Tails from Ralston Vet

November 4, 2020

Vetting Uncle Norm (with Julz along for the ride)

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Dr. Jernigan’s 50 year dedication

There couldn’t be a book about Julz without my Uncle Norman, also known as Dr. Jernigan, having a crucial role in it. As Uncle Norm, he and his family have always had an important and fondly remembered presence in my life, but as Dr. Jernigan, this was magnified many times over during the years when Julz became a passion in my life. Almost all the treatments for her many injuries and maladies were performed by him, and even those that weren’t were under his guidance at the Ralston Veterinary Clinic, which he started as a small 2 doctor practice back in the late 60’s and then vetted and entrepreneured into a multi-doctor, technically advanced and architecturally sophisticated facility that is second to none in the field of animal care and medicine. I won’t go into his innumerable accomplishments that go with that, but you can get a small taste of those from the YouTube of “Dr Jernigan & Ralston Vet’s 50 Year Anniversary” celebration. I wish I had completed something like this in time for that occasion, but hopefully this will serve as a reminder that it has not been forgotten and of all that Dr. Jernigan represents.

Julz at Ralston Vet

What Norman represents is critically important in our troubled times, but he represents them in a way that makes politics look small by comparison. Our President, for instance, does not well represent the qualities he is sometimes admired for, but these are manifest in Uncle Norm. Despite his sometimes similarly gruff and down-to-earth demeanor, Dr. Jernigan is nothing if not hard working, perhaps an epitome of the Puritan work ethic, and someone who manages to get things done against all odds. He also possesses a privy financial acumen and a direct manner of calling things as he sees them. Along with this, he has similarly developed a remarkable capital enterprise which, unlike Trump’s, has never been in danger of bankruptcy. Any similarities may end there, however, since I have never known Norman to tell a lie or abandon someone in need, he always puts helping others above serving his own needs, and he is a giving, sympathetic, upstanding, church-going Christian, not to mention a fantastic family man. Of course, unlike the President who hasn’t followed in the footsteps of many of his predecessors in owning a beloved pet and has been quick to aid and abet trophy hunters, Uncle Norman loved animals and devoted much of his life to helping them.

For most of his career, Dr. Jernigan worked more with larger animals, and consequently spent endless hours on country roads en route to farms, feedlots, race tracks, and etc. This took it’s toll, including his having a leg permanently damaged when he was kicked by a horse he was treating (or something along those lines, I don’t remember for sure), from which he still has a noticeable limp and, I’m sure, considerable pain and inconvenience. That hasn’t stopped him from working endless hours, but in more recent years, considerably more of those have been with smaller animals, like Julz, whom he always managed to make time for. He is no less gifted in his work with them, as I was “lucky” to get to observe first hand, and even “have a hand in” on occasion. Uncle Norman was with us to the end, as I’m sure he has been with many beloved pets, when Julz had to be “put down,” which he did in my presence with professionalism, kindness, tact, and an unspoken aura of mercy. Julz would not have wanted it any other way, and neither would I. If it was up to Julz to pass the final verdict on Uncle Norm and the world he lived in and created, he would certainly be seen as a shining light along the Rainbow Bridge. This is making me cry now, something I rarely do.

I had to take a pretty long break to compose myself before returning to compose this. That has also been a big problem while attempting to write the book about Julz that some of this will be a part of. In spite of the sometimes difficult memories, I still eagerly anticipate returning to work on it. In much the same way, perhaps, Julz always seemed excited about returning to the Ralston Veterinary Clinic, where she would usually get to see Dr. Jernigan again. Though she knew it wouldn’t all be pleasant and painless, she seemed to understand that she would come out better for it, probably in part because she always did, but also because of things she really liked about it, including Uncle Norm, whom she seemed willing put up with even as he trimmed her nails or worse. The drive to the Clinic was also a major event, since we came to it from 60 miles away in Lincoln where we live. The drive was well worth it, not just for the family connection but also for the outstanding care Julz received there. Her excitement as we got near was nose-out-the-window palpable, even in single digit coldness. When we got to 84th and Harrison, she knew that if we turned left she would get to see my mom, which she also loved, but if we went straight we were directly off to the Doctor. Of course, she often got to see them both.

