Being a veterinarian can be a real bummer. I’m not looking for sympathy here, just trying to give some context as to why vets sometimes resort to joking in the face of tragic circumstances. It’s a defense mechanism; a way to slap a band-aid on an emotional wound that can’t be dealt with fully in the moment.
I’d argue that this type of gallows humor is appropriate amongst veterinary professionals, as long as it takes place well out of the earshot of clients.
Here’s one scenario I remember vividly. A long-term patient of mine had been brought in for "ADR" ("Doc, she just ain’t doing right"). Peanut and her owners had been a fixture in my professional life for years, and I was very fond of them all. Peanut had lost weight since her last visit, had some generalized muscle wasting, and looked exhausted; all things that scream "this is something serious" in an older dog. As part of her work up, I took chest X-rays, which revealed small, white opacities throughout all of her lung fields.
I called in one of my coworkers to get a second opinion on the films. I was 99% sure I was looking at metastatic cancer but was grasping at straws. "Perhaps it could be a fungal infection," I said. "What do you think?" My coworker took one look at the X-rays and another at my quivering lip and tear-filled eyes and deadpanned, "I don’t think they should buy any big bags of dog food." (It’s an oldie but goody in our profession).
I know, I know, it sounds horribly cruel … and it would have been if the owners or their family members had been near enough to hear, but the comment was exactly what I needed at that moment — a reminder that this was not my tragedy. If my grief took center stage, I couldn’t be of much help to Peanut or her owners.
I think gallows humor in a medical setting allows doctors, technicians, nurses, etc., to keep a necessary emotional distance from what we have to deal with on a day to day basis. It also serves to remind us that we are part of a larger community that "gets" how difficult what we have to do can be. Don’t think for a moment that I didn’t cry with Peanut’s owners when I broke the news to them, but my coworker’s joke helped me keep things in perspective and be their "rock" during the tumultuous times that were soon to come.
I think it’s important to remember that the butt of the joke in cases like this is not the patients or their families, but the situation we find ourselves in. Laughing in the face of death … it may not be the most mature response, but it sure can help us deal with an otherwise grim moment.
Dr. Jennifer Coates