This Man Performed Emergency Surgery on His Own Dog

When this yellow Lab needed emergency surgery, his owner took matters into his own hands.

Nina Katsev and her golden lab, Calvin, on a rocky shore.

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Calvin is an ordinary yellow Labrador — exceptionally friendly, amusing, intelligent, and curious — who lives by the sea in Santa Barbara. Calvin is also exceptionally lucky. He is alive today because his home is also the home of Dr. Doug Katsev, an internationally recognized eye surgeon.

Aside from his thriving private practice specializing in a cutting-edge new approach to cataract surgery, Katsev has devoted himself to helping others around the world. At last count, he had performed more than 25,000 eye operations, many of them as a volunteer with the nonprofit Surgical Eye Expeditions (SEE) International in far-flung villages in Africa, Central and South America, and Asia — traveling at his own expense, and frequently bringing his wife, Nina, herself an optician, and their three children along to help.

The Katsevs adopted Calvin about 12 years ago, shortly after their previous dog had died. The adoption process was a bit unusual. An ophthalmologist based in Indianapolis was coming to observe Katsev’s practice. Coincidentally, this doctor’s wife was a breeder of Labradors. They had learned about the passing of the Katsev family pet and offered to bring Calvin as a gift. The visiting doctor, a private pilot, flew to California with the puppy.

When Katsev asked the cost of the flight, the response was $600. Feeling he ought to reimburse the man at least for the expense of the trip, he reached for his wallet. But the visiting doctor waved him off, saying, “No charge. He’ll chew up at least that much of your stuff in the next few years.”

Aside from a computer cord that Calvin munched on in the first few weeks, he wasn’t destructive at all. Calvin grew into adulthood as a good-natured, well-behaved pet, beloved by the family. Still, that $600 estimate would turn out to be shockingly low.

Flash forward to July 4, 2016. The Katsevs brought along the now 9-year-old animal to a neighbor’s house for a holiday picnic. When they arrived, Calvin rushed over to play with the host family’s dog. But this dog wasn’t playing. Perhaps feeling territorial, he flipped Calvin on his back and closed his jaws around his neck. By the time they were able to separate the animals, Calvin’s windpipe was severely damaged. At home that evening, his neck became more and more swollen, making it difficult for him to breathe. “He very nearly coded that night,” Katsev recalls.

“I’d never operated on an animal before. But I’ve always been good at figuring out how to make things work.”

The next day, with Calvin still gasping for air, they rushed him to a local animal hospital where he was put on a breathing tube.

After five days, and a staggering veterinary bill, Katsev was advised that Calvin would require another operation if he was to survive. The vets didn’t recommend it, cautioning that it was not only expensive, but also extremely risky. There was a very good chance Calvin might die on the operating table or survive with severe disabilities.

“My first reaction was that the kindest thing would be to let him go, particularly because of his advanced age. I even told my two older daughters, Cailyn and Kiki, both opticians like my wife, that Calvin wasn’t going to make it,” Katsev says. “My son, Blake, was about to go off to college, and I took him in to say goodbye.”

Blake was devastated. “But Calvin is my only brother,” he said. “Isn’t there something we could do?”

“I told him that, in theory, I could put in a trach [a breathing hole in the throat], but it’s extremely risky. I said, ‘If we do it, you’ve got to be willing to let him die on the table,’” Katsev ­recalls.

“Just give him a chance, Dad,” Blake said.

“I’ve done a lot of trachs in my career — I was an ER doctor before I was an ophthalmologist,” Katsev says. “But I honestly didn’t think Calvin’s chances were good.”

Ophthalmologist surgeon Doug Katsev.
Dr. Doug Katsev

Blake and Nina signed Calvin out of the veterinary hospital against advice, wrapping their beloved pet in a blanket and carrying the nearly lifeless creature to their car. Meanwhile, Katsev was assembling his own MASH unit, including a retired horse vet, an anesthesiologist, and a technical assistant. His two daughters sent him YouTube videos on how to trach a dog. And he set up a makeshift operating room in his garage.

