Excerpts from Dog & Pony Show: Two Veterinarians, One Story
Updated: Feb 22
From Chapter 13 Written by Dr John Hunt
Clients: The Other Half of Vet Medicine
Veterinary medicine is just as people-oriented as it is animal centered. At times, caring for animals was the easy part--it was dealing with the pet owners that was challenging. I saw clients at their best, like when they brought in a new kitten, and at their worst, like when they brought in their dog that was in a house fire.
I was a “people vet;” I cared for my clients’ well being as much as the pets’. They went hand in hand. Without a good working relationship with a client, I could not adequately provide care for the pet. When a client was my partner I was able to provide the best medicine within the constraints of the client’s capabilities (financial, home care, transportation, emotional strength). Dealing with people is a mixture of intuition and learning. Some vets don’t have an intuitive personality, while some never learn from their mistakes. I worked with a vet at a five-man practice in Connecticut. He loved doing surgery, and was good at it, but he had no use for people and didn’t care to change. He never showed empathy or concern towards his clients, and he didn’t care if he lost a client. He could get away with that nonsense because the practice was large enough to lose a client and go unnoticed. That behavior would never fly in a small town like Bucksport.
When I entered an exam room, I had to do two things simultaneously: look at my patient, and greet and assess my client. I needed to profile the pet owner, even if I knew them, to determine their frame of mind, including the motive for bringing in their pet. Knowing the pet owner’s demeanor directed me as to how I was going to examine the patient and discuss treatment options.
I wasn’t always right in sizing up clients. One time, my profile of a client was so off base I almost lost a client and friend. It started out as an emergency call on a Sunday night. The message on my beeper was something like, “my cat is really sick; call me immediately.” I didn’t recognize the name showing up on my beeper. The neighboring vet and I alternated calls, so he could have been one of his clients. I dialed the number and identified myself when he answered. “It’s about time,” he said. “What’s the problem?” I asked. “You tell me,” he said. That put me on guard and in a bad mood. I kept my cool and asked him what the cat was doing that worried him. He replied that it was crying in pain and I needed to see him--NOW! After some more questioning (and snippy answers), he finally told me the cat was squatting in the litter box while crying in pain and had been doing so all day. I wanted to say, “Why didn’t you call me earlier in the day?” That was enough information to warrant immediate emergency action. The cat was blocked. He couldn’t urinate and kidney failure and death was possible. I said to come right down. He simply hung up. I assumed that meant he was coming. I lived only a few minutes from my clinic, so I waited nervously for his arrival. I had no records on any of his pets and was hoping I would never see him again after this visit.
When he arrived, I saw a man in his 50’s of solid build, medium height and, of all things, a flat-top crew cut. That style was big in the early sixties, but now you only see that type of hair style in the military. He came in, no smile, but I could see he was worried. I wasn’t going to be bullied and told what to do, yet as a veterinarian my duty was to help animals regardless of the owner. So, I put forth my professional face with my mark of sympathy. I kept my humorous part of me to myself. He grumbled hello and mumbled something about how he heard I was new here. I assessed the situation and told him the cat needed to be hospitalized. I had to unblock him that night, and he should call in the morning. He looked surprised, and I could see his square jaw and keen eyes soften just a tad. I worked on his cat into the early morning hours. The next morning I called him to report that the cat was doing fine, and after a few days he would be able to go home. Silence on the other end of the phone. My knuckles were white gripping the phone. Holy cow, did I screw up and mishandle this guy. Finally he said, in a softened voice, “Thank you, Dr. Hunt.” I almost fainted.
When he picked up his cat, he was a different man. He initially appeared as a gruff general, but from that time onward he was the friendliest, most respectful, sweetest guy I came to know in Bucksport. For years, every time he came to the clinic he gave everyone Hershey Kisses. Whenever I found two Hershey Kisses on my desk, I knew he had dropped by for some cat food. During one visit he gave everyone a $2 bill. To this day I still have his $2 bill in my wallet. When he passed away a few years back, I showed it to his wife during an office visit and we both wept in the privacy of the exam room. I learned first impressions need to be treated very carefully.
You just don’t know where people are coming from when they come to the vet clinic. People bring their emotional and personal baggage in with them. I guess people feel veterinary offices are safe places for them to vent, lash out, or reveal private things. For instance, Steve was a Dr Jekyll/Mr. Hyde client. He would storm into the reception area and rudely make demands on my staff. When he came into the exam room with his German Shepherd, he turned into a polite and respectful guy. I had breakfast with him a number of times and even after getting to know him I still couldn’t figure out why he acted so badly towards my staff. His girlfriend, who was as sweet as can be, saw what was happening but seemed powerless to correct his bad behavior. When my staff told me he made them cry due to his rudeness, I decided he crossed the line. No one does that to my staff, and I told him so. He was better after that.
Some clients weren’t aggressive or abrasive in their behavior, but still found a way to make their presence known. Occasionally, when I was doing surgery in the back of the clinic I would hear this very loud voice coming from the reception area. I knew it was a member of what I called the Loud Family. The entire family yelled when they talked, and their dogs were loud barkers too! I swear I needed ear plugs when I was in the exam room with them. After they left, I had to consciously scale back my voice for the next client because I ended up yelling right along with the Loud Family during their office visit.
On the flip side, I had the most wonderful, caring, friendly clients anyone could wish for. One emergency call late one night I had to bring my three young children with me because I didn’t want to leave them alone at the house. The emergency was an injured dog brought in by a couple that I had known for years. The husband helped me bring the dog into the surgery room and actually assisted me in treating his dog, and his wife stayed in my car with my three children as a babysitter.
