When Dr. Shaw finished suturing the puppy and then idly leaned down to whisper to the little girl with the tattered doll and the sad eyes, I could have killed him. It was a Saturday. We were running late again. And to work late on a full-moon Saturday when one is young and impetuous is very nearly a sin.
Here he was wasting time, I thought, when jammed into the waiting room was a veritable barnyard full of problems still clamoring to be seen: rabies and distemper vaccinations to be given, abscesses to be drained, x-rays to be developed, stools to be checked, ear mites to be cared for, surgeries to be scheduled.
And yet, I should have known better. I should have known by then that George Shaw was no ordinary man.
That full-moon Saturday as a Vet Assistant in Los Angeles was 37 years ago. At the time I had just entered my thirties and was poignantly aware that there was more to life than a shotgun marriage, a long-term mortgage, and a high-stress burnout job as a group counselor for abused & delinquent kids.
So, I quit my past. I piled into my cramped Volkswagen along with my German Shepherd and all my worldly possessions, drove up across the border into Georgia, and turned left. That simple act of defiance in taking the road less traveled to places unknown with no plan or safety net has enriched my life exponentially ever since.
Not the least in a number of fortuitous experiences was the meeting of Dr. George Shaw.
In the most unlikely places we meet the most remarkable people, it is said. And many years ago I was in just such a place. Tujunga, California – a cozy little community nestled high up in the northeast corner of Los Angeles. It’s a Southern Paiute word, Tujunga is, usually translated as “mountain range.” But I didn’t know that then. I had only left Florida a few days before. The war was over and back home I had no friends I could relate to any more. So I stuffed my duffel bag into my little orange VW and grabbed the two or three hundred dollars which was all the money I had in the world and with no destination in mind, driving aimlessly by day and sleeping in my car at night, suddenly here I was in Tujunga, on Foothill Boulevard, staring at a sign which read:
GEORGE B. SHAW, DVM
I looked at that sign twice, three times. It hung nonchalantly on a post in front of a three-story house that clung to the side of a hill and which had been rather clumsily converted into a makeshift clinic. Finally my curiosity got the better of me and I went inside and asked the obvious. It was the middle initial that intrigued me, the “B”. It just didn’t seem possible, not in this tiny little alcove high up above the City of Angels. Sure enough, however, “B” was for Bernard and George Bernard Shaw, DVM, was indeed distantly related to his namesake, the famous English playwright.
At first Dr. Shaw thought I was applying for a job. Along with the Assistant’s position at three dollars an hour, he said, he would toss in the rear apartment rent-free, if I was interested.
In the confusion I unloaded my car and ended up staying eighteen months.
What I’ve stuffed into the quote box above is a “slightly fictionalized” memoir first sketched out in the 1970s, and I notice now that some of the details may be rounded off a bit to make for a tighter narrative.
Actually, my first visit to the Clinic was simply to get a rabies vaccination for Jessica. The door was locked and the sign said they were closed for lunch from 12 – 2:00 but I could see someone on the inside pacing around. I knocked and Becky opened the door.
Becky was George’s Assistant. She would soon be vacating her job to return to Seattle. She was also, like me, a would-be writer. She would later loan me her portable typewriter, which I never got a chance to return. And most notably, Becky was a jittery non-stop talker, the reason for which quickly becoming apparent.
“Do you want to shoot up?” she asked me barely 10 minutes after we met. “No one will be back for another hour yet.”
I told her I didn’t see any reason to stick a needle in yourself unless you were diabetic.
“It’s only a Vitamin B cocktail, really peps you up. We have plenty in the medicine cabinet.”
She dropped her jeans and poked a 3 ½ cc syringe full of dark blue liquid into a quivering thigh. Then she led me into an exam room where Jessica got a rabies shot and I got a blowjob.
LA’s gonna be my kind of town, I remember thinking to myself.
Eighteen months, the significance of which I was only later able to appreciate. For in my case it was true, as Kierkegaard suggested, that life is lived forwards but understood backwards. And the life I plunged headfirst into left little time for reflection.
