Bet on a Good Vet

Imagine hordes of people coming to you for salvation because you are the one who can make their beloved whole again.

We’re not talking about any beloved here, but the one upon whom no expense is spared and for whom no sacrifice is too great. The beloved who never criticized, lied or undermined. The one who never demanded that stillness be filled with needless words. The one who offered only kisses and cuddles during tumult and turmoil.

The people present their beloveds to you in totes, slings or cradled in their arms. The hand-off is warm but not without a chill of doubt. Their beloved’s furrowed brow belies their pain.

You summon your powers to build rapport with a being who does not speak your language but who deftly senses your intent. You gently survey and probe while culling from your collective experience. You draw from your well of aplomb to deliver news to the being who shares your language but who may ultimately laud or despise you for your candor. Perhaps worse, you might say that not enough is known from the initial contact and that more diagnostics are needed, leaving all concerned on tenterhooks.

A torn cranial cruciate ligament (ACL)  provokes concern, but not alarm, while a gastric dilation and volvulus (GDV) yells all hands on deck for emergency surgery. Sadly, the aging Little Miss Muffet may have come to you because her sleep-wake cycle is disturbed, she has begun soiling the house or she has developed a fear of favorite places. Is it an organic disease of the brain or is it dementia? There is no comfort in either possibility.

Regardless of the malady fate rests with you, the veterinarian. Whether it is rational or not, the human parents of animal companions have imbued you with the power to mend or tear asunder.

Though my fellow colleague speech pathologists and I face the weighty task of offering pining families an array of prognostications about their loved one’s cognitive-linguistic or swallow functioning, the thought of delivering dire news to a grief-struck pet parent frankly makes me wilt. No wonder, then, that individual vets - just like “human” doctors, must develop coping skills that enable them to perform their daily charges. In other words, how do they engage their patients and patient’s families without becoming enmeshed with them.

Each veterinarian has his or her own unique coping mechanism. Such will be reflected in their interactions with the pets and people that they serve. Sterling communication skills often accompany surgical hands of gold, but not always. Several members of a pet-loss support group I’ve attended lament about how brusque, cavalier and downright detached their practitioners were in their service delivery.

Could these descriptions in part be magnified by the searing grief the mourners of lost pets were living through? Perhaps. It could also be that these gruff practitioners were exhibiting their coping mechanism, however cruel and inept: a defense against a barrage of feelings they could not otherwise repel or accept. I find it hard to believe that anyone motivated to join a profession dedicated to animal healing has a heart of stone.

Veterinary medicine in under threat from without and from within. If the movement to grant people-status to pets galvanizes, veterinarians may find themselves sued for wrongful death in exorbitant amounts that preclude their very survival; vets just don’t command the boku bucks of their human-doctor counterparts and cannot afford comparable sky-high malpractice premiums.

The more formidable, threat, however, is implosion from plain-old, crappy interpersonal skills. In his thoroughly engaging account of a pieced-together day in the life of one vet, Tell Me Where It Hurts, author, Dr. Nick Trout, DVM, cites a suggestion that “bad communication, miscommunication, or blatant lack of communication accounts for up to 80 percent of legal actions against veterinarians . . .” He goes on to counsel high school students who profess a desire to become a vet because they would get to deal with animals and not people: “Veterinarians get to work with animals. We get to work for people.”

Meanwhile, it is incumbent upon us to understand the veterinarian’s complex roles as diagnostician, healer and comforter, all of which he or she must keep in perfect, proportional balance like the plate-spinner in a circus. At this constellation of skills, some vets will shine and some will suck, others will lie in between. Ultimately, it is up to us to choose our practitioners wisely and realistically and to be compliant with their recommendations.

The responsibility for holistic care of our furry beloved should be nothing less than a team effort with every player’s hands - and heart - in the right place.