Being a small animal veterinarian for almost two decades has taught me a lot of things.
Of course, I have had my share of surgeries – from routine spays and castrations (although nothing is ever routine) to complicated splenectomies and exploratories that didn’t always have a guaranteed happy ending.
I have treated patients using a variety of medications as there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” treatment plan for all patients.
But there are other aspects of the profession that school doesn’t prepare you for – that which is not written in veterinary textbooks or discussed during lectures.
I have a passion for working with small animals and pocket pets such as guinea pigs, ferrets and rats. And I hope all veterinarians have the same passion, whether it’s for small or large animals.
But we all have one thing in common. Ask any veterinarian what it’s like to diagnose and treat a sick animal – someone’s family member, that doesn’t tell you what part of his body hurts nor complains to you that the medication you just placed him on is making him dizzy and nauseous – and he or she will tell you that it’s extremely gratifying when that patient is back to normal.
It is equally satisfying when a pet parent listens to your recommendations and treatment plans and, for example, manages to have his 85-pound overweight basset bound drop to a healthy 65 pounds. When this happens, you know that your conversation about exercise and nutrition was conveyed well.
These successes allow me to feel needed and appreciated.
I can understand all this now.
But as a novice vet, I never thought about the power of communication. My job was not just about treating and diagnosing and interacting with just the canine or feline patients, but with those who brought them.
I discovered that my patients don’t come on their own. They are accompanied by their human parents, and I have learned that I have to work on communication with pet parents – communication about all sorts of topics.
I have to be a financial adviser to my clients to better guide them to what is the best plan for their pets, without hurting their wallets, because I serve pet parents from different socioeconomic statuses and also from all walks of life. I also have to protect my patients from a negligent and abusive owners, by either educating the pet owners or taking other legal approaches to ensure my patients are safe and out of harm’s way.
Moreover, I have to offer my clients treatment plans for their sick pets and explain diagnosis, prognosis and follow-up plans so that they feel comfortable with the decisions that we make as a team.
In addition, I have to help my clients in making end of life decisions. These are perhaps the hardest conversations to have. They are difficult conversations because the life of their beloved companion that lived a happy, long life is now coming to an end. While they’re upset that they have to say goodbye to their pet, I, too, silently say my goodbyes to the patient I came to love as a puppy and saw mature into an adult. Difficult isn’t it?
Part of communicating is being an active listener. I have to listen to my clients as they guide me through the history and symptoms that their pets are manifesting. By putting all the puzzle pieces together, we can reach a plan for helping each pet.
I also have to be on time for my office calls and get ready to apologize if I am running behind – even if the last one was a dire emergency, and I had to spend extra time to ensure that everything is OK before moving on to my next scheduled appointment. Moreover, I have to be patient and forgiving of my clients if they yell at me because I didn’t respect their time, even though the emergency was not by any means my fault.
Communication also involves being honest and letting pet parents understand that I wear many different hats in the office.
The side that they usually don’t see in the exam room is one of a small business owner.
In the exam room I am a veterinarian. But clients have to understand that while I think about surgeries and treatment plans, I also have to think about things such as the doctor and staff salaries, utilities, rent, a variety of insurance policies, vendor invoices, maintenance costs, utilizing a stocked pharmacy, offering rapid diagnostic results, housing a variety of diagnostic tools such as a digital radiograph, a dental radiograph, an ultrasound, a class IV laser unit – the ability to offer exceptional veterinary services costs money.
As a veterinarian, I have also had to work on my communication with my staff. I found out early in my young career that this job is not a solo job. I have to work with other people: managers, technicians, receptionists, assistants, other veterinarians and many others. I have learned to trust and understand my team from just the look of an eye. I realized that without my team, I can’t perform this job that I pledged to do.
In my years as a veterinarian, I also learned very difficult lesson: Not every person will like me. And unfortunately, I may never know why. So I am left asking myself: What did I do wrong? No matter how well I thought I communicated with a pet parent or how skillfully I performed a surgery or how noble my intentions were, the sentiment that you “can’t please everybody” holds true even in the veterinary world.
Finally, I realized that I if I had the chance to go back in time, I would still pick this calling over again. But I would better prepare for being a vulnerable human being – one who appreciates a word of encouragement, welcomes a pep talk after a very sad morning, needs acceptance of my educated recommendation, is thankful for a forgiving smile when I enter the room a couple of minutes late, embraces the understanding that I, too, have a family with a wife and kids that I am responsible for at the end of the day– and these are my confessions beyond the exam room.