She would almost tear the car door off, and as soon as she got out would make a mad dash for the Clinic entry. The first thing she would do inside the Clinic, even if there were other pets in the vicinity, was make a beeline for the scale. She seemed to love weighing in, and sometimes we went through this process several times before her turn to see the doctor came. I think she was particularly proud of how much she weighed, and loved to hear us read the numbers off and joke with her about it. The staff out front, always lovingly friendly and helpful and efficient, were pleasantly amused by this. Julz was usually overweight, though maybe not as much as the numbers indicated, since she was also unusually husky and solid. Remember, we’re talking about a dog who had chased down and caught as many as 27 rabbits in a single day, no small feat of athleticism, and amazing when seen in action.

I know I’ve wandered a little off from Uncle Norm again, but this is also about the palatial dog-house the Doctor built; fortunately it never went as far as becoming Julz’s home-away-from-home, though there were a couple of over-nighters. Though nearly a perfect dog in every other way, Julz had more than her share of medical issues. As is not uncommon with larger dogs, maybe particularly with Labs, she had problems with her hips and back legs. The hip problems didn’t become very serious or too much of a hindrance till her later years, but she had to have artificial replacements for both of her ACL’s, about a year apart, when she was around the age of only 3. These were pretty medically advanced surgeries for a dog, at least back then, and Dr. Jernigan did not perform them himself, though he was instrumental in setting them up and in the recovery phases. The actual surgeons were highly qualified and used state-of-the art technology and procedures, characteristic of the Ralston Veterinary Clinic, and the results were amazing. Julz was quickly back to her duck-hunting rabbit-chasing self again, in both cases, and never had further problems with the ACL’s. There never seemed to be any residual hint of artificiality, which I also believe is true of everything about Dr. Jernigan and the clinic he founded.

Of all the medical treatments Julz would endure, only one of them took place at a different facility, and that was for an emergency which happened when Ralston Vet was closed for a weekend holiday. While engaged in another one of her specialties, catching ducks, Julz had stepped on a fish hook which became embedded deeply in her paw. This happened at the artificial “falls” on Oak Creek where it runs under 1st Street near Oak Lake, but we managed to make it up the steep and rocky trail to the parking lot, fishhook and all. We ended up having to take her to an Urgent Care for pets in Lincoln, and though the removal of the fishhook ended up being much less of an ordeal than we had feared, Julz was not shy about expressing her preference for the Ralston Veterinary Clinic and Dr. Norm. Some of her other experiences there, besides the ACL’s, included getting extensive stitches after being savagely attacked, without having provoked it, by some other dogs at the dog run, and again after severely cutting her paw on some glass while swimming. These incidents also occurred at or near Oak Lake, one of our favorite haunts at the time. It proved impossible to keep her out of the water until she was fully healed, but she recovered nonetheless and was quickly back to her usual mischief, undaunted by her experiences with stitches. It probably didn’t hurt that she knew that Dr. Jernigan could always fix her up again.

A much more serious accident was still to come, not near Oak Lake this time but about a mile south of where we would, in a much later season, find a human body. This would make the news, but that’s another story. We had wandered about a mile from where the car was parked, while rabbit hunting familiar territory in an industrial area along Salt Creek. We were taking a snack break in the grass, I think this was spring time or early summer because of all the standing water nearby, when out of nowhere a rabbit suddenly materialized, and Julz was after it in a flash. Moments later, she squealed loudly and with an agony I had never heard from her. It took me only moments to get to the scene, but when I saw her and what had happened, I immediately feared it was the end.

The rabbit had taken off through a narrow culvert ditch on the edge of an industrial lot along Pioneer Blvd. This was not an unusual development, and I wasn’t even particularly worried about traffic because Julz was good about that, but unfortunately there was a sharply pointed length of rebar protruding from the bank where it was deeply embedded. Julz had run into it full tilt. It rammed into the side of her neck and literally ripped her entire side off, from neck to tail and spinal cord to tummy, and everything was hanging out. Miraculously, there was still a layer of tissue protecting her innards from spilling out and, though she was crimson on that side from head to tail, she wasn’t bleeding profusely. In fact, after a brief spell where I was panicked and trying to figure out what to do, she was up and walking around, though tenderly and obviously in pain. By then, I had already called Mary, since there was no way we would make it back to the car, and told her that Julz had a life threatening injury. She got to us quickly and had already called to tell Norman that we we’re on our way, but it would be an hour or so before we got there. Somehow, probably assisted by Julz being in shock, we managed to get her into Mary’s car and from her’s to mine, and I sped directly up the interstate towards Omaha. The trip seemed to take longer than ever, but Julz was reasonably calm and uncomplaining. I’m sure she knew exactly where we we’re heading, and that everything would probably be OK.

