Timeless Spirit LogoTALES OF A COUNTRY VET

A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. January's Theme: "Our Relationship with Earth"
Volume 3 Issue 2 ISSN# 1708-3265
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Tales of a Country Vet
with Dr. Bruce Burton DVM

In every field of endeavor there are those who stand above all others. In hockey, we have the well-known examples of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Patrick Roy. In Tennis we've had Bjorn Borg and Martina Navratilova. Mohammed Ali, Jack Johnson and Joe Louis in boxing, Babe Ruth in baseball, Krief, in Soccer, Lawrence Olivier and John Gielgood in acting, and so on. In the cloistered world of science and medicine there are infinitely more, but less well-known 'superstars.' Each discipline has its own form of celebrity. Those who, either by accomplishment or personality, stand head and shoulders above their peers.

I have been fortunate enough to have been taught by several. Drs. Ian McTaggert-Cowan and Bert Brink in Wildlife management and ecology at UBC, and Drs. Otto Radostits and D.L.T. Smith in Veterinary Medicine, to name but a few. However, there is a special place in my heart for Dr. Smith, or "Larry" as his legions of friends called him.

Dr. Smith was the founding Dean of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine. He and several other faculty members were recruited to establish the college in the early 1960's. He presided over the opening ceremonies in 1964. I didn't get to meet him until more than a decade later. But his was the face of the college for more than a decade. By the time I arrived in Saskatoon, he had relinquished the Deanship to another superb individual, Dr. Ole Nielson. Dr. Smith was a pathologist. First, last and always. Once his tenure as dean was ended, he comfortably returned to the post-mortem room and remained there as a pathologist and Dean emeritus.

He was one of those rare individuals whom everyone loved. All the students, all the faculty, all the staff. They loved him! No one could or would say a word against him. He carried himself with quiet dignity at all times. Never raising his voice yet always being heard. His hair was prematurely grey and with his neatly trimmed silver beard and matching, slowly-receding rim of hair, he was the perfect image of an elder statesman. Like a living bust of Plato or Socrates. Dr. Smith was universally revered and respected.

During my second year at the college I heard that Dr. Smith had been asked to begin the task of establishing a new veterinary college in Somalia. This was at a time before civil war had broken out in that country and he was excited to go. He and I shared a common passion for Africa. Two years before, Diane and I had crossed the continent overland from Oran in Algeria to Cape Agulhas in South Africa. Anything about Africa or Africans attracted me like a magnet.

The long, cold Saskatoon winters kept people indoors so special talks were often scheduled to provide noon-hour entertainment. Word got out that I had traveled across Africa. So a request was made that I give a lunch-hour slide-show to the college detailing our trip. I happily agreed.

At some point later, I heard Dr. Smith was going to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia and the site of the new veterinary college. I was extremely interested in getting involved and was curious what the future possibilities might be for someone like myself, (one who harboured such a passion for Africa, wildlife and veterinary medicine), by the time I graduated.

Certainly, I didn't feel it appropriate for a mere second-year student to approach the great 'Dean' directly and so I pressed my first year anatomy professor, Peter Flood, and asked him how I might make contact. "Oh, Larry's a wonderful man!" He replied in his perfect Bristol-bred English. "I would suggest that you simply ask him." Still intimidated, I was hesitantly poking around Dr. Smith's office, when his door opened and the 'man' himself came out. "Oh Bruce! How are you? I was hoping to speak with you about your time in Africa. It appears I am to spend some time over there myself. In Somalia actually. Apparently, I have been asked to assist in the building of another veterinary college. The college is supposed to serve the surrounding countries as well, but I've never been outside of the capital, Mogadishu. I was wondering if you had been there?" "Uh… uh… well… No… Unfortunately I've never been there…" I said, taken completely off guard and surprised that he even recognized me, let alone knew my name. Sensing my confusion he continued. "Yes, I attended your slide presentation… Fascinating! I'm trying to collect whatever information I can about the area and was hoping you might provide me with some insight." 'He was asking help from me?' I thought proudly. "Well, I've not been to Somalia, but I've heard the people are quite a bit different than those in other parts of Africa, culturally speaking. They are pretty aggressive. The entire horn of Africa can be quite dangerous, or so I'm told. We were actually scheduled to visit Isass and Afars, which is north of Somalia, but we never made it." "Oh," he said a little discouraged. "But, I've been through Kenya and Uganda!" At this news his eyes brightened and his interest rekindled. "Uganda! There's a vet college in Uganda." He said confidently. "Yes," I continued. "Makarere! Its near Kampala." " And you say you've been there?" He asked. "Well, I went through Uganda, but we didn't stop at Makarere." I replied, with a little less enthusiasm as I remembered our time there. "So," he asked, sensing my change in tone, and to keep the conversation going" Did you run into Idi Amin?" and then chuckled, in a manner clearly indicating he knew the answer to be negative. He was parodying the familiar "So… you're from Canada! I have a brother in Toronto. Maybe you know him?" syndrome.

