Where It All Began

Dragon Doc

Frequently I’m asked how I, as a small animal veterinarian accustomed to dogs and cats, started practicing veterinary medicine on creatures that are supposed to exist only in fantasy stories: dragons.  The shortest answer is that it’s all due to circumstance, luck, and my own stupidity while I was almost dying on a mountain.

It’s a long story, but let me explain.  Many years ago, on a much-needed day off from work, I was climbing Humphrey’s Peak.  Humphrey’s is Arizona’s highest mountain, which is not terribly tall by mountaineering standards, only 12,600-and-some feet in elevation.  Prior to that excursion I had summited several other mountains and some much higher elevation, but for this one I was not properly acclimated, and I developed a headache and nausea, classic signs of acute mountain sickness (AMS) or “altitude sickness.”  

Here’s where my stupidity comes in.  Instead of descending, I kept climbing, which is exactly what you are NOT supposed to do with AMS.  Then, as I later learned, I developed the more complicated and dangerous form of altitude sickness called high altitude cerebral edema (HACE).  That means the brain swells and starts to short-circuit.  My feet kept going, but I was wobbly, slow, and somewhat incoherent, and my head felt like someone had attacked me with a hatchet.

Just below timberline I ventured away from the trail as a soft rain started to fall.  I sat down facing a huge expanse of the roots of a fallen tree, fallen recently enough that the roots were shiny brown and iridescent in the rain, but with most of the dirt and rocks washed away.  I was staring absently at the roots, my head pounding, when I realized that they weren’t just roots.  Something moved.  It took my swollen and aching brain a bit to really see it… there was a dragon coiled and tucked in and beneath the roots.  She was gorgeous.  

The dragon’s scales and wings were shiny iridescent brown and blended in perfectly with the tree roots.  Her camouflage skills were amazing.  No wonder we humans never see these creatures.

I sat there for a bit in awe.  The sensible, rational part of my brain was blaring alarm bells, trying to tell me there was clearly something wrong since I was seeing a fantasy creature.  The same part of my brain was also screaming something about not approaching any dangerous animal like a dragon, even if dragons don’t actually exist.

But I wasn’t listening to logic or reason.  That’s what happens when your brain swells, things that don’t make any sense start to make sense.  So I kept on staring at the dragon.  And then I realized she was injured.

For a veterinarian, nothing is more gratifying than treating a sick or injured animal and making them healthy again.  That’s what we live for.  That’s how we end up taking critically ill patients home to watch them overnight when there’s no 24 hour hospital available, or bottle raising a sick orphaned kitten, or spending a Sunday off the clock amputating a pup’s fractured leg so she can be adopted instead of euthanized.  That’s how we end up approaching injured stray dogs or cats, even when we’re at high risk for injury ourselves.  And that’s how I ended up walking right up to an injured dragon.

I’ve since learned that some dragons talk, although most don’t, but all are highly intelligent.  This one (a young female, now I know) never said a word, but her posture and expression revealed her surprise (and amusement maybe?) to have a human approach her.  She wasn’t guarded and didn’t protest when I handled her wing.  There was a deep laceration in the wing membrane right over one of the bones, and it looked angry.

Since that encounter I’ve seen many wing injuries in dragons.  The vast majority heal just fine on their own, forming scars (dragons tend to be quite proud of these) or even holes in the wing membrane, creating a tattered “battle-worn” appearance.  But occasionally a wing injury is serious, and a dragon that can’t fly is a dead dragon.  This is no joke for species that are critically endangered.  

My short-circuiting swollen brain defaulted to work mode, and I dug the first aid kit out of my pack.  I scrubbed the laceration with chlorhexidine, an antiseptic.  Even though chlorhexidine stings a bit, the dragon didn’t flinch.  But she also didn’t extend her wing any closer to me.  I think she just didn’t know quite what to make of this, but she didn’t seem to perceive me as a threat.  I dried the wound with gauze and liberally applied Neosporin, I think 4 or 5 packets worth if I recall correctly.  In other words this was a pretty sizable wound, about 7 or 8 inches in length.  And not fresh; she had been wounded for at least a couple days.

I remember thinking ‘I hope that does the trick, but that may still get infected.’ Whether or not I said anything out loud, I don’t recall.  The whole memory is fuzzy thanks to the state of my brain at the time.  I do remember feeling a sense of urgency to get back to the trail and my dogs and my husband, who was no doubt wondering why the hell it was taking so long for me to pee in the forest.

It took a minute or two or five, I don’t know, for me to navigate the terrain back to the trail, more so with everything slick from the rain.  Initially I was excited to tell my husband what had happened.  It’s definitely not every day that a person gets to see a dragon in the wild, much less do some wound care for an injured dragon.  But after scrambling over some logs and small boulders, and having to concentrate extra hard on keeping my footing since my brain didn’t quite know where my limbs were, my mind pushed the memory of the dragon somewhere into a side compartment to focus on staying conscious.  And alive.

My husband, who has no medical training, deserves an award for getting me off that mountain.  He had no idea what was going on, only that I was walking like a drunken toddler, definitely not in my right mind, and kept insisting on stopping to take a “nap” every 100 feet or so.  Had I been on my own, I would have curled up for a “nap” in a nice pine-needle bed under a tree, and I would have fallen unconscious, and I likely would have died.  As it was, I did get off the mountain on my own two feet, and then I was unconscious in the car, and then I was vomiting uncontrollably in the local ER, and then I was on IV diuretics and morphine, and eventually I was back in my right mind.

The dragon was completely gone from my consciousness until my husband drove me home from the hospital at 4 in the morning, both of us completely spent from the ordeal.  Now that we understood what had happened to me, we were discussing altitude sickness, and my husband brought up Jon Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air.”  The book describes acute mountain sickness, including a bit of information on HACE and its counterpart high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE).  One of the HACE effects mentioned in Krakauer’s book is hallucinations, and my husband said something about this.  And the memory of the dragon came flooding back.  I said “Oh!  The DRAGON!” and my husband screeched the car to a full stop, stared at me with wide-eyed concern, and stammered “Do you… need… to go back to the ER?”

I laughed and told him no, no, I just remembered a hallucination I had on the mountain!  It was a dragon!  She morphed from the roots of a fallen tree!  Because of course it was all a fantastic hallucination, right?  

A few frenetic days later I finally cleaned out my pack and found the soiled gauze and empty Neosporin packets.  I wondered what on earth I had actually done with those, because of course the dragon was purely fiction.  The story of me trying to die and hallucinating a dragon on the mountain was hilarious to my colleagues, coworkers, and friends, and once I was sufficiently recovered, I was equally amused by the tale.  

That is, until the same dragon turned up at my veterinary clinic a week and a half later.  

I’ll fill you in on THAT portion of this long tale another time.

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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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