Talking with people has always been one of my passions. Maybe it is the Southern woman in me, but I can carry on a conversation with just about anyone.
My father was the physician in a small community in rural Georgia. Growing up we frequently went on house calls with him after hours, or had people come to our house. Our butcher-block kitchen island was big enough for a large man to lie flat on his back for an exam. I distinctly remember several occasions of getting out the double duty cleaners to remove blood from the countertop after stitching up someone’s injuries. All of my best girlfriends had their ears pierced while sitting on that same countertop. In all of these interactions, we welcomed people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, race, gender, and socioeconomic status into our home during a time of need. I learned a lot about love and acceptance from my father. Dad made everyone feel welcome and important. He could cheer up a sad person with an encouraging word or a funny story. He genuinely wanted to know how everyone in the family was doing, and if little Johnny was doing better in math this year. But most of all, Dad taught me the importance of listening to people.
Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone wants to be heard. The story may be happy or sad, funny or boring, and even hopeful or despairing. Sometimes people are angry and need to say their piece without receiving excuses from others for what happened. Sometimes people are seeking support and justification without judgement.
Recently, I met with a client who needed just that: support and justification without judgement.
I teach veterinary students how to be vets. It's a hard job and comes with a lot of responsibility. A lot of learning truly happens after vet school. One of the things they do not teach in vet school is how to communicate with people. In fact, some individuals decide to become vets instead of medical doctors because the thought of talking to people all day is stressful. That's an interesting concept considering all we do all day long is talk to people: clients, staff members, fellow veterinarians, public figures, family and friends. Communication is vital to making sure you get out alive: literally. Luckily, many veterinary schools around the country have realized this and are implementing communications training into their curriculum.
One of the most important lessons I teach my students is that it doesn't matter how smart you are or how much medical knowledge you have if you cannot communicate with your clients, then you cannot actually use what you know.
Just this week we had an opportunity to practice our communication skills with a client who was emotionally suffering with a decision she had to make. The experience with this client is one that I will never forget because it taught me so much as a young veterinarian. But I also know how impactful it was for the veterinary students as well.
Susie is a cute Boston Terrier that we have been treating for about seven years for severe allergies. It takes a lot of owner dedication to keep her at a low itch level – but let's be honest, she is always itchy! She is not perfect, but her quality of life is good when she can be bathed several times per week, lotioned and wiped every day, and several oral and injectable medications given daily. She’s a LOT of work. I complain about brushing my kids’ teeth. I could not imagine living with such a special needs dog.
The student went into the exam room alone to get a medical history and a cursory physical exam on Susie. This time alone with the clients and pet is an important part of their learning, because we quiz them on what they found and what they want to do to help the pet. It gives them a chance to practice thinking like a veterinarian. When the student returned from his ten-minute encounter with the owner, he looked distressed.
“What’s wrong? Is the dog okay?” was my first question.
“Well, the dog’s a mess. But the owners…they want to….I mean…give her away,” he managed to get out.
“What? They’ve had this dog for nine years! Did they say why?” I asked, feeling confused and alarmed.
“Well, no, they didn’t. She just said they couldn’t do it anymore,” he responded.
“But did you ask what's going on?”
“No,” answered the student.
“Always ask. Always listen. There is more to the story than you heard,” I told him gently.
We formulated a plan to discuss regarding Susie’s skin condition, and we entered the room. Right away, the client was nervous. She was sitting in a ball in her chair with her hands in her lap writhing over and over each other. Her eyebrows were up high on her forehead and her eyes were wide, her mouth slightly parted. Her shoulders were touching her ear lobes. She was worried. I also noticed that this was not the usual owner that brings Susie to see us.
We cut to the chase as there was no point in letting this poor woman suffer in her own thoughts any longer.
“I understand things have been really tough with Susie at home. Tell me what’s going on,” I say.
She is hesitant to share the story but begins to paint a difficult picture. She is the daughter-in-law of the true owner, who has recently been placed in an assisted living facility. Susie means everything to her mother-in-law, and to them as well. She is the sweetest dog. So loving. Gives kisses to everyone. They made a promise to her mother-in-law that they would take wonderful care of Susie. But they simply can’t. The owner becomes reluctant to continue.
I encourage her along with a sincere smile and head nod. “Please, go on,” I say.
It’s not about money or a lack of willingness to take care of her. They want her to be happy, but they just don’t have the time to devote to her needs anymore. As a result, she has gotten severely itchy and lost a ton of hair, and they feel plain awful about it. Life is busy for them between making a promotion at work, taking the mother-in-law (Susie’s owner) to all of her doctor’s appointments, her teenage son being…well…a teenager, and her own mother initiating treatment for breast cancer. She stops for a moment and then says,
“I know this sounds so terrible and that I’m a bad person, but we want to find her a new home. A loving home that will take wonderful care of her. Someone who can give her the attention she needs. We will pay for whatever medical expenses she has. It’s not about the money.”
I look her square in the eyes and say, “I need you to know that what you have told me is so brave. So commendable. So honest. You are in no way a bad person. You're a wonderful person for doing this.”
At that, she sobs. Her shoulders leave the elevated position next to her ears and fall back to their resting place. She brings her hands to her face and just lets go of the stress she has been carrying. “Thank you for saying that,” she manages to get out between sobs.
There is always a story that deserves to be heard. In true human nature, we are quick to assume more than we know and to pass judgement unfairly upon someone’s situation. You're not there. You're not living that life. You don't truly understand. People who ask for help deserve to be applauded.
As I walked away from the client with tears in my eyes and a smile, my fingers found their way to the locket I wear every day. A picture of my father is inside. He would have been so proud. I chose to help. I chose to support without judgment. I chose to listen.
May 28, 2018
Carol Hershey, DVM
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Pierre M. Laberge
February 23, 2018
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 email@example.com.