Every animal disaster is a little different than the one before. The infrastructure may be fairly intact, or devastated. Local roads to receive supplies may or may not be accessible. The presence of local organizations and their willingness to help plays a major role in what constitutes an appropriate response. That is a field that is hard to navigate each and every time since the landscape is constantly changing from one disaster to another.
What doesn’t change? Who needs help. Why we do it.
Everyone wants to help, and unfortunately scumlords are all too eager to put up fake fundraising scams. That doesn’t change, either.
You all know I do work with World Vets and disaster relief; while we focus on international work we are always do what we can in domestic disasters as well. We are not sending a team to Oklahoma; it’s not necessary when so many other groups are present, willing, and able. That is not the need.
Paws 4 OK
World Vets is collaborating with BlogPaws, AAHA, our corporate supporters, and local organizations to send them supplies based on their needs now and in the coming weeks. Our goal is to provide direct support to local humane organizations and/or veterinary clinics in a meaningful way. If you want to contribute to the tornado relief fund, you can do so here.
We’ve been in contact with the national organizations most involved in disaster response coordination to get the contact information for the groups most in need of support. If you would like to donate directly to one of them, here’s the links:
I’ve never bought a piece of Abercrombie and Fitch clothing in my life, so to say I’m not going to in the future wasn’t a big loss for me. I’m with everyone else who was disgusted with CEO Mike Jeffries’ recent statement about their painfully shallow approach to marketing:
“Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people,” he said. “We don’t market to anyone other than that.” And so on and so forth we only sell small sizes and hire models etc.
The reaction has been, unsurprisingly, not so positive for good old Jeffries. One man, in an attempt to damage Abercrombie’s reputation as much as possible, decided he would take them on with a YouTube stunt called “Abercrombie and Fitch get an attitude readjustment #Fitchthehomeless.” Having read all the “You GO GREG!” responses on the net, I checked it out. It was a video of a guy sticking it to Jeffries by giving Abercrombie & Fitch clothing away to homeless people.
I felt immediately uneasy.
These aren’t props, they are people
One of my first experiences working with the homeless was at Loyola Marymount University, volunteering at a soup kitchen in Venice called Bread and Roses. (I was shocked the first day to discover Martin Sheen, standing elbow deep in suds in the kitchen. He volunteered every Tuesday I was there, though you wouldn’t know it since he never advertised that fact.)
I loved talking to the men, women and children who were there. Many of them; most, really, weren’t up for chitchat, but those who wanted a conversation were a breath of fresh air from the silliness I was surrounded by at a private liberal arts college in Los Angeles. It’s a whole different world. It’s humbling.
Later on, at Davis, I learned of a student-run clinic called Mercer Clinic, which provided veterinary care for the homeless of Sacramento. Professors and local veterinarians donated their time alongside veterinary students to provide the dogs and cats with vaccinations and spay/neuter, free of charge. Without the rabies vaccine, the dogs could be confiscated. We provided the vaccine, but also required the sterilization.
People would walk for miles to come to the clinic, waiting patiently out in the cold and occasional rain, sometimes for hours. They were happy to volunteer their stories; women whose dogs protected them from assault on the streets, veterans whose small kittens were their best and only friends in life. “This one’s ^!@hole,” said a man with the salty humor you get used to pretty quickly. “And this one’s $@#%head.” The veterinarian that day laughed, gave the cats their vaccines, and watched as the man loaded them gently onto the pile of clothing that constituted his life’s possessions in his shopping cart.
Real cool kids recognize the value in keeping this going.
I learned basic exam room skills. I learned preventive care. And I learned, by example, compassion. It was the first time I really understood how much of a lifeline a pet can be, and how important my responsibility is to protect that. Many people I met there were more conscientious, more careful with their pets, than some of the wealthiest people I’ve since met over the years.
It was there, with the people our society has cast out, that I learned what it means to respect another human’s dignity.
And this is why that video bothers me, the use of the homeless as a gag, berating a man for his attempt to devalue a group of people by doing the exact same thing to another group. “Ha, if he thinks his clothes on THOSE people are bad, wait till he gets a load of his clothes on THESE GUYS!”
I’ve long ago given up on being a cool kid; those labels ceased to be interesting to me a long time ago. But I’m fine being thought of as a compassionate one. I ask anyone who was annoyed by Jeffries’ remarks to resist the urge to respond by throwing his clothing at homeless people on video, and instead show him how stupid and irrelevant he is by supporting something that might really make a difference.
Mercer Clinic has helped so many clients, pets, and future veterinarians. Now I’m off to BlogPaws and about to speak to people about what making a difference really means in life. I’d love for you to help me spread the word and help me #VetTheHomeless instead.
Deep in tender recesses of our cranium lies a small chunk of neural tissue that, should I prove its existence, will explain a lot about human behavior. I believe we all have this structure, though it may lie dormant for many years, perhaps forever.
It’s the arachnobellum.
It’s a small, primitive bit of grey matter tucked right in the center of the brainstem, that area that controls our deepest, most primal instincts.
