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Every pet has a story: It's up to veterinarians to write it well
From exam notes to birthday cards to blog posts, you are the author of your veterinary patient's care.
During veterinary school, students learn a multitude of clinical tools and techniques. Due to the profession's current economic tailspin, there is a push to add business and finance classes to an already stuffed schedule. And all of this is critically important, but as a practitioner none of it as important as your ability to put thoughts and words together.
You'd never hear a veterinary student say he or she is going to school to become a writer. You don't realize it, but as a practitioner, that's exactly what you are.
In practice you will write the stories of your clients. You will form relationships with these people, intimate ones—emotionally, intellectually, physically. You will look them in the eye, shake their hand, wave to them in the lobby or the parking lot. You will take their coats, hand them their purses, pat them on the shoulder or the back. You will brush the back of your hand across their new baby's cheek, pat heads, ruffle hair, stroke soft silky ears while you listen to the story of their first trip to the park as a family.
You will hold out your hand for the leash or the carrier, or hurriedly, awkwardly, accept the blanket-wrapped bundle they run in with. You will sit next to these people, these clients of yours, while they listen to you explain the test results, the diagnosis, the possibilities and the probabilities. You will hold their hands and hug them while they cry.
A lifetime of stories
Whether you realize it or not, you will write their stories. The puppy and kitten visits are entries in a baby book. Annual wellness visits become birthday cards, short notes celebrating the uneventful passing of another year. As those years pass, the notes get longer with more to discuss—and the records become more like Christmas letters, with an overview of the year's changes and what to expect in the next span of time.
You may write mysteries, tracking the course of an illness and the clues you found along the way to a diagnosis. Some mysteries become quite complex, with lots of subplot complications and a large cast of characters. It's a wonderful feeling when you figure it out—and when clients let you.
Not all clients are so wonderful, and you'll write some "Dear John" letters—you'll get a few, too. You will write elegies. The hardest ones are the treatable condition in the young, otherwise healthy pet. These tend to be terse prose in my hands:
5 yo mn dsh. Indoor only, only cat. Presented crying, lethargic. Fine this a.m. Current on vaccs. PE abd pain, bladder huge. Ddx blocked. Presented estimate. O elect euth due to $.
And that's how the love story between a 20-year old college student and a beautiful grey tabby named Liam ends. The story started with entries in a baby book and not nearly enough birthday cards.
Sharing the experience
Not all the stories have such ugly endings. Most are more prosaic. More and more it seems they are sparse, with long intervals between visits. There isn't as much opportunity to document the details before you write the final chapter.
Whether long and full or short and sparse, your records are where you will document not only the facts, but also what people love, what they hope, what they fear, and where they draw the line between what they want and what they value. You will write the story for their benefit and your own, for the other doctors in your practice or for the ones at the specialty centers to which you refer. You will write them for the pathologist who does the post mortem or the animal control officer who investigates.
It makes everyone's lives easier, and your professional life more fulfilling, if the stories are complete and easy to understand. Please learn to write them well.
Dr. Eden Myers serves as a relief veterinarian in Mount Sterling, Ky. Please send your questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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