My day hadn’t started off very well. The team member who was to work the opening shift with me had called off sick. I knew the appointment schedule was fairly light, so I wasn’t too worried. But then I had a near-accident on the drive to work. By the time I clocked in and walked to the reception desk, my stress level was in the red zone.
The first pet to check in wasn’t on the schedule, so his paperwork wasn’t ready. It was a miniature Poodle in renal failure who had returned for another day of hospitalization and IV fluids. The dog’s owner was exceptionally cheerful, considering our last several encounters involved disputes over her bill. She sat patiently in a chair with Teddy on her lap as I scrambled to prepare the appropriate forms for the day. I apologized for the wait and escorted her into an exam room. The drop off procedure started off quite routine — I verified her contact phone number and what Teddy was to have done. I knew there were several other pets to be dropped off for the day, so I was anxious to get out of the room and back out to the desk. Then Teddy’s mom looked at me and asked, “How do you know when it’s enough? I mean financially… and emotionally?”
In an instant my chest tightened and my blood pressure went up a few more notches. This was dangerous territory for me. Losing Cleo last year had totally changed the way I approach my job in the veterinary clinic and coping with that loss has been an ongoing challenge for me. I’ve been pretty successful at artfully dodging such uncomfortable situations, but there I was, in a closed exam room with a woman who had previously given me nothing but hassle. And she was asking for my help.
I don’t remember exactly what I said, only that my voice was uncharacteristically calm and steady. Then I heard myself say, “I went through this with my cat” and my voice cracked. I then passed on the very words that were said to me when I asked the same question of my friend one awful night. My voice leveled a bit but the tears had already started rolling down my face. Teddy’s mom went on to tell me how she and her family had struggled with her late father’s illness and the need for a feeding tube. She didn’t want to go through such drastic measures with Teddy. Her husband had also recently lost his mother. I forgot about being short staffed and the other clients who might be waiting for me at the desk. The thought of ruined mascara came and went as Teddy’s mom and I connected over an issue that every pet owner struggles with.
Learning about her family issues put our previous interactions in a wider perspective. Clients may complain about the cost of treatment because of the financial burden it places on the family but they may also complain because they don’t know how to deal with a difficult diagnosis. While Teddy’s mom may have had a legitimate financial concern, she had an emotional one too. She had suffered two significant family losses and was now facing losing Teddy as well. “Oh now I’ve made you cry, I’m so sorry” she said as she nervously wiped a tear from her cheek.
As we wrapped up our conversation, I looked at Teddy, sitting contently on her lap with the bright pink bandage covering his IV catheter, and was reminded of Cleo in her last days. Teddy’s mom and I gained a little insight into one another that day. She learned that veterinary staff walk the same rough emotional road as their clients. And I learned that, even after 15 years, I still have a lot to learn about clients.