Ain’t Nobody Normal
Linda Ford says her veterinarian’s office is almost fully computerized. Almost. She prefers her notes remain handwritten in each client’s folder.
She holds up her hand and forms a circle with her index finger and thumb. “Like an asshole,” she says. “The symbol for an asshole is a circle with a dot in the middle of it.” She puts her other index finger in the center of the hole she has made. “There’s no symbol on the computer for that.”
Plus, she says, she likes to keep her own private comments, such as who is worthy of what she calls an “aggravation fee.” She admits she has even fired clients for being overqualified for that fee.
“We run off about as many clients as we let in,” she says.
Dr. Ford is with things that bite, kick and stink all day and sometimes all night long. She cuts testicles off of calves and horses in the rugged work conditions and cuddles her littlest patients, talking to them in a high-pitched baby voice. Her first duty when she arrives at her clinic isn’t checking her e-mail. She comes in and immediately does the small pet spays and neuters. She is also in charge of telling clients the fate of their beloved little friend. One client, Mrs. Sidebottom, asks Dr. Ford what might happen if she waits two weeks to get treatment for her dog, Rebel, a 76-pound mutt. “He’ll either be better or dead,” Dr. Ford says in a monotone voice, and then she scurries out of the room. Ford is honest and outright. She’s brash, but there is gentleness to her, too. She doesn’t take any grief from anyone, but only because she doesn’t give them the time to give it to her.
Linda Virginia Ford grew up in Shreveport, La. She was raised a Catholic and graduated from St. Vincent’s all-girl Catholic school in 1968. She was the middle sibling of her sister, “Sooka,” and brother, “Jimbo.”
“I didn’t like the all-girl part,” she said, recalling St. Vincent’s. “There’s no ‘governor,’ you know, no boys to impress.” There were two social cliques and Dr. Ford belonged to neither. Instead she roamed around with two of her friends, between the two groups, spreading gossip about one group to the other.
Her childhood home sat on a peninsula with other homes on one-and-a-quarter acre lots on Lake Cross in Shreveport. She would walk up and down the length of it, catching turtles with a minnow net she had fashioned to the end of a fishing rod. “My parents didn’t want us to have jobs, so we had to make up our own,” she says. Dr. Ford made enough money collecting turtles and selling them to a dime store to buy a saddle. “You know how turtles sit on a log then tip off?” she asked, demonstrating with her hand how they do it. “If they tip the right way, I’d catch them in my net.”
Dr. Ford says she is a vet first for the money. She started out in art school, to which she attributes her ability to draw horse markings on the horse exam sheet. She then went on to major in psychiatry but dropped that after deciding those people were nuts. In time, she says she has to come realize that “everybody’s weird. Ain’t nobody normal.”
She does like animals, as vets should, and has several of her own. Dr. Ford has six cats, six horses and two dogs. Her favorite cat is Tootie. He is a Siamese she refers to as her “house-husband”. He sleeps with her every night. Then there’s Miss Kitty or “Tita,” and Little Big Man. Miss Kitty gets to stay in mostly, said Dr. Ford. “And sometimes Little Big Man gets to come in, until he starts getting in trouble.” Ford says he’ll chase Miss Kitty around until she shits and pisses all over herself. Then he goes back out.
Dr. Ford says she doesn’t like a bunch a cats in her house so only Tootie, Miss Kitty and Little Big Man get that privilege. Two other cats — Barncat and Little Wild Man — stay outside all time. Lyle Lovett, the sixth cat, usually lives at the clinic but got too fat and had to go out to the farm to lose some weight. He has recently returned to the clinic, where he wanders from room to room monitoring surgeries and teasing dogs who are locked in cages.
All of her horses are Arabians, with the exception of a paint quarter horse with three names: Coyote Ugly, Goober and Red Cloud. “He was ugly when he was born, then the trainer called him Goober.” Dr. Ford said she wanted to give him a respectable name so she added Red Cloud to the list, so Goober is what he goes by now.
Then there are the dogs — Two Socks who looks like the wolf in Dances with Wolves, “except he’s pretty dumb” and the latest addition, a Great Pyrenese named Clarence. Dr. Ford hopes that he will protect her three nameless chickens that, at their best, have given her three eggs on one day.
She lives on 53 isolated acres and goes between the two houses on the property, depending on the weather. “The one house is older and not well insulated,” she says. Although she used to rent out the newer one, too much “riff-raff” caused her to stop.
Jayme, Dr. Ford’s oldest daughter, is the product of Dr. Ford’s first marriage to a man she considered a narcissist. Ivy came along seven years later, in Dr. Ford’s second marriage to another “narcissist and a philanderer to boot.”
“If I’m one thing, I’m a good mother,” she says, recounting her decision to divorce their fathers and “raise ‘em right.”
