Revisited, with Another

Dragon Doc

Four months had passed since the dragon from the mountain visited me at the veterinary clinic. I hadn’t said a word to anyone at work about what happened that night. Who would believe me? I could barely accept that it happened myself, although there was plenty of evidence that it had. 

The blister from struggling to debride tough dragon flesh had healed, but I’d often rub that spot on my thumb in nervousness or contemplation. And sometimes I looked up my account in the computer just to see the drugs the dragon had taken, and thought of her wrapping her big claw around both bottles before she disappeared into the night. And of course there was the broken molding around the treatment room door. At least the claw marks in the floor had faded somewhat after many rounds with a mop.

How was the dragon faring, I wondered, while simultaneously musing whether I had gone insane. Had the medications worked? Did she experience any side effects? Did the wing heal okay? Had she died? Should I just check myself into a psychiatric ward this afternoon? 

In particular, the anti-inflammatory pain medication I’d sent with her had me worried. Some species don’t tolerate NSAIDs well. What if the drug damaged her kidneys (if dragons have kidneys)? I should have told her to stop taking it if she had any side effects. The first and foremost part of the Veterinary Oath is “do no harm,” and I fretted whether I might have crossed a line.

This whole dragon thing was was something I definitely wasn’t sure about, but I was fascinated nonetheless. I started consuming books and movies related to dragons, devouring everything I could find on the legends of dragons, the beliefs that arose in so many different cultures about these winged creatures, how the fossils of dinosaurs ignited and fanned the flames of those stories. Were (are?!) dragons related to or descended from dinosaurs, I debated? Is there something we’re missing in the fossil record? Is it possible that these creatures actually existed outside of legend and fantasy, and could they continue to exist today?

Well of course they did. I had come face-to-face with an actual live dragon not once but TWICE. I had practiced veterinary medicine on that dragon. But I still could hardly accept that it was true.

Life went on like this for those few months, with me working long and brutal hours at the clinic, immersed in dragon literature and movies at home, and ruminating over my questions and doubts, until things changed. The dragon returned, and this time she brought a friend. Or family? A mate?

It was long after closing and quite dark. While at my desk in the clinic office, deeply focused on a journal article about feline diabetes, I heard a strange repeated tapping near the window. At first the sound was so vague that I didn’t immediately notice, then grew slightly louder. Since I had nearly wrecked the office trying to get away from the dragon’s eye last time, perhaps she decided on a subtler approach this time. 

Leaving my desk, I went to a larger window to see if there was someone loitering in the parking lot or trying to break in. Methamphetamine addiction was a huge problem in our small town at the time, and more than once I’d had to call police to the clinic after hours to contend with vandals or aspiring burglars.

There were no people in the parking lot. Just the dragon. And ANOTHER dragon. I blinked a few times. Still two dragons in the parking lot, easily visible under the light of the street lamp. At least this time I didn’t fling all my records on the floor in panicked flight across the office. But my heart rate still skyrocketed.

Guessing where this was headed, I cautiously opened the front door, trembling just as much as I had the last time. Without preamble both dragons pushed their way into the clinic lobby. This was entirely too many dragons for that little space. One of their tails crashed over several chairs, and the stack of dog-eared magazines on an end table went skating across the floor. A dragon wing bumped a flower vase on the front counter, and it crashed onto the reception desk behind, soaking stacks of records. Several bags of dog food slid to the floor from their shelves, one of them torn and spilling kibbles that rolled in a dozen directions.

Despite the poor light I could see that dragon #2, a male, was shiny brown like dragon #1 but a bit paler shade, with indistinct striping on the wings. He was larger than the first dragon and had a much stronger scent, or perhaps that was because there were two dragons in the clinic instead of one. I couldn’t decide whether to be thrilled or terrified that they were there, that she was back, that this was happening again.

Just as the realization sunk in that she had lived, and I’d get to see the results of my efforts, she turned with her wing facing my direction. However we were in the dark. Excitement was beginning to replace fear, and I moved a few feet to turn on the lobby lights. Anyone on drugs loitering near the clinic, I thought with amusement, would glimpse through the windows and probably think they were on a bad trip.