'Did we run into Idi Amin?' I repeated slowly… the question hung heavily until I began to answer. "Well… almost. Actually we missed him by about two hours." His interest peaked and he inched a little closer. I continued.

"We were driving through northeastern Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). The group we were traveling with was called 'Adventures Overland.'" Our driver, Bob, had wired back to London when we were in Bangui, the capital of the Republic of Central Africa. The message he received suggested that the civil war in southern Sudan was raging and it was unsafe for us to proceed via that route. However, we were cleared to enter Uganda (which had been banned for the past few years because of Idi Amin and his reign of terror). This was a somewhat surprising turn of events, but if the head office in London said it was safe, that was fine by us! We crossed the border into Uganda north of Kabarega Falls National Park. After weeks of unrelenting, thick, greasy, red mud tracks, the luxury of finally riding on what, in comparison, was glass-smooth pavement was a dream come true. Even if the roads in Uganda did have their share of potholes, anything was better than the two foot deep ruts and impossibly thick gumbo we had suffered with over the past month. We headed south and stopped for the night at an open church yard near the main road, outside of the small town called Masindi. The pastor welcomed us with open arms (which is the greeting we received almost everywhere we stopped along our journey through the 'Dark Continent') and we set up camp. Immediately we were set upon and surrounded by dozens of bright faced children all dressed up in their spotlessly clean and pressed school uniforms. "Dirty wogs! Watch they don't steal anything!" Shouted Nigel to no one in particular. Nigel was a sour-faced Brit who was on the trip more as a means of transport than as a traveling adventure. As with many of his ilk, he hated and feared anything and anyone non-white. Not surprisingly, he was emigrating from Britain to apartheid-fixated South Africa. He used the term WOG as a catch-all to describe anyone who was not Caucasian.

Dozens of ebony faces lined with brilliant white teeth and smiling eyes surrounded us as the sun began to set. They indeed did want something from us. "Please sir, can you speak English with me?" was their universal request. They spoke to us and we to them for more than an hour. Then smoke from local cooking fires began to fill the air. And as dusk settled over us quickly, as it does in the tropics, the unmistakable rhythms of Africa filled the air. No matter where you go in Africa there is always singing. Especially, if children are present. They continued their perfect harmonic chanting until it was time for them to return home. The songs followed the children as they slowly faded into the darkness, like ripples in a pond. The music of the departing children was replaced by that of nature. The deafening nocturnal symphony of the insects filled the African night.

It was unsettling to think how happy and dignified these children appeared to be under the yoke of abject poverty and under the murderous regime of Idi Amin. But they certainly appeared happy.

I kept a strict diary during our trip. Next morning, June 11, 1976, we drove on towards the outskirts of Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. Apparently, we needed a visa to be in the country and the only place to obtain such a permit was in Kampala. We left the city as soon as we could, but were delayed by a tropical deluge. The rain was so heavy rivers of water flowed out of stairwells. The rain stopped as quickly as it began and after receiving our permits, we made for the open highway.

The vehicle we were riding in was a large, four-wheel drive Bedford truck. Army-issue, I would guess. The back was open, except for a canvas canopy stretched half-way over an open metal frame. Most of the seventeen modern-day adventurers in our group sat under the protective cover. Charles, a slow speaking, ruddy-faced Australian from Adelaide, and myself, spent the entire trip standing on the tail-gate, the wind blowing full force through our hair as we drove.

On the road to Jinja I looked over to our left and just up the hill and pointed to Charles. "Look, Charles, it's the 'Uganda Police Academy.'" I said for some reason. "Aw, ya, roight! … Wonda wot gawes aun in theyre? Looks loike they're settin up for a paryaid or somethyng." He offered as we continued on. I never carried a watch, and was never concerned about the time, but for some reason, I asked him what the time was. "Aw it's abaat throi a'clock, ai reckon."

