Lessons from a turtle butt

September 26, 2019
Julie Cappel, DVM

Dr. Julie Cappel owns Warren Woods Veterinary Hospital in Warren, Michigan. She served as president of the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association in 2015.

A prolapsed box turtle rectum pushed me to make the typical veterinarian choice: Get some time off or be the leader a freaked-out team member needed in the moment.

On a Sunday night recently, I reluctantly received a lesson in compassion, generosity and servant leadership from a box turtle with most of her insides hanging out of her backside. Here's what happened.

I had experienced an unusually busy weekend “off work” tending to a remodeling contractor, out-of-town family and an ill family member across town. It was Sunday night, and I was finally driving home with my son from this long weekend, when I received a text message from one of my technicians. Her 5-year-old box turtle had developed a large rectal prolapse earlier in the day.

“What do you think I should do?” she texted.

I texted her back when it was safe to do so that she should take the turtle to the local emergency clinic for treatment. I was an hour away, and there was no way I wanted to spend what was left of my weekend replacing a prolapse on a box turtle.

This started a text stream with the technician and an internal debate with myself over whether I should give up my evening to help with the turtle. Should I “force” my technician friend to go to the emergency clinic to preserve my evening off? This is where I think many of us get into an internal debate. We want to take care of ourselves by preserving time off, but the compassionate servant side of us doesn't want to say no to a friend, family member or client, when we have the skills to help.

Who would I be if I said no? I think of myself as a compassionate servant leader, but what exactly does that mean?

Intrigued by ‘servant leadership'?

You'd like Dr. Betsy Charles and the team at the Veterinary Leadership Institute, and you might want to learn more about them and sign up for one of their events in 2020. Just sayin'.

“Servant leadership” is a term coined in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf, who said that a leader should be a servant to the team. Leaders should be role models by giving a helping hand to those around them. The leader should create opportunities to express appreciation to the team and invest in them by taking actions to help them feel happy and fulfilled. When a leader creates this kind of environment, the team will feel connected and loved.

When I stopped to think about who I really want to be in this situation, a servant leader, I ultimately made the right choice.

I could feel sorry for myself for not having this Sunday night off work, or I could pull up my big-girl pants and go to work to try to save the gutted turtle.

Of course, I chose the big-girl pants.

So, off I went to work to spend the next two hours slowly, patiently pushing things back inside that should never be outside a body, then placing sutures in a turtle butt to keep things from coming back out. If you've never worked on a box turtle, it's not that easy. They have “box” in their name for a reason.

The self-satisfaction and pride that came with overcoming my feeling sorry for myself and being empowered to do what was right was ultimately more rewarding than sitting on the couch writing a blog.

I saved a life and also set an example for the team that I lead.

Ultimately, the turtle was happy (with her insides back inside), the technician was happy, and I was grateful for my lesson on servant leadership and generosity of spirit from this little shelled creature.

Next Sunday I'll have a day off.

Dr. Julie Cappel owns Warren Woods Veterinary Hospital in Warren, Michigan. She served as president of the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association in 2015.