Yes, Doc sounded just the same. Talking Lightning hockey. Just as we had done regularly over the years.
What his voice didn't reveal - and what I couldn't see over the phone - was how different he looked. Confined to a hospital bed. Emaciated. Relying on a feeding tube to provide nourishment to his tumor-riddled body.
This story begins, in a way, when our cat Miranda bit through a raccoon glove in 2008.
At the time, my wife Dulcie and I had five pets - a dog and four cats. Four of the five we brought into our relationship. When we met in 2001, I was about to enter what would be my final season with the AHL Hershey Bears. I had Mercury, a tabby. She had Bella the calico, Miranda the tortie, and Cleo, a terrier mutt who looked like Benji. In the spring of 2002, we decided to get a kitten together, so Sebastian, a medium-hair black-and-white tuxedo, joined the clan. We often asked ourselves after the fact, "What were we thinking?" A good question. Especially after I got the job with the Lightning and we loaded the animals into our sedan that fall for the 16-hour drive from Pennsylvania to Tampa. Cleo sat with Dulcie in the front passenger seat. In the back seat, we had the four cat carriers wedged in side-by-side.
But they comprised our animal family and we loved them all. After getting settled in Tampa, we found a vet. The five animals were young and healthy, so we only had to repeat the cat crate backseat shuttle once a year.
By the early summer of 2007, our human family had grown. We now had Eli, born in March 2006. Dulcie was pregnant with Madeleine, who would be born in August, 2007. It was time for the annual trip to the vet. I don't remember how, with five animals and a toddler squeezed into our sedan, we navigated our way there and back. What I do remember is that we had a scheduled commitment in the afternoon. And that shortly after returning home, Miranda the tortie threw up. Any cat owner knows that this is not uncommon, but she had just received a shot. Could it be an adverse reaction? We called the vet's office and they told us she'd need to be monitored for the next several hours. But we had someplace to be, we told them. No problem, they said. Just drop her off here and we'll watch her until you can pick her up.
OK. But when we returned to collect her, we heard violent hissing from the back. The vet tech told us the hissing came from Miranda. What?! Impossible! Miranda was, by far, the most pliable, sweetest animal we had. We often joked that she was like a friendly dog stuck in a cat's body. We had never even heard her hiss before. But she had been confined to a crate in between two agitated, barking dogs. And she had had enough.
Once we got in the car, she immediately calmed down. Things were fine until we went back in 2008. As soon as we arrived at the vet's office, angry Miranda returned. She remembered. The vet tech grabbed protective gloves they used only when the office treated injured raccoons. Miranda bit so hard that her teeth went through the glove. Our time at that practice had come to an end. Still needing to get the animals their annual checkup, we tried a new vet. It didn't matter that it was a different office. Miranda flipped out. Strike two.
In searching for a solution, Dulcie recalled that she had seen a mobile vet van driving around Brandon. Maybe we should try getting her treated at home? Enter Dr. Anthony and the Mobile Vet Clinic of Brandon. He arrived in our driveway with his vet tech, Victoria ("Vic"). Cleo the dog had her check-up inside the van, but for the four cats, he just came into the house. Miranda purred as he examined her. We had our new vet.
During that first visit in 2008, I didn't know he was a Lightning fan or that he owned season tickets. I found out during the next visit when he recognized me.
"I didn't put two-and-two together!" he exclaimed. He turned to Vic. "Do you know what he does? He's the radio broadcaster for the Lightning. He works with Phil Esposito!" Vic smiled the smile of someone who hears a lot about the Lightning, whether she wanted to or not.
I, on the other hand, loved talking hockey. So Doc and I fell into a rhythm. He'd treat the pets and then we'd chat about the team. Dulcie would give the cue when the animal portion of the visit was over. "I'll leave you two now to talk hockey," she'd laugh.
From 2009 to 2019, we covered a lot of ground. Steven Stamkos' accomplishments and injuries. Victor Hedman's ascension into an elite defenseman. The Vinny Lecavalier buyout. The Marty St. Louis trade. The influx of young talent from the minors. The 2015 Stanley Cup journey to the Final. Deep runs in 2016 and 2018. I learned that Doc played college hockey at Dartmouth and had a brief stint in the minors. He was a defenseman. "I was too slow to go any higher," he chuckled.
One of the reasons why we had plenty of opportunities to talk was that, as the animals got older, they required more frequent care. As a vet, Doc had a "less is more" philosophy. During one of our last visits to the "traditional" vet, we were told that Mercury the tabbie, then 10, needed a "senior panel" involving a number of invasive tests. When we switched to Doc, I asked him whether he'd do a senior panel. He shook his head. "The cat will let you know if and when something is wrong. Constant hunger. No appetite. Weight loss. Lots of trips to the litter box. But we don't need to put the cat through a bunch of tests if he's symptom-free."
