Just like this doctor, you may find the letters, photos, and mementos you receive from clients provide a critical pick-me-up when the tough days seem to outweigh the joys of practice.
By Elizabeth Devitt, DVM
I don't remember who told me to save kind letters from clients so that I could re-read them on a rainy day, but it was great advice. I recently had a string of rainy days. And when the workweek mercifully ended, I went home, searching for the compassion that had eluded me at work. I opened my hallway closet door and pulled a travel-weary cardboard box from the top shelf. The flaps opened readily to reveal a jumble of letters and mementos.
After 16 years of practice, spanning everything from farm work to wildlife rescue and small animal practice, I felt fortunate to have a box full of letters to read. I needed every one of them. Did I mention it had been a bad week?
There were fistfuls of small thank-you cards: “Thank you for your care,” “Lily has recovered completely,” or “We appreciated all your help.” And there were photographs. I grinned at the image of two pugs that sat begrudgingly posed for a holiday photo, stuffed antlers sprouting between their ears. There was a photo of an engaging black cat, Ansen, who was curled up in his red-and-green holiday blanket, a long way from the starving, flea-ridden, snot-nosed kitten that had been rescued.
Then there was Topmaster. What could be more impressive than the massive Percheron, a portrait of muscle in motion as he cantered soundly around his home paddock? And how could anyone resist smiling at the picture of a hungry seal pup galumphing toward a bucket of fish and a marine mammal rescue worker? All the pictures were heartwarming. James Herriot couldn't have made a more compelling sales pitch for the upside of veterinary medicine.
There were letters from Christine, a former technician who chose my alma mater as her first-choice college and funded her studies with a combination of scholarship funds, ROTC enrollment, and employment with my former college pals. “Thank you for helping me get here,” she wrote.
I enjoyed the faded photo of a brown-haired girl, Rachel, one of my favorite client's kids, clutching the reins of her new pony on her sixth birthday; the letter, written in green crayon, read: “Dear Dr. Liz: I love you very much…”; the petite clay imprint of Sauvignon's paw, a cat that loved no one but was dearly beloved by her owner, made after she lost her battle with intestinal adenocarcinoma; a magazine article from a writer who taught me to play polo in exchange for working on his horses; the front page of a Ventura County edition of the Los Angeles Times that headlined a story about an oil spill on which I'd worked to rescue wildlife.
Then there were the real tear-jerkers: handmade, handwritten letters from folks who poured their hearts out on paper. There was a letter from Sister Mary Jessica, who had been driving home, her beloved dog in the back seat, when a car crashed into her from behind. She drove straight to the veterinary hospital from the accident. I could still envision the black terrier whose eyes never left the Sister's face, even though he couldn't move much else. It had been heartbreaking to show her the radiographs of Skippy's broken vertebrae. It had been almost impossible to say the word “euthanize.” But she had blessed me for being there.
“I had that little fellow since he was 6 weeks old, and he had grown to be a gentle, loving pup who was with me on all occasions. I lost my mother and father within three months of each other this summer, and I guess I needed Skippy as much as he needed me … . I loved that little fellow, and it will be a long time before I forget the love he brought to our convent home. I'm sure the tears will come to an end sooner or later but not the gratitude for your understanding.”
I ran my fingers over the digital imprint of a calico puffball of a cat walking on powdery snow. It was the cover to a letter filled with memories that Tica's owner knew I would appreciate: “… running down the stairs and up on the car every day to greet me, treatment my husband didn't get … she would take walks with us down the block at night … she didn't really like the snow, but she would walk with us … .”
From the 8-year-old girl who lost her best friend, Frangelica, an extraordinarily charming, extra-toed cat, to kidney failure: “Thank you for taking care of my friend. I want to be a veterinarian like you when I grow up.”
The box of letters was more than liniment for a tired doctor with a limp in her professional stride. It was a carton-sized reminder that even though I became a veterinarian to make a difference in the lives of animals, I affected the lives of everyone associated with those animalsand my life was enriched by those connections. It wasn't just the heroic and heartbreaking stuff that mattered. It was the everyday effort that counted. Every single day we impact the animals we are sworn to help and the people involved with those animals.
So after a wearying week, I sifted through my box and found the keepsake that I needed: the knowledge that as veterinarians our gift is our compassion for animals, and each day we share that gift, the bonds between us and our patients and our clients grow stronger. What we do matterseven when no one is sending letters. But when they do, I hope that you remember to save them.
Dr. Elizabeth Devitt runs a relief practice in Santa Cruz, Calif.