The Family Pet by Dr. Michael Trapani - October 2019
The great Bette Davis gave us this quotation, and it may be her very best. It certainly has the ring of truth, for me, anyway. Lately, because I turned 65 last week.
I tell myself that age doesn’t matter, that it’s just a number. But when the number is 65, it matters. I can feel it inside. I get tired sometimes. I’m told that’s pretty common among aging professionals.
People like to believe that being a veterinarian is all about animals: helping animals, saving their lives, and soothing their hurts — and it is. Except when it’s not. I’m in my 38th year of veterinary practice. I’ve learned that every animal has a Person. Hearts are intertwined. Dogs are zen masters who ACCEPT what life brings them. Humans… not so much.
When you accept responsibility for helping an Animal, you have to accept the invisible bond that ties them to their Person. You must accept that a part of your responsibility is to help Person - whether you help Person bring about a successful resolution of Animal’s health problem, or (most of all) when you help Person pass through the despair of Animal’s death. Compassion for Person is required to fulfill your caretaker’s responsibility to Animal. Your dog may be a zen master, but he can’t be at peace if he sees Person suffer. Your cat is, well, a Cat: as the center of the Universe, most Cats knows that Person’s sole purpose is to make Cat happy. But it depends on the cat.
Sometimes helping Person is the hardest part. We humans need to admit it: we’re not very good at managing our emotions. We’re kind of impractical. We bet against long odds because we cling to false hope. We have weird and ever-shifting priorities. Our feelings can change in a second, though we may not notice the difference ourselves.
Navigating these shifting and uncharted waters in the Good Ship Veterinary Medicine is a constant challenge. The veterinarian’s compassion must be broad and include not just animals, but always the adults and children who love them. Lately, there has been a lot of talk in the news about high suicide rates among veterinarians. With suicide rates running somewhere between 2 to 3.5 times the national average, there is plenty of reason for concern. Ours is a difficult profession. It’s impossible to solve every animal’s problem and not every patient does well. Financial constraints borne by pet owners place harsh limitations on what we can do, and inform what we cannot do, to help.
High-tech medicine is wonderful, but not many people have the ability to fork out $3,500 for an MRI study for their pet, even when the information MRI provides could be both enlightening and life saving. I have to ask, what good is "Veterinary Medicine For The One Percent?" How is the availability of such high tech solutions going to help Fluffer, whose family struggles monthly just to pay Sonoma County rent? It’s no wonder that so many veterinarians struggle when they are daily torn between their overwhelming desire to help and the sharp economic limitations imposed by the reality of day to day family life.
I think it’s hardest on the younger generation of veterinarians. These people were educated in an environment full of specialists and cutting edge veterinary capabilities, which they wield with great skill — when their clients can afford them.
It was different for my generation of veterinarians. In the 1980s I was expected to be an isolated, small town doctor. There were no specialists to refer to, no CAT scans or MRIs or PCR blood tests available. We were educated to read the book, apply the principals of our training, and do what had to be done — because there was no one else to do it. For the most part, it works.
But you can’t save them all. You can’t pick up the tab for every deserving animal. And you absolutely cannot fail to pay your bills. Running a veterinary hospital requires lights and water and medications and the help of skilled employees, none of which are available unless the bills are paid: That’s hard on a veterinarian, young or old.
Nevertheless, I persist. If 65 teaches anything, it is to "Keep On Keeping On."