Margie, it's Dr. Johnson. I have another one. Time to talk?
So many veterinary diseases take pet owners by storm and leave them feeling disoriented -- and sometimes distrustful of the diagnosis and the doctor behind it. Misdiagnoses do happen, but for a pet owner to agree to a diagnostic or treatment plan they have to, at the very least, believe that the doctor has some semblance of knowledge about the disease at hand and isn’t just making things up.
I can think of no more mysterious disease than IMHA , which has led to more raised eyebrows and thought bubbles of “pretty sure the vet just made that disease up” than any other. The speed of onset and the fact that it’s not cancer, trauma, or infection (that unholy trinity of illness), but rather an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks itself (!) only serve to compound the uncertainty and fear surrounding the diagnosis. This void of comfort can really unseat the relationship between pet owner and veterinarian, leaving the patient out in the cold.
Our article on IMHA now has enough commenters to create its own little support group.
It’s disorienting to get a serious diagnosis, such as IMHA, out of the blue. You often feel like you’re the only one who’s ever been in this position, battling the unknown all alone. Just read the litany of heartbreaking comments on the VetzInsight IMHA piece. I’m pretty grizzled from 20 years of ER work and often joke that I have a heart roughly the shape, color, and size of a raisin (maybe a prune on a good day), but these stories still get to me and I’m often in tears right along with the people sharing them.
Getting a scary and serious diagnosis is a sad place to be, and I’ve seen many, many pet owners in this situation. I wanted to do something to help, so I started gathering them up in little groups and getting them to talk to one another.
I once kept a list of good clients who had pets with various diseases and who would serve as a support group for my other clients who were struggling with similar situations. It started with IMHA, but I eventually had support groups for:
I never got around to forming a little circle of eczema survivors, but it was next on my list.
I didn’t pick only people who had good outcomes. For some of the diseases on that list, the odds of a good outcome hovered around the 50% mark. I didn’t want only tales of my medical fancy footwork; I wanted people who had been through it, and who could talk to the scared, the skeptical, and the dubious. Some of my motivation was selfish, to be sure. I was hand-picking these people, so like a politician who picks only cabinet ministers who agree with his position, I did stack the deck with folks who shared certain characteristics with me.
But regardless of the lineup, I often heard back from clients that their discussion partner was a massive help in understanding and working through a difficult diagnosis. And more than one recipient of the discussion groups later turned around, "pay it forward" style, and offered to talk to future clients of mine who could use some help.
It might sound like a bit of work, but I had a little list of clients, ordered by diagnosis, in (warning: low-tech 90s retro reference ahead) a little Rolodex on my desk. When I made the latest diagnosis of IMHA, I just flipped to the I section, and there it was: Margie D., 7-year-old Portuguese water dog, IMHA, Sept 1997: (916) ***-4566 in the block capitals I always write in. (I skipped school the day it taught cursive.)
Hi Margie? It’s Doctor Johnson. I have another one. Time to talk?
There’d be a sigh, a beat, and, almost inevitably, a "Sure, happy to. I hate this disease" comment.
Doctors have only limited time with patients and pet owners. Veterinary practices are busy places, and the rush to see and help as many patients as you can, as well as the realities of keeping the lights on and the staff and creditors paid, means we often can’t spend the time talking, helping, and holding hands like we wish we could. But that doesn’t mean we can’t help.
We can leverage staff to help educate and comfort pet owners, but having owners hear it from someone outside the circle of the hospital―hearing it from another pet owner helps dispel the medical mystery and myth of infallibility. And it adds a human dimension to the long, lonely night of serious illness.
Joan R Roholt
April 27, 2020
February 22, 2017
January 24, 2016
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.