Most of my clients were easy to work with. I respected their circumstances and how they felt about their pets, and I always worked with them to provide the best care I could. Clients showed their appreciation with tasty goodies. I had a fisherman from Stonington drop off the best crab meat I’ve ever tasted. Another client was a mussel farmer, and he would drop off a bag of mussels every so often. Christmas time meant our break room was full of homemade goodies my staff eagerly waited for each year. Many of my office calls turned into chat sessions. I would get updates on family news or town gossip. There were certain clients my staff knew to book two appointments for, knowing the visit would be half vet care, half socializing.
My clinic reflected my personality, values, and a level of care I would give my own pets.
After each chapter Dr Hunt or Dr Jefferson follow their thoughts on each other's experience. Here are Dr Jefferson's thoughts on Dr Hunt's chapter:
I’m glad the stuffy Yale interviewer thought you weren’t Yale material. You might have ended up as a wealthy lawyer or stockbroker, and the vet profession would never have had such an outstanding small animal vet.
Vet clients are often emotional about their animal’s condition when they come to us. In addition, being human, they are always carrying their own problems with them. John and I both learned to make allowances for things said. Even so, If you want to get any medical professional annoyed, don’t be a wise guy like John’s client who, when asked what the problem was, answered “you tell me.” We’ve heard it before, but our gut reaction is to show that client the door.
Below is the corresponding chapter by Dr J about just one of his memorable interactions with clients.
Best Friend Forever
Private practice in veterinary medicine is a business, but you do make some wonderful friends. This is how my client Darcie saved the day for me 20 years ago and became my BFF. Darcie was in her mid-20’s at the time. She was a hard worker with a small stable of racing Standardbreds. Darcie not only trained her string of horses, she drove them in races. I believe her animals appreciated her kindness. She seemed to trust me, and it was a pleasure to work for her.
I had just examined a Standardbred gelding for Darcie at the Cumberland Race Track. When I was done, I jumped into my vehicle and went tearing out of the fairgrounds, already late for my next appointment 10 miles away. I drove at 50, right past the very visible 40 mph speed limit sign. I was crowding 55 when I saw the blue lights in my mirror. I had three quick thoughts.
Number 1: Where was he hiding?
Number 2: Now I’m really going to be late!
And Number 3: This is going to cost me at least $100!
I pulled over, and one of Cumberland’s finest pulled in behind me. I reached toward the glove box for the registration, muttering under my breath. I had just grabbed the paperwork when I was startled by a horn blaring behind me. I looked over my left shoulder to see Darcie’s truck go roaring past the cop as he was getting out of his cruiser. She pulled up in front of me, skidding on the dirt shoulder as she hit the brakes. She jumped out with her motor still running and door left wide open like a bird with an injured wing. There I sat with a town cop walking toward me from behind carrying his ticket book and Darcie running toward me from in front. They arrived at my window at the same time. The officer looked confused, which is exactly how I felt. Before he had a chance to open his mouth, Darcie shouted,
“Doc, ya gotta get back to the track! That gelding you were working on went down, and now he’s acting real crazy like he’s having a fit or something. I’m afraid he’s going to hurt himself. “
The officer said to me, “Are you a vet?”
“I am. I just left the racetrack, and it looks like I better get back. Can we put off our business a bit until I see what’s going on with her horse? “
“Of course,” he said, “Let’s do a 180. I’ll give you an escort back to the track.” All 3 of us roared back to the track. It was the cop, me, and then Darcie. The blue lights were flashing and the siren wailing. I stayed close to him, both of us doing 70. Darcie followed, right on my tail.
When we got to the track entrance, the cop pulled over, rolled his window down and put his arm out to stop me. I stopped next to him and pushed the power button to open my passenger side window. He hollered out, “You go help her out, Doc. Forget that I stopped you. I hope her horse makes it. Have a good day!”
“Thanks,” I shouted back. Darcie swung around both our vehicles and I followed her to the barn. All this time I had been wondering what could have made her horse go down. All I had done 10 minutes before was check his legs and declared him fit to race the next day. No medication had been given.
We both pulled up to the barn, and Darcie got out with a huge grin plastered on her face.
“Well, Doc, guess you owe me one.”
“You mean your horse is OK, and you just…..”
“Yeah”, she laughed. “I left the barn right after you and watched you take off in a dust cloud. As soon as I hit the town road, I saw the cop pull out from where he was hiding next to the mom and pop store. I figured you could use some help, so I made up the story about my horse going down to maybe save you a ticket.”
My client Darcie suddenly had become my BFF! I gave her a big hug. We laughed about it for years. Whenever I left her barn, she would grin and say, “You be sure to drive slow now. “ I’ve wondered since whether the cop may have come from a horse background.
Dr Hunt's comments follow:
I thoroughly enjoyed that story; you can’t make that stuff up. There are some pretty special people in this world, and as veterinarians we come across a few that enrich our lives. Darcie was one of them.
When I first got to Bucksport, I had a dog pass away from an unforeseen anesthetic reaction, and I was blamed for the death. The distraught owner spread the news all over town that I killed his dog. Rumors sprang up that I was even killing horses. Clients seemed scared to leave their pets for surgery. It was a pretty bleak time. But I had one client that called me up at home one night and said she had faith in me, didn’t believe all that rubbish, and knew I was good at what I did. That one phone call gave me the strength to ride the rumor storm. That client never wavered from her loyalty to me. She was my Darcie. Footnote: she was the only person I ever allowed to call me “Johnny.”