His words were prophetic. The cats did let us know when something was wrong. When he was 14, Mercury's appetite grew insatiable. The litter boxes became more full than what we would expect from four cats. Doc checked his blood sugar. Diabetes. He showed us how to administer insulin, which Mercury received daily from then on.
During an annual in 2013, Doc detected an elevated heart rate for Bella the calico. Blood work revealed that she had an overactive thyroid. The medicine she received kept it in check. The next year, Sebastian the tuxedo hid under the bed and wouldn't come out to eat. "What are we looking at?" I asked Doc nervously, when he ordered blood work. "About 50 percent are bad," he told me. Sebastian fell into the other 50. Like Bella, he also had an overactive thyroid. It was just that his symptoms were different - unlike Bella, he didn't feel well when his thyroid went into overdrive.
Dulcie often said that whenever we would get nervous about the health of one of our animals, Doc seemingly always found a way to treat it. But eventually, the passage of time caught up with our pets. In August of 2014, 17-year old Mercury stopped eating. He'd approach the food, sniff it, and turn away. He would go to the water bowl and drink. But his tongue came out the side of his mouth. "Could he have had a stroke?" I wondered to Dulcie.
Doc kept his van parked in an area lot in the early morning and late afternoon. Clients could bring their pets to him at those times. It was the first day of school for Eli and Madeleine. We dropped them off and, with Mercury in tow, drove to Doc's van.
Doc pried open Mercury's mouth. "See that?" How could we not? With Mercury's tongue fully extended, the large lump was visible.
"It's a tumor," Doc said. "It's been there maybe three or four weeks. He can't eat."
Dulcie was in tears. "Oh, Doc. You're the one who always tells us it's going to be OK!"
He shook his head. "You can take him home if you'd like. He'd live for a couple of more weeks." Dulcie and I were in agreement. Absolutely not. He nodded. "Some people do that. But it's really more for them than the animal."
There were to be two shots. The first would put Mercury to sleep, literally. The second would stop his heart. He fought Doc and Vic on the first shot, though, so Doc put him in a clear Rubbermaid box with an opening for a tube. The sleeping gas knocked him out. Before Mercury lost consciousness, he looked at me from inside the box. I was the last thing he saw before collapsing.
Seventeen years earlier, in a Pennsylvania barn, Mercury had left his littermates and came striding up to me and meowed. He had picked me. I was emotional as they readied the second shot. Afterwards, as he petted Mercury's lifeless body, Doc said: "It's never easy. But we honor them with the memory of their companionship."
He told us something else. "There's a place that'll cremate the body. They do it in a dignified way. You'll receive a certificate from them." For Mercury, he arranged the details, but he gave us the company's brochure to take with us.
Thankfully, Dulcie kept the brochure because we needed it two years later. In February of 2016, Dulcie was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent four months of chemotherapy. Her final infusion came at the end of May. Two weeks later, we lost Cleo. Our Benji-dog was 16 and caught pneumonia. She had developed a cough on a Friday night and was panting heavily. On Saturday morning, I ran her up to Doc's. He took an x-ray and pointed. "See those white spots. That's an infection. Let's get her on an antibiotic right away."
Leaving the van, I felt relieved. The antibiotic would cure the infection! But as Saturday progressed, Cleo's breathing became more labored. When it was time to take her outside, I had to carry her. During overnights, she liked to sleep in our bed, but she was too weak to jump up when we turned the lights out. I was woken at 2:45 AM when I felt Cleo lay down at my feet. She made it up to the bed! I woke up Dulcie and turned on the light. Cleo was lying on her side, still panting heavily. "I'll take her out", I said. I picked her up and took her to the back yard. When I placed her in the grass, she couldn't keep herself upright and fell over.
"Oh, Cleo!" I said. Then, I knew. She wasn't getting better. The infection was too strong. She also knew. So she had mustered all of her remaining energy to get up on the bed with us. That's where she wanted to be at the end.
I scooped her up and felt her fluttering heartbeat. It was faint and erratic. I came back in and said to Dulcie, "I think she's dying." Moments later, her heart stopped. She died in my arms.
After some tears, Dulcie and I had to figure out what to do next. It was 3:00 AM on a Sunday morning. Dulcie remembered. "I think I have the brochure Doc gave us after Mercury." Thankfully, this facility had a 24-7 hotline and would do a home pickup. They came at 5:00 AM.
Once, Doc told us about his family's dogs. "We always had a Corgi. When the first one passed, my mother waited a year to get another one. Eleven years later after that one passed, she got a new puppy the next day." His point was that there's no right or wrong amount of time to wait. Dulcie and I lasted five weeks. In mid-July, through a local rescue, we adopted Roxie, a scruffy 20-pound mutt. She's now three.
