Dr Reb recounts: all things strange and wonderful

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Dr RebIn 1958, young vet Dr Reb was sent to Malawi, Africa for a two-year stint in the Peace Corp. In this extract from his new memoir, All Things Strange and Wonderful: My adventures as a vet in Africa, he recalls setting up his veterinary practice in what seemed a bizarrely foreign world.

“Excuse me, Dr Reb, you have an appointment waiting,” said Jeff Mbewa, my right-hand man.

An appointment? An appointment! My heart leapt. For two straight weeks since my arrival I had waited to hear those words. Thanks to Malawi’s countrywide fuel shortage, transportation had ground to a halt. Imagine an entire country running out of fuel. This is Africa.

With only my feet for transportation, my effectiveness as a veterinarian had been quite limited. It seemed the only skill I had been honing over the past two weeks was beer drinking. Every night I’d head off to a different village. Finding the local bar was never a problem as it was generally the nosiest hut in the village. As none had refrigeration, the only choice was room-temperature, home-brewed still-bubbling beer dipped out of 200-litre drums. It was the kind of stuff that kept a guy really regular.

The initial contact was always the same. Picture one of those old black-and-white cowboy movies where a stranger rides into town, jumps off his horse, swings the saloon doors open and eyeballs the crowd. The piano player stops, the poker players look up from their cards and everyone holds their breath as the stranger makes his way to the bar and barks, “Whisky! And leave the bottle…” And then a white guy stumbles through the open doorway.
He makes his way to the bar where, with an extra-polite smile, he asks for a beer. Everyone follows his every step, as if he were a ghost. No-one asks, “You’re new in these parts. Plan to stay or just passing through?” The bartender, as he serves a bubbling milky-white brew, asks if I’m lost. “Nope,” I reply. “I’m exactly where I want to be. How about a round for the house, on me?”

A stranger in a local village bar was a rarity, but a white person buying a round of drinks was unheard of. I’m not so sure that the United States Peace Corps, with whom I was a volunteer, would sanction my marketing tactics but in those two weeks I met more people than most volunteers meet in two years of service.

Word was out that there was a new vet in town and now here was proof—I had an appointment waiting! “All right, looks like we’ll get to do some real veterinary work today,” I said to Jeff as I stirred the liquid I was slowly bringing to a boil.

“What are you making?” asked Jeff as he sniffed the pot.

“Calcium borogluconate. It’s a form of calcium in solution used to treat milk fever in dairy cows. I don’t know if we’re ever going to need it but I thought it would be good to have some on hand.”

As I stirred my solution, I watched Jeff shuffle through the papers on my desk. “This is chemistry, isn’t it?”

“More like kitchen chemistry. Let’s see if it works before we get too excited. I’ve got about five more minutes of boiling time. Tell me about our appointment.”

“A man has arrived with a litter of sick puppies,” Jeff explained. “He is quite old, and has travelled a long distance. How he made it here considering there is no transportation is a mystery. The puppies are eight weeks old, and they do not want to eat—they have diarrhoea and are vomiting.”

“What’s more interesting,” he continued, “is the man himself. I have heard of him but never met him. His name is Dr Mzimba. He is a well known, highly regarded traditional healer and has a hospital compound somewhere on the Thyolo escarpment. It is said that if you look for him, you will never find him. Only those in need are ever able to find him. Many people travel there to be healed.”

“Go ahead and take all their temperatures and have a look at their gums and the tissue around their eyes. This tissue right here,” I said as I pulled my lower left eyelid down and pointed to the red tissue around my eye. “If it’s colourless or faint pink, that’s an indication that they may be anaemic. Please, offer our first client some tea and let him know I’ll be there shortly.”

Five minutes later I was satisfied that my calcium concoction had cooked long enough. I headed for the exam room and through the open door saw an older African man cradling one of the pups as Jeff took its temperature. Large bare feet supported his lean and well-muscled short frame. Grey hairs were evenly dispersed throughout his neatly cropped hair and his bushy beard created a distinguished salt-and-pepper look in stark contrast to his ragged clothing. He looked up and flashed me the brightest smile I had ever seen. I stood there quietly and waited for Jeff to finish.
As Jeff took the pup from Dr Mzimba I extended my hand and greeted him in Chichewa, the predominant language in Malawi. His smile grew even bigger and he grabbed my right hand with both of his in an expression of familiarity that was unusual for two people meeting for the first time. He then took hold of both my wrists and turned them over so that my palms faced upward. As he studied them, they began to tingle. I turned and looked at Jeff and raised my eyebrows, as if to ask, “What’s going on?” Jeff shrugged his shoulders as if to say he had no idea.