There is a room at the clinic with nine cages of various sizes just beyond the examination room which holds post-op patients and the ones who need routine vaccines or check-ups but their owners couldn’t wait around.
In a cage next to a small, just-neutered tabby cat are a pair of sister calico cats. “All calico cats are females,” the technician Heather says. The pair have just been sedated, cut open, their reproductive organs removed and what’s left, tied in a knot, reinserted into the abdomen and sutured inside. They react to people and try to lift their heads, trying to make eye contact with their freshly-shaven bellies now sewn in a straight line from the top. One of them has a suture that splits into a perfect V in her belly fat; they seem to think they need to defend themselves but simply can’t. They paw at each other, lightly and shakily, trying somehow to get reassurance.
“That one, she was pregnant,” Heather says, pointing to the one with the V.
Three cages over and one cage down there is a kitten, a mini-replica of her currently helpless calico mother. The kitten lays there, tiny and quiet in the nest of a heating pad and towel.
This is only the second time this has happened, Jessica, another technician, says, referring to Dr. Ford’s find.
“Dr. Ford was pissed,” she says.
Dr. Ford is firm that the owners will take the kitten and the mother with them. Most have paid for these spays using government vouchers.
Dr. Ford says it is a matter of ethics for her that if a fetus is full term, she can’t just “throw it in the trash.” Yet, she quickly readjusts to show a side that reveals she has been faced with too many ethical dilemmas.
“If they want to kill it, that’s on them,” she says, seemingly resigned to the fact that it could happen. “There’s no law against that.”
Dr. Ford says she would take the kitten and care for it, even when it wakes up every two hours, but she doesn’t have the time. And, she admits, her heart doesn’t have any more love left in it. Jessica says it’s not that her heart doesn’t have any more love; she has just walled things off. “She’s been hurt too many times.”
She checks for milk in the new mother cat. “You’re a mom,” she says in a markedly higher tone, squeezing the mom’s tit until the proof of lactation appears. The calico shuns Ford’s touch and contorts a bit as her sister rolls around behind her. It takes about four hours for the sedative from a spay to wear off, about 10 minutes for a male neuter patient. The exact same sedative, Xyzlaine, is used, but the female patient gets the shot in the muscle, the male in the vein in his front leg.
Dr. Ford seems taller than her actual height of 5’ 5”. Her skin is beginning to hang slightly on her small, thin frame. She’ll make eye contact with you with her gray eyes, but just for a moment. She has short dark hair; today it is spritzed up, “foo-fooed” as a client would later tell her. It has been freshly highlighted. “I did it myself,” Dr. Ford says, somewhat proudly. “I just put the little cap on, got a mirror and made sure I had enough hair pulled through the little holes.” She did the highlights to save the hassle of dealing with the hairdresser and because, well, she never gets mad at herself, she says.
Dr. Ford likes to sit on the 12-foot long bench in her reception area. It is made from a log that has been cut lengthwise and is heavily lacquered, leaving a flat smooth surface. She almost appears to be a spectator when her clients open the door. Her legs hang as if they can’t touch the floor and she swings them back and forth, her butt pushed back and her arms pushing down beside her on the bench. She looks like a kid waiting for the principal.
She wears scrubs every day, usually navy blue pants with a busy and colorful shirt depicting cartoonish animal characters. An oversized Styrofoam cup she fills with home-brewed tea is never far away. She uses the cup until it is stained like a tobacco-chewer’s spittoon and nearly falling apart. Only then does she go and buy another one, full of convenience store tea, which she says tastes awful but that is the price you pay to get that cup. Lunch on this day consists of Chili Cheese Fritos and her very own guacamole. And tea. She sits at a desk she placed in an area she has carved out amid an X-ray machine and other vet office oddities.
Sometimes she chews on a big glob of gum — a habit she took up when she decided to give up drinking and smoking nearly three years ago. “I psyched myself up and then just quit,” she says. “Too many nights wasted sitting on the deck drinking and smoking.”
“I can just see her out there,” Jessica notes. “Sitting on her porch in a rocking chair with a rifle next to her, a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other.”
Mr. Jarnagan arrives unexpectedly. He has two farm dogs in his truck and they need to be checked for worms. He says they both smell bad and he apologizes.
First comes Lucas, a 65-pound brindle mutt. Every pet gets weighed on arrival. Mr. Jarnagan dons heavy leather gloves to protect his hands from the smell of rank farm dog. He laughs at the homemade leash he has used to bring in Lucas — a yellow poly rope with a loose knot around Lucas’ collar and a curl in the other end where a knot used to be.
Heather, the helper, takes a long black stick with a small hoop on the end and slowly glides it into Lucas’ rectum. Lucas seem oblivious. As soon as she is finished, Mr. Jarnagan disappears with Lucas and reappears with Blackie, who is wearing the exact same rope, goes through the exact same procedure and is whisked away. Blackie weighs 67 pounds.