No matter, the light was on for just a moment and the larger dragon’s head, sporting several prominent spiky horns, smacked into the fluorescent fixture. The light made a buzzing sound, flickered, sparked, and then went dark. How badly would this building be wrecked if they brought their entire extended family next time? I didn’t even want to think about it.

“Okay, please stay here. Both of you won’t fit in the treatment area, and I can’t have you breaking everything in the clinic. All right?” Slowly I backed away, and they stayed put while I fetched a transilluminator, an instrument with a powerful and highly focused light.

“May I see your wing?” The female dragon extended her wing my direction, enough for me to shine the bright light over the site of her wound. There was a long thick bumpy scar that was pale and dull, lacking the iridescence of the surrounding skin that glistened under the transilluminator. But it had mended, the infection resolved. Note to self: enrofloxacin and carprofen are tolerated and effective in dragons. Gently I rubbed my fingertips over the scar tissue. It was surprisingly firm, more what I would expect from bone than from flesh.

Eventually, after several such clandestine visits from dragons, all of which were unsettling but less so with time, I started compiling actual notes on my medical observations of dragons. My notes have grown and evolved over nearly 20 years of practice, and I now have a sizable compendium on the medical conditions of dragons, common injuries and illnesses and how to address them, how to perform various medical procedures in dragons, how to administer injections and anesthesia, and a formulary of drugs and dosages. Ultimately I hope to publish these notes in a textbook. Although as you might imagine, the veterinary textbook publishers don’t exactly take me seriously.

Back to the dragons that night. It’s rather fulfilling for a veterinarian to see a patient that’s healed following surgery or wound care, especially if the process was complicated and the prognosis was questionable. Sometimes we see pets that were torn practically to shreds during a fight, a “big-dog-little-dog” conflict as we call it, or skirmish with a wild animal. It’s long, hard work getting these pets patched together and comfortable and well, but so worth it when they come bouncing into the clinic, all healed, eager to take treats and head scratches and belly rubs and lick our faces and drool on our shoes. Though it’s far below a dragon’s dignity to pant and drool and accept belly rubs, I was absolutely elated to have the dragon back, cured, knowing that I had really, truly helped her. And apparently she trusted me and had faith in my skills, and therefore returned with yet another dragon. It was absolutely thrilling.

And speaking of another dragon, why was this one here? Was dragon #2 sick or injured? Was this… a referral? From the first dragon? Ludicrous thoughts of offering her the “refer-a-friend” discount flashed through my mind.

“Do you need my help? Are you hurt?” My enthusiasm was growing about having another dragon to treat, especially considering my success with the first. The larger dragon swiveled his head toward me until his left eye was uncomfortably close to my face. My excitement faltered and I backed up a couple steps. The bigger dragon’s movements were more abrupt than those of his female companion, and I found him rather unnerving. He froze and blinked at me. And blinked again. There was a crust of dark discharge in the corner of the eye.

“Okay, I’m sorry. Let me look closer.” I shone the light from the transilluminator in his eye. The pupil constricted to a narrow slit, like a gigantic cat’s eye, but with small scallops on either side; or somewhat like a horse’s pupil but vertical. This dragon’s eyes were green, but flecked with silver and grey flecks, not the pure deep green of dragon #1. They must be related, I concluded. Siblings maybe? Or just similar specimens of the same species?

But this eye was also red, and it shouldn’t have been. The vessels of the iris were dilated and congested with blood. There was a slight reflection from the front chamber of the eye, hinting that the fluid inside was slightly foggy. “May I compare to the other eye?” He abruptly swiveled his head the other direction, and I flinched and resisted the urge to step backward. No vessel dilation in that eye, no “flare” from the front chamber. And the pupil was not quite as constricted in that eye. “Okay, back to the other eye. May I touch your face and eyelids?” He drew back his head and hesitated for a moment. How much persuasion was required from the female dragon to convince him to be here, I wondered? He didn’t seem to be entirely comfortable with the situation.

