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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