Needles, Blood and Guts: A Vet's Role in Pet Owner Reactions
One of my earliest memories is of my father slumped in a chair with his head in his hands. I was four years old and had accompanied him to the vet hospital with our cat, Marsha.
Marsha was my first cat. She was a stray Siamese who had borne her young the same day my mother delivered me into the world. In a sentimental act of feminine solidarity she had squirreled her newborns into my crib on one of my first days home from the hospital. According to family lore, the bunch of us slept soundly together before we were discovered and eventually separated.
But that’s another story…
On this day of the vet visit, Marsha had been acting funny and had some blood on her fur near her tail. The vet, an old-timer known for his inexpensive, no-nonsense approach, explained that Marsha had an abscess that needed to be lanced. Then, without further preamble, sliced open her skin with a scalpel. As the blood and putrid-smelling green pus flowed onto the exam-room table…my father flowed onto the exam-room floor. The vet helped him onto the chair, hence the image in my (perhaps somewhat fabricated) memory. The story was a family favorite for a while.
Needless to say, the vet’s presumption on the subject of his client’s steely stomach was ill founded that day. In my experience, you never know who’s going to hit the floor, so it’s not a good idea to attempt something gross and smelly in front of just anyone—without asking, at least. Lancing abscesses is one of the most downright disgusting things we do. Only maggot infestations beat it on the gross-out scale.
I have plenty of clients who warn me of the possibility they might succumb to the floor if I do X, Y, or Z. It typically involves the blood collection aspect of the visit. To be safe, I always position the animal so that the client doesn’t have to witness the event in all its gory glory and I always tell them what I’m about to do—it gives them a chance to turn around or ask to be excused from the room.
Sometimes even the sight of a needle for a vaccine or other injection is more than enough for some. These people are usually well aware of their fear and typically ask to be warned of a needle’s impending presence.
Sure, I`ve made my share of really stupid mistakes: unwrapping a bandaged wound in font of one gentleman led to a pale-faced droop against the wall and (thankfully) into a well-positioned chair. Demonstrating the wound depth of what another man thought was a simple (but profusely bleeding) scratch yielded a similar reaction.
And then there was the worst time: I was two years out of school and totally psyched to be working on Miami-Dade county police dogs. The cops were cool and the dogs were beautiful and I felt both purposeful and proud of my skills. One day a young cop I knew well brought in his four-year-old bomb-sniffing dog, a black Lab who had collapsed while on duty at the airport. The dog was DOA.
As required by the county, I performed a post-mortem while the cop tearfully awaited the results of his dog’s demise. Conclusion: the heart muscle was a disaster. This dog had been silently suffering from heart disease for a very long time. It’s the kind of rare congenital problem we usually don’t see until it’s too late, as when basketball players die in the heat of a game for no apparent reason.
With the kind of ignorance and stupidity only a newbie vet can muster, I carried out the offending specimen in a covered container (think Tupperware) and offered to show it to him. The look on his face (grief, pallor, shock, disgust) was a lifelong learning experience all in itself. I’ll never forget how awful that moment was. I was serving his beloved dog’s heart up on a platter for him to examine. What was I thinking? I cried for days after that and could never look him in the eye again, even after I sent him flowers and a letter detailing the depths of my contrition.
I’m now nine years more mature than that day and infinitely wiser on the needles, blood and guts thing. I haven’t had an incident in years.
Lest my stories seem to single out men as lily-livered and weak-stomached, I assure you that’s not the case. Women just seem to be willing to warn you of their weakness. The problem with the guys is that they try to brave it out, especially when confronted with a pretty blonde vet. This is a failing not dissimilar to that of failing to ask for directions. It’s a guy thing we women may never understand.
Still, I marveled when my boyfriend, a surgeon, almost fainted out of his chair when the life insurance nurse came to take his blood. Clearly, there are also some things about the effects of needles, blood and guts on our delicate human psyches that we’ll never understand.