Most days the clinic was a madhouse. Dr. Shaw didn’t bother with appointments, for one thing. Which means, naturally, that everyone would show up at the same time. On such occasions, in a last-ditch effort to speed things up, it was not unusual for George in his wrinkled white lab coat to stride out into the waiting room and treat pets as they sat in the laps of their owners. “Tetracycline for this one,” he would call out to me, “puppy shots over there.” And if he could save a client some money, he would. Instead of pawning off expensively-packaged remedies with fancy-sounding names, Dr. Shaw would gladly suggest whatever household item might do the trick just as effectively – Tylenol, perhaps, or regular old Vitamin C.
Nor was any animal ever refused treatment, not even the hit-‘n-run victims found on the side of the road and brought in by a Good Samaritan. Such charity cases would be patched up and nursed back to health and then boarded at George’s expense for whatever length of time it took for a new owner to be found.
Then, too, some of Dr. Shaw’s immense popularity was due to the fact that, in Tujunga, his was the only clinic open on Saturdays. On the sixth day screaming bunches of the sick and the wounded would descend on us like the plague. Which tended to play havoc with my weekends. Back then work was only a paycheck and a paycheck was my ticket to LA, to Long Beach, to Hollywood – to a life of play and self-indulgence. I was running from something in those days, and the mere thought of being tethered to regular hours set my teeth on edge.
My freshmen year of college I was pre-med. But I flunked chemistry twice because on the first day of class I was too afraid to light my Bunsen Burner. And yet now in a practical setting I was discovering a talent, and a joy, working with animals.
George helped matters simply by being a former “country” Vet from Oregon. Farmers don’t load sick livestock into cars for a trip into town. And they like to perform their own deliveries and vaccinations and minor surgical procedures. So George was quite accustomed to passing out medications and teaching his clients how to do things for themselves.
First I learned to give shots, then to spay and neuter. (I successfully spayed my girlfriend’s cat all by myself, although George was in another room, within earshot, in case I needed help.) Eventually I was given an examination room and when we were busy I was allowed to see routine patients on my own.
Which was very nearly our downfall when I got charged with practicing medicine without a license!
Neither of us were aware of the specifics of the law at the time, but California allowed an Assistant like myself to perform surgery or do any kind of medical procedure as long as a licensed veterinarian was on the premises. But sometimes George was late for work or out sick and I would open the Clinic, give shots, worm puppies, express impacted scent glands, etc. At such times I was always very conscious of my limitations and of course would never put a dog or cat at risk.
Lawyers negotiated, and all charges were dropped.
Thus, I was chafing at the bit late that Saturday afternoon when Dr. Shaw kindly leaned down to whisper to the little girl with the tattered doll and the sad eyes.
“Hey,” Dr. Shaw said, after finishing with her puppy, “I think we’re going to have to fix your other little friend up too. Looks like she scraped her knee.”
I watched in silence as Dr. Shaw gently placed the doll on the stainless steel table. Part of the stuffing was spilling out of a hole in one of the doll’s legs. Without a second thought, and as rushed and pressed for time as he was, George calmly threaded a needle and proceeded to suture that doll back together again.
Neither the little girl nor her mother said a word. The three of us just stood and stared at George’s fingers as he worked on that doll, fingers that were rough-looking, that bore the characteristic nicks and calluses of a man who all day works with chemicals and syringes, with cats that scratch and dogs that bite, fingers that one minute are examining ringworm, or mange, or gangrene, and the next minute are shoulder-deep in a mare’s womb, tenderly probing for an unborn foal.
It was the look on that little girl’s face when Dr. Shaw handed back her patched up doll that I remember most from my eighteen months in California. That shining face, those bright eyes, and a gratuitous act of kindness on a busy Saturday afternoon.
My eyes still glisten when I conjure up that image these many years later. Even a stunted fool like myself couldn’t help but grow a cubit or two when smacked in the face with a moment like that from a man like George Bernard Shaw, DVM.
Imagine my shock when recently, now that we are in the google-generation, I discovered the following headlines:
EX-VET SENTENCED FOR NEGLECT OF ANIMALS
Van Nuys | Valley Focus
July 25, 1996|JOSE CARDENAS
VETERINARIAN LACKED LICENSE, CITY ALLEGES
VALLEY FOCUS | Lake View Terrace
May 07, 1998|ERIC RIMBERT
EX-VETERINARIAN BEGINS JAIL TERM FOR ILLEGAL PRACTICE
VALLEY ROUNDUP | Lake View Terrace
January 09, 1999|SUE FOX
No, more than shock. A part of me was, still is, devastated. It defies common sense to think that George would ever neglect, abuse, or mistreat an animal – and I simply refuse to believe it.
It was obvious even back then that other Vets did not like George – primarily because he was affordable, would treat animals for free if you couldn’t pay, and therefore very popular in the community. (Neuter, $15; spay, $22) It was a disgruntled neighboring Vet, after all, who incognito one Saturday when George was not there yet brought in a dog for a rabies shot to set me up, and I am convinced something similar happened to George.
Although I cannot find out why, the initial problem stems from George’s license having been revoked in 1992 by the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation and the California State Board of Veterinary Medicine.
Since then, the sequence of events seems to be as follows:
- A Lake View Terrace man was sentenced Wednesday to 1,000 hours of community service after pleading no contest to animal neglect and practicing veterinary medicine without a license, authorities said.
- George Bernard Shaw, 66, was sentenced by Van Nuys Municipal Court Commissioner Mitchell Block after Shaw entered his plea to two counts of animal neglect and one count of unlicensed veterinary practice, said Mike Qualls, a spokesman for the Los Angeles city attorney’s office.
- Shaw’s additional three years of probation includes bans on practicing as a veterinarian and treating any animal, said Don Cocek, the deputy city attorney who handled the case.
- The charges stemmed from investigations by the city Department of Animal Regulation and the state Board of Veterinary Medicine of Shaw, whose license had been revoked in 1992, Qualls said.
- A state investigator took a healthy dog to see Shaw, who said the animal had an enlarged and possibly infected prostate, Qualls said. The city Department of Animal Regulation also became aware of Shaw’s illegal veterinary practice last year during its own investigation into a case of alleged animal abuse at a Sun Valley residence, Qualls said.
- In January, Cocek said, a city Department of Sanitation worker expressed concern after picking up several dead animals–seven dogs, three cats, a goat and a sheep–from Shaw’s house between Aug. 30, 1995, and Jan. 26 of this year.
- After obtaining a search warrant, animal regulation officers found records indicating that Shaw had treated some animals at the Sun Valley location, including two Doberman pups that had severe mange and had to be euthanized, he said.
- A Lake View Terrace man was named in a criminal complaint alleging that he forged a veterinary medical license and resumed an illegal practice, a Los Angeles city attorney said.
- George B. Shaw, 68, was the subject of an investigation by the state Department of Consumer Affairs.
- Shaw was charged with practicing veterinary medicine without a license, forging a license, operating a kennel without a license, harboring unlicensed dogs, failing to have proof of rabies vaccinations and keeping animals too close to his neighbors, City Atty. Jim Hahn said.
- On April 10, state investigators served a search warrant at Shaw’s home and seized veterinary medicines, syringes, surgical instruments, X-ray equipment, a medical bag and an examination table.
- Investigators also found invoices from an Omaha, Neb.-based vaccine company that provided the city attorney with a copy of a forged license to practice veterinary medicine that the company said it received from Shaw, Hahn said.
- Shaw became the subject of an investigation after the Department of Consumer Affairs received a complaint from a licensed veterinarian that Shaw had resumed his illegal practice, Hahn said.
- If convicted of practicing veterinary medicine without a license, Shaw could face up to one year in jail and a $2,000 fine. On each of the other charges, he could face six months in jail and up to $1,000 in fines, according to the city attorney.
- An ex-veterinarian who was ordered to do 1,000 hours of community service in 1996 for animal neglect and practicing veterinary medicine without a license surrendered Friday to begin serving a one-year jail term for continuing his illegal practice, City Atty. James Hahn said.
- George Bernard Shaw, 68, was sentenced Nov. 4 in Van Nuys Municipal Court after pleading no contest to one count each of practicing without a license and fraudulently using a license to obtain prescription drugs.
- Shaw admitted to violating his probation from the 1996 conviction, when he was ordered not to practice veterinary medicine for three years, according to the city attorney’s office.
- The state Department of Consumer Affairs began investigating Shaw last year after receiving a complaint from a licensed veterinarian saying Shaw had resumed his illegal practice.
Each of these charges as I read them constitute a procedural rather than a moral lapse.
Granted, I know nothing about why his license to practice medicine was revoked in the first place.
But to me George will always be remembered as the busy Veterinarian who kindly took the time to mend a broken doll and bring a smile to the little girl with sad eyes.
[PS – I am visiting Southern California next month & perhaps I will try to look George up to find out exactly what happened.]