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Five equine veterinarians share their experiences of balancing work, family, relationships and everything else that exists beyond veterinary medicine.
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Shortly after graduating from vet school, I was having lunch with one of my mentors. As good mentors are apt to do, he dropped some knowledge on me that, in hindsight, was downright prophetic. First, he projected that the year-long internship I was about to embark on was probably going to be the most formative year of my veterinary career. Second, he told me that after my internship, I’ll cruise along for the next five or so years feeling bulletproof and cocky, thinking that I’ve seen everything there is to see and done everything there is to do. Then, with no warning, and just as I hit that peak of invincibility, reality is going to hit me harder than a double-barrel kick to the gonads.
The prescience of his words was nothing short of remarkable. Without question, my internship shaped and molded me into the veterinarian I am today. It also opened up doors that I never would have dreamed of walking through prior to the start of my internship. Moreover, it provided me with such a broad knowledge base that, after completing the internship, I strutted through the next several years thinking that my veterinary skills were akin to those of Jay-Z’s lyrical skills.
Well, as quickly as you can say, “It’s a hard-knock life,” the year 2012 hit. This year has been so humbling—both professionally and personally—that there are times when I just want to crawl up in the fetal position in a dark closet and hide. While there is no need to get into specifics, I will say that I have encountered some circumstances this year that have actually made me question my worthiness as a veterinarian. This feeling is something I am very unaccustomed to, especially given my ego (or what used to remain of it). Furthermore, as someone who preaches to veterinary students and young practitioners about the importance of maintaining a good work-life balance, my actions this year have been just plain hypocritical. I’ve missed my kids’ soccer and basketball games; I haven’t lifted a weight since Groundhog Day; and the most romantic moment I can remember having with my wife is falling asleep next to her on the couch watching The Biggest Loser.
In some respects, a lot of the grief has been self-inflicted—do I really need to be reading about porcine abortions at 8 p.m. instead of reading a book with my daughter? While, in other instances, certain things have been out of my control—could I have prevented a foal from being born with only half its colon? But what’s made this year so tough is that the hits just keep on coming, one after another after another. And just when I think things are finally coming around, and I’m working myself out of a funk, a new problem arises that seems either bigger or more stressful than the last.
I could go on and on (and on) about how demoralizing this year has been, but it’s probably time for this pity party to end. What is more, I’m probably just “preaching to the choir” about all my trials and tribulations. Most of you have probably encountered times such as these. If you haven’t, well, all I can say is: brace yourself because it’ll probably come at some time or another.
As bad as this year has been, I think (and that’s the operative word) that I’m starting to put things in perspective. For starters, I have my health, which is really nothing to scoff at, especially considering all the crap I eat and caffeine I consume during the breeding season. Secondly, I have a wonderful job, and I work for and with people who I respect, trust, and have confidence in me (at least, hopefully, that’s still the case). But, by far and away, I’m lucky enough to have the best family a man could ever hope for. Their love and support has been instrumental in getting me through this rough patch. We all garner strength from someone or something, and my family is definitely that “thing” for me.
Writing this blog has been almost cathartic, and I’m already starting to feel a little better. While this year has provided me with lessons in humility that are really too numerous to count, it has strengthened my resolve to be a better parent and veterinarian. It has also made me realize the importance of not submitting to my fears and mistakes but instead meeting them head on and learning from them.
I hope to never encounter another year like 2012, but I’d be foolish to think that I’ve maxed out my quota of bad moments. I’m sure the next one is lurking right around the corner, but, for the time being, I’m going to try not to obsess about it. Rather, I’m going to attempt to take each day as it comes, realizing that I’m not the only one with problems. Heck, even Jay-Z’s got 99 problems (or so he says).
If I were to try to play Aesop, I’d say that the morale of this blog is that reality does suck, but you just got to try and not let it deflate you. You just got to stay on your feet and deal with each situation as best you can. With that said, I’m going to put all my worries aside for the moment, end this blog, and jump in the car to go root like hell for my son in his tee ball game, dreaming of the day he makes it to the big leagues. Reality can take a break for a little while…at least for the next few innings.
It can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Deciding what is important and what is not can be hard for all of us. Some of us want to be presented with all the information and make our own decisions about what is important. These people don’t mind TMI (Too Much Information). Others just want the pertinent info so they don’t have to cipher through the chaff. They like JEI (Just Enough Info). I tend to fall into the latter because it seems more efficient. My wife on the other hand wants all the available information. At times this can present a problem when I am telling her about something because I usually give the Cliff Notes version of what I deem to be the important details. She wants every detail. She later hears about something I invariably left out that she thinks she needed to know at the time I gave my synopsis. Just because it was inconsequential to me does not mean it was to her.
