In vet school at the University of Pennsylvania we had this matronly, social worker professor-of-sorts who we all secretly loved, though she was thoroughly uncool. She was the head of the veterinary hospital’s grief counseling program.


This woman was incredible. She would silently patrol the halls, wards and waiting rooms for signs of impending doom and could always be counted on to appear—miraculously on schedule—at the exact moment any sign of grief was rearing its ugly head. She was a bereavement bloodhound—and we revered her for her perfect pitch when we were at a loss in dealing with an emotional parent.


For my part I can say I learned a lot from her. Her gentleness and wise words were never off the mark. Even the hardest among us at least learned words that worked, even when our stabs at expressing sympathy were confused by our insecurities or clouded by emotions.


In one instance I’ll never forget, she managed to appear behind me, on hand at my very first euthanasia. I was in one of the most secluded part of the hospital wards with a resident at my side. It was after eight at night and yet she managed to find us in the nick of time. I was both inconsolably tearful and embarrassed by my unprofessional appearance. The clients were not present, thank God.


This dog had been my first intensive care case, lasting more than a week in a slow, downward spiral. He was a two-year-old boxer named Kato and his bizarre, autoimmune disease had rapidly consumed his joints. He was in so much pain that evening that his owners had authorized his euthanasia from afar (they lived two hours away and chose not to prolong his suffering for the duration of their drive).


As I wheeled the stretcher off to the pathology room (our morgue) she accompanied me into the elevator. She was silent the whole time. I self-consciously stared at the floor. Finally, she said, "Remember how you feel right now and keep it with you for your whole career. If you can do that you’ll be a great vet, no matter what else happens." How did she know exactly what to say?


I kept Kato’s hospital card with me (in my lab coat) for the rest of my time in school. I still keep it in my jewelry box so I can see it each time I open it. It always triggers thoughts, not only of Kato, but also of everything I learned from that one, unapologetically uncool social worker at Penn.



Image: Luke Price / Flickr