Thursday, December 1, 2011

Heidi's Hero

We all have preconceived notions of how a real-life hero should act, don't we? But do our expectations fit the reality? Is there a point where real-life heroes and storybook heroes simply can't connect?

"Heidi's Hero" is an excerpt from the upcoming Vet Tech Tales ebook, and first appeared on the Confessions of an Animal Junkie blog.

Getting called into the exam room was still a treat, and late into my first paid day Dr. Norris asked me in to help with Heidi, a nervous miniature schnauzer. The immaculately groomed dog eyed me warily as she paced back and forth at the end of her leash.
The petite woman at the handle end of the leash was as perfectly groomed as the dog, from the top of her freshly permed hair to the buffed and pink-polished toes peeping from the tips of her white sandals.
Towering beside her at an easy 6’4” stood the woman’s ruggedly tanned husband dressed in camouflage fatigues with the last name Watson stitched across the breast pocket. His burled body and close-cropped hair suggested he’d seen combat duty in Vietnam. An ex-marine, if I had to guess.
With a single, fluid motion Tom Watson swept the little schnauzer off the floor and deposited her on the exam counter. His large hands circled her body in a secure embrace. Heidi didn’t stop trembling but did melt as far as she could into the safety of those familiar hands while Tom’s thumbs massaged her shoulders. After a moment, Heidi relaxed a bit. Who wouldn’t, safe under the protection of a strong, confidant man like Tom? Even I, across the table, felt reassured by his gestures.
Ms. Watson perched herself on the barstool in the corner of the cramped room, apparently happy to let Tom handle things.
“Just vaccinations and a heartworm check today?” Dr. Norris asked as he glanced at the chart that indicated Heidi was a generally healthy 3-year-old pup here for her annual visit.
“Yep, no problems at all with our little girl, Doc.” Tom’s deep yet gentle voice echoed the promised security of his hands.
“Well, let’s just have a quick look at her then, shall we, and get you on your way.”
That was my cue to slide in next to Heidi and take over holding her. Nervous dogs could be fear biters, especially if they felt their beloved owner was being threatened too. I slid my small hands under the warmth of Tom’s large ones and, reluctantly, he released her and stepped back to give the vet room to work.
As Dr. Norris performed a quick physical, I kept firm but gentle control of Heidi, loosely circling her muzzle and lifting her head while Norris looked into her ears and eyes and lifted her lips to check her teeth and gums, then simply holding her head and murmuring assurances to her while he checked out the rest of her. When he reached for the syringes to vaccinate her, I gripped her muzzle again and pulled her snugly to me.
“What a good girl!” I praised her for only flinching a little when first one needle then the second bit into her.
From her perch in the corner, Ms. Watson curved her perfectly painted lips into a smile, happy her little girl was behaving so well. Tom Watson, meanwhile, had taken a step further back toward the wall. With our attention on Heidi, no one noticed that Tom’s tan was no longer quite so rugged.
“Just a little blood for the heartworm check and we’ll be done,” Dr. Norris told the room in general.
I switched my grip to tuck Heidi in close to my side with my left arm and circled her muzzle again with my hand. I snaked my right thumb across the top of her foreleg to hold off the vein there and curved my fingers behind her elbow, extending her leg for Dr. Norris to take the blood sample.
Heidi was a champion, holding perfectly still save for the involuntary nervous quiver that thrilled through her little body every few seconds.
The same, though, couldn’t be said for Tom. At the first draw of blood, I saw a blur of movement from the corner of my eye and heard a not-so-perfect gasp from Ms. Watson.
The battle-hardened ex-marine sagged to the floor in a slow-motion faint.
“Joan!” Dr. Norris bellowed the name to be sure our receptionist heard him through the walls of the exam room as he hurried to Tom’s side. The main concern, of course, was how hard Tom’s head had hit the cold tiles.
Ms. Watson abandoned the stool and stood in the corner, mascaraed eyes wide and perfectly manicured hands fluttering in the air.
I held on to Heidi, whose little paws scrabbled futilely against the laminated tabletop. She yipped her concern over the scritching sound of her nails and I wondered how she could ever be convinced to walk into a vet clinic again after this.
The exam room door opened and Joan popped her head in, assessed the situation, hurried off and returned a moment later with something I’d only read about in classic literature: smelling salts.
She passed the bottle under the ex-marine’s nose a couple of times as he blinked his way to consciousness. Joan smiled in his field of view. “Welcome back.”
He touched his fingertips to the side of his head and sat up.
“You’ll have a bruise and a pretty good-sized knot there for a while,” Norris told him. “Joan, have Kathy wrap up some ice for him. Tom, why don’t you go sit out in the waiting room for a bit – at least till you’re back to feeling normal.”
There was nothing wrong with the words Dr. Norris used. Objective and modulated, they were precisely the words expected from a professional. Still, I could feel an undercurrent of machismo in the room. There was a subtle power play at work here between the short, stocky vet standing over the downed soldier, and the tall, extraordinarily fit ex-Marine looking up at him. Maybe there was a twinkle of victory in Norris’ eyes or a twitch of his lips as he fought the urge to gloat.
In any case, Tom, his tan having given way completely to a crimson blush, brushed off the ministrations. Without a word, and certainly without meeting anyone else’s eye, Tom gathered his dignity, squared his shoulders and marched past the handful of owners in the waiting room, avoiding the sympathetic glances thrown his way as he headed for the seclusion of his car, leaving Ms. Watson to deal with Heidi and the bill.
There was definitely a satisfied air about Norris as he bustled around, running the heartworm test, counting out preventative, and jotting down the particulars of the visit on Heidi’s chart.
Ms. Watson seemed at a loss, having only the presence of mind to take Heidi’s leash when I offered it to her and moving mechanically to the reception desk to pay her bill after Norris escorted her to the exam room door. Poor little Heidi seemed an almost-forgotten accoutrement.
What struck me most about the incident was Tom’s embarrassment – his obvious fear that fainting made him less of a man in everyone’s judgment. He wasn’t necessarily wrong about that, but those who judged him that way, in my opinion, were the ones who had the complete wrong of it.
Tom didn’t faint because he was squeamish and couldn’t handle the sight of blood. No doubt he’d seen plenty of his own and that of his buddies during his military career. I’m convinced he fainted because the intensity of emotion – love and concern – that he felt for Heidi was simply too overwhelming; he just didn’t have a socially accepted mechanism for displaying how her obvious distress affected him. His body shut down rather than deal with it.
Plus, I suspect he was one of those tough guys who spend their lives rescuing folk out of ditches and from burning buildings and then turn to mush whenever they’re around children and animals. If anything, that degree of empathy was a trait that should have endeared him to those closest to him, though I doubted Dr. Norris could ever understand that whatever victory he thought he’d gained here was nothing more than a hollow coup.
Sometimes real-life romance heroes pop up in the most unlikely places and in the most unexpected ways.
I hoped plastic, perfect Ms. Watson knew just how lucky she was to be married to a man who could love so deeply. I have no doubt Heidi realized her luck, and that once in the car she snuggled in close to her hero, feeling safe and protected once again.

Phoenix Sullivan's short stories have appeared in various pro anthologies and magazines. In the corporate world, Phoenix was a professional writer and editor for 23 years. Before that, she was a registered veterinary technician, working with small animal clinics and wildlife rehab centers. She taps that knowledge in SECTOR C, a near-future medical thriller with a vet heroine, a CDC analyst hero and a pandemic that crosses both species and time.


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