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Feel the Warmth

Try not to fixate on hardship and negativity. So much good is happening all around you.

Feel the Warmth
Take a little more time to feel the warmth.

It’s sleeting nonstop outside and I’m beginning to worry that someone might slip if the clinic parking lot ices over. Meanwhile, the woman in Exam Room 4 has rosy cheeks, a steaming cup of Starbucks and a thick knit turtleneck sweater. I smell cinnamon as she blows on the latte both to cool the drink and to emphasize the fact that she removed her mask after getting into the building and is refusing to put it back on. I am tired. I want this day and the pandemic to be over.

The client’s dog is bald over its back half. The irritated, beet-red skin smells like a loaf of uncooked sourdough. From 10 feet away, I can see fleas circling the base of the dog’s tail. As much as I want to ask this lady to leave — as much as her presence feels like an affront to my safety and my coworkers’ — I want to help this poor dog more.

I am standing in the doorway to avoid being enclosed in a tiny space with this defiant stranger and discussing flea allergy dermatitis. As soon as I’m done with the case, I think, I’m going to step outside into the damp cold and breathe for a while.

Stark Contrasts

I’ve been reading a lot recently to relax at the end of the day. I’m on “Moby Dick” now, and one of my favorite passages is the narrator talking about getting into bed on a cold night. It reads: “To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.”

It’s a strange thing to look forward to, but part of me can’t wait to go stand under the eaves of our building, inhaling icy air until my lungs are thoroughly chilled, just so I can come back in and feel the relief of warmth. As Herman Melville said, we can’t be warm and cozy if we have not felt the cold. What I really need on this long, exhausting, insulting day is some warm and cozy.

This winter has been a hard one for many of us. The silver lining is that when it’s over, we will appreciate sunshine and good health in a way we never have before. How wonderful will it feel to have dinner guests or to go on vacation? It seems safe to assume now that our kids will return to school with minimal COVID-related disruptions in the fall, and we once again will gather with our friends and family when the holidays roll around. We should be able to hug people before 2021 is out. Imagine that!

The Gain After the Pain

I’ve been thinking lately about a redbone coonhound I saw named Bella. She had been with her adoptive family for only three weeks when she was hit by a truck. Her distraught owners told me how they couldn’t do anything to stop her as she bolted through the front door in pursuit of a squirrel. As we looked at Bella’s broken pelvis on radiographs, the mood in the room was dark.

Giving good people bad news is one of the worst parts of my job. I told the owners that the injury was beyond my repair skills and that they needed to take their pooch to an orthopedic surgeon. They asked about the cost — I estimated $4,000 to $5,000 — and likely outcomes. They were crying as I stepped out of the room to give them space to talk about if and how to go forward.

That pain is partly what made it so wonderful when, a week later, we got an email of thanks from Bella’s owners. Her surgery had gone tremendously well. She was walking with the help of a sling. She would be coming by to see us and say hello as soon as she could. I looked at photos of this dog, healing and lounging in front of a fire, and I felt warm.

You see the comparison I’m making, don’t you? Considering how winter’s hardships will make spring and summer that much sweeter, I can’t help but think about how the hardest days in veterinary medicine create the potential for finding the greatest happiness in our profession. Seeing happiness in the eyes of a person who has just gotten a new kitten is nice. Seeing happiness in the eyes of a person who has a new kitten and who cried as you put her previous cat to sleep six months ago, that’s something more. Had I not felt some despair over Bella’s injury and the decisions that followed, I would not have felt the same joy at her recovery.

Trust Yourself

I’d like to encourage veterinary professionals to take a little more time to feel the warmth that exists in contrast to the cold. So often we allow ourselves to sink into the misery of surgical complications, broken tooth roots, difficult clients and one-star reviews without permitting ourselves to fully enjoy the satisfaction of successfully managing a pet’s recovery, providing needed comfort to a grieving human being, or guiding a family through the arrival of a new fur kid.

Think about it. How much time do you spend reading an email complaint, stewing over an angry phone message or drafting imaginary comebacks to negative interactions? Now, compare that to how much time you spend reflecting on the kind words of your best and happiest clients, replaying the wags of happy tails, and appreciating the checkups that go delightfully smoothly? When you go to bed at night, what fills your mind? Is it the coldness of your struggles or the warmth of your successes?

Case in point: For the first half-dozen years of my career, I threw away thank-you notes received from pet owners. Not immediately, of course. I read them, smiled in gratitude, put them in my desk drawer for a bit and then cleaned out my desk. I rarely read them a second time and I certainly didn’t display them in any way.

One day I mentioned this habit to a colleague. She was appalled. “You throw them away?” she said with a groan.

I tried to explain that although I loved the notes, I didn’t have a lot of storage space, and I couldn’t figure out what else to do with them. Displaying them felt like bragging. Plus, I told her after another minute of thought, the notes reminded me of an elemental anxiety: Deep down I worried that the people writing in gratitude had somehow been fooled into thinking I was a much better doctor than I actually was, and the cards were a reminder that I wouldn’t be able to keep fooling people forever.

My colleague rolled her eyes. Hearing my words the way she heard them made me realize how wrong I was.

Embrace the Positives

That conversation was the beginning of a transformation in the way I think about everyday successes. Today, I believe there is nothing wrong with being proud of the work you do and the sacrifices you make. There is nothing gauche about cherishing a delightful compliment, and it does not make you arrogant to reflect on your wins at the end of the day. More importantly, acknowledging and internalizing your achievements reminds you of what you’re capable of. Own those warm moments.

A few months ago, as we were discussing veterinary practice during the pandemic, a friend told me, “You’ve got to hold the trophy.” I fell in love with the saying as soon as I heard it. When I consider what the “trophies” are in our line of work, I picture:

  • Patients who could have died but didn’t.
  • Hugs from teary people who appreciate our compassion.
  • Cookies delivered to the clinic by grateful clients.
  • Misty-eyed “thank yous” from families visiting their hospitalized pets.

We earn trophies like these every day. Let’s pause to appreciate their emotional weight.

The Awakening

Back to Our Lady of Cinnamon Starbucks. She is still stressing me out, but from the threshold of the exam room, I now appreciate her in a way I might not have earlier in my career. I am able to think, even at this moment, of what a contrast she is to so many more wonderful clients. I do not like how she has failed to care for her dog or how she fails to care for me, unmasked as we breathe the same air during a pandemic. The flip side of that feeling is my immense gratitude that I can take her pet to the treatment room, lay my hands upon it and provide healing.

She makes me remember how lucky I am to have friends, colleagues and family who look out for one other. And that good fortune feels as warm as the coming spring.

Discharge Notes columnist Dr. Andy Roark is a practicing veterinarian, international speaker and author. He founded the Uncharted Veterinary Conference. His Facebook page, podcast, website [drandyroark.com], 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.