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People skills sometimes the hardest part of the job

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Jan 01, 2007
By dvm360.com staff

Dealing with people is the part of veterinary medicine that one can never truly say they are good at. Some may profess to be comfortable with it, but most will agree that it is the hardest part of the job.

People simply don't respond to certain situations of life as I would, so it makes it hard to know what they might do next.

I was still early enough into my practice career that every phone call coming in to the house didn't send chills up my spine.

Tuesday night at 9 o-clock I found a sobbing man beckoning me from the other end of the line. He was explaining that Hamburger the dog was very sick and needed immediate attention. Every attempt on my part to find out what the symptoms were was met with a stonewalled answer that help was needed IMMEDIATELY.

I met the couple at the clinic a few minutes later. Here is the scene: A man about 50 or so years old, skinny as a rail, beard down to his navel streaked with gray and black, some mixed-breed small dog wrapped in a towel with only two legs visible.

The dog/towel unit was embraced firmly against the man's upper chest extending to the chin area. The wife was a rather large woman wearing a pair of skin-tight nylon shorts on an evening with temperatures in the upper 30s. Her middle two upper teeth did not exist, and her tongue seemed to always occupy the space where they used to be.

Beyond reason

They were both sobbing and talking so fast in unison that I could not begin to comprehend what happened. After what seemed to be 10 minutes of talking in circles, it became apparent the dog had not eaten or moved for the past three days. Any question from me was met with a high-pitched wail from the man and a series of rapid tongue thrusts through the tooth void from the woman.

I was a bit worried.

These people were beyond reason when it came to this dog. I asked to see the critter and was met by loud objection. He told me that I could only see the dog if I promised to fix him so he could eat hamburgers again. What do you say to that?

I was handling it all pretty well until I noticed fleas, and I mean a lot of fleas, darting through this man's beard.

That is not normal. The next thing I noticed was the two legs visibly looked a bit stiff. In fact, they had not moved from any position except straight the entire time they were telling me the story.

I finally talked the man into placing the dog on the exam table.

He kept Hamburger wrapped in the towel and set him down in a standing position on the table. The dog was stiff as a board. I had not yet seen his head or body, but his legs were so rigid that when he put him down, he just stood there like a plastic farm animal toy.

Before I ever touched the dog I was aware of what was happening. The dog hadn't eaten or moved for the last three days for a reason. The fleas were leaving the dog and migrating through the man's beard for a reason. The legs were stiff and the dog was a sawhorse for a reason. It was dead.

On my, what now? How am I going to break this news? I reached over and got the stethoscope, gently placed it under the towel and over the dog's heart, listened intently and kept it there for a long time trying to buy some time before I broke the news. The dog was obviously without a heart beat.

I gently slid the scope out from under the towel, conjured up my most-caring facial expression and voice tone and said: "I am sorry, but Hamburger is beyond repair. He passed away."

The man hit the floor like someone shot him.

Lying on his stomach, legs apart and arms flailing, he kept screaming over and over: "No he ain't! No he ain't! He can still stand up."

He jumped back up, grabbed the dog, tucked him under his chin again and started heading for the door.

"You're just as dumb as that last vet that looked at him yesterday. I can't believe they ain't putting out no vets from that there school that know what they are doing. Come on momma, let's go to Amarillo, they got some vets there that can fix em."

With this, they scurried out the front door and off into the night.

I was left standing there with a stethescope still in hand wondering what I should have done.

The reality? People just don't respond to things the way you might anticipate.

Dr. Brock owns the Brock Veterinary Clinic in Lamesa, Texas.