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“There’s a whole world of issues out there that you can’t revise your way into understanding”

30 April 2020, at 2:00pm

People. That’s what they don’t tell you about when you decide you want to be a vet. Yes, you may love animals and be good at science, but pretty soon into the job and you realise there’s a whole world of issues out there that you can’t revise your way into understanding. Each veterinary problem that comes your way also has a maze of human psychological and financial problems attached to it. A good example came my way this week in my favourite ever start to a letter from a vet referring a case to me: “I am referring this nightmare to you, you can thank me later...” and thus ensued a list of the diverse human and veterinary issues that needed to be dealt with.

However, for all the headaches and baggage that people bring to your consult room along with their pets, you start to realise that some of these in fact form some of the most rewarding parts of your job. They can also give you insight into people’s lives that you can carry forward and help you deal with the next tricky customer, and help you realise there is often a reason why they are like that.

A particular case that made a deep impact on me was of an older lady with an equally geriatric Labrador. I dealt with various medical problems with the dog, but as the week went on it became clear that I was losing the battle against a collection of medical ailments, but also mainly against the steady march of time and the grim reaper who will come for us all. This particular lady had always been a difficult client, and stubbornness and reluctance to follow advice had, over the last year, started to blend with the onset of some sort of dementia – forgetfulness, not understanding, turning up to the clinic at random times and demanding to be seen, etc. I am sure we all deal with clients like this.

However, it sometimes isn’t until you spend time with someone and then have to visit their house that it sinks in how different their life is from yours. I’m a pretty averagely emotionally insensitive bloke, but when I walked in the door of that house I wanted to cry. The dog, so long a harbinger of a difficult half hour for staff when it came in the practice, was unable to stand and in the bedroom. This room was waist deep in unwashed bedding; I couldn’t tell what was the dog’s and what was hers – if indeed there ever had been a difference. The bed itself had a bare, stained mattress. The dog peed all over the carpet and the owner didn’t bat an eyelid, so I cleaned up as best I could, as I knew that otherwise it would just add to the already damp floor. We managed to get the dog up the stairs and into the ambulance and back to the practice. Inevitably and tragically the dog was put to sleep a few days later. I just thought of her going back to the house with the only company she had no longer there.

Other clients bring a bit more cheer. I had been fixing up various ailments for a 20-year-old cat over the last few years, a bit like maintaining a classic car. She belonged to an elderly owner who I always thought was in his mid-sixties, but I recently found out he was 80. I imagine when he was younger, he was a “bit of a character”. As he could not drive, he was usually chauffeured by his mate, similar age, ex-military and about 6’3” even allowing for age-related shrinkage. Together they always gave the impression of being two naughty boys let out by their mums for the afternoon. The banter flowed and they always did without question whatever was needed for the cat. So, when the call came in at 9pm for the final visit, to the slightly dodgy end of town where he lived, it was without any huffing and puffing about out of hours visits that I duly trekked out to take my chances getting to the house. The old cat came home wrapped in a blanket knitted for her by his wife. Theirs was, thankfully, a very together family home.

The first story I imagine will have an epilogue. The last time the lady in question lost her only dog, she reappeared at the vets a few weeks later with an almost identical replacement old Lab. I am waiting for the day, not too far away I hope, when the receptionist comes into the office to complain that “she’s back, got another dog and she’s complaining about…” I will let up a little silent cheer, put on my serious face and say “Shall I have a word with her?”