Bully for me. I’ve finally been handed my first subpoena. No, I’m not being sued for anything but one of my colleagues at another hospital is. And now I’m being dragged into court to testify against him.

Needless to say, this makes me very uncomfortable. I will not relish missing a day’s work (and a day’s pay) as well as suffering the stress of a downtown courthouse appearance. Moreover, I hate wearing suits—it reminds me of my days at Wharton studying with all those stuffed shirts when I was considering a career in pharmaceuticals. At least this’ll make for an excellent reminder of why corporate America is not for me.

But the worst insult? I’ll actually have to testify against a young vet whose first brush with the law might result in a hefty fine and, potentially, a license revocation. I wouldn’t care so much to me if I believed this vet had behaved in a manner inconsistent with the standards of the profession, but this vet didn’t do anything wrong that the rest of us haven’t done at one point or another early in our careers. His situation just seems to have arbitrarily spiraled out of control due to the zealous efforts of a bereaved couple.

The story: dog goes to board at an animal hospital/spa. He is my patient, but we don’t offer boarding at the hospital so he usually stays at this well-respected luxury facility not far away. While there, his scrotum swells. Owners are called, told he has a major problem and they agree to castrate him in spite of his breeding status (he is a fancy show dog).

Dog goes home two days later and dies that afternoon at his owners` feet. Very bad situation ensues where owners want a post-mortem performed to figure out how he died. They tell me: `We just need some closure and this will help us achieve that.`

Genuinely intending to help everyone involved, I willingly perform the procedure. Once inside his abdomen, it is clear that this dog suffered a life-threatening loss of blood. I can’t say with 100% certainty that this killed him but it sure looks that way.

Next, I look for where the major source of blood loss might have been. I find one set of testicular vessels clamped shut and, try as I might, can’t find the other one. After abut an hour, I close him up. I’ve taken tissue samples from every major organ in the body to determine whether they show any signs of why this dog might have bled so much. I send them to a pathologist.

After the procedure, I carefully explain the situation to the owners: `I can’t say exactly why he died but he suffered a severe loss of blood.` Based on the history of a recent surgical procedure, the loss of blood was more than likely from the testicular vessels (on the side I couldn’t find).

Really bad scene ensues. Clients go ballistic. They call and talk to the vet at the spa. He gets defensive (the surgery was absolutely not the cause of this death) and evasive (stops taking their phone calls). They get a lawyer.

Meanwhile, I get deposed, give statements, and the owners` lawyers try to get me to say the vet did not meet the standard of care for neutering pets. I refuse to say anything of the sort.

My view: bleeding is a basic complication of all surgeries, including very routine ones. Anybody that expects any surgery without risks needs to understand that surgery is trauma. Yes, it’s a trauma conducted to meet specific beneficial goals, but it’s trauma nonetheless, and all trauma has the potential to harm.

I’ll never believe this vet was negligent or malicious in his actions, as this dog’s owners do.  No vet seeks to do harm. This vet was only doing his job as best he could.

All of us in this profession have lost pets because we might have done something differently. In retrospect, I’m sure this doc would have triple-tied off his vessels. Even then, the dog might have bled for a variety of other reasons. 

Assuming this was a simple surgical complication involving the tying of vessels, no surgeon deserves this much punishment. Ties on vessels slip. This is very common. It’s a well-accepted complication of all surgeries. And it happens to everybody at least once in his or her careers. Sometimes these pets die, sometimes they are permanently injured, sometimes you get lucky and they do well.

Both my partners say it’s happened to them: the pets died. I had one patient that lived after a blood transfusion and a second surgery. We all need to expect it to happen to us. That’s why a healthy fear in the OR is a good thing. No matter how good you are you’ll still have complications.

This is the reality of medicine. We are not perfect. Our materials are not perfect. Animals` bodies are not perfect. So many variables exist that it’s impossible for me to imagine that this vet might lose his ability to practice his profession over the possibility that he should have made his ties tighter.

But the owners want him to pay—and dearly—for the loss of their beloved pet. So much so they’ve been waging this war for over a year, attempting to collect a huge sum from him and, to `prove that it’s not about money,` are willing to accept a license-related penalty in exchange.

The real story: It’s hard to lose your pet. It’s especially hard to accept that a young, healthy pet has to die when something might have been done to save him. Especially if you ardently believe, as these owners do, that it was due to someone’s negligence, failure to care, or lack of skill.

Maybe it would have been different if the vet could have apologized in some way for the role he played:

`I’m so sorry for your loss. I feel terrible about this and it will stay with me forever. Please accept my apology—you must know I had no intention of having this happen—it just happens sometimes.`

Although I find it’s always best to take the extra step and tell the owners how you feel, most vets in their first few years of practice haven’t yet learned these skills. More than likely, this vet was crying in his office after the news and much too scared and upset to deal well with the clients. After all, we wouldn’t spend all those years studying and working if we didn’t feel horrible when an animal dies under our care.

I do feel for the owners, as I have from the very beginning, but I’m beginning to feel as if they just want someone to feel some of the pain they do. If so, their entire crusade should have long been over: we already do.