Surprises: Stories about the unexpected

This week, we're presenting stories about surprising revelations or events in science.

Part 1: When he receives a call from the vet, writer Matthew Dicks is startled to learn that his dog is in surgery -- and that he agreed to it the night before.

Matthew Dicks is an elementary school teacher and the internationally bestselling author of the novels Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, Something Missing, Unexpectedly, Milo, and The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs. As a storyteller, he is a 34-time Moth StorySLAM champion and four time GrandSLAM champion. Matt is also the founder and Creative Director of Speak Up, a Hartford-based storytelling organization that recently launched the Speak Up Storytelling podcast, which Matt hosts with his wife, Elysha. He recently published a guide to storytelling, Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life Through the Power of StorytellingMatt loves ice cream cake, playing golf poorly, tickling his children, staring at his wife, and not sleeping.

Part 2: After traveling to Madagascar for a conservation project, climatologist Simon Donner misses his ride to the field site, and must find his way there on his own. 

Simon Donner is a Professor of Climatology in the Department of Geography at the University of British Columbia. He teaches and conducts interdisciplinary research at the interface of climate science, marine science, and public policy. His current areas of research include climate change and coral reefs; ocean warming and El Nino; climate change adaptation in small island developing states; public engagement on climate change. Simon is also the director of UBC’s NSERC-supported “Ocean Leaders” program and is affiliated with UBC’s Institute of Oceans and Fisheries, Liu Institute for Global Issues, and Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability. His efforts at public engagement on climate change have been recognized with an Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellowship, a Google Science Communication Fellowship and the UBC President’s Award for Public Education through the Media.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Matthew Dicks

The phone rings.  I’m standing in my classroom.  It’s early morning.  I’m getting ready for my fifth grade students.  I go and I pick it up. 

The woman on the other end identifies herself as the receptionist at the veterinary hospital.  She tells me she has news about my dog.  It’s good news.  She survived the first surgery.  I stop her right there and I say, “No, you have the wrong owner.  My dog is at the hospital but just for constipation.  Like there's no surgery involved.  You've mixed something up.” 

The woman apologizes and says, “Can you just hold for a minute,” and she clicks off. 

As I’m waiting for her to come back I’m thinking about how awful this must be for someone that they're waiting for their dog to live or die through surgery.  My dog is named Kaleigh.  She's a four-year-old Lhasa Apso.  She's a tiny little white thing that lives in my heart.  She is my best friend in the world and I can’t imagine how terrible it would be to be waiting for this phone call that someone in the world is waiting for right now. 

When the woman clicks back she says, “Your name is Matthew Dicks, right?”  And I say, “Yes.”  And she says, “Your dog is Kaleigh, right?”  And I say, “Yes.”

And she says, “Mr. Dicks, your dog just went through spinal surgery and she's getting ready to go through her second surgery.” 

Now, I’m annoyed.  I don't mind that there's a mistake but don’t make it twice.  So I say, “Listen, unless you did surgery that I didn’t permit, or you did surgery on the wrong dog, this is wrong.  You're calling the wrong person.  My dog is constipated.  We left her at the hospital.  She got a laxative and they recommended we leave her overnight for observation.” 

And the woman says, “Can you just hold one more time?”  She clicks off again and I’m just sitting on the phone thinking like, “Who is taking care of my dog and why can’t they match up owner and pet properly?” 

When the phone clicks again, it’s a man now.  He identifies himself as Dr. Lindgren.  He says, “Is your name Matthew Dicks,” and I say, “Yes.”  He says, “Is your dog Kaleigh,” and I say, “Yes.” 

And he says, “Mr. Dicks, I just completed spinal surgery on your dog and I’m getting ready to do the second surgery.  She has a ruptured disc in her back.” 

And I say, “That’s not possible.  She's constipated.” 

And he says, “Mr. Dicks, we spoke last night in the middle of the night.  I explained all of this to you and you gave me permission to do this surgery.” 

And my heart sinks.  I think I know exactly what’s happened.  So I ask him, “Can I call you back in a couple of minutes,” and he says, “No.  I will be operating on your dog.  We can’t wait.” 

So he gives me the name and the number of another doctor and he says, “Call this doctor for information.” 

I hang up the phone and I run.  I run out of my classroom and I take a left up the ramp to my fiancé’s classroom.  She works two doors down from me.  When I left this morning she was still asleep but she's probably coming in right now.  It’s about the time she comes to work. 

As I burst through her door she's coming through the opposite door.  She's got her coat on.  She's got bags.  I’m panting.  She looks up at me and she says, “Is Kaleigh okay?” 

