Fiery Sneezes

Dragon Doc

The fact that I had not only witnessed, but also treated, two living, breathing dragons, each on two different occasions at that, became a delicious secret that I carried with me constantly. Dragons fluttered on the margins of my thoughts during all interactions at work and home, and they soared and dived and swooped through my dreams at night. Dragons warmly glowed deep in the recesses of my mind whenever I was at the veterinary clinic in the middle of the night seeing emergencies, fuzzy and dull with exhaustion and lack of sleep. 

Thoughts of dragons kept me going on the toughest, most discouraging, demoralizing days in the clinic. Sadly, those days were many.

That the dragons were truly real, and not merely products of my imagination, was a realization that took time for me to reconcile. Once I was able to wrap my brain around that, I felt incredibly fortunate to have stumbled onto their existence, and privileged to practice veterinary medicine on their kind. Their trust in me left me astonished and humbled, and I was thrilled that they sought me out.

But on the other hand, the dragons were intimidating and presumably dangerous. If nothing else, they had proven themselves detrimental to the clinic and its contents, although they hadn’t meant any harm. Each time the dragons turned up, I was an anxious wreck, concerned for my safety, worried about the inevitable property damage, troubled by the inevitable fallout if (or when?!) anyone discovered my unusual moonlighting “job.”

There were a few new dragons that accompanied the first female dragon to the veterinary clinic. She must be bringing the dragons to me, I assumed, or convincing them to come. Then dragons started to appear on their own. 

Some dragons were close to the size of the first two I saw, and similarly crammed themselves into the clinic, resulting in continued minor property destruction (apologies to my boss). Then arrived a much larger Wyrm, a mature dragon, that I treated in the parking lot. Fortunately I was more comfortable with dragons by that point, or the Wyrm would have had me paralyzed in fear (as it was, his visit was absolutely nerve wracking). After the Wyrm, I wised up and insisted that all the dragons stay in the parking lot, and I gathered supplies into a tray or bag that I carried to them.

There were variations in colors and patterns and conformation between dragons, and I started to recognize similarities and differences between members of the same species. Then dragons of other species appeared. I started taking notes, not just on drugs and dosages, but on my observations of the creatures in general. A couple dragons turned up sporting feathers along with their scales, a characteristic that made me think more seriously about their connections to dinosaurs. They arrived with various injuries, infections, parasites (fascinatingly disgusting), skin/scale problems, ocular conditions, gastrointestinal issues, and myriad other ailments. 

Luckily the first dragons I treated were relatively small, and their medical conditions were reasonably straightforward. Therefore I gained the confidence to practice medicine on dragons in general, before the larger, more intimidating creatures, and more complicated conditions, found their way to me.

Intervals of weeks or months would go by between visits from dragons. Over the first couple years, my reactions to the dragons evolved between fascination, terror, and and excitement to sometimes annoyance and anger. It was thrilling to learn veterinary medicine for entirely different species from what I learned in school, but it was dangerous and dirty work. And yet it was so gratifying.

But I couldn’t tell a soul about the dragons. Well, I did tell my husband, but he thought I was kidding, and it became a running “joke” between us. Spilling the story to my boss, colleagues, or coworkers was out of the question, as it would surely result in the loss of my job and reputation. So I kept the dragons a closely guarded secret.

Dragons would sometimes turn up on the worst possible nights, when I was already exhausted and frustrated and sick of working, and just wanted to go home and go to bed. This was when irritation and resentment got the best of me. However I could never bring myself to turn a dragon away. They were just too enthralling, even though I had to keep them to myself.

Nevertheless, at the best of times their visits were intrusive and exhausting. Practicing veterinary medicine involves long, hard hours and lack of sleep, and that’s without treating “imaginary” creatures after-hours. Every night a dragon arrived meant “lost” time addressing their needs and then cleaning up the aftermath, piles of records delayed, and considerably less sleep. I’d drag into work the next morning, eyes bloodshot, desperately gripping a mug of caffeine, and someone would ask “Hard night on call?…. Wait, were you on call last night?” I’d mumble some excuse about insomnia or whatever else I thought up. Often I looked pretty rough. And my colleagues noticed.

The dragons were getting expensive, also. Many veterinary drugs aren’t cheap, even with an employee discount, especially when a dragon requires 12 or 20 or 40 tablets per dose. Of course the clinic shouldn’t have to shoulder the cost, since the dragons definitely weren’t generating any profit for the business, nor would my conscience sit well with chalking it up to clinic losses. So I continued to put whatever medications, suture, or supplies I used on my own personal account, and paid for them out of my salary. Dragon medicine became a unique and costly hobby that ate up a chunk of every paycheck.

