The power of words in veterinary medicine

The power of words in veterinary medicine

A cancer diagnosis had become as common as a urinary tract infection. I had forgotten the impact of a poor prognosis.
May 01, 2013

In our celebrity-driven, reality-TV-obsessed world, money, fame, and power are as coveted as ever. But if you're like me, you don't really want the fame. My small but devoted cadre of followers on my clinic's Facebook page are more than sufficient. As for wealth, given the recent economic woes of my clients, I'm fortunate to have a steady job and a nice paycheck.

It's the "power" part of the equation that I find myself dwelling on. As a veterinarian, I have more power than I ever dreamed I would. I'm referring to the way we can completely ravage the lives of others with a simple sentence or two.

Paralyzing news

I became aware of this power in the first few years of my veterinary career in the early '90s. While working at a feline-exclusive practice in Maryland, I was scheduled to see an elderly client. She was a charming, delightful woman in her late 80s with a mind as sharp as a tack. She cherished her cat and doted on him accordingly. She had noticed he had recently begun to favor his right rear leg.

"Maybe he stepped on a piece of glass?" she wondered. "Or maybe he fell and sprained it when I wasn't watching? I'm just not sure."

I told her that I would take a look and see if I could figure it out. When I lifted the cat out of his carrier, I felt a large, firm mass infiltrating his right hip and part of his sacrum. It was something the client hadn't noticed. I knew from experience that this mass was undoubtedly a vaccine-associated sarcoma, it was in a location that was not amenable to surgery, and that this poor cat was doomed.

My heart sunk as I carried the cat to the scale. After weighing him, I brought the cat back to the exam table and performed my exam on autopilot, feigning concern about his mild dental tartar and waxy ears. All I could think about was the tumor and how to break the news to this poor woman. After the exam, I looked at her and said gently, "I feel a mass on your cat's hip, and I think that this is likely the cause of his limp."

"A mass?" she asked.

"Yes, a firm lump," I replied. "Let me show you."

I put her hand on his bulging right hip. I then placed her hand on his other hip for comparison. She immediately felt the difference. The conversation progressed to talk of radiographs and biopsies. I tried to cushion the blow, but this client was very perceptive. She could see through my feeble attempts. She looked at her cat as he peacefully sat on the exam table and she quietly began to weep.