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Grading on a Curve

Whatever you do, just don’t compare 2020 to other years.

Grading on a Curve
2020 was a three-legged cat of a year if there ever was one, but as three-legged cats go, maybe it had its strengths.
If 2020 was a patient, I suspect most of us would have elected humane euthanasia sometime around May. That would have been after the wildfires in Australia, the U.S. drone strike on an Iranian general, the impeachment and acquittal of Donald Trump, the death of Kobe Bryant, the U.K.’s departure from the European Union, a string of shelter-in-place COVID orders, and nationwide school-year cancellations. It would have been before the biggest new-patient surge in the history of veterinary medicine, the postponement of the Summer Olympics, the California wildfires, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (and subsequent battle for her Supreme Court seat), President Trump’s COVID-19 hospitalization, the November election, and whatever else happens between now and the end of the year. How do we even begin to make sense of a year like that? No, really, I’m asking: If we wanted to process this year and learn from it, where would we start? I’ve been thinking about that question a lot lately, and I’ve decided that any assessment of 2020 has to begin with jettisoning our normal expectations. However we might have evaluated previous years, there’s no comparison to 2020. This year needs a grading scale of its own.

Of Life and Limb

I saw a three-legged tabby named Gus for a wellness examination not long ago. He was 2 years old and a ball of energy. He hunted sock feet, chased laser beams and loved to survey his kingdom from the top of the china hutch in his dining room. At the end of Gus’ examination, I asked his owners if they had any concerns about him. They said, “Nope, none at all.” At that point, I leaned in with a serious expression and said, “Well, I’m afraid I have bad news.” Their eyes widened. I continued: “Gus … is missing a leg.” After feigning shock for a few seconds, we had a good laugh. Of course, it wasn’t that we were amused by a kitten losing a limb. What made the moment funny was the context — the fact that in my everyday work as a doctor, I’m judging the health of every animal on the scale of normal functioning. That is, I compare each cat to every other cat I’ve seen (which is a lot of cats). But that comparison doesn’t hold up for Gus. Other cats have four legs. Gus has three. Without assessing him by the number of feet he has, we could all agree that Gus was doing great. Every day, we choose the metrics we use to measure our lives, and those metrics make all the difference. If someone were to decide that the measure of a great dog is how well he fits into a purse, then Bruno the German shepherd will always be a terribly subpar dog. See?

