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Parenthood: The ultimate veterinary training


Four meaningful lessons on being a better veterinarian-from those you might not expect it from.

It was three hours past closing time, my emergency exploratory surgery patient had just left for the overnight clinic, and I was exhausted. Gathering up my things, I realized that both of my young children (the human kind) would be in bed when I got home. The thought made my chest tighten for an instant as the guilt of missing their entire day washed over me.

Sometimes being a veterinarian makes being a parent difficult. (And sometimes the opposite is true.) However, for the most part, I have found that being a parent has actually made being a veterinarian easier. In fact, in some ways, I would say it has been the very best veterinary training. Here are four of the most meaningful lessons my children have taught me and insight on why they make me a better veterinarian every day.

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1 You will never be perfect.

I was in veterinary school when my wife told me she was pregnant with our first child. This is it, I thought, my chance to be The World's Greatest Dad! Unfortunately, that fantasy fizzled even before I held my baby for the first time. To my wife's dismay, it took me three tries to put together our crib correctly, I injured myself installing the car seat and I fell asleep during labor. Asleep. I don't think I have achieved parenting perfection for a single day yet. But I love my children, and I get better at this fatherhood thing every day.

No matter how hard we try or how deeply we care, even the best vets make mistakes. We're human, in the exam room just as in the nursery. As long as we stay focused on continual improvement, we must forgive ourselves for our failures and move on.

2 Patience is not just a virtue—it's a necessity.

At one time, I was able to do the following things in one swift course of action: decide to depart my house, locate both of my shoes, walk out and get in the car. Since having children, this process has turned into at least a 40-minute ordeal. It now involves coordinating schedules with other people, coaxing children into car seats and packing enough food and clothing to survive a week in the wild.

The emotions I experience during times like these are not unlike those we feel while waiting for tardy clients to arrive, for staff members to assist us in procedures or for diagnostic results to appear on the printer. The lesson my kids have taught me is that things take as long as they take (although we must never stop encouraging the process). We can be irritable about delays, or we can relax. The choice is up to us.

3 A good sense of humor will save your sanity.

Once, on a cross-country family trip, we decided to drive late into the night to cover more distance. At one point my toddler daughter awoke and insisted urgently that we stop. As I stood next to this little girl on a plastic potty in the grass beside the rural highway, my desire to be home surged.

"Are you almost done?" I asked after a few moments.

"No," she replied.

"What about now?"

"It will be a while." She paused and then asked, "Daddy, why do men have nipples?"

My irritation bloomed like heartburn after lunch at a Mexican buffet—and then it faded as I cracked up. Laughter can be our best alternative to losing our cool.

I once saw this in practice while working with an outstanding veterinarian. He had an open appointment slot right at the time a patient came in needing treatment for a laceration. But the pet owners were so adamant that they didn't want to see this particular veterinarian that they elected to pay an additional fee to see an emergency doctor instead. The technician brought the medical record back to the emergency doctor and stopped to ask my colleague, "What did you do to these people?!" Rather than act hurt, he laughed and said, "I have no idea, but I certainly made an impression."

Like our children, our profession can humble us and even make us come unhinged if we let it. Let's not forget that we always have the option to laugh, even if it's only in private.

4 Remember your priorities.

Last weekend my family was getting ready for a trip to the zoo. As we filed outside to the car, my daughter emerged from the house holding my iPhone triumphantly above her head in both hands. "Daddy! Look what I brought you!"

When we think about what we really want from life, most of us don't intentionally prioritize heavy caseloads, phone calls to return or an overflowing email inbox. Yet when we focus on day-to-day living, it is often these realities that claw their way to the top of our to-do lists. The things we mean to prioritize, such as happiness, personal freedom and strong relationships with family, can get pushed aside.

My daughter was incredibly proud that she'd found the gadget that's almost always attached to me, especially because of the importance I seem to place on it. Meanwhile I was disappointed that I had let the value of something so trivial become central in my daughter's perception of my priorities. I thanked her for being so thoughtful, then asked her to put the phone back inside. I didn't want to be bothered by it on our big outing.

For most of us, there will be days when we miss seeing our children because of work. There will be aspects of work that seep into our personal lives, taking up our time and occasionally hijacking our emotions. It's to be expected, but it doesn't have to be accepted as the norm.

As I finished faxing my medical notes regarding the exploratory surgery to the emergency clinic, I decided that I wasn't sorry I had stayed late to help this pet and his owner. I was, however, going to make sure I made the evening up to my kids the next night and that weekend by conveniently losing my iPhone a few times.

Dr. Andy Roark practices in Ijamsville, Md. He is the founder and managing director of veterinary consulting firm Tall Oaks Enterprises. Follow him on Facebook or @DrAndyRoark on Twitter.

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