Katsev was cautiously optimistic. “You know, I’d never operated on an animal before,” he says. “But I’ve been in a lot of third-world countries where you have to figure out how to do medical procedures with makeshift instruments. But I’ve always been good at figuring out how to make things work.”

A perfect example of Katsev’s ability to improvise was his 2017 trip to perform cataract surgery in Kenya, when both his luggage and his surgical tools were lost by the airline and he had to make do with outdated and, by modern standards, inadequate equipment. “I just did the surgeries the way I used to before the technology changed,” he says. Working 12-hour shifts, he and other medical volunteers from SEE International treated more than 1,000 patients — most of whom were blind — over a five-day period.

Compared to that experience, Calvin’s operation was a breeze. The medical team performed a tracheotomy on Calvin, inserting a breathing tube down through the dog’s swollen trachea to bypass the airway obstruction. The team then sutured the wound shut. The entire operation was over in 20 minutes — and was a complete success. Calvin was able to breathe through the tube in his neck until the swelling went down. Six weeks later, the tube came out, and a very nervous doctor and his family were relieved to see that Calvin was almost 100 percent back to normal.

When asked the difference between operating on a human and a dog, Katsev replied, “Well, there is more hair and no need to deal with Medicare.

“Calvin doesn’t bark well; he has a very hoarse bark. And he can’t run as fast or as far as he used to, but fundamentally he’s the same wonderful dog he’s always been.” And the doctor is very grateful his son had the faith and foresight to convince him to operate.

Today, Calvin goes on runs with Doug and Nina. However, he stops about a mile away from his tormentor’s home turf. This smart Lab has a good memory.

Feature image: On the mend: After the surgery, Calvin — pictured here with Nina Katsev — was soon back to his old self. 

This article is featured in the January/February 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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  1. I am shocked with this article and your newspaper. I cannot understand how you are posting such articles that can encourage people to perform procedures in their garages without a license! It is illegal. Plain and simple. The fact that he let his dog suffer one day before taking it to an ER already speaks to his incompetence as a medical professional. If he was not happy with the veterinarians that saw his dog in the first place he should have found a different doctor. If he thought the veterinary bills were expensive- then we would like to see how much he charges his clients. Most veterinarians make less than 100.000 dollars a year even though they have the same amount or more education than MDs. So money is not what they are after. Just as in human medicine you are allowed to get a second and third and fourth opinion if you would like! There is nothing brave about his actions. Just an egomaniac who thinks he is better than veterinarians because he is an MD. This individual should be questioned since he performed procedures in his garage without a veterinary medical license.

  2. This article is shameful. Too cheap and selfish to take his suffering dog to get medical care in a timely manner, but because the dog lived, he gets to look like the good guy? This doctor may be a hero for those patients that he helped, but he is no hero to this dog.

  3. Absolutely disgusting, how is this egomaniac allowed to practice medicine? He should have his license pulled! Too cheap to pay a vet to do the surgery? Really? I’m sure he makes more then the veterinarian who is actually qualified to do the procedure. And to wait 24 hours to seek care in the first place is horrific. Get a clue Saturday evening post!!!

  4. I love my lab. I don’t know what i would’ve done if he went through what Calvin did. But my vet is wonderful. How legal is it exactly for a pet owner to complete surgery on their own dog at home? Where are the medicines and equipment from? If the situation was reversed I would assume we would not applaud a veterinarian performing surgery on their own child in their garage. It just seems quite unethical without a license. But I understand your dog by loving your dog. One time I had to use care credit for mine when he ate his toy as a pup. There just seemed to be safer and more ethical options rather than ‘taking it upon yourself’ personally. I’m relieved he did not die.