And I say, “Do you know about a surgery?” 

Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

She says, “Yes.”  Now I know exactly what has happened. 

I've been sleepwalking all of my life.  Since I was a little boy I would get out of bed a couple hours after going to sleep and come down the stairs and I'd sit on the couch next to my parents.  They would be watching a movie or the Celtics.  Sometimes I would just sit and I'd stare at the TV but a lot of the times I would talk to them and they would talk back to me. 

They would ask me questions that I would never acknowledge in real life.  They're like horrible people who would just draw information from me that no child would ever admit to.  Like what girls do I like and what teachers do I hate and which one of them do I like the most right now.  Then the next morning at breakfast they would bring all this stuff back up and make fun of me.  It was a joy to live with these people. 

But I did this all the time.  People imagine sleepwalkers as someone who closed their eyes and sort of wander around the room with their hands outstretched but it’s really not like that at all.  I always describe it as having two operating systems.  I have the primary one, which is operating right now taking care of all of my functions, but when I go to sleep occasionally a second operating system comes online. 

It’s just like the first one.  I can do just about everything that I can do awake that I’m doing while I’m sleepwalking except the two operating systems don’t know that each other exist and so I never remember anything that I’m doing while I’m sleepwalking. 

I'll get out of bed.  It’s usually a couple hours after a person has gone to sleep that they'll start sleepwalking.  Just before REM sleep is about to begin, people will get up and start wandering around.  Sleepwalkers tend to get out of bed and sleepwalk at times of stress, when they're over-tired, if they’ve taken a medication they've never taken before, or they're in a new place, a new bed or a new location they've never been in before. 

So when I was a boy scout, we would go camping in the woods and I would get out of my tent in the middle of the night and just walk into the woods, into the dark, until I tripped on a root or a rock and it woke me up.  Then I would look around and I'd have no idea where I was in the dark so I'd have to sit at the base of a tree and I'd wait all night until eventually my friends at camp would wake up.  I'd hear them and I'd be able to wander my way back to camp. 

When I got older and I was on my own, I was a McDonald’s manager and I would often find myself, I'd wake up I'd be behind the wheel of my car in the parking lot with my McDonald’s uniform on just ready to drive away but, thankfully, never actually doing so.  But it was a terrifying thing to figure out in am I in the parking lot or am I actually driving somewhere down the street. 

Nowadays, sleepwalking takes me to many places.  I often find myself sitting on the couch at night with the remote in my hand pointing it at the TV that is not on.  The thing I do most often is I eat cereal at night.  And I only know this because I'll come down in the morning and I'll find a half-eaten bowl of cheerios on the counter.  Oftentimes there's a book or a magazine next to it and it’s open and I have no recollection of reading the pages, and I don't even really know if I did.  But I’m consuming vast quantities of cereal in the middle of the night. 

Recently, I made the terrible decision of agreeing to two deadlines to two different books at the same time which no writer should ever, ever do, and so I was under a lot of pressure.  One morning I came down and I found that my laptop was open and there were 500 words written on my laptop for the novel I was working on that I have no recollection of ever writing.  The words didn’t actually match what was already there.  They were the beginning of the next chapter, but they were good enough that they are still the beginning of the next chapter. 

I am writing books in my sleep.  That is serious productivity.  So it’s not totally weird that I've had this phone call with this veterinary person but it is really kind of crazy. 

Elysha doesn’t even believe at first that this has happened.  She says, “Matt, we were awake.  We turned on the lights.  You were on the phone.” 

And I say, “I don't remember any of it.”  I say, “What is happening?” 

And she tells me that in the middle of the night they discover that it wasn’t constipation, that Kaleigh was having a spinal issue and that she had a rupture in one of the discs, which is something that happens to these little dogs with these long backs.  So the doctor told us that she had to have a first surgery to clear out the debris and she had a 50% chance of surviving that surgery.  And then she would have to have a second surgery, the one that’s happening right now, which would restabilize her spine.  And she has a 50% chance of surviving that surgery. 

Even if she survives both of them, she has a less than 50% chance of really ever walking again.  It’s most likely that she's going to end up in a doggie wheelchair with her hind legs on wheels and her front legs pulling her around.  And that for the rest of her life, we will have to catheter her and have a colostomy bag because she won’t be able to do any of those functions for herself. 

The operation costs $7,000, which is the amount of money that we have saved for our upcoming honeymoon.  And I ask Elysha, “We agreed to all that?”  And she says, “Yes.” 

