“Goldie doesn’t look right. She’s standing sort of funny.”
It’s odd how a couple of seemingly benign sentences can bring back remembered chills nearly 20 years after the fact.
Veterinarians talk among ourselves about our “bone piles,” the failures we’ve experienced, the patients we’ve lost, the mistakes we’ve made in our careers. Like our human medical counterparts, we all have them. Loss is part of playing the game of life.
But there are bones in the yard we don’t mention very often. Some of the skeletons draped in the tatters of our failed efforts belong to a special class of patient, a class where the guilt and shame of failure weigh very heavy – our own pets.
Sometimes the shame is merely occupational – “I’m a veterinarian, so I should be able to save my own animal.” Sometimes the guilt comes from knowing we made a mistake that wouldn’t have happened had we not been so attached to the patient; there’s a reason physicians don’t treat family members. And sometimes, we bear the shame of being human, of not having paid close enough attention, or of having done (or left undone) something that harms our pet. The latter often feels the worst, since it’s overlaid with a thick layer of “I’m a veterinarian. I know better.”
Goldie was my horse, my first horse, and my first love. At the time of the phone call, she was 28 years old and living in premature retirement at a boarding stable. I was a senior in veterinary school and it’s pretty safe to say that Goldie had received far less of my time over the previous four years than many of the horses in the county. Just the stable owner’s voice over the phone lines that Christmas Eve (yes, these things always happen at the holidays, even to veterinarians) sent a cold wave of shame down the backs of my legs. I hadn’t been out to see my horse in weeks, and as a perpetually broke student, I wasn’t even sure I’d managed to keep up on my board bill.
And now, my dear friend, whom I’d neglected in my pursuit of “saving” other animals and out of the all too human desire to avoid watching someone I love grow old, was ill. I managed to stammer, “Let me know if she eats her dinner. If not, we should call the vet.”
Goldie turned out to be colicking, and the impaction causing her symptoms required surgery to correct. It turned out that her teeth had worn with age to the point that she was no longer able to chew her food properly. I had been so busy learning to care for other people’s horses that I hadn’t bothered to look in my own horse’s mouth.
It was five years before I could sit through a talk on colic in horses without wanting to flee or crawl under the chair. For the first three years or so of that period, I avoided the subject (one of the major medical conditions of horses) as though it were some esoteric disease found only in a country I’d never visit.
I’m not alone. We don’t discuss it often, but just about every veterinarian has experienced that stabbing moment when we realize that the fractured bone of our humanity has pierced the skin of our medical expertise.
So what happens when reality strikes too close to home? What of the vet whose dog gets into the sugar free gum, whose cat gets run over in its own driveway, who forgets that the pet was in the car on the hot day, whose horse gets tangled in that bit of barbed wire fencing that never got around to being replaced? You could argue that a veterinarian who can’t even take proper care of his own animal, or whose pet dies in surgery, or who totally misses the diagnosis on her own pet, is a poor excuse for an animal doctor. After all, if you can’t treat your own animals, why should I trust you to treat mine?
Here’s the funny thing about the ground beneath the bone pile. Those mistakes and traumas compost into some pretty fertile soil, and amazing things can grow from that earth.
The vet who misses the diagnosis of diabetes in her own cat until it’s too late? You better believe she will take a darn thorough history and do an amazingly detailed exam on her feline patients. The practitioner whose pup gets parvo? You’d better believe he will do a great job educating clients about the need for vaccines.
And as for me? Goldie lived to the ripe old age of 36 (the equine equivalent of eleventy hundred), and I never forgot the lessons she taught me. I wound up being the go-to doc in our practice for geriatric horse care, and the first magazine article I ever pitched was on that subject. I understood, better than I would have without my own bones in the yard, both the needs of my patients and the guilt and fears of their owners.
“Ever try. Ever fail. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett