Some problems are easier than you may think
The Night of the Iguana
Please forgive me if you are looking for a deep and meaningful article about the Tennessee Williams play. This is about the problem posed by a real iguana.
I am a retired veterinary surgeon. Some forty years ago, at the end of a long evening surgery, a concerned client walked into my consulting room carrying a long cardboard box. During my career, I have been presented with a variety of patients in cardboard boxes. Hamsters, guinea pigs, chinchillas, and even, on one occasion, a baby alligator but that is another story.
Unfortunately, iguanas did not feature on the syllabus in those days.
This box contained a pet iguana measuring about fifteen inches from nose to tail. It looked up at me with sad eyes — all iguanas seem to have sad eyes.
Six years of university study had trained me in the medicine and surgery of dogs, cats, cattle, sheep, horses, and, to a lesser extent, chickens. Unfortunately, iguanas did not feature on the syllabus in those days.
“What seems to be the problem,” I asked.
“He’s off his food. Hasn’t eaten anything for the past week,” came the reply.
There are certain similarities in veterinary patients, so I started to examine the lizard. I pressed a lower eyelid down, which suggested that the creature was well oxygenated. I placed my stethoscope on its chest and heard familiar sounds of air going in and out. Next, I felt its abdomen which gave me the first clue — it was empty, confirming the owner’s comment that it had not eaten for a while.
Where do I go from here? Simple common sense says that food goes in one end and out at the other, so I prised open its jaws — rather to the patient’s discomfort — and the answer was there in plain sight. A perfectly spherical tumour was pushing the tongue against the roof of the mouth, preventing the passage of any food into the digestive tract.
“That’s the problem,” I said. “The growth is completely blocking its throat.”
Great! I had a diagnosis — but what could I do about it?
The veterinary specialists of today would have had no problem, but this was forty years ago when canine distemper was known as Hardpad Disease. I had never operated on a reptile in my life.
“Can you do anything about it?” asked the anxious owner.
“To be quite honest, I don’t know.”
“Would you give it a try?” he asked.
“Leave it with me and I will have a think about it,” I said, and he left me with the patient in its box.
This Night of the Iguana was spent in the fridge
Evening surgery ended, and I scoured my bookshelf of veterinary textbooks to find a small booklet entitled “Exotic Animals and Their treatment.” I don’t even remember buying the book, but it was a goldmine of information. Apparently, there are two methods of anaesthetizing iguanas and other reptiles. The first involved the use of our current anaesthetic solution, called Halothane. It was a standard anaesthetic in both the medical and veterinary professions at the time. The alternative was perhaps more practical — put it in the fridge overnight. Iguanas, like other reptiles, are cold-blooded, and lowering the environmental temperature slowed their life systems to a state similar to hibernation.
Wonderful! I popped the patient in its cardboard box into the fridge — and left for home.
The next morning, its respiration rate was very slow but detectable, so my partner and I began the morning consultations. At 11 o’clock, after a stiffening mug of coffee, we removed the rigid reptile from its cardboard box and placed it on the operating table. My partner played the nozzle of the anaesthetic machine across the lizard’s face to reduce any remaining sensory feeling, and I picked up a small scalpel blade.
I had to prize open the stiffened jaws, but the cold had slowed the heartbeat and circulation, so there was very little blood loss as I ran the blade around the base of the tumour. I was just over halfway around when a perfectly spherical, white ball popped out. It was a simple job to close the wound with very fine catgut sutures before returning it to the box which we put on the boiler to warm the patient up.
Three hours later that afternoon, the patient was happily digging into a meal of spinach, lettuce, and carrots.
Like my previous account of pinning a baby hamster’s leg, it is wonderful when everything seems to drop into place.