The Peace Corps had given me extensive cross-cultural training before I began my service, but I didn’t recall anything about greetings of this nature. After Dr Mzimba finished studying my hands he stared into my eyes. He steadied my face by placing his hands on my cheeks much the way a grandparent would hold still a young child for a good look. As he stared into my eyes the tingling in my hands began to fade, but my cheeks now felt as if an electrical charge was passing through them.

Through a smile that filled his face he said, “I’ve been waiting a long time for you, Dokotala.”

“I’m sorry,” I replied. “I was making some mankhwala in the next room. How long have you been waiting?” I rubbed my cheeks as the tingling faded.

“I have been waiting sixteen years for you,” he said, arching his eyebrows.

“Sixteen years?”

“I saw you sixteen years ago when you decided to come. You were a young boy then, in school with other children. It was very cold in your village. Everything was dead and the ground was covered with white. Now you are here and I welcome you,” he said, taking my right hand and giving it a welcoming handshake. The tingling sensation returned immediately.

“I must return to my village. I will come back and collect the puppies when you have cured them. Stay well, Dokotala,” he said as he turned and left.

“Please wait, Abambo [father],” I called as I ran after him. “How do you know those things?”

“I had a vision,” he told me in a matter-of-fact way. “I have also had a vision concerning these puppies. Take good care of them. They will save your life one day.” He turned and marched down the road.

When I returned to the exam room, Jeff asked, “You decided to come to Malawi sixteen years ago?”

“Well, not Malawi, specifically. The Peace Corps people made that decision six months ago, not sixteen years.”

“Bloody hell, think back, Reb. What happened sixteen years ago?” Jeff asked quite excitedly.

I thought back to the day I knew Dr Mzimba was referring to. I remembered it as I had always remembered it, as if it had happened yesterday. “Sixteen years ago I was nine years old,” I told Jeff. “I was in the fourth grade in New Richmond, Wisconsin and two former Peace Corps volunteers who had worked in South America came to talk to my social studies class. It was winter and everything was snow covered. After they finished their talk, I decided that one day I, too, would become a Peace Corps volunteer and I would go to Africa.”

I continued. ‘Years passed, but I never forgot that day or the promise I made to myself. Halfway through my last year of veterinary school I decided it was time to make good on the promise. I applied to the Peace Corps and asked to serve in Africa. They accepted me and posted me to Malawi. The Malawi government assigned me here, to Thyolo. Do you really think Dr Mzimba saw that sixteen years ago?’

“Reb, this is Africa!”

“Man, this is freaking me out,” I said as a shiver passed through me.

As Jeff and I examined each pup, I discussed the procedure involved in a comprehensive physical exam and explained my findings as we went along. I let Jeff examine the last two pups and describe his findings to me. Jeff was a quick learner and he covered most of the points needed in a thorough general exam. Our small patients’ problems were fever, dehydration, depression, low-grade anaemia, vomiting and diarrhoea. Our treatment plan consisted of the antis: antibiotics, anti-fever medication, anti-inflammatory medication, anti-pain medication, anti-vomiting medication, deworming medication and fluids to restore hydration.

“Where are we going to get all of this?” asked Jeff.

“I brought a little goodie bag of medications with me that should hold us until we get some formal help from the Malawi government. We’ve got nearly everything except the fluids.”

“What are we going to do for fluids?”

“We’ll make some. You know, kitchen chemistry.”

I laid out the medications for Jeff to give each pup and then went to my desk to calculate what we’d need to make an isotonic rehydration solution, which didn’t take long. Then I returned to the exam room.

“How’s it going?” I asked Jeff.

“Just about finished with this pup. Three more to go.”

“Great. I’m off to the market to pick up what we’ll need to make the fluids. Be back in a bit.”