The dragon’s hesitancy lasted only for a moment, and he presented the inflamed eye back to me. As he moved I glimpsed a small defect in the corner of the cornea, the front surface of the eye. Without success, I tried to retract the eyelids to get a better look at the cornea as well as the sclera, the white of the eye. The eyelids were practically unmovable, and I couldn’t expose the sclera at all. The scales of his eyelids were like touching petite cobblestones set in cement. 

“Please wait here. I need to stain your eye to see the injury in your cornea. I’ll shine a blue light in your eye to fluoresce the stain. And then we’ll decide how to treat this.” He surveyed me with his inflamed eye as if he were scanning me. It was an uncomfortable, vulnerable feeling, like standing in the body scanner at the airport, arms aloft, wondering how much detail the TSA agents can see.

From the treatment room I retrieved fluorescein strips, eye wash, gauze, and a cobalt blue filter, and grabbed a bottle of proparacaine drops, a topical anesthetic, from the refrigerator. The dragons did not attempt to follow me into the treatment area, for which I’m sure the door molding was grateful. A few quiet huffs and snorts emanated from direction of the lobby. Were they communicating with each other? What were they saying?

The snorts halted the moment I returned to the lobby with supplies clutched in both hands. The dragon stuck his head in front of my face before I was quite ready, and the supplies nearly tumbled out of my grip. Working with the dragon’s head and eye certainly rattled me more than the first dragon’s wing. Catching the ophthalmoscope before it crashed to the floor (my boss would definitely not be pleased if it broke), I shoved all I was holding onto the front counter before I dropped everything altogether.

“Umm… all right, first I’m going to put these drops in your eye. This should numb the eye and reduce the pain.” The dragon fluttered his eyelids after the drops then held his eye shut, and was unwilling to open the eye at all for the next several minutes.

“Well if you’re going to insist on keeping your eye closed, then let’s work on cleaning up this discharge.” Tackling the gooey crust in the corner of his eye using eye wash and gauze, I was awed and discomfited by how sticky it was. 

Awe grew to alarm as I realized my fingers were beginning to itch and tingle wherever my skin had contacted the dragon’s eye discharge. What are dragons even made of? What’s in their body fluids, and what is this stuff going to do to my skin? Silently swearing and chastising myself for neglecting to wear exam gloves, I excused myself and quickly scrubbed by hands before donning bright blue nitrile gloves.

My fingers remained red and itchy for the next several hours, but there was no lasting harm. In time I would learn that dragon tears, eye discharge, and saliva cause temporary redness and itching in most people’s skin.

After five or so minutes, with the crusted discharge reduced to a fraction of its original size, the dragon shook his head, relaxed his jaw, and opened his eye. “That should feel better, is your eye numb now?” The dragon blinked. I thought that must be an affirmative. 

Until then I hadn’t realized that the dragon had been clenching his jaw tightly from pain, which was in part what made him so intimidating. The other dragon stood still and quiet off to the side, lurking in her half of the room, if it was possible for an overlarge dragon to “lurk” in a comically undersized veterinary clinic lobby.

“Okay, let’s put this stain in your eye. It may feel a bit sticky, but it shouldn’t hurt.” I struggled with the fluorescein strip for several moments. Turns out it’s not easy to apply stain to a nearly vertical large eyeball. “Could you please tilt your head so your eye is looking up at the ceiling?” The dragon immediately complied. “Perfect, that’s better. Okay you can straighten your head now.”

Honestly my day job would be much easier if dogs and cats were as cooperative as this. However dogs and cats don’t have the ability to have me as a lunch appetizer. Nor do they break overhead light fixtures with their heads.