“Sally,” Heather calls out to the back, “will you sweep and mop in here? They dropped ticks and we stepped all over them.” The shiny floor is saturated with little red dots of various sizes.
In the examination room, Sally’s shoes squeak on the wet floor as she mops up the tick blood.
Later, Sally, who has worked at the clinic for five months, is in a back room attempting to put a surgical pack together. She occasionally mutters — more to herself, what she is doing, reminding herself of the steps as Jessica stands behind her, watching.
Surgical packs consist of scissor-like devices that clamp onto blood vessels to control bleeding, gauze, a long metal instrument turned back on itself at one end called a spay hook, towels or “drapes,” clamps for the drapes, scissors and needles.
Sally never rolled another surgical pack. She showed up one Friday “wild-eyed and scratching her skin,” Dr. Ford said. “Tweaking.” Jessica nods in agreement from behind the desk. “Meth,” she says. Sally left that Friday and came back to pick up her last paycheck a week later. “After apologizing,” Jessica remarks.
Dr. Ford uses every single one of the instruments in a surgical pack during a spay procedure. Every instrument is lying on or around the patient, who is completely covered in a cloth. All four legs are tethered to the table with only the surgical area exposed through a slit in the cloth. Today’s spay patient Daisy, a 6-pound, 3-ounce cat, is unconscious. Her heart beats 252 times a minute, which is mimicked by a beeping machine wired to her with clamps. Dr. Ford says she has done hundreds, thousands of these surgeries. “Enough that I can keep going if the lights go out.” It doesn’t take long until the surgical pack is empty of its contents and what’s not lying on or around Daisy is in Dr. Ford’s hands. Dr. Ford can tie the most magical of knots using just the tips of the instruments.
With a neuter patient, Dr. Ford just needs a sharp razor and a pair of hemostats to tie the remnants into a knot, no suture required. Sophia, whose owners thought was a girl at first, is a seven-pound Siamese cat. Jessica is holding him on his back on the smooth stainless steel work table. Soon, Sophia’s thumb-sized testicles lay beside him on a blue towel; they are stark white with tiny red veins. His eyes and mouth are open and his tongue is flicking throughout the process, like the stories about people who wake up during surgery: “When Carol Weiher was having her right eye surgically removed in 1998, she woke up hearing disco music. The next thing she heard was ‘Cut deeper, pull harder.’” Perhaps Sophia heard Dr. Ford’s random comment halfway through his surgery: “I think I’m going to get my cat a Facebook page.”
Dr. Ford drives Fords. She has three of them — a modern aqua blue Ford Thunderbird with a vanity plate that says “FLY BYE” after a horse she used to own — “Her toy,” Jessica says; a pewter beige Ford Expedition with a vanity plate that reads “XTINCTN” and has nothing to do with any sort of animal but rather the vehicle itself; and a beige Ford Explorer, which has regular plates and is the vehicle she prefers for farm visits.
She pulls up to Matthews Feed Store where Mr. Matthews himself is standing outside trying to get a forklift going. A pallet of grain rest on its forks.
“Can you loan me a rope, a lariat?” she asks him, swinging open the door of the Expedition, which she has mistakenly driven today. The Explorer is her usual farm visit vehicle. It is equipped with everything Dr. Ford might need, including a rope.
Out at the Buchannan’s farm, Mrs. Buchannan and her 7-week-old baby greet Dr. Ford. The baby dangles from a carrier attached to Mrs. Buchannan’s chest.
Durango is on the list for gelding, or castration. “It’s not as much so they don’t reproduce,” she says. “It’s more for taming.” Mrs. Buchannan follows Dr. Ford into the field with the baby and her assistant, who will sit on the horse’s head when he is on the ground being castrated.
Dressed in her scrubs, Dr. Ford looks like a kid who has snuck out of a moonlit house in her pajamas and is sulking across the field on a curious mission of who-knows-what. She carries the stainless steel pail in her left hand, her right arm sticks out from her side as a counterbalance for the weight in the pail which holds all the surgical tools necessary to geld a horse. Dr. Ford settles by a tree, deciding to do the surgery in the shade. After drawing the magical dose of “before I completely knock him out” in her syringe, she tells Durango she is going to “cop a feel” and she runs her hand under his soft belly to find his testicle while her assistant holds him with a rope and halter. “I can’t find the left one,” Dr. Ford says. Durango dances around, his ears pointed back, tail swishing wildly at flies that land on him. Dr. Ford thinks she can coax the right one down then suddenly says, “Now they’re both sucked up.” There will be no castration today.
