Dr. Qaadri

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A Depressed Patient Misses Her Pets

By Dr. Shafiq Qaadri, MD

Pets can play sentimental roles, sometimes as substitute humans. I think it's mostly due to the unconditional love they offer. I have seen patients adopt animals and graft onto them the roles of ever-ready friend, surrogate children, or non-combative spouse. Patients can speak about their pets in such showering tones of affection that it can be difficult to make out whether they were referring to a human or an animal companion. On occasion, the choice of pet, the recipient of the affection, can also be surprising

As the elderly sometimes do, I found one of my patients reminiscing about the old days. Raheela was especially prone to do this as she was a widow, lived alone, and had more medications than friends. Though she had lived in Canada for thirty years, she was always talking fondly about her life in Kenya.

Raheela came into clinic for her afternoon appointment. She was on several medications for a number of complaints, including hypertension, arthritis, diabetes, and anemia. I knew she hated to be on so many pills, and it seemed that sometimes cigarettes were her only comfort.

It was in this mood that I found her.

"Tommy used to be so sweet. I miss him a lot," Raheela said.

I nodded in sympathy. Raheela's husband had passed away more than 15 years ago.

"Tommy and I used to love the late afternoon sun," she said. "Our neighbours outside Nairobi thought we were crazy."

I nodded even more understandingly than I had before. I could sense that Raheela was in a nostalgic mood. Conscious of this, I let her have some space for full psychotherapeutic effect.

"We had a beautiful porch," she recalled. "I would lie on my stomach and sunbathe on the floor. Tommy would come and lie on my back, soak up some sun, and then wander off."

"Tommy?" I asked, suddenly noticing the incongruity.

"Tommy was my pet," Raheela volunteered. "I had three, but he was my favourite. He was the boss."

Perhaps a trusted dog, I presumed, possibly even a cat. I was not about to interrupt.

"When Tommy was small, I would be watching television and he would climb up my arm saying, 'umph, umph,' just as if he were talking to me. Eventually he got too strong and aggressive, so I had to give him up. People told me that I'd have to do this, but it still hurt when the time came."

Wondering just what was going on, hesitantly I asked, "Tommy was your...?"

"Tommy? I bought him in 1974. He was my pet crocodile," she replied calmly.

"Your what?" I shot out.

"Crocodile. Actually I had three--Mountbatten, Freud, and Tommy--but Tommy was my favourite."

All I could think of was television programs showing scenes of ferocious crocodiles leaping up river banks, snaring wildebeests, drowning them, and feasting for days after. Not comprehending, I asked what could possibly be the attraction.

"Why would anyone want to keep those as pets?" I asked.

'Well, I would rather have crocodiles than snakes," she replied.

"Raheela, those are not the only options," I tried to point out. Her choices seemed to stop at reptiles.

"They're really nice to have around," she protested.

"What do you do with them, other than keep away?" I inquired.

"You don't have to keep away--they're lovely,' she said. "We bought a wading pool for them, just like the neighbours had done for their children. Tommy especially liked to cool himself off in the morning. It was very pleasant to see."

"What did you feed them? Didn't they ever bite you, take off a finger or two?" I asked.

"I never got properly bitten. I mean, it wasn't intentional. I would just roll up goat meat into little pieces and let them eat from my hands. I just learned to always be a little faster."

Sensing that I was somewhat skeptical, Raheela showed me a forty-year-old picture of herself and her beloved Tommy. She had proved her case. I learned to respect the memories of the animals she cherished so dearly, though I still don’t think too charitably about reptiles.

Dr. Shafiq Qaadri is a Toronto family physician and Continuing Medical Education lecturer. www.doctorQ.ca

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