“Here comes the blue light. Please look toward the ceiling so I can see the bottom of your eye better. No, not your whole head, just your eye. Yes, perfect.” And there it was, a puncture wound in the dragon’s cornea, fluorescing brightly under the blue light of the filter. The stain had seeped down into the wound to a seemingly impossible depth. The corneas of dragons’ eyes must be incredibly thick. But even so, this wound was deep enough to trigger what must be uveitis in the eye. That explained all the inflammation in the iris and the front chamber. No wonder the dragon had sought my help, or was persuaded to come by the first dragon. Uveitis is extremely painful, and ultimately it could have ruined his vision or the entire eye.

Topical and oral medications were needed for the puncture to heal and inflammation to resolve. But could dragons manage eye drops or ointments? The two dragons in my lobby were clearly very intelligent, so I thought it was worth a try.

Carprofen tablets had apparently worked well for the first dragon, so I pulled a giant bottle of that off the shelf. Perusing the ophthalmic section of the pharmacy, I picked out a bottle of atropine drops, then pondered the ophthalmic antibiotics for a minute, not knowing what might work best for a dragon. I finally chose the erythromycin ointment, not for any clear medical rationale, but because the dragons’ pupils reminded me so much of cats’ eyes, and erythromycin is what I would have chosen for a cat in that circumstance.

Following my hopeful instructions on how to take the medications, the dragon took the bottle of pills and the two tiny eye medications out of my hands. Or tried. He delicately grasped the dropper bottle between the points of two gigantic talons, and the bottle abruptly pinged away and skittered across the lobby. “Uh, do you… well let’s get a sack for the meds, okay?” I searched for the stash of plastic bags behind the front desk. While back there, I cringed to see the extent of the mess the spilled and smashed flower vase had made. This was not good.

Grasping the plastic bag (imprinted with THANK YOU and smiley faces) of pills and eye medications, the dragon disappeared into the night along with his companion. This time the moon was brighter, and I was able to see them in the sky for a few seconds. How had they flown into the middle of a populated area without being seen, except by me? Or had they been seen by anyone else? Would there be some interesting headlines in the local news tomorrow? I’ve since learned some of the techniques dragons use to conceal and camouflage themselves, and their abilities never fail to impress me.

More questionable drugs went on my account for “first aid” at home. After rearranging the chairs and magazines back into order in the lobby, I hopefully patched the torn dog food bag with packing tape and stacked the bags back on their shelves. There was only so much I could do about the flower vase disaster. The shards of glass and mangled flowers went to the dumpster, and I left a sticky note on the front desk blaming one of the clinic cats for the mess (I’m so sorry, Rico, you didn’t deserve that).

When I arrived at work the next morning after far too little sleep, my boss was perched on a ladder in the unlit lobby, frowning at the light fixture. The fixture was bent and cracked, the base pulled partway out of the ceiling. There was a distinct scrape from the dragon’s horn across the adjacent drywall. As nonchalantly as I could, I said, “Good morning, Bill,” and escaped to my desk as he scratched his head and mumbled something indistinct in reply.

The male dragon was back a week later, this time without his companion. The puncture was healing but the eye was clearly infected, despite the preventive ophthalmic antibiotics I had dispensed. At first I suspected he had failed to use the eye medications. But the pupil was dilated, as it should be while using ophthalmic atropine, so obviously he’d had at least some success. 

A swab from his eye revealed loads of rod-shaped bacteria under the microscope, along with what must be white blood cells (but unlike any I’d ever seen, and I was fascinated). Apparently the antibiotic ointment simply wasn’t appropriate for his species. Note to self: just because dragons’ eyes look like cats’ eyes doesn’t mean that cat medications will work for them. Also, when dragons get bacterial infections, they tend to develop nasty resistant infections that call for powerful, broad-spectrum antibiotics.

The dragon left with a bottle of ofloxacin drops to use instead of the erythromycin. Feeling emboldened, I even told him to return if the eye continued to bother him. Maybe, just maybe, I was beginning to enjoy this crazy, implausible, thoroughly unnerving, but exhilarating process of treating dragons.

Dragon #2 never turned up again. But there were others that came.  ? 

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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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