Doctor, Heal Thine Own Pet (If You Can)

I hear it all the time: “You’re SO lucky to be a veterinarian. No matter what happens, you have the luxury of always knowing you can offer your pets medical attention!” However, my experience would suggest otherwise. Whenever things have gone seriously south, nothing could be further from the truth.

 My Tika with her favorite 'coon toy.

My Tika with her favorite 'coon toy.

Consider the time my goat suddenly suffered a life-threatening sand impaction. I figured it out on the spot and knew I had to do something fast, but I could do nothing without help. I couldn’t even think straight enough to manage to load her into the back of my SUV (where she’d ridden many times before). It was a disaster. She died at the ER within minutes. (It was late and I had no one to help me at my own place).

Then there was the more recent tragedy with my six year-old Min Pin, Gaston. He succumbed to a relentless bout of bloody gastritis that culminated in a fatal pancreatitis. I lost him so fast that, three months later, my head still spins whenever I try to think it through. What could I have done differently?

I’ve always said it: When my own pets become seriously ill I suddenly become utterly useless as a veterinarian. Instead, I become a quivering mass of over-schooled goo. So much for all that education … all those years in practice … they count for naught when my loved ones are suffering a veterinary crisis.

In fact, I’m not just weepy, emotional, and fearful –– as anybody else would be –– I’m full of existential doubt and self-loathing, too. What good am I to anyone else as a veterinarian if I can’t even take care of my own?

OK, so maybe I overstate things a bit. If the problem is simple or straightforward –– say, a torn claw, a laceration or a cat bite abscess –– I perform equally well as I would with any other patient. Even not-always-so-straightforward issues –– a fractured limb, a painful disc event, or a complex allergic skin condition, for example –– are doable, if only because they’re not typically life-threatening. 

I can’t speak for any other veterinarian but, for me, the severity of the condition is clearly a driver of my attitude when caring for my own pets. Once the severity escalates to a level beyond which a reasonable degree of certainty of survival exists … I lose it. It’s at this exact point of awareness that my brain turns a grayish shade of paste and I become hopelessly ineffective at my supposed purpose in life.

But there are other factors at work, too. Consider the possibility of specialists. Whenever I know that I have access to specialists whose job it is to be better than me at handling certain diseases and conditions, I find myself relaxing. Understanding that it’s someone else’s responsibility to treat my pet means I can calmly delegate the task.

In these cases –– usually surgical, uniquely specialized, or intensive care scenarios –– I can take a step back. Painful as these situations may be be, there’s a lot to be said for being able to take off your veterinary hat and suffer as anyone else might while the internist, the neurologist, the cardiologist, the ophthalmologist or the surgeon goes about his or her business of treating your pet.

Is this how pediatricians feel when their own kid gets sick? Probably. Thinking so at least makes me feel like I’m not so incorrigibly idiotic as all that. I mean, we’re only human, right? We can’t be expected to process things intelligently and feel intensely at the same time.

But it still feels like crap. So much for being SO lucky to be a veterinarian.