Seanna's Creatures Great and Small
Five a.m. comes quick, especially for the light sleeper. Dr. Seanna Brown, a large animal veterinarian at the Troy Veterinary Clinic, has been conditioned this way for thirty-one years. Thirty-one years of deep sleep rendered to a minimum because the phone—a veritable time bomb of medical emergency—could go off at any hour of any day at any time of year.
Brown, fifty-nine, starts her day slowly, reading scriptures before throwing on her coveralls and lacing up her boots. Bittle or Bittle’s Baby (BEBE), her two Jack Russell terriers, her “truck dogs,” accompany her for the long day of driving from farm to farm to farm, county to county to county. Tioga. Bradford. Lycoming. She steers her one-ton Chevy, extended cab, Porta-vet stocked with all the goods of her trade.
Brown tells her husband Robin to “put Bittle’s bra on,” which is a dog harness. Bittle stands up like a groundhog. BEBE looks at her in disgust. “Don’t worry,” Brown tells BEBE, “your day is tomorrow.”
She and Robin met in 1983, married in 1985, and, once Brown finished veterinary school at Virginia Tech, they threw all their belongings in a trailer and, with nothing but seven dollars to their name, made the trek to Pennsylvania where they hoped to take root. They moved from a place that had no running water and no television. They shot the deer they ate. It was the kind of rough living that appealed to her. Some of her best memories were from this time. She thought they must have looked rough around the edges because her new employer gave her an advance on her first paycheck. Thus she went to work.
Around 8:30, lunchtime by dairy farm standards, Brown calls the clinic to check in. She rarely goes to the clinic since she spends most of her day in the truck. The Chevy roars and she hits the road, up to 300 miles in a day, 25,000 miles a year.
She’s one of the few who loves what she does, has a deep passion that one hears in her voice. As a young woman growing up in a Washington, D.C., suburb, she longed for rural life, horizontal in the spread of the land, not vertical buildings piling people atop each other. She loved camping and hiking and riding on horseback. For five dollars an hour, she used to rent a horse and climb atop its back.
“Oh, it’s a total adventure,” Brown recalls. “You can go fast. You had something powerful underneath you. It’s thrilling. It’s a wonder none of us were hurt. We’d go ripping through those fields. The feeling of freedom. We’re always looking, as kids, to express ourselves, our free spirit.”
The author and veterinarian James Herriot captivated Brown at a young age. She loved how he would traipse around visiting farms caring for cattle, horses, or the farm dog or cat. At the start of All Creatures Great and Small, Herriot writes, “They didn’t say anything about this in the books...I lay face down on the cobbled floor in a pool of nameless muck, my arm deep inside the straining cow, my feet scrambling for a toe hold between the stones. I was stripped to the waist and the snow mingled with the dirt and the dried blood on my body. I could see nothing outside the circle of flickering light thrown by the smoky oil lamp which the farmer held over me.”
That, to Brown, was sheer magic, and nothing short of it would suffice.
Dr. Brown sees her job more as a people job than an animal job. She sees the care and love the people put into their animals and how the animals give so much of themselves to people.
“It’s a part of rural living, being on the farm—you never know—you go out there, the farmers—men and women—you might be the only person they see for conversation. You might be a marriage counselor. You could be a psychologist. Give a hug or a shoulder to cry on. When you’re dealing with animals it’s unpredictable. Most vets have a servant heart and they want to pour themselves out for people. I enjoy that.”
Over twenty years into her career by 2007, that was still true. The nature of Brown’s work is physical. Standing at 5-foot-4-inches and dealing with animals ten times her size and a thousand times as strong puts an enormous amount of strain on the body. Having a torn ACL in her left knee and feeling some odd sensations to the left side of her body, not to mention headaches pulsing from the back of her head, she sought an MRI that year.
“I had an odd headache in back of my head, which is a weird place to get one, and I started having things happen on the left side of my body,” Brown says. “I thought it was a disc at first. I’d ruptured my ACL on the left knee before. I had weakness on my left side. The doctor said you need an MRI.”
