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Sonoma County Gazette
The Family Pet by Dr. Michael Trapani

Why is the Doctor Always Late?

Feb 28, 2018
by Dr. Michael Trapani


I’ve grown accustomed to the day to day chaos that is rural veterinary practice, but I wouldn’t say that I’m used to it. I’ve spent the last (nearly) 36 years in practice without ever really knowing what I’ll be doing five minutes in the future. Oh, I try to keep a strict schedule, but schedule or not, my day is an amalgam of interruptions and spot fires glued together with surprises.

I try to start the day with something simple and predictable: a nail trim maybe, or a health maintenance exam. That way I’ll have a couple of extra minutes to answer first-thing-in-the-morning inquiries and get the exam room ready for the next patient. But too often, that simple, 5-minute nail trim is accompanied by an out-of-the-blue demand for a much more involved procedure that will tie up my technicians for an additional 20 unscheduled minutes.

Now, don’t get me wrong. My staff and I love to say, “Yes” when someone makes a request for care that their pet truly needs. We get it. People aren’t always certain of what their pets require. Some needs simply don’t come to mind until they actually arrive at the office. We try to be accommodating whenever we can. We adjust.

But the words “While I’m here…” are often enough to strike fear in the heart of my schedule keepers. The usual time-sucks are bad enough, whether it’s an uncooperative dog who turns a two-minute blood draw into a twenty minute project, or a ticked off cat who demonstrates its annoyance by redecorating itself and its carrier with piles of poop. We adjust.

Every day there is at least one person who arrives 15 minutes late for their 20 minute appointment, or someone who brings along an additional pet who needs something “that will only take a minute,” without notifying us of their plan. We adjust.

On any given day, my schedule is completely booked between 10 AM and 5 PM, although my work is often not finished until well after 6:30 PM. My technicians are scheduled similarly, the only exception being that the technicians are required by law to have breaks and uninterrupted lunch periods. For good or ill, there is no such law to protect business owners, and it is my custom to work straight through the day with lunch taken bite by bite between tasks.

This is just the way things are. I don’t think my day is different from that of any other small town veterinarian. But unexpected things happen and it is common for my office to receive urgent requests for help with little or no notice. These “work-in” patients can turn out to be anything from a false alarm to a full-blown critical life support emergency. There is absolutely no way we can predict, much less plan for, these kinds of patients. The only thing that is certain is that we must find a way to shoe-horn them into the schedule. We adjust.

Time… What is it, really? Just a bunch of little ticks on a clock. We pretend, but everyone knows those ticks aren’t all the same. Ask an old man about the fleeting passage of his decades, or a woman in labor about the excruciating duration of her contractions. The disparity between seconds that feel like hours, and hours that feel like seconds is part of every human being’s experience. Of course, the longest of all seconds are those spent in the veterinarian’s office when the doctor is running behind schedule.

Some things simply must be done,RIGHT NOW. And so, when we must, we will create time to manage a needful patient, even though no time exists. But time cannot be created willy-nilly, and something has to give. That’s just the way the Universe works. Whenever time is created, there is a cost that must be paid, not in dollars or cents, but in the coin of patience.

And so, if you’re the person who has to wait a few minutes, please remember: We’re not sitting around drinking coffee and eating doughnuts. And if the day ever comes that we have to create time to take care of your pet, we’ll be here for you.


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