A case for compassion in veterinary medicine

Monitoring practice finances is key, but it's also important to look beyond the numbers.
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Jul 01, 2009
By dvm360.com staff

Having worked as an emergency medical services provider, I'm no stranger to death. I've held the hand of a pregnant 19-year-old as we lost her pulse and that of her unborn baby after a horrific car accident. I've seen a blue 6-month-old infant take his last breath. And I've watched an elderly man kiss his wife of 50 years and tell her not to worry as he clutched his chest and collapsed. I have seen death, and I know death.

These days, as a veterinary hospital administrator and practice owner, my days consist mostly of running our office and managing team members. My professional focus is on the numbers—in fact, you can quantify virtually everything I deal with during the day: profit margins, client waiting times, and average daily transaction amounts. Life seems simple when you view it numerically. But, one day, that illusion was shattered.

VENTURING INTO NEW TERRITORY

It was a busy morning at the practice, and one of our doctors asked if I could help for a few minutes. My choices were: babysit a crying 18-month-old toddler, or assist with a euthanasia procedure. Considering my background, I figured I could handle death much better than a crying child. My task was to serve as an extra set of hands to help hold and lay down the deceased pet after the procedure.

As we walked back to the grieving room, I realized that although euthanasias occurred in my hospital every week, in a room I helped design, and under guidelines I helped to write, I'd never witnessed one. I wasn't prepared for what was about to happen.

PREPARING FOR THE WORST

In our grieving room a young couple sat on the floor while a 14-year-old wiry black mutt sniffed around the room, checking things out. The man and woman were crying when the doctor asked if they were ready. I was taken aback—this wasn't what death looked like in my experience. The doctor quietly explained the procedure while she sat on the floor near the couple, holding their hands. I felt helpless as I held the pet who had no idea of the fate that awaited him.

The procedure was carried out with respect and dignity. When it was finished, the couple sobbed quietly as I laid the dog's lifeless body on the bed beside them. I was overcome by a sense of loss. As I sat in a trance on the floor, the doctor reached past me for a box of tissues, then did something that renewed my faith in our profession: She passed tissues to the couple, helped them dry their tears, and engaged them in conversation to begin the healing process. It was a simple act driven not by profit but by love and compassion—a concept that in my number-driven world is often forgotten.

FROM HURTING TO HEALING

I commend every veterinarian and team member who brings that heart and soul to the profession. It's what defines our legacy to those who will remember it most vividly. As owners and administrators, we have a responsibility to run our practices soundly. But my experience with this euthanasia reminded me that for all of our strategic planning, the true legacy of our practices can be summed up in one intangible moment, when a doctor's heart opens and connects with the hurting soul of another.

Jonathan Detweiler is the hospital administrator and co-owner of Telford Veterinary Hospital in Souderton, Pa. Send questions or comments to