When I returned Jeff and I placed a catheter in each pup’s jugular vein. Based on my calculations of the amount and rate of fluids they would need, we went with a labour-intensive plan of giving 10 millilitres every 30 minutes. Jeff recruited Jill, our office typist, and Tom, our office clerk, to help with treatment during the day. At the end of the day I took the pups home and cared for them through the evening. At bedtime I topped them off with fluids under their skin to be absorbed slowly while we slept – me in my bed and the pups in a box next to me.

The pups were in rough shape. Their profuse, bloody diarrhoea was our biggest challenge. The diarrhoea had the distinct smell of death. Only diluted bleach could clean it up, and it didn’t take long before both my office and my home smelt like swimming pools.

Day after day we threw the treatment at the pups but their sickness continued despite our heroic efforts. I awoke on the morning of the third day to find a third pup had died during the night. I buried it in my backyard next to the two littermates that had passed away the day before.

The three remaining pups were thin, depressed and weak. As I carried them back to my office, I feared that my first official case was going to end in total disaster. Upon arrival Jill, Tom and Jeff were waiting together on the steps. Hoping for good news about the pups, they peeked inside the box. Their hopeful anticipation was immediately replaced by expressions of despair. By now, all of us had a huge emotional stake in the pups and it was clear we still had a terrible struggle on our hands.

That morning a fourth pup died in Jill’s hands. She rocked it gently for a long time. This pup, the light gold one, had been her favourite. With tears streaming down her face, all she could say was “Pepani (sorry)” when she placed him in my hands, then ran off to the next room.

As the remaining two pups and I bedded down on the sixth night, I feared their fight was nearly at an end. They didn’t have much left to give and
I fully expected I’d be burying them next to their littermates the next morning.

I awoke to soft whimpers and something nibbling on my fingers. The pups had managed to jump out of their box and were licking my hand. They were bright and alert and, most importantly, happy. It didn’t take a medical degree to see that they were better. They had won! When I showed up at the office my staff immediately knew by the smile on my face that I carried a box of good news. I placed our tiny survivors on the ground for all to see. They were emaciated, little more than walking skeletons, but they were on the mend. We immediately started frequent small meals and were soon up to frequent big meals. The pups ate ravenously and quickly filled out.

The puppies were always at my side. In the morning we leisurely walked to work and in the evening they came home with me and had the run of my house. The three of us would sack out together in my bedroom and every morning they would wake me with soft whimpering and gentle nibbling.

I was beginning to wonder if Dr Mzimba would ever return for them. I almost hoped he wouldn’t. But on the tenth day of their recovery he showed up. He was overjoyed with the two pups that had survived and were now thriving.

Weeks had passed since the pups had last seen Dr Mzimba—the bulk of their short lives—but they took to him as if he were their mother. I watched as the pups licked and kissed the old man’s face while he gently cuddled and hugged them. Their joyful reunion was a bit of a heartbreak as I had become quite attached to those bundles of fluff.

Dr Mzimba thanked me and, knowing that the credit for the pups’ recovery didn’t belong entirely to me, I introduced Dr Mzimba to Jill, Tom and Jeff and explained that I couldn’t have done it without them. Dr Mzimba, a perfect gentleman, greeted and thanked each of them with great ceremony. As he prepared to leave, he asked me to name the pups.

“I’ve been calling the black one Bozo and the brindle one Skippy. I once had dogs with those names and they were great dogs.”

“Bozo and Skippy. I like those names. Come and visit often, Dokotala,” he said. “These pups now know you as mother and father. They will not forget and some day they will return the kindness you have shown them.”

Dr Mzimba and I shook hands and parted company. I watched as he walked off and the pups followed. He seemed to have a magical way with them. No need for a rope or leash, they just strode after the man as if he were family.

The pups were so small and frail and it was such a big world out there. They had already been through a lifetime’s worth of pain and misery. I hoped they would make it. Even though the three of them had their backs to me, I lifted my hand and waved to them. To my surprise, the pups stopped and turned to look at me. I felt like I was on top of the world.
I was a veterinarian and it just didn’t get any better than this.

All Things Strange and Wonderful: My adventures as a vet in Africa, by Dr Reb, is released 1st February 2016 by Finch Publishing.

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