Human/Animal Bond

Uncle Mikey’s Maxims

I was sure I’d screwed up tremendously and had failed Uncle Mikey’s expectations

September 11, 2020 (published)
Although Caleb was a giant dog and not a cat, his people brought Jennifer a mug full of candy as a way of saying thanks. All these years later, the handle is broken but she still uses it to hold pens and as a reminder of what she experienced with Caleb and Uncle Mikey. Photo by Dr. Jennifer Woolf.

The other day I was able to watch a webinar given by one of my favorite veterinary school professors. The topic – emergency medicine – isn’t even one I work in any longer, but this veterinarian was a huge influence on me during school, so I wanted to hear him speak anyway. He was one of those incredibly smart professors with a commanding presence even though he was affectionately referred to as Uncle Mikey. Students felt that he demanded your best and would accept nothing else.

As he went over cases during the webinar, it brought me back to my veterinary school days on Uncle Mikey’s rotation and one of my favorite patients: Caleb.

Caleb was an Irish wolfhound. I’d never seen one before I met him. It was like working with a miniature horse more than a dog. I don’t remember why he was at the veterinary school to begin with, but whatever it was soon took a back seat to a new problem. As a student, I escorted him and his owners into the exam room, took a history, and did my exam. When I listened to his heart, I heard an arrhythmia, something unexpected. The arrhythmia meant there was no pattern to the heart beat, no ‘lub-dub’ if you will. It’s often described as the sound sneakers make when in a dryer. It meant that regardless of why he originally came in, he’d need to stay to run tests on his heart.

Even though Caleb’s workup was finished the next day (nothing life threatening, as I recall), his owners would not be able to pick him up for several days because of the distance they traveled to bring him to the veterinary school in the first place. This meant he’d essentially board with us and I would be responsible for his daily care. Caleb was a really sweet dog. He did not want to stay in his run; he wanted to stay with people. I felt sad for him. In addition to my twice daily required times to feed, water, and walk with him, I also made an effort to take my lunch breaks with him. I would take him outside to an exercise area and sit with him to eat my sandwich and study while he would explore the pen or just sit with me. Every day, I would call his owners just to let them know how he was doing. One day, I told them it might seem silly, but I had him with me during the call, would they like to talk to him? They were delighted as I held the phone to his ear so he could hear their voices. When they picked him up, they kindly brought me a coffee mug with candy in it as an added thank you for his care.

Later during that rotation, my resident found me in the hallway when I was in tears. I don’t remember what case was not going well, but I was sure I’d screwed up tremendously and had failed Uncle Mikey’s expectations and my own. My resident sat me down.

“Do you remember Uncle Mikey’s Maxims?” she asked.

“Sure.” There were many we learned during the four years of school. “Which one?” I choked in response.

“What does he say about caring?”

That was easy. Uncle Mikey always said, “They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

She told me that Uncle Mikey had been watching me with Caleb. He knew that I’d been eating lunches with him to keep him company and make his stay at the veterinary school less lonely. He knew I’d called his owners daily and even let them speak with Caleb.

“Don’t worry about this rotation. Uncle Mikey thinks you’re doing just fine.”

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