Around this time, Doc expanded. He was such a good vet, his clients loved him and business was good. He purchased a building - a place where his staff would sell medicine. The van, when not out on the road, would be parked outside the building. They kept office pets in the air-conditioned facility. He still did most of his work out of the van, but he had an exam table in the building, too.
In the summer of 2017, Sebastian the tuxedo got a stuffy nose and stopped eating. Doc said, "A cat won't eat what it can't smell". But when he did the full examination, he said ominously: "He's losing weight". Was it from the congestion, we asked? No, it had been going on longer than that.
So Doc treated the sinus infection for two weeks, during which time Sebastian ate very little. We were on pins and needles. Was it the illness? Or something else causing the weight loss? Finally, the infection cleared and Sebastian ate a big meal. Hurray! But the next day, he refused to eat. I took him to Doc. He didn't bring me to the van - instead, we went around the bend to the exam table inside. "It's time," he said. Then he put his hand on Sebastian's stomach. "Feel that," he said to me. There was a hard mound. "He has a tumor in his stomach. That's why he didn't want to eat. I didn't feel it earlier because he hadn't lost enough weight yet. And it was smaller then."
Sebastian handled the first shot better than Mercury had. He dozed off. Then the second shot and he was gone. He was 15.
That fall, Bella the calico got a bump on her nose. This one was easier to diagnose than Sebastian's. "She's got a nasal tumor," said Doc. "She'll be fine until she isn't. She'll let you know. Six weeks?" She made it four months. Shortly after New Year's, we put Bella down. She was 18.
We have now been through the death of four of our animals. As Doc had noted, it was never easy. But at least we became familiar with the process and knew what to expect. And thankfully with Bella, we had plenty of time to say our goodbyes.
Doc often said: "It's my job to get the cats to 15. After that …". All four of our cats that he treated did make it to 15. Miranda will turn 19 this August. Last summer, we adopted two kittens from a litter we fostered. Doc gave the new cats - Charlie and Metro - a check-up after the adoption last summer. We weren't due to see him again until this summer.
Last November, Dulcie had her regular follow-up at Florida Cancer Specialists, where she had received her treatment. Afterwards, as we were leaving the large waiting room, we heard a voice behind us call my name. "Dave! Dave Mishkin!" We turned around and a man waved. He looked familiar. "Is that Doc?" Dulcie asked.
It was. He'd lost weight, but his smile was, as usual, a beaming one. "How are you?" he asked Dulcie. "Fine," she said. Then cautiously, "You?"
"Esophageal cancer. Look at all the weight I've lost!"
He was going to start chemo. He was planning on still practicing. About the prognosis, he didn't say. He just shrugged, "I'll have to sleep sitting up for the rest of my life."
A few months later, I reached out on text. He wrote me that the doctors had to momentarily stop chemo because of a complication in his stomach. But treatment was ongoing.
Later, we heard from a friend - and client of his - that he had just treated her animals, so true to his word, he was still working.
Shortly after the Lightning's season ended, Dulcie and I stopped by his office to see how he was doing. Vic was at the desk. "Not good," she said. "He's in the hospital. They've stopped treatment." What a gut punch. Stunned, we drove home in a daze.
The next day, Vic called me. "I talked to Doc yesterday and told him you were in. He'd like you to phone him." Minutes later, I made that call.
"How does a team that wins 62 games lose four straight? I know Columbus was tough, but jeez!"
Doc vented about the abrupt end of the season. Then he mentioned that he hoped to get released from the hospital in the next few days.
I didn't understand what that meant for him in the short-term. "Are you going to work?"
"No," he sighed. "I'm done."
He spoke the next words so naturally, without bitterness or anger. "They're going to release me so I can go home and ….," he paused, "survive as long as I can.
"I'm hoping to see the end of the Stanley Cup. That's about six weeks away."
He didn't make it that long. Despite his Massachusetts upbringing, he didn't like the Bruins, so he probably would have especially enjoyed the finish.
Even though he told his staff that he didn't want a service, they put on a Celebration of Life. "Too bad!" they told me. "We're doing it!" I attended. I met his older sister Carol and got to share memories with other friends and clients. Afterwards, I was left with two lingering thoughts.
First, it was the dignity, grace and acceptance with which he handled his diagnosis and prognosis. Similar to how he treated the animals that came into his care. It's true that, through his practice, he came across a lot of death. Maybe, in some way, that helped prepare him for his own ending. I can only hope to display those same qualities when my time comes.
Second, the Lightning's mission statement includes the phrase "connecting the community through the power of Lightning hockey". Doc and I connected through the animals, but also through hockey. He loved hockey and he loved the Lightning. Carol told me that during a break in his treatment, he took her to a game in February (she was down from Pennsylvania to help when he was diagnosed). "The section where he sat was like a family," she said. "They were all so happy to see him!"
As he once said to me, we can honor those gone with the memory of their companionship. I'm grateful that he had the Lightning as a way to connect with me - and others.