enjoyed discussing our veterinary cases and I learned a great deal from him. Not only about veterinary medicine, but about life. He had lived a few years in Alaska, loved it there, and often enjoyed telling about his Alaskan adventures. There was nothing I couldn’t talk to him about. He went out of his way to lift other people’s spirits.
Howard didn’t talk much about his service in Vietnam but from what he did share with me, I knew he had seen some terrible things. I knew he had been shot down three times and received severe burns to his legs when he became pinned in the helicopter during one of the times he was shot down. I remember one day thinking he was being a little harsh with a client who refused to vaccinate his dog for Rabies. Howard clearly didn’t like it when owners didn’t vaccinate their pets against Rabies and he let them know it. The technician had felt he had berated the client. I had to admit, I had witnessed this more than once myself and wondered if there was perhaps a more gentle approach he could take when discussing Rabies vaccines. So we talked one day. And Howard told me a story about how he had transported a little naked convulsing Vietnamese child, whose villagers had hog-tied her to a pole (because they didn’t want to touch her) and placed her in his Medevac helicopter. This little pre-pubescent girl was infected with Rabies from being bitten by one of the many stray dogs that roamed the village. Her convulsions were violent and she died a short time later in that Medevac helicopter Howard was piloting. And he told me he never forgot it and he relived the scene over and over again in his nightmares. Because of that experience, vaccinating animals for Rabies was a very serious topic to Howard because he had seen first hand just how deadly Rabies is. He witnessed how it tragically and violently and needlessly kills innocent people when there’s no reason for it to because it’s so preventable. And so Howard didn’t mess around with Rabies and just didn’t take too kindly to owners who neglected to vaccinate their dogs and cats for Rabies. He told me that he would never ever be able to get the face of that little Vietnamese child out of his mind for as long as he lived and when he told me that, I saw a flare of anger in those gentle light bluish-gray eyes of his, that was followed by tears brimming to the edge of his lids. But most of all, I saw raw pain like I’d never seen before. We never talked about it again. After that discussion, I understood more clearly his “harshness” with non-Rabies compliant pet owners.
In 2002 I had to go into the hospital for 2 days to undergo a pelvic reconstruction and a hysterectomy. I was sad knowing I would never be able to bear anymore children. I didn’t tell too many people I was having this surgery. But Howard knew and he knew I was sad, and he was sad with me. About 10:30 pm the evening of my surgery, after my family had all left for the night, a nurse tiptoed into my room with a beautiful vase of flowers. With a big smile on her face, she said, “The NICEST man just left these at the nurse’s station for you. He said he didn’t want to disturb you or awaken you.” It was a beautiful vase full of mixed flowers with a sweet card. I noticed right off all the daisies in the floral arrangement. Howard had heard me casually say once that daisies were my favorite flower, and he had remembered. It was such a sweet gesture on his part and I never forgot it. He cheered up a very sad hysterectomized patient that night by his sweet random act of kindness.
It was Howard who drove 50 miles to my house after knowing me barely a month when I had just come home from the hospital after giving birth to our second son. He brought the cutest stuffed dog for our newborn. We still have that stuffed dog 24 years later. And he drove that 50 miles again one afternoon many years later, to put my geriatric 16-year-old much beloved dog to sleep. He did it with such compassion and tenderness on a blanket on the floor of my living room while I held her and unashamedly cried like a baby. And after I had spent some time with my beloved old girl, saying goodbye to her, he tenderly lifted her limp and still warm body in his arms and carried her outside and proceeded to help my husband dig a hole and bury her. That’s a true friend. He comforted me by telling me it was time and that I had made the right decision. When my dad collapsed from a bleeding colonic tumor and doctors told us he was anemic from his blood loss and may require a blood transfusion prior to his resection and anastomosis surgery, Howard was the first one at the Red Cross to be a designated blood donor for my dad who he had never even met.
Howard was just always thinking of others and doing for others. If I sat down to make out a list of his kindnesses he showed to me and to others, it would be a never-ending list. And that’s the honest to God truth.
Howard died tragically almost 7 years ago in a single car accident at the age of 66. He was life-flighted to Vanderbilt Medical Center where he died 2 days later. I didn’t learn about his accident until after his death. He had donated his body to science and there was no funeral. I grieved hard over his death and I still miss him so much. I miss his phone calls and his laughter, and his knowledge of the world, but I think what I miss most about him is the sincerity and integrity of his character that is not often seen in this day and age. He was a true gentleman. Always. I always knew where I stood with Howard. I could always count on him. No matter what kind of mood I was in, I always felt cheerful and uplifted after talking to Howard. He was so genuine and one of a kind. I consider myself blessed to have had such a sincere friend in my life.