I didn’t realize that there were different depths of love.  Like Kaleigh is our dog, but at the time she's my dog.  I started with her and she's not an easy dog to live with.  And Elysha said yes instantly, without question.  I started at my future wife and I just couldn’t believe how much more I was in love with her. 

So I wait for the phone call which comes three hours later and they say she survived the second surgery.  And I say, “Do you think she’ll walk?”  And he said, “It’s very unlikely but we don’t know.  It will be a long time before we know.” 

I get to bring Kaleigh home three days after the surgery.  We have to get the house ready before we bring her home.  She can’t jump up or down off anything so we take our bed down because she sleeps with us at night.  We sleep on a mattress on the floor and we built a cage around the mattress because we can’t even let her get off the mattress.  So for months Elysha, myself and Kaleigh will sleep on the floor on a mattress in a cage. 

We pushed things up against the furniture that she often jumps up on because we really can’t have her come up on anything at all. 

When we bring her home, she's a waste of what she used to be.  She has lost weight and she's shaven.  But the worst thing is she's just sad.  She's a dog who just had a terrible thing happen to her and she has no idea why someone has done this thing.  And there's no way to explain to her that this terrible thing had to happen to you so you could keep living.  She walks around with her head down and I know that she's in incredible pain. 

So we put her on a towel next to us on that first night and she's just lying there.  She really hasn’t moved at all.  We watch TV and we wait until she finally falls asleep then we move over to the couch.  We’re watching TV on the couch when I see her head pick up.  She looks at me and she starts to struggle up on her front legs.  I want to stop her because it’s too early for her to even try to walk around but I watch as she lifts up her hind legs too.  Before I know it, she's standing on all four legs and she starts to hobble over towards us one tiny step at a time.  She's walking. 

Kaleigh at home in Connecticut. Photo provided by Matthew Dicks.

Kaleigh at home in Connecticut. Photo provided by Matthew Dicks.

I call the doctor the next day and I tell him, I say, “She's already walking,” and he says, “That’s impossible.”  And I say, “I know, but it happened.” 

Kaleigh is 16 years old today and she is still with me.  Every morning I wake up and the first thing I do is I check to see if she's still breathing, because she is an old dog.  She has bad skin that makes the entire house smell.  She is completely deaf.  She is slightly blind.  She doesn’t run anymore but she hobbles around our house and she eats and she snores and she still sits at my feet while I write every single morning. 

I've been asked many, many times, “Do you think you would have made that decision if you hadn’t been sleepwalking?  If you had been fully awake would you have agreed to those ridiculous odds and spent that enormous amount of money on your dog?”

And I understand the question.  It’s a reasonable question to ask if you're not me.  But if you're me, you know that Kaleigh was a thing that I loved as much as anything else in the world, and she still is.  She is a member of our family. 

If you're me or if you're Elysha you know that there really wasn’t a decision to make that night whether you were awake or whether you were asleep.  When the doctor called and gave us the odds and told us how much it was going to cost, I know it was an easy decision.  It was a decision I could have made in my sleep.  Thank you.


Part 2: Simon Donner

It’s 2:00 a.m.  I’m in Madagascar.  It is the middle of the wet season.  The air is completely still and it’s hot.  That type of sticky tropical heat where you don’t want anything to touch your skin. 

So I’m lying on top of the sheets, I would levitate above them if I could, and I’m completely naked.  Listen, no one said science is pretty.  And I just desperately want to get to sleep. 

And then a man falls out the window above me and lands on top of me on the bed. 

The trip had not been going well.  I'd come to Madagascar to visit a coral reef field program.  It was a project being run by a conservation group.  At the time, my research was more on the computer modeling side.  I was studying how climate change was affecting the world’s coral reefs.  I started doing field work, but I felt that I needed to learn more about how to run a project like the one these people had.  They were nice enough to say I could come as a visiting scientist for six weeks or a couple of months. 

So I pack myself off there, traveled around Madagascar, but they warned me one thing.  I might be coming a little bit off schedule and I might miss their transport.  The city nearby was only 150 kilometers away so I thought, what’s the big deal?  I’m sure I can get there. 

I did miss the transport.  So I was able to find out with some help that there was a fishing company, a French company that drove trucks up and down the coast picking up squid from all the villages.  I managed to get a lift from the fishing company.  Again, they warned me it’s wet season and humid.  It might be a little bit slow.  The roads aren’t that good during the wet season. 

But it’s only 150 kilometers.  How long could it possibly take?  I mean, it was the coast.  It’s as flat as a board.  There's no mountains to cross.  So I was like, you know, maybe a few hours or something. 