We continued on uneventfully towards the Kenya border, passing Owen Falls, the famous site where John Hanning Speke proclaimed he had discovered the source of the Nile. The time was getting on, so we decided to stop and camp at a little road-side park before reaching the border. We were supposed to be out of the country, and were a little nervous to be camping, but nothing untoward happened and we reached the border town of Tororo the next morning. We passed uneventfully into Kenya, and heaven, around 10 A.M., June 12. We drove into Eldoret, the first major city in western Kenya and were overcome by the abundance of food! There had been nothing to buy from the time we left Bangui and we were absolutely starved for fresh fruit and anything which didn't come out of a can. I remember finding a shop and gorging on some of the most gloriously delicious fish and chips I can ever remember consuming. I weighed about 165 pounds at that time. I also picked up a newspaper, and sat down with my gastronomic treasure and read the headlines: "ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT ON IDI AMIN!" I read on. 'Yesterday at the Uganda Police Academy, on the road from Kampala to Jinja an attempt was made on the life of Life-President Idi Amin Dada…' The article went on to say that Amin was in a parade around five o'clock in the afternoon when someone ran up to him and threw a grenade at his car. Apparently, the grenade bounced off him and blew up someone else. Immediately all hell broke loose and his body guards began shooting indiscriminately at the assembled crowds. There were many casualties and many more people were killed in the aftermath.

Now, it was commonly believed that stories such as this were often released to the press to promote the aura of Idi Amin's supposed supernatural powers or invincibility. We had driven by this very Police Academy only two hours before the stated time of the assassination attempt. We didn't see any parade or military convoy. I was pretty well convinced that this was another hoax, perpetrated by Amin and his publicist and didn't think much more about it.

When we returned home, after another six weeks in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa, we read reports of this supposed attack, and others, and didn't give the stories much credibility. When you visit a country, you naturally become attuned to any information in the form of articles, books, news reports etc. on that area. I was half-listening to 'As it Happens' one evening on CBC radio and one of the guest hosts was interviewing a fellow from Uganda named Henry Kiamba. As soon as the word Uganda was mentioned my ears pricked up and I began to pay closer attention. Still, I only caught the last portion of the interview. Apparently Dr. Kiamba was the Minister of Health during the mid stages of Amin's reign. Once he learned he was on a list to be killed, he escaped to London and wrote a book outlining his experiences, entitled "A State of Blood." I decided to purchase a copy.

In the book, Dr. Kiamba outlines, first hand, what happened in Uganda under the rule of Idi Amin and the horrors committed by him and his regime. I remember very clearly the part of the book where there is a reference to the incident reported in the Kenyan news paper. He goes on to say there were many reported attempts on the life of Idi Amin, but the only one he can confirm took place on June 11, 1976 at the barracks of the Police Academy, on the road from Kampala. He was on duty that night working as a doctor at the hospital in Kampala when the sirens sounded and dozens of wounded people were brought in. He was still there later when the police and military arrived to drag many of the wounded out to be tortured and executed for no better reason than they were in the vicinity when the assassination attempt occurred. The graphic detail and proximity to the time our truck passed the site of the subsequent carnage still makes me queezy. So yes, Dr. Smith, I can say that I almost ran into Idi Amin."

Dr. Smith was impressed and sat back after I finished relating my story. "Well, that's interesting." He said shaking his head thoughtfully. "Would it be possible to borrow your copy of this book? I'd like to read it." "Sure, no problem… but it was difficult to find." I said guardedly. "I had to order it in. So I would appreciate getting it back when you're finished with it." I said. I knew his memory was failing somewhat, so, just to make sure I would get it back, I wrote my name inside the cover. I then happily loaned my copy to him. I did, eventually, get it back, but it must have been a year or more afterwards before I had the nerve to ask him for it. He left the book wrapped in a plastic bag at the main office with a note stating: "Sorry for not getting this book back to you earlier, but my memory's not what it used to be." (I am now going through this same process of declining memory and can sympathize with him.)

Which brings me back to my original point. Everyone loved Dr. Smith. And our affection only increased as he aged and began to slow down somewhat. We recognized his memory was not as sharp as in years past, but that made us even more protective of him.