There’s no doubt we got special family treatment on this one. It was still early Sunday morning, and normally Uncle Norman wouldn’t have been making any calls. I had parked near the Clinic’s emergency entrance a little before he got there and had managed to get Julz out of the car. She was still alert and seemed not to be doing too badly, all considered. Norman got there moments later. After he had kneeled down to take a closer look, I asked him if he had ever seen or worked on anything like this. He looked at me like “Are you kidding?”, but simply said “Nope. Let’s try to get her inside and see if there’s anything I can do.” It looked like I was going to get to assist on this one, like it or not. For Julz, I would have done anything. After examining her on the operating table, he explained that there was going to be a lot of “cleaning things up,” dozens of stitches on several layers, and that this would involve first anesthetizing her and inserting a breathing tube down her throat. He also informed me that her surviving the anesthetic, especially in her condition, was the most worrisome part. I asked him if the greater danger was when he gave it to her or later on during surgery or when she was coming out of it. “If she’s not going to make it, we’ll know in a minute. Here, hold this firmly right — there.” 40 minutes later, I was relieved to still be watching him make stitches and trying to follow his instructions. There turned out not to be a lot for me to help him with. I think I had been brought along mostly for the “education,” and because he knew I would want to be there, however it turned out. It was a vivid lesson. And obviously, Julz made it, though the recovery was an unusually long and arduous one. It was still probably less than a month till we were back to chasing rabbits and ducks and finding bodies and things.

The exact number and order of Julz’s various visits to the Vet are not important, but here’s the last of them. She’d been acting kind of out of sorts, having urinary issues, eating finically, and sometimes kind of stumbling around, so when her weight dropped suddenly by 20-30 pounds, I knew it was past time for another visit to Dr. Jernigan. As usual, he didn’t mess around. After hearing my explanation and taking a quick look over her, he said, “We’ll do a test to be sure, but it looks like she has diabetes.” After a short wait, he returned to say the tests had confirmed his suspicion. I had little idea what that implied, and was almost afraid to ask. Dr. Jernigan, along with some of his staff, kindly and patiently explained to me what the treatment was going to involve, which was mostly insulin shots and dietary controls. There was never any suggestion that maybe the time had come to consider “putting her down.” At the time, they probably knew that would have been out of the question, but now that I know what followed, I could understand why they might have raised the question. I had never liked shots, and had certainly never administered one. With the same professionalism, they led me through the steps, even let me do a trial injection, set us up with a short term supply of insulin and syringes, and asked if there was anything else they could do. I still had some questions, first and foremost among them being, “How long does she have?” The answer was, “Well, if you do really well with the insulin and all else goes well, it could be as much as 3 years, but this varies heavily on a case-by-case basis.” As much as? Not the news I wanted to hear, but still better than I had feared. Nothing to do but make the most of it. At least we would still be able to take our “walks” and spend time together.

It takes some time and careful monitoring to get the insulin adjusted to the appropriate level, and it ended up being more than predicted. Julz was still a big dog. While we we’re working on that, and I was gradually getting better at giving the shots, which Julz endured patiently, we still continued our outings. Norman had even said the exercise might be good for her. Julz wasn’t her old self, but she at least managed to still catch a few rabbits, which perked her up a lot. While still in the first week after learning of her diabetes, we had just gotten underway on one of these outings when she started stumbling around badly and running into things. She then curled to the ground and didn’t want to get up. This had never happened before. Fearing that I had done something deadly wrong with the insulin, I got her into the car, rushed her home, and then we were off to Omaha to see Uncle Norman — again. First, he checked to make sure there wasn’t a life threatening insulin related reaction, but after ruling that out he informed me, “The reason she was running into things is because she’s gone blind, a pretty common, almost expected development when dogs go on insulin.” Sadly, it was not reversible. There was a possible surgical treatment, but it was extremely expensive and not even likely to have a huge effect. Rabbits for miles around probably breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Dr. Jernigan with the Mayor or Ralston Don Groesser

