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Vet Talk

The Gods of Venipuncture and Other Veterinary Superstitions
July 28, 2014 (published)


Graphic by Tamara Rees, Copyright VIN

Broken mirrors, spilled salt, the number 13? Child’s play.

Walking under a ladder or opening an umbrella in the house? Black cats? No problem. Especially the cats - they’re just cute.

Your run-of-the-mill superstitions? Bring ‘em on. Veterinarians have bigger fish (our apologies to any pet koi) to fry.

You see, veterinarians prostrate ourselves daily before the Gods of Venipuncture, offer muttered sacrifice to the Demons of Scheduling, and pay tribute to the Lokis of bandaging, surgery, and myriad other procedures.

At a farm visit, I tied the last knot of suture and exhaled. The cow was still standing and breathing. The calf was breathing. I was still breathing. My assistant opened her mouth. “That went pretty w---“

“DON’T SAY IT!”

New assistants always have to be trained. You don’t say that surgery went well until the animal is fully recovered – by which I don’t mean recovered from anesthesia or even suture removal at a follow up. I mean, in the case of an animal such as this cow, has lived several more years and given birth to two or three calves who can replace her.

You also never say “It’s really slow lately,” “Gee, we’ve been nice and busy,” “Haven’t seen a fill-in-the-blank-disaster lately,” or “such-and-such complication has never happened.”

There are clients or pets who, like Voldemort, shall not be named because to name them is to summon either their wrath down upon the practice or, in the case of nice but unlucky clients, the wrath of the veterinary gods down upon them.

Some of these veterinary superstitions are universal. EVERYONE knows you never say how great a vein looks until the IV catheter is placed or you’ve drawn sufficient samples to sate Dracula. Otherwise you might as well hold up a sign begging the Venipuncture Gods to smite you.

Also, veterinarians and technicians MUST have at least one more of any item than they will need in order to succeed. Need to place an IV catheter? You must have a spare in your pocket or the first will fail. Vaccinating a pasture full of horses? You must take with you at least one extra dose of each vaccine, two spare syringes, and a handful more needles than horseheads in the field. It’s a rule.

Certain phrases from animal owners spell doom. The dog that “never bites” will be Cujo in fluffball clothing. The house or farm you “can’t miss” is unknown to Google Earth, NSA satellites, and even old-fashioned road maps. “Don’t worry, Doc; he never kicks” is a phrase that sends ambulance lights ripping through my brain. And no animal should EVER be named "Lucky."

Some veterinary superstitions are more individualized.

A technician and I had what we called the “Get Better; Get Dead” speech. Some horses responded quite well when you informed them that they had exhausted their owners’ budgets and that their only options were to “Get better or get dead.” However, on certain breeds and types of horse, this tactic would backfire horribly. Thus evolved our RULE.

Only use the get better/get dead speech on Paints, Quarter Horses, or Appaloosas. The horse must be ornery enough to want to live just to spite you. If you give the speech to an Arabian, Morgan, or Thoroughbred, it will panic and decide that its job is to die.

As I conceived this post, I wondered how many of my colleagues had these deeply held rules and rituals for practice success. We (the VetzInsight crew) started a thread on a message board for the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession and the parent company for VetzInsight, asking colleagues to chime in with their weird and wacky superstitions.

Many posts covered the categories I’ve listed above – the-pet/owner-who-shall-not-be-named, the Venipuncture Gods, etc. But then there were some new ones:

“If they play 'Don't Fear the Reaper' on the radio prior to or during my shift, I am at risk of performing euthanasia in sets of three. They played it tonight. I'm hoping that the mosquito I killed counts. Waiting for the other two.”

“If you label the blood tube before you attempt venipuncture, your subsequent effort will fail. Don't label the blood tube until after you get the blood."

“Don't name your dog after the vet - At least in my case all three dogs ended up getting euthanized for aggression problems. Hmmmm.”

“We currently have a cage set up for a kitty who for a while would only eat in the clinic - she'd come in, eat like a pig and go home to starve herself...She has been eating well at home for 2 weeks now, but none of us will clean her cage! We also have a cage that is only used for well dogs e.g. spays etc. as we have had three sick dogs die in it....”

“We have some very specific superstitions. For example, if I'm working on a Saturday with technician J--, I will never let him go home early, no matter what shift he's working, no matter how slow it may be, no matter how many technicians are standing around twiddling their thumbs. Everyone else can go home but not J--, because if he goes, all hell breaks loose. It's so bad that one Saturday went straight from 0 to 60 just because his wife called to find out whether he thought he'd be out on time, and when he said 'Yes' she said, 'Good, I just put the lasagna in the oven.' I'm pretty sure we had three bloats and a pyo en route before he even hung up the phone. Sundays, he can go home whenever he wants.”

“One of my techs believes that if she pours out exactly the number of pills required for the prescription, she will have good luck.”

“If I'm doing surgery and things aren't going right, I change to a different size surgery glove. From 6.5 to 7.0 or the reverse, and everything clears up!”

One veterinarian in the thread, clearly tempting fate, posted that we are scientists and can’t believe such nonsense. I hope he spun around three times and tossed salt over his left shoulder after writing that.

From the outside, it may look like he has a valid point. I mean, scientists should be all serious and data-driven and stuff, right? Well, yes, data is good. But there are some deeper things floating to the surface with every ritual and “Don’t say that!”

For all that we base our decisions and treatments on the best possible information and evidence, there is an uncomfortable reality in medicine. Sometimes life, death, and even anatomy just don’t cooperate. We can do everything right, and our patients might still die. Veins are not always exactly where they are supposed to be (it’s called anatomical variation). Scheduling – well, who knows who/what controls that!

Our superstitions give us a way of laughing in the face of an uncertain universe and even a small illusion that we can control the uncontrollable. We know better, of course, but these things still make us feel more solidly planted in the vastness that is reality.

And, some of them may even work.

There. Written. That went w-----AAAAAAAGH!!!!

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