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Did Father know best?

Article

Probably not, but I learned better client care when my dad ignored my advice and picked a pet with his heart-not his head.

Last year my father answered that he was in the market for a new friend—a small canine friend. This surprised me because he had never expressed any interest in owning a dog. An even bigger surprise was when he announced that he'd found the perfect Chihuahua on the Internet. Ah, the Internet—the source of all that is good and true!

Love at first sight: Dr. Noelle Miles' father, Paul, had already fallen for Lorelis before the Chihuahua flunked her first health exam.

I cautioned my father that he should research the breeder carefully, request to see the dam and sire, and let me examine the puppy before he signed any binding contracts. To my horror, he told me he'd already paid $550 to a cunning woman who had e-mailed him pictures and claimed she couldn't guarantee him a puppy unless he coughed up some cash first. That Saturday, we drove out to the woman's house.

Eye-opening exam—for me, not Dad

As soon as we entered, I realized we were in the belly of the beast—an honest-to-goodness puppy mill. A wide variety of breeds was present, all with their own personal flea circuses. The woman directed us to the basement where the Chihuahuas lived, and my father pointed out the puppy he'd selected, a small black-and-white female he'd named Lorelis.

I'd come equipped with my otoscope and my pediatric stethoscope, intent on making sure this tiny, mouselike creature was free of defects. I found an overbite, a veritable armada of fleas, open fontanelles you could drive a Mack truck through, and a grade 2/6 heart murmur. I examined the other female pup in the pen, and while she did have open fontanelles and fleas, she had no heart murmur and no overbite.

I felt I had provided my father with some very useful information and was certain he would make the obvious choice. However, my father locked his gaze on that puppy he had already named, and he chose the pup with the heart murmur.

I was stunned. Then I was a bit angry. Why would my father choose a dog with a congenital defect that could shorten its life? My scientific mind could not grasp his reasoning. And if he was so irrational about this important choice, what would he be like as a client?

The bottom line

Homecoming, spay, and more than a few jitters

There was no dissuading Dad, so we brought the puppy home. First we treated her for fleas, and then we took a stool sample. The sample yielded wall-to-wall Coccidia, so I corrected her Albon deficiency. My recently retired father, who previously had too much time on his hands, was now engrossed in midnight excursions to the backyard and morning puppy food preparation. He had a new buddy who sat on his lap and watched TV with him. He paraded her around the neighborhood and beamed when she received compliments. My stern and sometimes curmudgeonly father had truly fallen in love.

When Lorelis reached 4 months, my father set up a date to have her spayed. Of course, I spay dogs every day in practice, but this dog was my father's brand-new focus in life—and she had a heart murmur. I was just a little nervous.

A family that spays together stays together: Dr. Noelle Miles was just a little nervous when she spayed her dad's beloved Chihuahua.

My father sat in our waiting room while I performed the surgery. Knowing that the tiny three-pound body beneath the drape was my father's cherished treasure, I made sure to put an extra ligature on each pedicle. By the end of the spay my adrenals were totally depleted, but I proudly walked out to our waiting room and gave my dad a thumbs-up.

My father called me every day for an entire week to keep me posted on Lorelis' progress. I was happy to hear that she was doing well.

Takeaway lessons

As I reflected on Lorelis' odyssey from puppy mill to princess, I realized that I had learned a great deal from my dad's relationship with her.

• Clients may not take your advice—don't get offended. My father disregarded my advice to seek out a reputable breeder and chose the puppy with the heart murmur over the puppy with no murmur. But he was no different from my other clients who, against intelligent advice, buy animals from questionable sources to "save" them. And then they get attached the instant they take that little dog home. The line from Jerry Maguire says it all: "You had me at hello."

My father was the same. He had irrevocably pledged his affection to one pup immediately. I ultimately had to accept his decision and focus my energy on treating the problems as best I could.

• Never trivialize the human-animal bond. I once knew a veterinarian who told owners of pets with defects that they'd bought a "lemon," as if the animal was a defective automobile. Needless to say, clients did not receive this warmly. Their response was usually to keep the pet and dump the doctor. Our clients deserve our honesty and help identifying and discussing congenital defects. But it's never our place to make them feel foolish for picking a "lemon."

Despite the fact that Lorelis is not the dog I would have chosen, my father once told me, "I would have picked Lorelis even if she'd had a grade 99 heart murmur!" His unconditional love for his Chihuahua made me newly aware of how each and every pet that comes in for an exam or a procedure is special to that owner.

• Treat every client's pet as if it were your parent's. On the day I spayed Lorelis, I worried about her. After the spay, I made sure she received pain medication and a warm towel straight out of the dryer. I didn't care about making her incision as small as possible; I cared about maintaining excellent hemostasis. She was not a procedure to be checked off on our dry-erase board; she was a member of my family.

When I think of all of my patients as VIPs, it helps me deliver personal, compassionate medical care. When we become cavalier about a patient's care or secretly scoff at a client's concerns, we lose an integral part of ourselves—the part that drew us to become veterinarians in the first place.

After spaying my father's dog and finding it endearing, not annoying, that he stayed in the waiting room during the surgery, I began enjoying practice with a renewed fervor. I treated every patient as if it were Lorelis, finding that I had the patience for endless client questions, the stamina to stay late for emergencies, and the time to deliver medications to my elderly client who didn't drive.

When my father first brought Lorelis home, I had no idea how much a three-pound dog could change his life—and my practice philosophy. While I still wish Dad had chosen a better breeder, the experience truly widened my horizons. I enjoy a new understanding of my clients and can practice compassion along with medicine and surgery.

Dr. Noelle R. Miles is an associate at Mon-Clair Animal Hospital PC in Millstadt, Ill. She won the 1998 Veterinary Economics article contest with "Creating Gold-Watch Loyalty" (August 1998).

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