Aside from these discomforts she felt strong, powerful, invincible. It couldn’t disrupt things too much. She had her farm visits to tend to. She had the one MRI for her knee and went back out to the field. She came back to have one done on her neck and went back out to the field. This second MRI triggered concern with her doctors. They told her she needed to come back, this time to inject dyes into her body so to look for abnormalities often missed with un-dyed imaging. She went back out to work.
Later that day, her home phone rang. The doctor said she had a brain tumor. The doctor said there was good and bad news. The good news? The tumor was benign, relatively small. The bad news? It was at the base of her skull right where the spine enters, a place so hard to access that it wouldn’t be a simple excision.
“I was numb,” Brown says. “I kept working until the first surgeries. I had to keep doing stuff.”
Brown told her colleagues at Troy Vet and Dr. Dean Elliott, one of the “smartest people she knows” at work, went into research mode to find the best operative procedures. He found some hope at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where doctors were doing some pioneering brain surgery. Brown soon consulted with doctors at the UPMC. The treatment would require several surgeries as part of a procedure known as endoscopic endonasal approach, or EEA, a minimally invasive surgery. The first surgery would be to drill corridors through her nose and sinus cavity to access the back of the brain. To keep the tunnels from closing, the doctors would use fat from her abdomen.
“My glass is usually overflowing—not half empty is the way my perspective is,” Brown says. “I drive people crazy with my optimism.” Still, when that tumor appeared at the base of her skull in a spot few doctors can reach, it led to some grim thoughts. At age forty-eight, in her career prime, a time when she was thriving at the Troy Vet Clinic, this brought her to her knees.
“I had a lot of anxiety,” she says. “I surrendered everything to God. ‘Take me home if this is my time.’ If you’re going to leave me you’re going to have to do it. I reached the end of myself. I felt I could hardly go on. In that surrender, I was flooded with peace, got more resolution. It’ll be all right. It’s not me, it’s Jesus. That was the lowest point of my life.”
Brown’s husband showed resolve as well, and it was exactly what she needed so she could focus. “I don’t remember him falling apart,” Brown says. She recalled a trip she and Robin took to Israel. She admired all the gates that surrounded Jerusalem, very Biblical, and one gate stood out: the Lions’ Gate. They mused that when they passed away and went to heaven they’d meet at the Lions’ Gate.
She and Robin talked about what would happen if she didn’t survive the surgery, or, if she did—alive but not alive—what should happen. She didn’t want to leave that burden to her loved ones.
The day of the surgery came. Family was allowed to be with her until she was at last wheeled away. Brown still had it together until Robin called out to her, “I’ll meet you at the Lions’ Gate.”
That’s when she lost it.
The surgery removed the tumor, but there would still be more surgeries and other complications. The recovery was long and tiring. Dr. Brown’s once “invincible” and strong body had wasted away to ninety-two pounds.
“I had no muscle,” she says. “My skin hung off me. I couldn’t walk. I had double vision. At that point, I felt like that was definitely a dark night of my soul. There’s no way I’ll get out of here and wrestle cows and horses. I’ll be lucky if I can do anything.”
Recovery did not come easy. She had trouble walking. She couldn’t keep food down.
“I didn’t have that positive [outlook],” Brown says. “I put on my game face at times. I really felt like, ‘ is isn’t life.’ I couldn’t do anything. That was truly where faith was the only thing that got me through. At that point if I leave this earth I’m going to go to Jesus and be in glory. If I’m left here [on Earth], there’s nothing left to me. I had no fight. I was so tired and so weak. I remember talking to God one night. ‘My will, my everything, I surrender it. It’s got to be you. I have nothing left.’ I was flooded with such a perfect peace. I can’t explain it. I never want to go back to that place of total weakness, but that sense of peace? at was so awesome.”
Remember that Dr. Brown always maintained that being a vet had more to do with people than animals. The dairy cattle, so docile and giving, hand over their lives to their caretakers. When they fall ill or face difficult births, it’s someone like Dr. Brown who drives out to the farm and helps assess what’s wrong with the animal so the farmer can still make her living. By doctoring the animals, by treating these wonderful critters with care, she’s caring for the caretakers. By extension, she’s healing and helping a neighbor.
