The phrase “human-animal bond” gets a lot of currency in veterinary medicine as does the acronym-worthy but mouthful-of-marbles-sounding “Veterinary-Client-Patient Relationship.” Yet we almost never hear about the most critical bond and the one that most impacts the success of any veterinary care. The veterinarian-client bond -- yeah, I just left out the patient. Sorry about that, but I’m going to ask Frisky over there to step out of the room for a while.
Most pictures of veterinary medicine are, not surprisingly, animal centric. Really, who thinks of a veterinarian without some doe-eyed critter coming to mind? Yet pre-conceptions aren’t always healthy to any relationship. A strange and smelly bag of conflicting ideas gets towed behind the “vets love animals unconditionally” image.
“So I guess you went to vet school because you like animals better than people?” “If you really cared about animals, you would fix Fluffy’s leg for free.” “I should have been a veterinarian; I just love animals. I can’t go to the shelter and see all their cute, little faces without adopting something.” “How many animals do you have at home?” (Expected answer: two less than the Los Angeles Zoo. Actual answer: Right now, none.) And the one I’ve heard most since the practice where I worked closed earlier this year: “Oh, you must miss your patients so much.”
It’s reasonable to assume that your veterinarian has an affinity for and maybe even LOVES animals. There’s little other reason, beyond significant cranial trauma, for a mentally competent adult to choose a profession involving truckloads of hair, poop, blood, and pus – not to mention teeth, claws, beaks, and hooves – other than a love of animals. But while animals bring us to the profession, that love is not always unconditional, and it’s not the only reason we stay.
Think of a schoolteacher. Chances are, some sort of compassion for or enjoyment of sugared-up nine-year olds gets a teacher into the classroom in the first place. However, it may not be reasonable to assume that the teacher is filled with ecstasy when those same darlings tramp mud across the floors or pass the same notes to each other that their great-great grandparents passed around the school house a century ago.
The life of a large animal veterinarian is an unusual one, simultaneously solitary and remarkably intimate. We become involved in our clients’ lives on a different scale than our small animal colleagues, a scale that is almost archaic by any professional standard. Though much of our day is spent alone in the truck, it isn’t a career for the anti-social. Our appointment times can run an hour or more rather than the typical 10 to 15 minute office call. We visit our clients’ ranches and homes. Their children fetch buckets and hand us bandage supplies. We know not only how our patients are housed, but we see the evidence of the changing fortunes of their owners all around us.
I lived that life for 10 years.
"Do you miss your patients?” Some of them. I don’t miss being kicked. I don’t yet miss the smell of amniotic fluid clinging to my arms at 2 a.m. I don’t miss trying to halter break yet another weanling that has somehow missed ever seeing that outlandish nylon contraption. Instead, ask me what I do miss.
I miss the people. I miss the clients who invited me into their homes for dinner after a long emergency. I miss the multiple people who told me “If you’re driving out in our area just come on into the house if you need a break. Even if we’re at work, use the bathroom, grab something out of the fridge, whatever. Make yourself at home.” I miss the children: kids who I first taught how to properly hold their horse’s lead rope, and whom I watched grow to adulthood. I miss the rancher who cried as I euthanized his horse. I miss the stable owner venting about the state of her marriage as I changed the wrap on her horse’s leg. I miss the cowboy – my political and philosophical opposite – who dubbed me “The Corriente Queen of the Northern San Joaquin” and whom I would trust with my life. (Corriente are roping cattle of Mexican origin. The San Joaquin is a long, boring valley running down the middle of California.)
It was always about the people for me. And making my job about the people helped me to do better by their animals. One of the quirks about veterinary medicine is that people who go into vet school out of a deep love for animals have to be able to detach emotionally from those animals in order to treat them effectively. It’s pretty hard to do surgery if you’re feeling guilty about causing discomfort.
But it’s also a hard, if not ethically impossible, job to do without carrying a hefty load of compassion. Otherwise we should just turn our clinics over to Skynet now. (Oh, come on. You’ve seen the Terminator movies. Admit it and move on.) So if we’ve already established that the vet is not going to be terribly useful at delivering that pygmy goat kid if she’s in tears listening to the doe scream, where can she stack that compassion?
Yep, it goes to my clients.
My last few weeks in private practice reminded me of something that had been poking around the edges of my consciousness. My job wasn’t about doing surgery. It wasn’t about dispensing medications, giving shots, or suturing wounds. My job boiled down to one thing: making someone’s day better, or at least less crappy.
Okay, you say, all this touchy-feely stuff is making me sick, and what good is it going to do me or my pet? Fair question. Imagine two scenarios.
One: You bring your dog/cat/horse in for vaccinations. You’re running 15 minutes late because you couldn’t find the leash/the cat escaped the carrier twice/the horse trailer had a flat tire. And, you just picked your 4th grader up from school, and boy will you two be having a discussion about that report card tonight! And don’t even get started about the fact that your spouse still isn’t answering that cell phone.
Now, this appointment can go one of two ways. (It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure story. You remember those, don’t you?)
Scenario A: You enter, snapping at your kid every time he opens his mouth (can’t blame you there), glaring at the vet (not his fault; he was on time), and dialing your spouse’s cell every 30 seconds (the battery died, get over it.)
The vet in turn vaccinates the dog/cat/horse after a cursory and mostly silent exam, and you both go your separate ways. (Please don’t yell at the receptionist on her way out. It isn’t her fault, either.) You return, maybe, the next time you get a reminder card in the mail.
Scenario B: You arrive late, frazzled, and still ticked at your kid (really, who can argue with that?), but you apologize for being late, explain that you can’t get ahold of your spouse and you’re kind of worried, and that it has been one of those days.
The vet commiserates, admits to having spilled coffee on her blouse at lunch - hence the disturbing scrub top with the puppies dressed in clown suits - and asks if you’d like a glass of water. She then examines your dog/cat/horse, answering all of your kid’s thoughtful and intelligent questions (yeah, the same kid who got a D in science). She also discusses the fact that the dog/cat/horse has a bit of a spare tire, and talks to your kid about not sharing lunch with the dog/cat/horse. Your kid is now planning to do a project on his pet’s diet and exercise program for the science fair, and you’ve scheduled dental work for said pet next month. The veterinarian finds herself agreeing to talk at career day, and the 4th grader makes her cookies. Meanwhile, the dog/cat/horse loses the necessary pounds, has healthy teeth and gums, and lives to see your kid go off to college.
Your animal and veterinarian can have the best bond in the world, but if you and your vet don’t click, it won’t matter that your horse wants to take up residence in her back pocket. Relationships are about people, and one person is not a relationship.