Unearthing the Positives

That’s the thinking I’m trying to adopt as we wrap up this uniquely challenging year. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that 2020 wasn’t a mess. I’m just saying we’re not going to land anywhere good if we measure 2020 against expectations, because there’s no way anyone could have expected a series of events like we’ve seen. Did many people face hardship unlike we’ve had in any other year? Yes. But isn’t it also true that many of us achieved unusual successes and personal growth unlike any other year, too? I’d like to put forward five ideas for consideration before anyone slaps a big, red “F” at the top of the 2020 calendar and tosses it away to be forgotten as quickly as possible. Here they are: What if 2020 reminded us of what is really important? In 2019, I was excited to get away for a nice vacation. I was delighted when I got the work schedule I wanted, and I was frustrated when I got stuck in traffic. I traveled a lot for work, which was fun, but I was away from my family and hometown a lot. In 2020, I am happy to be healthy and have a healthy family. I am glad to have a job when so many people have lost theirs, to be able to wrap my arms around a spouse who loves me and to have hobbies I enjoy. I am fascinated by how I have come to know my neighbors and feel more connected to my local community than I ever have before. Likewise, I now know my work team on a more personal level, as we have leaned on each other for support. I like the deeper connections I’ve made this year and I want to keep them. In that way, 2020 has given me perspective on what I value most: people and relationships. What if 2020 showed us what is in our power and what is not? One of my favorite sayings is “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” If this is true, 2020 must be a real knee-slapper for the big guy. The rest of us, however, have faced a reckoning with our inability to control the world around us. While painful, being liberated from a false sense of power might have been the greatest gift that 2020 gave us. As someone who has often wrestled with frustration over not quite being able to get pet owners to do what I prescribe in the best interest of their pets, I’ve always struggled a little with a lack of control. So, it was tough at first to be reminded again and again this year that I can’t control anything that has to do with other people — from air travel to opinions on mask-wearing to the behavior of public officials. It made me ask myself, well, what can I control then? While chaos might swirl in the world around us, the job we do as veterinarians is our own. That’s what we can control: showing up, giving our all and getting so swept up in our work that the time from the beginning of a shift to the end seems to fly. How many people are lucky enough to have a job they can fully engage with like that? In 2020, we learned that although there’s much in the world we cannot control, we can always put our heads down and do the good work we were made to do. What if 2020 made us more grateful? Here’s a handy self-defense mechanism: When it hurts to dwell on what we’ve lost, we can seek comfort in what we have left. Have you been touched more deeply by a sincere word of thanks from a client? I have, and I’ve also come to appreciate so many things I didn’t pause to notice adequately before. The pictures my daughters stuck to the fridge with little magnets in 2020 are arguably not that much more artistic than the ones they scribbled in 2019, but their drawings have never looked as beautiful to me as they did this year. In 2020, I’ve slowed down, lingered over the little things more and felt true gratitude for them. What if 2020 marched us into a new technological world for good? Admit it: We, as a profession, are not often known as tech people. (Wherever you are reading this, I bet there’s a veterinary clinic within 100 miles that still has medical records on 5-by-7 index cards.) The blood of James Herriot flows through our veins, and we are happiest when talking face to face about a pet we can see and touch. That hands-on approach to our work might be why our industry has dragged its heels for the last decade while so many other professions have sprinted ahead to engage with their clients digitally. Then came 2020 — the era of Zoom meetings and Google Hangouts — to push us over that technology ledge. We’re almost certainly better for it. Ask yourself:
  • How many of us now text clients and save hours of phone time every day?
  • How many practices have customer service employees working remotely from 50-plus miles away?
  • How many clients are falling in love with curbside service because they can wait in their car, peacefully entertained by music, a book or a phone?
We advanced veterinary telemedicine as a viable treatment tool more in the first half of 2020 than we had in the previous 10 or more years, and we are all going to reap the benefits of our forced technology progress for the rest of our careers. That’s really something! What if 2020 taught us to set boundaries? In April, I was asked if I could squeeze in an appointment with an itchy dog, and I said yes. The pet owner waited about 30 minutes, the staff pushed happily through the appointments, the dog got treated, and I got patted on the back for my flexibility and willingness to help. In July, I was again asked if I could squeeze in an itchy dog appointment. I again said yes. But this time, we were experiencing the crunch that came from COVID modifications on top of the usual summer rush on top of the slew of “pandemic puppies.” The dog’s owner waited more than an hour, the staff got stressed and frazzled, and ultimately, the client took his pet and left. I felt frustrated, angry, tired and ashamed. Would I be right if I suspected that a similar scene played out in your clinic around the middle of 2020? It’s an awful experience to get overwhelmed to the point of not being able to serve a patient, but sometimes it can be for the best.

Pace Yourself

After spending years gritting our teeth and pushing harder to meet every additional request, veterinary professionals finally reached a point this year that overwhelmed our systems and our altruism. And you know what happened? For the first time, some veterinarians said, “We are not taking new clients right now.” They said, “Our first well-pet appointment is in three weeks,” and they meant it. If this was you, congratulations! You did it! You took the biggest step veterinarians can take to ensure their enjoyment of and longevity in this profession. You made the most important adjustment possible to retain staff and maintain a high standard of care. You set real, common-sense boundaries. I think we will all come to love these boundaries, and I challenge us to maintain them. Are you feeling differently about 2020 now? Look, it was hard. It was strange. It wasn’t like any other year. My hope is that as we move on from it with an understandable feeling of good riddance, we also might think about how we grew from this year and what we learned. It was a three-legged cat of a year if there ever was one, but as three-legged cats go, maybe it had its strengths. Discharge Notes columnist Dr. Andy Roark is a practicing veterinarian, international speaker, author and media personality. He founded the Uncharted Veterinary Conference and drandyroark.com. His Facebook page, website, podcast and YouTube show reach millions of people every month. Dr. Roark is a three-time winner of the NAVC Practice Management Speaker of the Year Award.