as told to Wendy O'Brien by Tim Savage                     Cardiothoracic Surgeon, 1955 - 1988

A dog's life

Medicine, particularly its surgical branch, owes a great debt to the dog.   So many surgical procedures have been conceived, planned and then perfected, particularly cardiac operations on the dog.   Not any particular breed, just the common dog, CANIS VULGARIS, who has given over the centuries so much to man, in unconditional love, companionship and suffering.   Of course the larger sized dogs were smaller in size to the usual human subject for the practice of operative procedures but even the smaller ones were important - I recall the smallest baby I was ever called on to do a cardio-vascular operation on weighed 700grams - not much more than a pound of household butter.   This was unusual in our unit but an everyday activity in places specialising in congenital neo-natal cardiac problems.
I believe somewhere in the United States there is a statue to the dog commemorating his invaluable service to human surgery.   This may be in my imagination but if not true the dog certainly deserves one and much more - he deserves mans undying gratitude.   Surgery could not advance without animal help and the dog plays and has played the major part.
In the 1960's as our thoracic surgical service was expanding into the rapidly growing cardiac surgery field, we established a "dog lab".   It started life in a couple of rooms in the bowels of Wellington Hospital, rooms recently vacated by the hospital painters to move into much grander quarters, as was their right.   The rooms we had inherited were far from ideal, but were adequate, they had to be.   I have spent many years in the practice of surgery, and looking back would change very little of it, but there were two aspects, amongst several that I never came to enjoy, dog work and attending autopsies of those who had sadly died postoperatively - both most important and necessary aspects of surgical practice.   You have to know.
Our team spent one afternoon per week in the dog lab where we practised and honed our techniques for anaesthetising (dogs) making cardiac abnormalities, mainly atrial septal defects, repairing same and then managing the dogs post-operatively.   One could not feel but unhappy about all this - dogs are the perfect subjects as they trust you and are therefore easy to handle, a shot of pentothal intravenously, endotracheal intubation and the whole procedure is underway as in any human case.   It was this trust, and one's use of it, that made one feel so despicable.   We obtained our dogs from one local pound, the other pound had a bye-law that stipulated that the dogs had to be euthanized on the premises; and from country rangers.   I recall going to the railway station on occasions often receiving cryptic messages from the ranger to collect our candidates.
We had to undertake to always euthanize these animals eventually as they all had been accepted by the pounds for that purpose;  however I am afraid we once neglected our duty in this respect.   A chirpy little fox terrier came in one batch and our invaluable factotum Bill Saunders, took a real fancy to this bright spark (and he to him).   Bill took him home and he remained as a family pet for many years and a real companion.
The dogs lived, though sadly only a short time, in separate cages, well fed and watered (we kept their meat station in the operative theatre fridge and I remember on one occasion mistakenly giving them the theatre sisters' dinner sirloin steak.   I was not popular!) with a comfortable blanket bed, and exercise at least once per day.
Bill Saunders was the unit's "man of all trades".   I don't think I ever knew what he was originally trained for, if anything, but he could turn a hand to practically anything and do it well.   I believe he came to NZ as a cargo ship deckhand and jumped ship.  

 He spent a long time moving around the country just ahead of the Police, working largely in hospitals, till the  law finally caught up with him in the boiler house of a provincial hospital.   He was taken to court but an  understanding (and perhaps far seeing magistrate) allowed him to remain and take up NZ citizenship.   He kept  his interest in hospitals and when we met he was one of the porters in the operating theatre pool.   He was by  fortunate chance (for us), allocated to our theatre and became an extremely beloved member of the unit,  eventually becoming a perfusionist in the cardiac bypass team, a position of real responsibility in which he  together with the anaesthetist kept the patient alive during the whole operation.   Besides all this Bill had a considerable interest in cars and acted as intermediary in the sale of many a vehicle when any member of the team (or others) was upgrading in this field.   And this wasn't all - I recall on one occasion Bill advising me to go to the Philippines for a wife, he had done so and found it a very successful journey.
Bill was just great with dogs, ran the place extremely well, and looked after the dogs with loving care.   We all took our time in the more homely duties too, feeding, cleaning, and exercising, particularly at the weekends when Bill was off duty.
As I mentioned part of our agreement with the suppliers that all dogs had eventually to be euthanized also meant that corpses had to be disposed of.   Cremation in the hospital furnace was the method of choice.   Bill was also the undertaker.   One Christmas holiday I was on duty at the hospital, and naturally on dog duty as well, when one of the dogs died post operatively.   I knew Bill disposed of the corpses in the furnace at the boiler house but I did not know the details of the undertaking.   I wrapped the small pathetic body in a theatre guard as a shroud, loaded it on the roof rack of my car and set off for the boiler house.   The netherworld of an old hospital is ever a confusing place with buildings and outhouses scattered everywhere, however the furnace's tall chimney stack is a guide.   I felt like CHARON, the Ferryman, crossing the River Styx of the hospital netherworld taking my charge to deliver to Hades safe keeping.   I rushed full of confidence only to find the boiler house locked and not a soul around!   Eventually I found the opening of a chute which looked as if it might communicate with the furnace, consigned the bundle to the flames and went home for Christmas dinner, and thought no more of the "cremation".   Some considerable time later I heard from Bill that there was quite an upset in Hades department.   Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the entrance to Hades Domain had not accepted my offering and the chute was blocked and the problem was found to be a dog (very dead!).   So far as I knew Bill said nothing and this is my first admission of how a dog got into the chute and remains, officially, a shrouded mystery.

In those early days of open-heart surgery we practised the hypothermic technique in the dog lab and then when the heart-lung bypass pump became available and displaced other techniques as the method of choice, we learned and practised that technique in the dog lab.  Those days are well over.   Later a purpose built facility was established in the department of surgery, such a place being absolutely necessary in any major hospital, and development work continues, but those original "dog lab days" are a memory and not always a happy one, which I shall never forget.   Our friend the dog deserves so much.   A statue forgotten is not enough.   We must always remember and appreciate our enormous debt.