Misadventures of an introverted veterinarian


A trip to Walmart on a Saturday afternoonwhat could possibly go wrong in a place where all my veterinary clients go?


Where I live, the population is 12,124-not exactly a bustling metropolis. There are only three large stores in town: the grocery store, a farm supply store (where everyone goes to pick up ear mite medication, dewormer and urinary health diet before they head to the veterinarian to ask why it didn't work), and Walmart. Needless to say, Walmart is always busy. I rarely make it out of the store without seeing at least one person I know. I've had pet's-quality-of-life discussions in the parking lot, quoted prices for routine procedures to the person at the checkout lane and been given many progress reports about patients at home as I try to shop.

Some days I can keep my head down and get away with just a quick nod of hello to a familiar face. The odds of that happening are inversely proportional to how busy Walmart is. Being an introverted veterinarian who understands this, one would think I would know to not to go on a Saturday afternoon, especially after I've spent five exhausting days dealing with people. Yet somehow, that is what I do almost every Saturday afternoon.

Encounters at Walmart are always difficult. For starters, I'm out of my comfort zone of the clinic, the area where I have control. At the clinic, I have a chart in front of me and know the names of the patients and clients before I enter the room. I know why they're there and my technician has given me a brief history of how they've been doing. The comfort of the clinic and this information allows me to hide my introverted personality. I don't have those luxuries at Walmart. I'm caught off guard by people who recognize me and want to talk. They don't understand that I've used up all my friendly banter in the exam room or that my brain doesn't process who they are when we're outside of the clinic. They don't understand that part of being an extreme introvert means that the connection between my brain and my mouth doesn't always work and things don't come out the way they sound in my head. This has made for some very awkward Walmart encounters.

One encounter in particular sticks out in my mind. I'd just turned into the baking aisle and looked up to see a lady who looked familiar. I couldn't place exactly who she was but knew I'd treated her pets. She noticed me right away and said, “Hello, Dr. Shepherd.” Then followed with, “Oh I'm sorry, I shouldn't do that to you. You probably don't know who I am.”

I was caught off guard by her bluntness and told her that I recognized her from the clinic, but I couldn't remember her pets. She told me they were black labs named Buddy and Jack.

Of course, they had to be the most common breed with two of the most common names for black labs, but I was going to play off that I knew exactly who she was talking about. After all, I did recognize her face.

So I smiled and asked how Buddy was doing.

“Well you euthanized him three months ago.”

That's why she was so familiar. I had helped her through a particularly emotional euthanasia. A mental image of her crying in the exam room and me offering her kind words and Kleenex came into my head. Embarrassed, I tried to save face by asking her how Jack had handled it, and if he was doing OK.

“You euthanized him two years ago.”

There was no getting out of that one. I apologized and continued with an awkward conversation about how hard it is to say goodbye to our pets. I listened to her talk about how quiet her house was and offered encouraging words that it would get easier. We talked about how she would know when it's time for another dog. I think by the end she forgave me for my blunder, but as I continued my shopping, quite red in the face reliving the conversation over and over again, I realized I was doomed to failure from the start.

First of all, why couldn't she have named her pets something unique, like Fernando and Mozart? How am I supposed to remember who Buddy and Jack are when I see at least five pets named Buddy or Jack a week, most of which are black labs? Second, why didn't she just say that she no longer had any living pets? She had already started the conversation by saying that I probably wouldn't remember her. Third, and probably the most important question of all-when will I learn that trips to Walmart on a Saturday afternoon never turn out well?

Jennifer Shepherd, DVM, owns Cloquet Animal Hospital in Cloquet, Minnesota. She knew she wanted to be a veterinarian when she was 5 years old after reading a book from the library called A Day in the Life of an Animal Doctor.

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