  5. I’m pretty disappointed in this article. This “Doctor”, who allegedly used to work ER, actually waited to take his injured dog to the veterinarian (also a fully educated And licensed Doctor) until the next day instead of taking him to a veterinary emergency clinic. Then, after finally seeking appropriate care for his beloved dog, declined further appropriate care and took his dog home to do a surgery he felt he could just do on his kitchen table?? This article should not be commending this man. It gives people the wrong idea about pet ownership and care. This successful eye surgeon should know it’s best to let the appropriate professionals with the proper training on the canine species do their job. He’s very lucky the dog survived his inappropriate actions.
    This article is a slap to the face for veterinarians who work so hard for their degree.

  6. This article is appalling. Let’s be clear , the dog was critical and gasping for breath… yet he waited until the next day. If only there were emergency veterinarians.. oh wait there are. He performed surgery in his garage on his dog. This is a crime. Does he know about pain control in a dog? Proper anesthesia? Sterile environment? His medical license should be revoked or at least suffer disciplinary consequences. If a vet did this to a human it would be considered a crime. If it was a situation where there was no other option that is one thing, but that is not the case here. Shame on this article and applauding this man

  7. So what I’m reading here, in summary, is this very successful surgeon was too cheap to let professional veterinarians help his dog. Then he gathered the help of another MD colleague and a retired veterinarian, all people who are not legally supposed to be operating on an animal (especially out of a garage,) and performed surgery himself. Disgusting and absolutely nothing to be proud of. Shouldn’t someone report them to the veterinary board for practicing medicine without the appropriate license?

  8. Shame on you, Saturday Evening Post, for glorifying this man. What a terrible precedent you are setting.
    Not only did he initially delay treatment for his suffering dog, he then proceeded to go against medical advice and unnecessarily perform his own surgery instead of utilizing veterinary professionals to do it correctly.
    This did not happen in a remote area of South America or Africa. There was no need to put together a “MASH unit” and experiment in his garage. His ego is the only feasible explanation.
    I am glad that Calvin is doing well and luckily survived his owner’s jaunt into practicing veterinary medicine without a license.

  9. So we’re supposed to applaud this man, a medical professional, who should have known better than to wait OVERNIGHT to take his dog, struggling to breathe, to a vet. Then he didn’t want to pay for appropriate care so he TOOK IT HOME AND PERFORMED MEDICAL PROCEDURES ON IT IN HIS GARAGE?!! In what universe is this acceptable let alone something to be lauded in a news publication? Shame on you ‘Dr’ for not seeking appropriate care for your poor dog, shame on you Saturday Evening Post for publishing this nonsense. You should have called the police and the medical board.

  10. Just to be clear, we’re commending a man who “saved” his dog by performing a surgery for which he had no: tools. Knowledge. Medicine. Pain care. Anesthetic agents. License.

    If he had done an “emergency” tracheotomy at home on his child in his garage with no training, pain care, antibiotics… after waiting 24 hours post trauma to even start… After a trained medical team offered to do the surgery correctly… Would we be writing an article or calling the police?

    How absolutely shameful to paint this person as a hero and the veterinary team that did their best DESPITE the owner’s incompetence as some sort of idiots who couldn’t do better than a person who’d be willing to let their dog die, in pain, unable to breathe, on a table IN THEIR GARAGE.

    How completely disgusting. This utterly misses the mark on the human animal bond and sets an atrocious precedent for how people are allowed to experiment on their “beloved” pets.

  11. So we are applauding a man who first of all waited to bring his dog to the vet until things were dire, instead of seeking emergency care overnight he waited until the next morning when things were much worse! This man then went against the advise of veterinary medical professionals and performed surgery, which he was not trained for, in his GARAGE!!! This surgery could have been performed in the sterile environment of a hospital with veterinary professionals. This is ridiculous. I cannot believe you are posting this article and hailing this man as a hero. I am so happy his dog lived, but things could have gone in another direction quickly. Shame on you Saturday Evening Post for making this story seem like a good, heartwarming tale instead of the truth which is the fact that this man did not care properly for his pet and then performed surgery, which most likely was illegal unless the retired vet still maintained his license and did the procedure himself. Dogs are not humans, just because you are a human doctor does not mean you know how to be a doctor for a canine.

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