…or into our house, or the grocery store, or our kids’ room, and usually not much happens. I am a vet and my husband, a lawyer. I don’t practice clinical medicine; I teach and I do research on wild birds. Dead wild birds mostly. So I am at a bit of a remove from day to day pet practice. But having a vet and a lawyer in our household does mean that we encounter the full spectrum of public opinion regarding our revered (mine) and reviled (his) professions. When I tell people I’m a vet, I usually get the standard, simpering grin with head tilt and squeaky voice saying, “Oh my God. That is SO great! You must love your job!” Most of the time, people say nothing to Christophe’s face about his profession, but of course, everyone’s got their favorite lawyer joke. Dirtbag, shark, vampire, snake, you know the drill. Veterinarians, on the other hand, usually skate along on public visions of them snuggling kittens and puppies all day.
Both of these are pretty far off the mark, of course, as stereotypes tend to be, but I have been watching with particular interest lately as my Facebook and blog feeds blew up with talk of a recent 20/20 segment asking, “Is your veterinarian being honest with you?” I watched it, and the actual message (though delivered in the usual 20/20 undertone of “look what incredibly hard-hitting journalism we’re doing–HA! caught you in the act, sneaky evil-doers!”) appeared to be, “Some vets may recommend procedures that may not be strictly necessary.” You can watch the segment and see for yourself, but I wouldn’t really argue with that take-away. Some vets are dishonest, some are panicked about losing their jobs if they don’t generate sufficient revenues, but other vets genuinely take a more proactive, preventative approach to medicine and may offer procedures that are not life and death at this moment. My very honest mechanic does that all the time, suggesting we might replace a somewhat bald tire now, or wait a little bit longer and assume the minor risk. He’s a businessman, and an honest one. Hopefully, your vet is the same. But there are bad vets just like there are bad lawyers and bad mechanics, and my peers in the profession would do well to remember that.
In reading most of the outcry about this segment from my fellow vets, many of them make good points. The foremost among these was well put on this blog, saying, “If someone enters veterinary school dreaming of the fortune they will make when they graduate, they are an idiot.” This is true. Unlike law, where money-making potential may indeed be a major or even the sole driver, vet school is exorbitantly expensive and vet jobs pay appallingly poorly in light of the debt we incur. Financially, we’re not doing very well. Therefore, I get where the particular indignation comes from when vets are charged with price gouging, or dishonest practices of other sorts.
What I find interesting is that much of the outcry from vets has been in articles, essays and blog posts all saying some variation of, “You don’t appreciate what we do. We love animals and we want to save them, and a lot of times we can’t and then we get yelled at by owners because we can’t save their dogs for free.” This post, for instance, gives a good window into a day in the life of an ER vet. It is stressful, and it is sad sometimes, and people do yell at you. There is an undercurrent in a lot of these pieces that echoes what I often heard from classmates in vet school: “I hate people. I wish I could just work with animals. People are my least favorite species.” Fault the empathy I gained as an English major, but I could never understand this. I love people, on the whole. Not every individual of course, but every single living thing I have loved most in the world has been a person. I’ve loved some animals very much, but never so much as I’ve loved some people. And I have practiced medicine on animals that don’t come with people. Wildlife medicine is like that. The animal gets dropped off, and most of the time, we can’t fix it. We euthanize animals all day long some days. It’s not that it isn’t sad or stressful, because it certainly can be. But the most heart-breaking moments I’ve ever seen in all my work with animals came not when a wild animal had to die, but when a child was there, patting her dead cat’s neck, or an old widower was whispering into his dying dog’s ear, “I’ll miss our walks, my beautiful girl.” When you practice on pets, it’s not the pet you treat, not the pet you are so driven to save. Or at least, not that alone. It’s the bond between the person and the pet that you’re working on. It stretches from you, laboring in the surgical suite, out the door and into the waiting room, and that string is pulled so taut, and threatening to snap, and you may be forgetting that the other end is wrapped around the heart and the guts of the person that loves that creature more than anyone else in the world could.
When you must go out and deliver the news that it cannot be fixed, or worse, that it can, but for more money than that owner has, you have to remember that whatever screaming and raging they do at you has nothing to do with you. We, of all people, know the force that string between them can exert, and when they’re watching it fray, and especially if they know only money could fix it, you must imagine the fear, and the sadness, and the panic, and beyond that the pride, the guilt, and the shame all muddled up in their hearts at once.
Why have lawyers become so maligned? Because they must be there when people have their lowest, darkest moments. They are there because there is something very important that needs doing and we cannot do it ourselves. Someone’s in jail, or is getting a divorce, or losing a house, or losing a child. We need lawyers in those low places, and we feel the helplessness of not being able to fix it ourselves. We are feeling very bleak indeed, and here is someone we cannot do without, and she’s making money off it. That’s why lawyers are so derided and mocked. But many jobs and many professions have these moments. The mechanic who tells a woman her car can’t be fixed for less than a thousand dollars, and she hasn’t got it, and now she’ll be losing her job. The college instructor railed at by a failing student who’s just been told he won’t be graduating after all. The man from the bank who comes to give the news of a foreclosure. Anyone who has to be there when another person is down, anyone who is in control when another person is adrift, anyone who has to be the messenger will take some of the shrapnel from these explosions. To survive them, we must possess sufficient empathy, and sufficient understanding of human nature to know what the rage and sadness are really about.
To my colleagues who still say they hate people, best to take a lesson from the dogs; what we love most about them, their blind devotion, their inability to hold a grudge, their keen intuition about our moods and our quirks, all these come because there is nothing a dog loves so much in this world, as a person.