Dr. Ford has recently taken up Pug rescues, which is to say she does the preliminary check-ups and treatments for pugs in the area that have been fostered after being abandoned or abused. The pug rescue group eagerly pays their bills, making the rescue thing sort of a guarantee that Dr. Ford can do her best work and not be faced with the threat of non-payment.
Sushi arrives, with her foster parent, Mrs. Hardy. Sushi is dark colored and looks old. with gray highlights, a sure sign of old age. Mrs. Hardy tells the techs what she knows about Sushi, “she is blind and can’t hear, they tell me,” Mrs. Hardy says, “But I don’t know that for sure. I’d like to know how old she is.” Although Mrs. Hardy hasn’t committed to adopting Sushi, she is just as concerned as any pet owner would be. Mrs. Hardy might want to give Sushi the best years, or the best year or the best months or the best month of her life.
Dr. Ford stares at Sushi, sizing her up. Sushi weighs 23 pounds. Her eyes are covered in a thick scabby membrane. Jessica runs a chip detector device — which looks like a small racquet san strings — down Sushi’s back. Dr. Ford directs her to check Sushi’s legs because sometimes chips migrate.
Dr. Ford takes a long, wooden stick with a cotton swab on one end (a one ended Q-tip, basically) and rubs it across one of Sushi’s eyeballs. Sushi attempts to flinch and backs up into Jessica’s grasp, toenails clicking on the stainless table. Sushi is about 12 years old, Dr. Ford has determined after looking at the wear on Sushi’s teeth.
Dr. Ford says the reason Sushi is blind is because her eyelids don’t close, that Mother Nature has put scar tissue over her eyes.
“Have you ever tried not blinking?” Dr. Ford asks everyone in the room.
Sushi might be able to see again if Mrs. Hardy keeps putting a special ointment on her eyes to soften up the membrane so it will come off. “She might be able to see again?” Mrs. Hardy asks in awesome disbelief, as if she has just witnessed a miracle.
Dr. Ford explains to her newest assistant on the visit to Mrs. Griffith’s farm, “Your main job is to pay attention. You can get killed out here.” Meanwhile, a herd off 12 cows, several calves and a humongous black bull clang around in the corral.
When cattle are about to be vaccinated they are first hustled into a corral and forced into a narrow maze made of fence panels. They are poked and prodded by Kirsty, who wields an electric shocker on a pole. At the end of the maze is a chute. The cow is running by the time it gets to the to that point.
Dr. Ford is waiting for them at the end of the chute. Once Brad, the farmer, has secured one, Dr. Ford double-barrels vaccinations in the neck, a syringe in each hand. She clenches the plunger end of a giant syringe full of milky vaccine in her teeth. After she has made the first two injections, she hands off the two syringes and jams the needle of the giant syringe into a different place in their neck. Brad cleans the ear tags and the cows are sprayed with wormer and fly repellant then the head gate opens as quickly as it closed — out goes the cow.
This happens over and over until eventually a male calf wanders in, and Brad and Dr. Ford discuss his fate. The sides of the chute lower, Brad holds the tail up and Dr. Ford leans way in, a scalpel in her bare hand. The calf lets out a long guttural moo until she stops. She takes a scalpel in her bare hands, has a paper towel nearby to grab the exposed testicle because, she says, “those things get slicky.” She begins her work amid the dust of the ground and the rust of the chute and the fresh cow manure slung all over everything.
The sound a scalpel makes on the first cut through the fur and fat sounds like the quick tear of a thick cotton T-shirt when making rags out of it.
Perhaps the longest moo ever heard travels out of the chute, across the field and into the woods as Dr. Ford tosses one, then two, testicles out onto the ground. Her hands are covered in blood and she dips them into the soapy water used to clean the ear tags. Three more calves go through this procedure. By the time the whole ordeal is over, there will be eight testicles lying in odd juxtaposition around the dusty ground near the chute. “You need some farm dogs,” she tells Brad. “They eat these things.”
Buddy arrives on the other end of Mrs. Smith’s leash. Buddy is a three-year-old, 25-pound mutt. He’s there for his rabies vaccination. Mrs. Smith drops the leash after they arrive and the door is safely closed behind them. Buddy walks over to Dr. Ford sitting on the bench, legs swinging. He puts his head in her lap, she scoots up on the bench and takes his head in her hands and pets him eagerly. “What’s that on your nose?” she says, slowing her petting pace. She looks at his nose for a second then speeds it up again and offers Buddy a piece of advice, “You don’t know who your saddling up to, do you?”
Editor’s Note: The excerpt about the woman who woke up during surgery comes from a May 2010 story called “Awake During Surgery: ‘I’m in Hell.’” on CNN.itor’s Note: The excerpt about the woman who woke up during surgery comes from a May 2010 story called “Awake During Surgery: ‘I’m in Hell.’” on CNN.