Sticks and stones: How hurtful words helped me grow

Sticks and stones: How hurtful words helped me grow

After 20 years in veterinary practice, I like to think back on the first angry encounter I had with a pet owner—and how I’d do things differently.
Jul 27, 2017

Photo: It was late. I’d been at the hospital since 7:30 a.m., and my dog Seven was with me. She’d been in a crate in my office for most of the day when we finally headed for the car. It was almost 8 p.m., but still daylight. My practice was new, and I was burning the candle at both ends with little to show for it. My dog was trained to heel off leash, so she pranced loose by my side as we locked up, excited to load in the car and go home.

My staff was long gone by then, and I’d finally finished all my notes and armed the security alarm. Juggling keys and unread journals, I released Seven from her heel, knowing she’d dash to the car and wait. I pulled the door behind me and heard a voice and a loud dog bark.

"Hey, hey! I need you to look at my dog!"

I glanced up to see a man I had never seen before with a large black dog tied up in the back of his pickup truck. The dog was alert and responsive, standing and barking excitedly. I asked the man what happened, and he said that the dog had a cut on his leg. 

He was parked close to the road and my own dog was loose, so I dared not approach without leashing her. I’d already worked more than 12 hours. I decided at a glance that his dog was not in critical danger, so I called to the man that I had no staff, my computer was shut down and we were closed. I told him to go to the ER. 

When he argued with me, I said, "Sir, I’ve been here working for 12 hours straight. I just really want to go home. There's no vet in town working at this hour except the ER."

He got angry and accused me of not seeing him because I didn't think he would pay me. Payment was truly the last thought in my head. I just wanted to go home. I was the kind of tired that just makes you want to sit on the floor and cry. I got in my car and left the man and his barking dog in my parking lot.

The next day, I returned to the clinic to find a scathing letter taped to my door about what a monster I was and how I did not care about animals. Thankfully, this was before the days of the Google review, or you could probably see it for yourself right now.

Did I feel terrible? Yes, I did. I took that man's letter like a stab in my heart. Fortunately, his dissatisfaction did not damage my fledgling practice, since I’m still growing my practice in the same location for 20 years now. But there is something to be learned from my story.

I would not handle the situation the same way today. Today, I’d put my dog in my car and take the time to go and look at his dog's wound. I’d help him understand that I didn’t think his dog was in critical condition, and I would tell him that if he thought it needed care right then, he would have to see the ER—I would even probably write down their phone number for him.

I would not try to charge him for my assessment. I would let him know that if he didn't make it to the ER, he could call my office for an appointment the next day.

And that would be the end of it.

Maybe I’ve grown more sensitive (or maybe more calloused). I think my own confidence tells me it’s OK for me to set boundaries. I tell people things like this all the time and never get complaints.

Most of all, what I’ve learned is that people haven't changed, only I have. It's easy to assume that pet owners want to take advantage of us and become defensive, but most of the time, they're just worried, and they don't have the medical training to know if something can wait.

This is your job, not your religion. You're not obligated to keep the faith at all hours, but finding a way to explain and help a little can make you and a pet owner both feel better. 

Sticks and stones

The Internet has become a culture of hate, and this story would have been different had it happened now. Dr. Primm would have been the luckless recipient of a bunch of hate-speech on or Google. Almost every veterinarian I know personally considers what we do a calling, not "just a job". Who would spend 400K and 8 years of college to get a job that pays 70K? It's more than that to most of us- it's a big part of who we are. BUT- we can't do it 27/7/365. We cannot be everything to everyone. This story is a common story- new client, laceration maybe 2 days old, and why didn't they call in the AM and schedule an appointment. The answer is- on some level our time is not considered valuable to the client. That's OK. But that gives the client no special position to ask us to do something like this. And there's an emergency clinic, and that's what they are there for. I frequently have people ask me to help their pet on a Sunday or holiday, I have no problem telling them I can't because I have no technicians to help, and they need to take their pet to the emergency clinic. There are thousands of reason for clients to get upset and be hateful, and in almost every instance- it's about THEM, not about us.