Every afternoon, at the end of the day's classes, the pathology department held a sort of 'rounds' to present the interesting cases which had been submitted during the day. Each case was assigned to a group of students. They did the gross post-mortem and tissues were brought into a wet lab. The room was a relatively small, tile-lined room with four rows of bleacher-seating across from a continuous line of stainless steel sinks. The pathologists or pathology students presented each case to the assembled audience. The audience consisted of any and all faculty or students who wished to attend. The room was almost always full. This one day Dr. Smith was in the audience. Dr. Bruce McGlaughlin had been in practice for a couple of years and had returned to the college to pursue a post-graduate degree in pathology. He had a set of bovine lungs and heart in front of him on the table. When it was his turn to present his case he stepped forward and described the history and his findings. "This case was a six year old Holstein cow. She came from a farm north east of Saskatoon. She was pregnant and according to the owner, seemed to be healthy until about three or four months ago. She sort of went off her feed and had been slowly going downhill since that time. The owner treated her with antibiotics and a magnet and she seemed to rally for a week or so, but then she got worse. He found her dead in her stall this morning and brought her in to have a post mortem done."

He continued to describe the lesions in great detail. "As you can see her pericardial sac is edematous and there is further swelling in and around the apex of the left ventricle…"

Once he had described the lesions precisely and completely he provided the assembly with his final diagnosis. "Even though we were unable to find any puncture wounds in the heart or the reticulum, it appears that she most likely swallowed a nail or some wire. The wire punctured the reticulum, and the diaphragm and, eventually, penetrated the heart. This caused chronic heart failure and she succumbed to the effects of chronic congestive heart failure, secondary to traumatic reticulo-peritonitis. In other words 'Hardware Disease.'" He said with finality. It was a common enough condition in the cattle industry. A straight-forward diagnostic assessment. Most of us in the crowd had already diagnosed the condition when we first saw the tissues in the shallow display sink. It was a slow day, so they decided to present this case. Normally, they would not present such a common and easily diagnosed condition. "Any questions?" Asked Bruce, just to be complete.

This was the last case of the day and we were eager to head home. However, as we began to stand, Dr. Smith raised his hand. We all sat down, out of respect, and listened to his question. There were very few other explanations for this condition, but maybe Dr. Smith could provide us with a different perspective. "Yes, … Dr. McGlaughlin, you did a fine job of presenting this case but do you feel there might be any other conditions that could account for these lesions?" All eyes shifted back to Bruce. He began to squirm a little. From his furrowed brow, it was obvious his mind was racing. 'Did I forget something obvious?' He was thinking. He then nodded to himself with the confidence of knowing he had performed a complete necropsy. "No, Dr. Smith, I think the diagnosis is straight forward. It appears to be a clear case of traumatic reticulo-peritonitis."

"Hmm… I see…"

He said massaging his beard pensively. "…So you're sure no other condition could explain the reason for this poor animal's demise?" "No… I don't think so." Replied Bruce. "What about High Altitude Disease?" asked the old Dean. The crowd went silent and began to shift uneasily in their seats. It was a painful, embarrassed silence. Clearly Dr. Smith had lost some of his faculties. Yes, the clinical signs were similar to a cow suffering from High Altitude Disease, but the disease only occurred in mountainous regions above 2,500 meters. This was Saskatchewan! Ten meters would be a stretch!

But, ever the respectful student, and as a means of easing the situation with the minimal embarrassment to the dear, old gentleman, Bruce needed to show he had done a thorough post mortem, but he conceded wincingly "…Yes… Dr. Smith… I guess I hadn't considered that option… especially… since the cow has lived her entire life in Saskatchewan… But, yes… you are correct, these lesions could be the result of High Altitude Disease… But why would you suggest that as an option?" "Well" he answered spritely, "you said she had been going down hill for a long time!" A huge grin came over his face and the entire room erupted with laughter. Everyone left the room with a relieved smile on their faces. Good old D.L.T. hadn't lost his marbles after all.

Dr. Bruce Burton, DVM, B.Sc., M.Sc., works with the animals at The Greater Vancouver Zoo and with 'animal stars' in the local film industry. He has extensive expertise in domestic and wild animal biology, health care and nutrition, as well as fish and game-farming experience. In addition to his busy practice in Bradner, Dr. Burton teaches at The University of British Columbia, and is often called upon by the SPCA to help exotic animals in need.

He chooses to write down his experiences so they are not lost, but rather shared with others. He wants his children and grandchildren to be able to read them first hand. I hope you enjoy your own sneak peek into his daily routine!

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