Jack EwingNature and Local History Stories

The Luxury of Living in the Third World – Life in Southern Costa Rica in the Good Old Days

Dead-eye After Surgeryby Jack Ewing

Back in the late 1980s we still didn’t have telephones in the coastal communities, and we were just starting to do some bird watching and ecological tours at Hacienda Baru. The lodge didn’t exist yet. For booking the tours we shared an office with a travel agency in San Isidro and communicated with them by radio. One day I was at the phone company in San Isidro, which was also the electrical utility, seeing about getting an extra phone installed in the office. The whole process should have taken about ten minutes, but we kept having power outages. The computer that the clerk was using didn’t have a back up battery, and every time the power went out she lost all the work she had done up to that point. When the electricity returned, she had to start from scratch. The third time the lights went out she let out a exasperated shriek, “I can’t stand this anymore. What the hell is wrong with the power?”

Hacienda Baru

At the moment her supervisor happened to be standing right behind her. “Don’t sweat it honey.” he smiled. “This is just part of the price you have to pay for the luxury of living in the third world.” No sooner than those words had escaped his lips when the lights came on and the clerk was able to complete her work.

In those days Costa Rica was still part of the third world, and the southern coastal region was more underdeveloped than the rest of the country. Some of the coastal communities did have electricity, but there was only one telephone in each community. It took an hour and a half to drive from Dominical to Quepos on a rutted, tooth-rattling road. I had been living in the region for twenty years managing Hacienda Barú which by 1989 was well into the transition from cattle ranch to nature reserve and ecological tourism destination. It would still be another six years before we officially became Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge.

One day one of my workers came to the house and told me that there was a strange dog in the machine shed.  “I don’t know where he came from, but he’s so mean he won’t let any of us go in there, and I need some tools.”

Having no fear of dogs I went out to have a look . Out from underneath a piece of machinery came strutting a purebred, male Pekingese with long, messy, reddish-brown hair, snub nose, tail half curled over his back, and a nasty attitude. His right eye was in bad shape, protruding from his head, and severely infected. For some reason, he and I hit it off from the beginning. He never offered to bite me, but to the contrary raised his head and, with his one good eye, peered into my eyes with a forlorn look that said, Are you going to save me? With that he dropped his gaze, let out a ferocious bark, ran around me, and started nipping at the heels of the worker who had followed me into the shed. I picked him up, took him to the house, put some antibiotic salve on his eye, and gave him some dog food. He must have been starving, but before he ate the food he took a moment to lick my hand. This small gesture of gratitude totally endeared him to me. He was the most thankful dog I have every known and continued to be so for the rest of his life. Our other dogs rather than lick your hand for feeding them were more likely to take your finger off in their rush to get to the food. My son Chris was home on vacation from high school in the US, and we decided to christen our malnourished, sick, bedragled pet “Dead-eye.” Who knows where he came from and how long he had been lost from his previous owners.

The next day his eye had not improved, so I radioed a ham radio operator in Quepos who patched me through to the only veterinarian in town. Though he was primarily a large animal vet, he would treat small animals when necessary. Reluctantly he agreed to have a look at the dog and operate if necessary. “Bring him to Quepos,” he said. “I’ll get my instruments sterilized in case we need to remove the eye.” I drove, and Chris held Dead-eye on his lap. Diane was away for a few days touring Costa Rica with her family.

When we got to Quepos the veterinarian, Jorge, was just returning from treating a sick cow. He looked at Dead-eye’s eye, shook his head, and glanced at me with a slightly raised eyebrow. “I don’t know why people let these thing go so long.” he said. “Now he’s going to lose his eye.”

“Don’t look at me,” I retorted defensively. “I never saw this dog until yesterday. I’m just trying to help him.”

Jorge said that he hadn’t had time to sterilize his instruments and to come back at 3:00 PM. We really didn’t want to wait that long, but it didn’t appear that there was any other choice. We had lunch and visited some friends and returned at 3:00. The vet looked surprised to see us, and a little embarrassed. “I still haven’t had time to get my instruments sterilized,” he apologized, “but you guys have come a long way. Bring the dog in, and we’ll see what we can do. Follow me.” He took us to a room in the back of the office. “This is where we’ll operate. Put him on the table.”

Chris and I looked around the room. There was a cabinet and a table with a formica top. Jorge wiped the table top with an alcohol-soaked rag. Out of the cabinet he took a stainless steel pan and poured it half full of alcohol. He took his surgical instruments out of a second-hand plastic bag that had once held rice and dumped them in the alcohol. “That ought to disinfect them enough for this operation.” he explained. “Let’s give him a little tranquilizer to calm him down before I try to put a needle in his vein to anesthetize him.”

Dead-eye looked really sick and half asleep. I doubted if he would cause any problem. In fact, I was getting a little worried about him. But when Jorge stuck the needle in his leg to give him the tranquilizer, Dead-eye whirled around in a flash and bit his hand. “Son-of-a-bitch! That little bastard bit me!”

I grabbed Dead-eye’s head and held him tight, muzzling him with my hand, while Jorge finished injecting the tranquilizer. In a couple of minutes he was real mellow. He didn’t even flinch when Jorge inserted the needle into the vein in his forearm. As the plunger on the syringe slowly forced the anesthetic into his vein, Dead-eye went sound to sleep. When the syringe was about half empty the vet stopped and stared at the sleeping dog. “Damn! Did he stop breathing?” He reached down and touched Dead-eye’s chest. “Oh my god, he’s really skinny, he doesn’t weigh half as much as I figured. I hope I didn’t kill him.”

