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My celebrity client

What rock star and dog owner Rob Thomas taught one practitioner about veterinary medicine.

My celebrity client
Rob Thomas with Dr. Sue Ettinger and Ollie

Confession: I have been a fan of Rob Thomas and Matchbox 20 since my veterinary school days. I clearly remember five-hour drives from Ithaca, N.Y., to my folks’ house, exhausted after exams and belting out MB20 tunes in my SUV. My black Labrador, Paige, had to tolerate my singing, but the music became the soundtrack of my vet school years.

Fast-forward 15 years. I was excited when I learned that my husband, Dr. Kerry Heuter, a veterinary internist, was seeing Tyler, a dog owned by Rob and his wife, Marisol. Unfortunately, Tyler had hemangiosarcoma of the heart. The Thomases had a medical oncologist, but Kerry would do periodic heart ultrasounds to check Tyler’s status.

At the time, my husband and I worked in the same specialty hospital, and I begged him to introduce me to Rob. I was such a fan, but Kerry thought an introduction would be inappropriate during a veterinary visit. He was right, but he reluctantly and awkwardly did it anyway.

Over the years, I would see Rob and Mari when they brought their dog Samy to see the neurologist. Through their visits to other specialists, we became friends.

Cancer struck the Thomases again in 2016 when their dog Ollie, 6 years old, was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in his right eye. Rob and Mari called me as soon as they got his diagnosis and asked me to be Ollie’s oncologist. I was not the closest geographically, but they were willing to travel and trust me with Ollie’s oncology care.

I have grown almost pathologically attached to Ollie. He is a ginger-toned, mixed-breed dachshund with the softest coat, and he is incredibly protective of Rob and Mari. The first day they arrived for a consultation, one-eyed Ollie was in Rob’s arms, and he growled at me when I went to hug Rob.

Over the last 19 months, I have treated Ollie with the melanoma immunotherapy vaccine, injectable chemotherapy, oral metronomic chemotherapy and supplements. We see each other regularly for treatments, testing and snuggles, and now Ollie protects me fiercely. Even from my staff.

Throughout Ollie’s treatments, Rob and Mari have become my closest friends. They flew me to Denver to supervise his treatments while Rob was touring in 2016. The fan girl in me barely ever surfaces anymore. I have been to so many of his concerts, on the tour bus with Ollie, in Rob’s dressing room before and after shows, and invited to dinner at their house. They have given me access to their lives.

This unique insight has taught me more lessons than I ever imagined about veterinary medicine.

1. Know What You Do Not Know

When Ollie was diagnosed with the malignant melanoma in his right eye in August 2016, I had been a veterinarian for 18 years and a boarded cancer specialist for 12 years. I’ve treated thousands of cancer cases. And still, I had never personally managed a canine patient with this type of cancer. I had plenty of experience treating malignant melanoma in the more common locations, like the mouth and digits, but none in the eye.

Typically, more than 80 percent of eye melanomas are benign. But not Ollie’s. I could not let down Rob and Mari, so I did research. I consulted with other oncologists, and I got second opinions. And then I used my experience and training to create a treatment plan that I hoped would beat Ollie’s cancer and maintain a good to excellent quality of life.

In veterinary medicine, we will keep learning and seeing new things. Don’t be ashamed of what you do not know. Only be ashamed if you do not do something about it.

2. What You Think You Know, You Might Not

Ollie’s protocol includes drugs I prescribe routinely, including NSAIDs, stomach protectants, supplements and medications formulated to prevent chemotherapy side effects.

While the Thomases trust me medically, they do their research before anything is added to Ollie’s protocol. He is on almost 20 medications for his heart and eye conditions, so we need to think about how best to combine everything. When during the day should something be administered? Can new medications be combined with what he’s already on? With food or without? Do I know all the side effects and interactions?

I find myself double-checking and doing more research. The experience has been humbling, and it reminds me that we need to review what we think we know. Unpack what you know and dive deeper.

3. Practice, Rehearse, Repeat

I have been fortunate to attend sound checks before Rob’s concerts, including one in January at the Borgata in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The long weekend of shows is a fundraiser for the Thomases’ Sidewalk Angels Foundation.

In town for the last concert, my husband and I were invited to the sound check. We watched and listened for over 45 minutes as the band rehearsed song after song. I assumed the performing was routine to Rob and the band at this point of the weekend and their careers. But even Rob is not above rehearsals.

Practicing is not glamorous, but we all need to engage in sustained practice and elevate our craft, whether in pursuit of better medicine, improved client and staff communication, a non-veterinary hobby, or, in my case, preparation for a veterinary conference oncology talk.

4. Know Your Audience

Over the years, I have seen how each of Rob’s shows is different. A few months ago, he was the musical guest at the VMX conference in Orlando, Florida. Rob tailored the stories he told onstage to veterinary professionals. He told us about his Tyler tattoo, talked about his love for Samy and Ollie, and thanked us for all we do for people’s pets — from pet lover to pet lover.

Knowing your audience, whether in the exam room, clinic or lecture hall, is so important. Connect with people, find out what resonates and use it to build a better experience for those around you.

5. Change Your Routine

Rob performed at VMX with a small, mostly acoustic quartet, taking some of his biggest hits and playing slower, more intimate versions of them. Changing songs that are so popular and well-loved could be risky, but the live versions gave his audience a new and unexpected experience.

Just because you are good at doing something one way, do not keep doing it the same way. Mix up your routine. In the exam room, when I am talking about canine lymphoma, for example, I tailor the discussion to the family — the level of detail, their treatment goals and their budget. What worked in the exam room yesterday will not be what the next client needs.

I remind myself this in my personal life, too. Step out of your comfort zone and see what you create.

6. Tell Good Stories

In addition to being a talented performer, musician and songwriter, Rob is an incredibly gifted storyteller. What he says between songs connects Rob and his music to his audience.

People remember stories. They are the sense-making mechanism in a world filled with noise. Make your message clear and make your ideas stick. Tell stories, whether to educate or entertain. Make music, not noise.

7. Be a Good Leader and a Good Team Member

Backstage, I have met many amazing people in Rob’s crew, including those involved with security, management, sound, logistics and lights. Rob surrounds himself with really good people. What strikes me is the admiration and love they have for the show they create and for Rob. I see how Rob treats his team with mutual respect. The warmth and happiness are felt backstage.

Don’t we all want to work in a happy, supportive environment? This is a good reminder to lead with warmth, kindness and humor.

8. Serve Your Audience

When you love what you do, your passion shows. Rob’s passion for music is obvious, and he performs with the goal of entertaining and serving his audience.

My passion is helping pets and families through their cancer journey, and I love educating pet owners and veterinarians that cancer is not always a death sentence. When I am in the clinic or speaking at a veterinary conference, I am in the service of others.

Strive to help people around you. Like Rob, do what you love. Find your passion. Serve your audience and improve their experience. And have fun along the way.

Dr. Sue Ettinger is an international speaker, author and practicing cancer specialist in metropolitan New York. She is a passionate advocate for early cancer detection and raising cancer awareness. Learn more at www.DrSueCancerVet.com.  

Rob Thomas performs at VMX 2018.