The timing of the tumor—never opportune to begin with—came at a particularly vulnerable time for Brown. She was dealing with her own debts, buying into Troy Vet Clinic as a partner, and was the primary earner for her family. But the love and attention she showered on the animals and, by extension, the farmers, would come flooding back to her. When news spread of Brown’s illness and the complications inherent in her recovery, they came to her with all they could give her.
“My rural community, they rallied,” Brown says. “People would send a calf to the market and bring by the check from that calf and give it to us. At that time, I hadn’t paid off all my debt and I was buying into Troy Vet and I had a lot of bills and a mortgage. It was a financially hard time. I was the breadwinner. I couldn’t work. They had spaghetti dinners for me.”
They even opened a bank account for her, and several people visited her in Pittsburgh at the hospital. She never knew the impact she had made on people’s lives.
“It was really amazing,” Brown recalls. “It’s almost like glimpsing in the casket or the urn, paying the respects. It was kind of like I got to see that before I died. I think, you always wonder, am I doing a good job? Am I making an impact? Am I showing people God’s love? Do I even matter? When I saw people pouring out their love and service and giving and finances, it made me so humbled and I was so overwhelmed with gratitude. Maybe I have been doing something right.”
“She’s the example of perseverance,” says Dr. Marsha Rosanelli, a partner and colleague at Troy Vet. “She’s never stopped pushing. Plenty of people who could be in her situation would stop working. She had an intense drive to come back to work and return to life as usual and be the best she could be.”
For a time, Brown’s “truck dog” didn’t recognize her. Brown lacked the aromatics of being out on farm calls all day. Her hair was short. She smelled so sterile from the hospital. But as soon as she donned the gear of her trade, traipsed around amongst cow patties, suddenly her dog recognized her.
Dr. Brown’s first visit back was a cow off-feed. She was back to work, back doing what she loved, and doing it with that over owing sense of optimism and rigor she built a life on, tumor free.
That was eleven years ago. Think of all the lives she has managed to touch since then. Think of all the lives potentially missed had the tumor prevailed. Sure, someone would’ve stepped up to ll the space, but it would not have been her special touch.
James Herriot wrote, “At times it seemed unfair that I should be paid for my work; for driving out in the early morning with the fields glittering under the first pale sunshine and the wisps of mist still hanging on the high tops.”
The times when Dr. Brown feels most engaged and most alive in her work are not when she’s tending to a cow, or a horse, or a yak, or giving acupuncture to animals, or the one day she works with small animals. It’s the moments in between, or the moments before she sees another person or another animal besides Bittle and BEBE.
“It’s all good, seeing the sunrise,” she says. “It’s been a long winter. It’s a beautiful spring day. You drive farm to farm. The leaves are starting to come out. You catch a sunrise—the big picture, not even [anything] to do with the animals. It’s part of rural living.”
It’s a pretty sight to behold, this battle-tested woman who beat back her tumor into retreat, this doctor who throws on her coveralls and laces up her boots to do her job, her mission, to serve animals and people. It all comes back to Herriot. So many of his quotes are a north star mapping out Brown’s course. Herriot wrote, “Everybody was asleep. Everybody except me, James Herriot, creeping sore and exhausted towards another spell of hard labour. Why the hell had I ever decided to become a country vet? I must have been crazy to pick a job where you worked seven days a week and through the night as well. Sometimes I felt as though the practice was a malignant, living entity; testing me, trying me out; putting the pressure on more and more to see just when at what point I would drop down dead.”
Brown signed this contract a long time ago. The good and the bad.
When the phone rings, “it can be an anxious feeling,” she says. “Most of the time, when I get home and take off my coveralls and my boots and I have had dinner...Worse yet, you just get out of the shower and your phone rings and I have to admit, ‘Oh, this job.’ You’re ready to go bed and turn off.
“In the middle of the night you don’t have time. You wake up on the first ring and got that adrenaline going, ready to go—[that’s] the way you wake up like that. Thirty-one years of the phone ringing.
“I sleep very light.”