Indeed, the rabbit hunting days were over. Though we continued our outings, things slowed down a lot, but we still enjoyed our time together and made the most of it. Julz returned to a reasonable level of health, and we continued the twice a day insulin shots religiously, which I got pretty good at giving most of the time, and did as well as we could with her diet. One day, a particularly hot one, I allowed her to go in the creek to cool off. When she entered the creek, she was like a new dog, and there were ducks to hunt to boot. While in the creek, you couldn’t even tell that she was blind. It was as though Julz had been born again. For the next two years, we were in the creeks as often as possible, and Lincoln has some good ones, often wading up and down them for hours. There were lots of sandbars, and the water was seldom over my knees and reasonably clean, and it was a great place to be on hot summer days. Julz even managed to catch some ducks while she was blind, though she definitely expected me to be on the lookout and point her in the right direction. I guess I had taken on the role of pointer dog. That was fine by me.

In spite of this, it became clear that Julz was winding down. When on solid ground, it would now take an hour to cover distances that we used to scramble over in minutes. The available creeks had steep banks that became more and more difficult for Julz to manage, so that became less of an option, though she was always willing try. Our outings started to be mostly short walks to find a nice bushy tree to lie under, where she was happy to spend hours, after chewing and scratching away a spot beneath the branches. This was also usually near Oak Lake, which had become our preferred haunt again, and she would often go out and swim around and around in circles for long stretches of time. Once, her circles drifted out into the middle of the lake and she couldn’t find her way back to shore. She was too far out to hear me yelling, and I almost started to swim out to get her, but she got wind of something and made it back on her own. During her last summer there was a lot of flooding, so the creeks weren’t even an option till sometime in August. We did get a couple of last good hikes up Salt Creek, but the ducks were few and far between. At last I spotted some that looked like she might have a chance at, though I might have done better myself, and I pointed her in the right direction. (Have I mentioned that when I speak of “hunting,” there were never guns involved?) She sniffed down their hiding spot in the brush on the banks, wriggled in there and actually caught one. I was so happy for her, this became one of the few other times through the whole affair that I actually cried. Julz was her plucky old self for a short time because of this, but it may have been all she was waiting for, because she went pretty steadily down hill from there. I think she just wanted that one last duck.

As weather cooled, our outings became fewer and farther between, and even less eventful, even though I was finally retired by then. Julz started preferring to spend hours just laying in the yard, and I would often be right there with her, even after there was snow on the ground. She had always liked laying in the snow, no matter how cold it was outside, and she was content to pass her remaining days like that. Of course, it was a little less pleasant for me, but I stayed with her as much as I could, and she didn’t complain when left to her own devices. She must have been digging deeply in the rabbit holes of her dreams. One day while still inside, she just collapsed and wouldn’t get up. She appeared to have called it quits. She wouldn’t eat, even her favorite treats, and without eating she couldn’t be given insulin. It was time for one last trip to Uncle Norm, this time fearing the worst. She even slid off the back car seat and got stuck on the floor, and made no attempt to move. You already know how things turned out on this last visit to the clinic, and since I don’t feel like crying again, we’ll leave it at that. Many of you have had similarly sad experiences; no point in dwelling any more on mine. Julz had lasted almost the full three years that Norm had predicted she might; it could have been far less without him. In fact, without his special, professional, unperturbed treatment, she might never have even made it as far as the insulin years. That would have left a lot of wasted water to flow beneath the bridge downstream. Instead, Julz got to wade it to the kind of end she wanted. It may not have been foremost in her mind at the time, but I’m sure she was as grateful as I am for Dr. Jernigan’s role in letting it happen. He’s truly a Veteran Vet and a wonderful person. Thank you Uncle Norm!

Written by David L Williams

1 Comment »

  1. I loved your story ……was like I was with you.. I have been with Dr.J since I have been sixteen… and I am well ….old now in my early 70 …and I don’t no want I would do without him…he is not only my vet ….but one of my best friends….and yes mini mini pets he has kept healthy for me. And mini funny stories. I was lucky to find a vet that cares about your animals…..also you as a person and your feelings.
    Thank you DR. J

    Comment by Sherrie pribyl — November 11, 2020 @ 12:05 pm | Reply

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