Only once the clinic manager brought up my personal “first aid” purchases, in such a way that I realized she thought I was diverting or “grey-marketing” veterinary products, e.g. selling the medications for profit to online pharmacies. The idea was so ludicrous to me, and I genuinely laughed so hard, that she dropped the subject and didn’t raise it again. But I’m sure she continued to suspect that something strange was going on. Maria, if you’re reading this, you were right to be suspicious, just not in the way you thought!

At one point almost eight months passed without a visit from a dragon, and I was beginning to think they had lost interest in seeking my help, or perhaps decided they could get by without veterinary care. After all, they had made do without my assistance for possibly centuries, so why now? Or maybe they had lost their trust in me, although I had no idea why. And I couldn’t quite decide whether I was troubled or relieved by the possibility.

However just at the point I had resigned myself to the idea of never seeing another dragon, and was perhaps a little grateful for that, two turned up in a week. And that week was the first time I saw a dragon breathe fire. She sneezed without warning, and spurts of flames shot out of both nostrils.

The dragon had quietly sidled up next to my car as I was about to go home late on a summer evening. She was a young dusky orange colored dragon, starting to lose her juvenile appearance, but not quite on the verge of adulthood. She was quiet and listless, fatigued and annoyed by her illness. Thick nasal discharge was crusted around her nostrils, and her breathing was congested. I’d seen only two dragons with respiratory infections before then, and both were juveniles as well; their immune systems weren’t yet mature enough to effectively ward off respiratory pathogens, I surmised.

By this time I had learned to treat the dragons in a somewhat secluded corner of the parking lot behind the clinic, an area less likely to attract an audience from the locals. That’s where I led the little orange dragon, behind several short palm trees that stood in a row along the side street, mostly obscuring the view of my unorthodox patients. The sickly dragon stood hunched on the pavement, miserable and cranky, unmoving as I examined her. Unmoving, that is, until her literally explosive sneeze left two lines of smoldering black soot on the asphalt as well as my shoe.

After seeing almost two dozen dragons I had conditioned myself not to jump so easily around them, but that moment was an exception. She sneezed just as I was removing the stethoscope from my ears and yanked one of the ear pieces across my face, leaving a red streak on my cheek, as I hopped backwards with wisps of smoke trailing from my blackened shoe. The acrid odors of burned rubber and scorched asphalt wafted through the parking lot.

Heart hammering, I halted my panicked backward dance and looked myself over. Nothing was burned other than my shoe. My toes were uncomfortably warm, but not painful. A singed shoelace broke in my hand as I yanked my shoe off, wiggling my toes to inspect my sock and foot. Both were unscathed. Sighing, I nudged the scorched shoe with my toe to turn it upright. It still smoked and reeked of burnt rubber. So much for my favorite work shoes.

Since I’d never previously observed fire-breathing, I had almost dismissed it as a fanciful myth. In truth most species of dragons really do breathe fire, or at least have some kind of “breath weapon,” and will absolutely use it when threatened. Or, as I learned that evening, they may accidentally breathe fire when they sneeze. Ever since then I’ve practiced extra caution around dragons with respiratory infections, and on many occasions I’ve seen dragons sneeze flames. All these years later, it’s still startling to witness.

Long after that night, I learned the hard way that dragons also sometimes accidentally discharge fire when they’re anesthetized, which makes the process of dragon anesthesia absolutely harrowing. But that’s a story for another time.

It took a few minutes for me to calm down and return my attention to the dragon. Hobbling with one shoe, I finished examining her. The poor thing sneezed flames twice more before I was done, leaving an array of black streaks on the pavement. But thankfully she missed my feet, which I now kept well away from her nose. The dragon didn’t appear at all concerned about or troubled by the flame emissions, simply… well, sick of being sick. Fiery sneezes must not be unusual for an ill dragon, I gathered.

Doxycycline had worked well for the other dragons I’d treated for respiratory infections, so I gave her a large bottle of the antibiotic capsules. The previous dragons hadn’t been sneezing much however, and they most certainly hadn’t sneezed flames. I pondered whether there was anything to be done about that.

Having asked the dragon to wait a moment longer, I hobbled into the clinic to take a bottle of diphenhydramine, an antihistamine. Perhaps that would reduce the sneezing. Returning to the parking lot, I mused about how many forest fires might be ignited by sneezing dragons. What would Smokey Bear have to say about that? Only YOU can prevent forest fires… by sneezing into your wing instead of dry oak brush.

The sneezing dragon lifted off into the sky. Within seconds I lost sight of her. But moments later, there were suspicious twin streaks of flame in the darkness. Gesundheit, little dragon. 

A short time after the dragon’s last sneeze, fireworks popped in the night sky. Independence Day wasn’t far off, and revelers were ramping up their nighttime incendiary displays. Convenient disguise, I suppose, for a dragon in flight with uncontrollable fiery sneezes. ? 

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About DR. S.K. burkman

As a busy veterinarian, Dr. Burkman keeps her sanity by writing about dragons. Many of her own adventures and misadventures are woven into her novels.

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