So I was waiting.  When the man landed on me, there was some confusion.  He was French, a French expat, of which there are many in the coastal towns of Madagascar.  He was drunk and, as I said, he was quite confused.  We exchanged some words.  The words were spoken in a variety of different languages and I can’t really recount any of them here.  That’s for the best. 

But we came to a mutual understanding that he had entered the wrong room and he had also entered the room the wrong way.  So he was nice enough to leave out the door and I tried to get back to sleep. 

A day later, and I mean a day in the scientific sense, it was exactly 24 hours later, I climbed out of that same bed, unglued myself from the sheets basically, and walked off to go and pick up the truck.  I was a bit suspicious as to why I had to meet it at 2:00 a.m. but that’s what they told me. 

So we loaded on some bags, 50 kilogram bags of rice.  They made sure the fish coolers in the back were all secure.  I got on, there were a few other passengers, and off we went. 

It was a bumpy ride.  It was not good for somebody with a lower-back problem but I was surviving.  It was kind of an interesting adventure.  We forded some rivers, we passed on this road.  There was part sand, part rock.  It was kind of exciting.  We got stuck in the mud.  By hour three, that got a little tiresome, but we kept going.  We were able to get back out. 

Then at some point getting around lunchtime I was told, “Oh, the truck stops in the next village.  That’s as far as it goes.”  And we were only maybe like a third of the way.  But they said, “Don’t worry.  There's another truck.  You can just get on the next one.”

And there was another truck.  The driver was nice enough to say I could sit next to him.  I was like, okay.  I'll sit on the seat next to him.  Not the passenger seat.  That was like an actual seat.  Next to the driver, between the driver and the passenger seat.  Well, it wasn’t really a seat.  There was no back and there was no base really either, actually.  There was no pad.  It was really just the metal frame, like the outer frame of the truck.  So that was really the only thing between me and the engine block. 

It was hot.  I moved side to side probably once every two minutes to just avoid scalding my butt, basically.  Definitely it was not good sitting on a metal seat for my lower back, although the heat probably helped a little bit.  It was therapeutic. 

So we travelled on.  We stopped in some villages.  We unloaded rice.  We loaded squid.  Got back off.  And the day kept going on and it started to get dark and it didn’t seem like we were anywhere near where I was going yet.  And it became clear that when it got dark we weren’t going any further. 

So we stopped in another village and they said, “We have to spend the night here.  This truck, this is as far as it goes.  But don’t worry.  There will be another one.  You can take it in the morning.” 

And everyone is very generous and hospitable.  They let me stay in somebody’s hut on the beach and they fed us dinner, they fed us breakfast.  And I was all excited about the next truck. 

And I would ask around, “Le camion, is it here?”  It turned out no truck.  In fact, nobody had seen the third truck in days, which is something you think they might have mentioned earlier. 

So I was stuck.  I wandered off to the beach and started thinking about whether it would be possible to buy one of the local fishermen’s canoes and I could paddle it up shore.  Whether that would be culturally appropriate to even ask? 

And someone came up to me and said, “Oh, you're going to the Andavadoaka.  We can drive you almost all the way there.” 

I said, “Okay.  Great.”  And he had a boat and he was a lovely guy.  His name was Dominic.  It sounded great. 

He says, “We’re just getting ready to leave.” 

I said, “Okay,” and I ran and grabbed my backpack, ran down to the beach and waited for about five hours.  And then we got in the boat and then we took off. 

It turned out to be a little bit of a milk run.  I think more accurately I would call it a squid run.  We stopped in a village.  It wasn’t clear why at first.  We got out and Dominic went up the beach and they had a little thing set up there with a scale.  He weighed a bunch of squid and then he gave the fishermen some money, and then all the guys in the boat loaded them to the coolers and we got back into the boat.  And then off we went again. 

So I learned that the reason Dominic was going up and down the coast, he was part of this massive global supply chain for squid.  They buy the squid from these fishermen in these tiny little villages, the Vezo people that do this fishing in the coast of Madagascar.  They buy the squid, transport in their little boat on ice, move onto the trucks, the trucks then move them to the port, from the port gets on a ship, goes on another ship and ends up in somebody’s dinner plate somewhere.  We were just at the very beginning of that supply chain. 

So we stop at another village.  At that point I’m like, well, I’m in Madagascar.  When in Madagascar I guess this is what you do, so I help load squid and everything.  We did this a number of times.  Time passed and basically we reached the last village of his stop pretty much right as it was getting dark.  We were going through blasting rain out on the ocean so actually it was at the point we were cold. 

