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Obenskis final bow
It was 1977. Back then, when clients presented us with a purebred dog, it meant both parents were the same breed. Peek-a-poos, Spit-a-pugs and Weimerdoodles were considered mutts. Occasionally we fielded questions such as, “Do you have to go to school to be a veterinarian?” And donning a stethoscope sometimes led to this client observation: “Look, just like a real doctor!”
As I've maintained over the years, my friend Arnie is the greatest veterinary practitioner I have ever known. We all know that our clients never say anything important until you put the stethoscope in your ears. But it was Arnie who invented a fake version of the instrument so that he could hear what they were saying. He is usually very calm and collected. However, in December of 1977, he became the voice of doom.
“Well,” he said to me, “it looks like the end of the line for veterinary medicine. I just read an idiotic article about practice management. It was one of the dumbest things I've ever seen. This skinny little upstart magazine won't stay in business long if they keep printing drivel like that.”
He was referring, of course, to the first time my column appeared in this publication. Since then, his words have proven to be less than prophetic. The magazine has thrived, and I can only hope that my meager contributions have helped lead to that success. Through all this time, though, Arnie has remained my chief critic. (Sometimes tongue-in-cheek, other times foot-in-mouth, but always uncomfortable about what I have said in print.)
What have I ever said that would upset anyone? Have I ever been politically incorrect? I suggest that you take a stiff dose of Dramamine and buckle your seat belt, because we are about to take a nauseating trip down memory lane and review some of the things I have shared with you over the years.
I have revealed the 14 absolute truths of veterinary practice. To name a few:
> There is no correlation between the amount of talking a client does and the amount of useful information that you are going to get out of it.
> When someone comes to your office, you cannot automatically assume that person has any brains.
> There is no direct connection between what a client wants and what they are willing to pay for it.
> And, a basic rule of practice management: You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar, but you can catch the most flies with bull****.
My writing about these truths would always elicit a phone call from Arnie. “You can't say things like that in print, Mike. If your clients see it, your practice will go down the tubes. That magazine will feel the feedback too. They'll get rid of you if they have any sense.”
Wrong again, Arnie. Many of my clients read my column regularly, and I'm proud to say that several major writing awards have come my way.
I can't take all the credit (or blame) for things I've written, though. Many colleagues have contributed to my inane ramblings. Do you remember my retired friend Dr. Leonard D. Hardway, who lives at the Cold Ember Home for burned-out veterinarians in Ropes End, Wisconsin? It was Leonard who revealed the common client conversations to avoid.
He told us how he once arrogantly promised Mrs. Fester that nothing could go wrong with Tigger's operation. “Don't worry, nothing ever goes wrong with a routine spay,” he said. The incision drained for two years. On another occasion, he foolishly laughed out loud at the idea that emergency calls increase when the moon is full. That little misstep caused him to suffer many nights of extra full-moon emergencies. No wonder he wound up at the Cold Ember Home.
Leonard also gets credit for asking some of our profession's most puzzling questions. Things such as, why are there always more journals piled up on your desk waiting to be read than you remember putting there? Why do clients who are spending good money for an office call converse with their children, daydream out loud and babble baby talk to their pets instead of listening to the advice they're paying for? Why do people call the veterinarian when a dog bites them? Do they call the florist when the dog eats a poisonous plant? And, my favorite: Why do the kids have to come along to my office? Do they take the dog along when they go to the pediatrician?
Another collaborator I should recognize is Earl Lee Senility. It was Earl who helped me categorize our clients as members of specific groups based on behavior (i.e., pet owner taxonomy). This taxonomy includes the last-minute dog trainer (this guy pounds the table and tells his dog to jump up), the swift-running thump-mortis (the deadbeat), Nomissa thingum (the free-roaming hall stander who doesn't stay in the exam room), and Infantus lingo (the baby talker).
Arnie's reaction was one of concern. “You can't classify people like that,” he said. “You are profiling based on behavior. You're going to get into big trouble one of these days.”
As much as I respect his opinions, I chose, once again, to ignore his advice.
Luckily, one idea that never drew criticism was my invention of the Veterinary Olympic Games. With the help of Althea Atha Games and Dee Cathelon, we created games for animals large and small.
Eventually, Chainsaw Necropsy was removed from the list of events, but the Find the Thermometer (from inside the cow) and The Electric Slide (getting through charged fences) games remain popular today. Small animal events include Pill Hockey (corralling a wayward wafer as it careens across the floor), large dog/slippery floor patient transport, cat roping, dog wrestling and several others.
Despite his concerns and criticisms, Arnie has been an important contributor to my column. It was he who helped me uncover the existence of the Pet Owners Handbook. He and I knew that cat and dog owners exhibit some pretty weird behaviors. The mystery was why so many of them seem to do the exact same crazy things. We realized it's because they have a secret handbook that veterinarians are never allowed to see.
During a clandestine operation where we met with an agent that we knew only as “Deep Pharynx,” we obtained a copy of the book. There were 12 chapters outlining tips on exam room behavior. Some of the suggestions included:
> Allow you pet to jump off of the table frequently.
> Ask for a bowl of water.
T> ake children with you even if you have to borrow some from a neighbor. Be sure they swing from the exam table or open any drawers they see.
> Make a computer-assisted home diagnosis beforehand and stick to it.
> Even if you never comb your dog, be sure to wipe or comb off lots of fur to drop on the floor.
> Do not walk your pet outside before entering the office. Veterinarians expect an occasional mess on the floor. Besides, they might need a sample to test for disease.
There were, of course, countless other helpful tips in the book, which Arnie and I shared with you over a two-month period.
Now, I have some bad news for you. If you have been with me from the beginning, you have wasted at least a full week of your time reading about my take on veterinary practice. You will never be able to get that time back-it is gone forever. (Interesting fact: If you gathered all of my columns in one place and laid them end to end, you and I would both be declared mentally incompetent.)
Over these decades I've shared hundreds of barely believable stories with you. They were all true. And dvm360 magazine has moved its home office four times-possibly trying to get away from me-but I tracked them down each time. I've outlasted five editors, or perhaps I wore them out.
This month, on the 37th anniversary of my first column, Arnie chose to share some words of wisdom with me.
“Mike,” he said. “You've written darn near 500 columns. If you haven't gotten your point across by now, it's time to quit.”
In this case, Arnie was right. It has been long enough. So this is my final written venture into the often-surreal world of veterinary practice. I thank you, my friends and colleagues, for following my adventures these 37 years.