This can also be an issue in practice when trying to get a helpful history on a patient from the owner. History taking is a skill you develop over time to glean relevant information. Sometimes important information is not conveyed that could have a critical bearing on a case. It is our job to get that information by any means necessary. I am not promoting water boarding here, but sometimes you have to get pretty creative with your questioning. Like my wife, I am astonished sometimes at the things that are not considered relevant information.
I had a case several years ago of a horse with severe anemia. I took what I thought was a pretty thorough history on the horse. We spent a thousand dollars and four months trying to diagnose the cause doing everything from piroplasmosis tests to bone marrow aspirates. After six months of futility, he mentioned the horse’s main source of water was their swimming pool. He fenced the pool off and the horse made a full recovery in no time. Initially he did not find this to be relevant information. I failed to ask the right questions to get this out of him. Chlorine poisoning was not at the top of my differential list.
Sometimes just as frustrating as too little info is too much info. I have had several clients that want to tell me the horse’s entire life history from birth. Everything that has ever happened to the horse is explained in pain staking detail. They are TMIers. “Then Brownie got a bruise on his heel when he was 14 months. We lived in Georgia at the time and my daughter was seven. That was the year they had the Olympics there. It was really hot. Then when he was 15 months old he had a snotty nose for a few days. We went to watch the women’s gymnastics. We had to stand in long lines but let me tell you it was so exciting. When we came back the nose was dry. Then………“ If the horse is 20 years old this can take a while. By the end your eyes are glazed over and you are drooling. It is impossible to remember 20% of what was said much less what may have been important. This is a common symptom when a TMIer talks to a JEIer. They are not sure what is important so they tell you everything. This is not always ideal for taking an accurate medical history but you learn to adapt. You can learn to key in on certain words or phrases and filter the rest. For example “ Blah blah blah blah blah blah tetanus shot in 2010. Blah blah blah blah blah blah.” That or you nicely cut them off and guide the conversation with pertinent questions, which is a more efficient and effective method. Just don’t forget to ask if the horse drinks from a swimming pool.
It never ceases to amaze me how the horse-owning population prepares for their appointments. For example, on a hot Friday afternoon I arrived at our last appointment which entails vaccinating four horses. We were actually on time and no one was home. The owner arrived about five minutes after the appointment time and was happy she was able to go to the post office and get back in time for the appointment. What is missing here is that the horses are on 20 acres, they are at the bottom of a hill and they are not coming up when called. There are four of them looking at us while the owner is coming out of the shed with a few flakes of alfalfa. After all these years, I have learned that when horses see a lot of people, that means bad news for them.
I stood by my truck while I waited for the owner to make her attempt to coax them up the hill. It is now 30 minutes later and we only got two of the four done. My assistant was frustrated and proceeded to head down the hill to try and catch one of the other two while the owner makes a comment that the old guy won’t come for alfalfa. My assistant does get one of the two remaining patients and makes the trek back up the hill and the old guy follows at a distance. A simple appointment to vaccinate four horses ends up taking over an hour.
A close horse-owning friend made an observation after listening to my work stories. She explained that her horse would be out in the pasture when the veterinarian arrived for the appointment, because her mare was easy to catch (it took approximately 10 minutes to get the halter and catch her). In the course of our discussion, my friend realized that the 10 minutes she took to catch her horse was not scheduled in the veterinarian’s appointment book, so if the veterinarian had six appointments a day, and each owner took 10 minutes to go and catch their horses, the veterinarian would be an hour behind schedule every day. What a revelation!
The other day, I had an appointment to pull blood for a Coggins test on two horses. With taking digital photos, blood and acquiring owner information, this appointment should realistically take 30 minutes. We arrive and the two horses are in the pasture (add 10 minutes per horse). The husband is home to greet us. He says “I guess you need them caught” so he proceeds to get “the bridle.” Well, “the bridle” is really “the halter” to non-horse people (add another 10 minutes to find the halter as well as a lead rope). By now my assistant and I have agreed that the owner has not recently caught up the horses for any reason, so catching the horses would be up to us.
Another clue that we are in trouble is the fact that the halter and lead rope are not easy to find, again this most likely means that these two horses have probably not been caught very often (especially when you see feed tubs on the ground on the fence line and mold on the manure in the stalls). We instinctively grab a bucket of grain and head to the gate. As you may have guessed, they do not come any where near us while we are holding halters in our hands (add another 10 minutes). After many futile and possibly dangerous attempts to catch these two pasture pets/ornaments, we give up (add another 20 minutes). We politely charge for our trip fee (we should have also charged a small training fee, which would have covered our time and life insurance premium. )Before we leave I tell the owner that the horses must be stalled with their halters on prior to calling for another appointment to pull blood for the Coggins test. Again, another 60 minutes added to our schedule unplanned.
American Association of Equine Practitioners