Simon Donner shares his story at the Anza Club in Vancouver. Photo by Rob Shaer.

Simon Donner shares his story at the Anza Club in Vancouver. Photo by Rob Shaer.

We land on the beach and this is the end of the run.  This is the end of Dominic’s run and I’m not actually at the field site yet. 

So they tell me, “You can stay here.  Don’t worry.  Just you'll stay in the village tonight and tomorrow morning another boat can take you the last 15 kilometers or so.”  Dominic and the squid will go back the other way.  So it’s great. 

We walk over to a series of huts and Dominic and I walk to the one he normally stays in, that the village is nice enough to let him stay in.  He looks at the double bed in the village, it’s not really a bed, I would say.  It’s a double-mattress on the ground.  I’m sorry, in the hut.  And he looks at me and he just says, “Ca va?  Is this okay?” 

So of course it’s okay.  At this point I’m used to sleeping with strangers here so that’s fine.  So we settled into bed, smelling of squid of course. 

Got up in the morning.  People made us a very nice breakfast.  I asked around, “Is there a boat?  You think somebody could just give me a lift up the coast?” 

So I go in and, “No, no, no.  No boats.  It’s not possible.  The wind is going the wrong way.  You can’t do it at this time of the year.”  I surmised from that that there's also no engines that could push someone that way. 

So at that point I was starting to get a little bit desperate.  It had been two days and I was only trying to go 150 kilometers.  Somebody then said, “Well, if you wait until 11:00 a.m. you can take a Zebu.” 

Now, my French, and I’m ashamed as a Canadian to say this, is not that great.  I wasn’t exactly sure what they were saying but I was confident that ‘Zebu’ is not a word that I'd heard in French before.  What could it possibly be?  I kept hearing ‘Zebu’, ‘Zebu’, ‘Zebu’.  Wait.  Zebu like the cattle?  Which is like the word they use for cows. 

And that’s what he meant.  So I was like, “So I’m riding a cow?  What’s the plan here?” 

It turned out it was an ox cart and it was leaving at 11:00 a.m.  I don't know if that’s the schedule.  I didn’t look on the posting, but there's no app.  So I was like, “Well, this is what, you know, when in Madagascar…”

So at 11:00 a.m. I loaded onto the ox cart together with the ox cart driver’s son, a lovely local guy named Dolph, a whole pile of our bags.  The cart was only about 3’ by 5’.  It was tied in there, and a 15-horsepower boat engine. 

I don't know why the engine was there.  I really wanted to ask somebody, “Couldn’t we just be using it?”  But it didn’t seem appropriate at the time.  I was happy at least there was some sort of transportation.  So we go off in the ox cart, we cross at low tide and we’re back on the road.  It looks like I’m actually finally getting there. 

But an ox cart is not the most comfortable thing in the world.  We’re bouncing over these rocks on the road and it is just killing my back.  I can’t believe it.  I’m almost there and I feel like I can’t take it.  So I jump out of the ox cart and think I'll just walk.  It’s not going that fast anyways. 

Then of course it picks up speed.  So I start running beside it and I ended up running the last 10 to 12 kilometers of this trip holding on to an ox cart, just so they didn’t get away from me and everything.  I basically look like a Malagasy secret service agent protecting the ox cart. 

When we got there it took in total sixty hours.  That’s six-zero hours.  If you do the math and I’m a scientist and I had a lot of time to kill, so I did the math, it’s about two-and-a-half kilometers an hour, which is what I probably could have walked.  If you count the days I was waiting in the town just for the truck, I actually could have swam there. 

But it was a great trip.  What’s fascinating about it to me all these years later, this was over 10 years ago for me, as in now what I do at UBC, I've been doing field research for a number of years now.  I've done projects in a number of different countries in all sorts of different conditions and I've had to negotiate for boats, for trains, for planes.  I literally tried to stop a 737 from taking off once because it didn’t have our gear in it.  I've done all these things and I have photos of these, just all these great memories all around my office.  They're all in the office walls. 

And there's one photo that’s kind of out of place.  It’s not on the wall.  It’s right next to my desk and it’s of the truck.  The very first truck.  I like looking at that photo because the truth is I don't remember anything I learned from that field project that visit, and I was there for like six weeks I think.  But I remember this trip really well. 

And that’s the thing about science.  These days in science, there's so much obsession about the findings.  You need to get the publication out, you want to make sure it’s getting attention.  But science is about the process.  Science is about the journey to the findings.  It’s about how you got there.  It’s about the steps that you took. 

The truck always reminds me that.  It is about the journey.  It is about the journey and not the destination.  Thank you.