All of our eyes were glued to the death-like form laying on the table. Well, it looks like his suffering is over, I thought. Not a word passed between us as we watched the motionless ball of  tangled, reddish hair on the table, willing him to twitch a muscle or wiggle an ear. It was about 30 seconds later, but seemed a lot longer when Dead-eye’s rib-cage rose and fell once. Then again. And finally settled into a slow but steady rhythm of breathing. “Whew! I guess I shouldn’t give him the rest of this.” said Jorge looking at me. I didn’t think he really wanted an opinion, so I kept my mouth shut. He looked back down at the unconscious dog and pulled the syringe out of his vein. “That was a close one! He’s all hair. He doesn’t weigh anything at all.”

Later I got to thinking that he had probably given Dead-eye an over-dose of the tranquilizer to begin with, and then proceeded to give him the anesthetic. The combination almost sent him to the happy hunting grounds.

From this point on Jorge got down to the serious business of removing the damaged eye. The eye was a horrible mess protruding from the little Pekingese’s head and badly infected. It even smelled bad. I could understand why Dead-eye was so listless and sick looking. The pain must have been intense, and fighting the infection really had him worn down.

The surgery went well.  Chris and I assisted, which meant holding Dead-eye’s head in a certain position when necessary, and handing surgical instruments to the vet. Jorge removed the bad eye and severed the optic nerve with his scalpel. Once the eye was out he used a soldering iron to cauterize the optic nerve and several little vessels that were oozing blood. It was old and rusty, but he cleaned it off with a wire brush, and I doubt if any bacteria could live on the red hot iron anyway. Before sewing up the incision he dabbed the eye socket with gauze soaked in a mild antiseptic solution and squirted a big blob of antibiotic cream into the hole. This was a cream that is normally used for the treatment of mastitis in cows. Then he sewed the eye lids together, seven stitches in all, neat and clean. I could imagine how much better Dead-eye would feel when he woke up.

Before we left Jorge gave Dead-eye an injection of antibiotic. This time the Pekingese was out like a light and in no condition to whirl around and bite him. He gave me a small vile of the same antibiotic, a disposable syringe, and five antibiotic capsules. He instructed me to give the dog another shot the next day and a capsule every day after that until they were all gone.

Dead-eye never moved a muscle all the way home. In fact he never moved until 3:30 the next morning. Chris and I took turns checking on him once each hour, and it was my turn when he finally regained consciousness. He was still pretty groggy, but awake. He wasn’t interested in food but stood on wobbly feet and drank a lot of water. Before drinking he took a second to lick my hand. Then he went back to sleep and rested peacefully the rest of the night. The next morning he was one happy dog, and hungry too. What a relief it must have been to be rid of that rotten eye.

That day Diane arrived from touring the country with her family. My father-in-law, a veterinarian, was fascinated and a little horrified as Chris and I recounted the story of Dead-eye’s surgery. He commented that from all outward appearances it had been a total success. I was kind of hoping Dead-eye would bite my mother-in-law, but he seemed indifferent to her. For some reason he really had it in for my brother-in-law.

The incision healed with little problem. It was still slightly swollen when I finished with the capsules. I had to go to Quepos anyway for some horse medicine so I picked up five more of the antibiotic capsules. A week after the surgery Diane and I removed the stitches. Eventually hair grew over the incision and Dead-eye could even wiggle his eyebrow.

This is a perfect example of the luxury of living in the third world. We may not have the best conditions, but we get the job done with what we have available. And the cost? That’s the best part. Jorge charged me a total of $12 for the surgery, including the anesthetic and antibiotics and another $1 when I returned for more capsules. I think he gave us a better deal because he was a little embarrassed about almost having killed the patient. I had expected that he would charge us $25 which still would have been a bargain.

Today, 24 years later, Costa Rica is no longer part of the third world. I don’t believe there is a term for Costa Rica’s present status, somewhere in between the emerging south and the developed north. Today the same surgery would be done in a spotless room on a stainless steel table with instruments sterilized in an autoclave and with a qualified veterinary assistant helping the surgeon. They would weigh the dog prior to anesthetizing him with gas, and would use a specialized surgical instrument to cauterize the incision. Everything would be done very professionally. The cost would be about $200, a lot more than the cost of Dead-eye’s surgery, but not quite developed world prices. In the US, this operation would be called an enucleation rather than an eye removal, and it would cost $800 to $1000. The results, with a little luck, would be the same as with our third world surgery.

We who live in Costa Rica can now hold our heads high and be proud that we have emerged from our former state and are well on our way to becoming a developed nation. What this means in practical terms is that we still have lots of power outages, but we now have battery back-ups on our computers. It also means that we can now boast more professionalism in everything we do, higher wages, more gadgets, and much higher taxes. But all of this progress has a price. The price is that we can no longer enjoy the luxury of living in the third world.

Dead-eye is no longer with us, but we have five other dogs all of which were once strays. We keep them at our home near Hacienda Baru National Wildlife Refuge. The hacienda is now an internationally known ecological tourism destination where we offer lodging, bird watching and nature hikes.