How well do you handle crazy? Because the typical veterinary technician in clinical practice encounters some pretty crazy people over the years. I know, I know, that’s probably not very politically correct or particularly compassionate either. But, I’ve been there when pet owners don’t listen, make crazy demands, say the darnednest things, rely on Dr. Google more than a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, and leave you wondering why all of the logic decided to go on vacation and leave you house sitting in a neighborhood of insanity. And then there’s the unfortunate situations when clients are rude, condescending, and make poor decisions regarding their pet’s lives that you do not agree with. To be completely honest, after putting up with even a few uncaring, negligent pet owners and some potentially verbally abusive tirades from clients, it is rather easy to become callous and judgemental when any client doesn’t do exactly as we would like them to.
For a veterinary technician, being compassionate and sympathetic towards animals is easy and expected. They are innocent, non-judgmental creatures that have an uncanny ability to forgive and let live. I don’t know of any vet tech who, after being bitten by an animal, took it personally or blamed the animal because, as veterinary professionals, we get that animals sometimes do not understand what we are doing, and often react out of fear and anxiety. On the same note, one could say that clients are very similar to our patients: they often do not understand what we are doing (although there is not as much of a communication barrier with clients as there is with their pets), and they may also react due to the fear and anxiety of their pet’s vet visit. So, why is it sometimes more difficult to empathize with our clients than it is with our patients?
As a vet tech, I naturally focus on patient care. I watch and monitor patients and I am their own personal alarm system for when they get painful, nauseous, anxious, or in any way unstable. This is the main reason I became a veterinary technician: to serve and care for the animals that walk through those hospital doors everyday. I sometimes forget, however, that my job doesn’t end with patient care. I’m also serving the clients, like it or not, that are on the other end of that leash or pet carrier. Even if sometimes I am only indirectly serving them by giving their pets the highest quality nursing care, I am still serving them. For the understanding and incredibly grateful clients, this part of my job is easy. Especially if they bring baked goods for the staff – I can overlook a surprising amount of difficulty if baked goods are involved. For the difficult ones, or the ones whose decisions I don’t understand, my job gets a lot harder.
I know how it feels to carry out treatments on an animal wondering what in the world the owner was thinking. “Why did they wait so long to see the vet?…”. “Don’t they know there is only a 1 in 10 chance their pet will survive? Why are they choosing supportive therapy? I would not let my dog suffer like that …” I’ve also been in situations where I, after harshly judging a client for their decision, learned more about that client’s story, and promptly put my proverbial foot in my mouth. The client is elderly, has no family close by, and lives alone. The client has suffered severe loss or severe mental distress, and the thought of losing their beloved pet is too much to bear. The client is a single parent with a handicapped child at home, and is just trying to make ends meet. When I learned bits and pieces of clients’ stories and backgrounds, I was able to understand their decision a lot more. So many times we only see it from the animal’s perspective- and that’s a good thing! The animals need a voice and we, as vet techs, provide that. However, we also need to remember that there is always another side to the situation.
For the record, I am in no way denying that there are plenty of careless, selfish people out there that refuse to put their pet’s health above their own comfort and convenience. I am also not condoning abusive clients or those that we wish could be banned from having animals altogether. We see all kinds of pet owners- the best and the worst of them all. Unfortunately, it is because of the worst pet owners that veterinary technicians can become so judgmental and wary of certain clients. But, I’ve also realized that there are plenty of people who are just trying to get by, be it physically, financially, or mentally. They are doing the best they can to make the right decisions, and they sure could use our support.
A common situation where it is easy for vet techs to be judgemental towards clients is when end of life decisions need to made for a pet. One of the most tangible ways that veterinary medicine offers support to people is through the role of grief counselor. We provide them with the appropriate options and support them through decisions that determine the fate of their pet’s lives. As a result, the vet tech starts to become familiar with the euthanasia and grieving process. Even if we never quite “get used to” euthanasia, we go through it enough to where we develop a mental process for dealing with it (at least if we want to continue being healthy vet techs) because it is a part of our job. We also start to develop our own opinions for how we would treat our own pets if they get sick, become terminally ill, or have a poor long term quality of life. And I am sure that clients and vet techs alike would agree that they do not want any pet to linger and continue to be in pain or suffer. I hear many vet techs say (myself included) that they would not hesitate to euthanize their pet once “the time comes”. But who decides when that time is?
The obvious answer that I’m sure we are all painfully aware of is: It is the owner’s decision. In some instances, the decision to euthanize is an obvious one. But for others, such as cases of terminal illnesses, their situation involves a lot more uncertainty and grey area. It is easy to support someone whose decision you understand and agree with, but what about those people that decide to do something different than what you would do? What about the clients that take a little longer than you would to decide to euthanize their pet? What about those clients that decide to try the long shot treatment option rather than euthanize immediately? It’s tempting to label these clients as selfish for letting their pet suffer while they take time to make a decision, or weak minded for not being able to handle the loss. We may even be tempted to call them delusional for choosing the 1 in 10 very expensive chance that their pet will recover. The problem with making these judgements , or any judgment for that matter, is that even IF we are right, it does nothing to help the veterinarian-client relationship, which ultimately does nothing to help the patient. In an article written by Dr. Myrna Milani, BS, DVM discussing the effects of guilt trips on clients, she writes,
True, in the short run sending clients on guilt trips may make us feel self-righteous and like a defender of poor helpless animals who can’t speak for themselves. However, as long as we must depend on owner cooperation and commitment to successfully treat their animals, using empathy and compassion rather than guilt to fuel the treatment process may result in a much smoother and more efficient journey to good health for all involved.
What we often forget is that often the client is mentally in another world than us. Most do not deal with illness and death everyday. They may not already have a mental process in place, like we do, for dealing with grief. They may not understand how disease processes progress and need either time or a third and fourth explanation in order to wrap their heads around the new concept. Maybe they just recently lost a family member, and the thought of losing their best four-legged friend is too much to bear. So many times we fail to see the loneliness, the anxiety, the despair that losing a faithful companion will bring in certain people’s lives.
I am not saying it is ok to let a pet suffer. We have a commitment to alleviate animal suffering and we should take that very seriously. And I will admit, there are plenty of times when I try to put myself in another person’s shoes (as best I can) and I still disagree with them. But it doesn’t give me the right to judge them or look down on them. We shouldn’t be so quick to judge when a client forgets, doesn’t understand after explaining for the third time, or makes a mistake.
By supporting the owner, we support the patient even if it’s not a decision we ourselves would make. Ultimately, as veterinary technicians, it is up to the veterinarian to educate and authorize treatment plans. It’s our job to carry out those treatment plans. We won’t always know what kind of mental or emotional state a client is in. We won’t always know their family situation, their history, or their experiences. Our job is to work with the veterinarian in establishing and maintaining a veterinarian-client relationship where trust, sensitivity, and compassion are used to guide the treatment of the patient. Sometimes, that means meeting people where they are in their current situation and cutting them a little slack. Sometimes it means still respecting a client’s decision that you don’t agree with. At the end of the day, we have to remember that we cannot stop at just understanding and caring for people’s pets. We have to understand and care for their beloved humans as well.
Milani, Myrna. “Sending Clients on Guilt Trips”. Veterinary Forum, 2001. <http://www.mmilani.com/client-guilt-trips.html>