It’s the part of the brain that blames all maladies, no matter how big or small, on spider bites.
As a veterinarian, I see this in action all the time. Owners can blame almost any sort of condition on arachnid venom. Pustule? Spider bite. Bruise? Spider bite. Laceration? Spider bite. Tick? Spider (OK, that one is kind of almost true.)
The most extreme example of arachnobellum overreaction came to me while I was a vet student. A three legged Bernese came in for vomiting while I was on the small animal medicine service. The couple, a very nice pair from Berkeley, were sitting with the patient out in the lobby when I first met them. He was easy to spot; the dog was covered in citronella oil, choking out all other smells in the room including the bulldog with the impacted anal gland sitting next to him.
I moved the dog’s collar to the side to palpate his lymph nodes. I felt a hard stone, and pulled a purple crystal out of his fur. “We do a lot of alternative therapies,” they explained.
“We went to a shaman,” they said, “And he did a vision quest on Chewy.” I was amazed that this sort of service existed outside of the Amazon, but apparently it is not uncommon in the Bay Area. Who knew. “He told us” – of course- “That he had a spider bite.”
The one medicine man I’ve ever met who offered vision quests worked in Peru, along the edge of the Amazon. A land also replete with large spiders. Coincidence?
The medicine residents, trying to suppress their smirks, paged the oncology resident over. Dr. Newton had seen this dog previously, for an osteosarcoma a year prior that required the dog’s leg to be amputated. He was one of the finest residents I ever met at Davis, a man who had practiced for 15 years before going back to school to become an oncologist. He was smart, slightly cynical, and extraordinarily compassionate in a rough field.
He glared at the smirking residents, who wiped their faces back to neutral and quickly excused themselves, before gently explaining to the owners about metastasis, bloodwork, and other oncologic type vocabulary terms whose diagnostic regimen involved the most Western of techniques and not a single drop of ayahuasca. He was right, by the way. It was not a spider bite.
Despite this experience, I still found myself chuckling over the years at the vast array of medical maladies masquerading as spider bites on a regular basis. Until this weekend.
So there I am, standing in the kitchen talking to my daughter, when my finger starts to hurt. I look down and see my ring finger, looking kind of red and puffy. I noticed a small hole and poke at it, wondering if I somehow got a splinter.
As I’m examining my finger, I note there are not one but two small holes, black. And now my finger, stinging more each second, is starting to blister.
“Oh my god,” I say, the girl who cried wolf for so many years in the face of such injuries. “I think I got BIT BY A SPIDER.” Then, from the recesses of my brain, my arachnobellum kicked into action.
I ran over to the computer and did exactly what no one in my situation should do, which is to google “Spider Bite.” (don’t do it.) Three seconds later, I was in full panic mode, wondering how I would ever manage to function without a finger and whether the amputation would be tonight, or tomorrow.
‘Signs:’ said WebMD.
‘Small puncture wounds may or may not be visible.’ check
‘Pain and swelling, may be accompanied by blisters.’ check
‘Racing heart rate or nausea.’ Well, now I had that, thanks to the picture of the recluse bite that popped up in the search results. What is seen can never be unseen, you all.
Just as I was on the verge of full blown panic, my finger stopped burning, as suddenly as it had begun. The next morning, I had a small crater where the blister had been, tiny in the big scheme of things but in my mind, the beginning stages of full blown finger dissolution.
I watched my hand obsessively over the next day, mentally keeping track of the small ulcer and convinced I would wake up the next morning with nothing left but a finger bone, my wedding band twirling uselessly around the sad, bare phalanx. THIS IS WHAT GOOGLE IMAGES DOES TO YOUR BRAIN, PEOPLE.
Needless to say, when I woke up the next day my finger was still there, along with the lesion and a deep and utter conviction that a spider was to blame. That is how I, the person who came back from Africa with a dead palm sized spider stuck to the bottom of my shoe and none the worse psychologically for it, ended up shaking out my sheets at eleven at night *just in case* because now- NOW the arachnobellum was activated, and there was no going back. Every tickle, every twitch, was a spider crawling on me, about to bite. I debated keeping a flamethrower nearby, just in case.
My relatives, friends, and probably all of you are laughing at the crazy person and rolling your eyes, convinced this mysterious malady was not a spider bite. Well, in the case of poor Chewy, he at least had a trained medical professional to give his owners a plausible alternate explanation for his condition.
I have no such explanation.
IT WAS A SPIDER BITE, CASE CLOSED. The arachnobellum is a powerful thing. And I promise never to laugh at anyone who says “I think it’s a spider bite,” ever again.
Yesterday, I went on a field trip with my daughter’s class as a chaperone. I was reminded, yet again, of why I became a veterinarian. The teacher is an angel on earth and I do not, for one second, think I could do what she does.
I watched one nine year old dissolve into an inconsolable heap of tears because she lost during a game of Red Rover. I watched another child, who was walking barefoot on the park grass, get called over by her mother and told to apply hand sanitizer to her feet at once. At least 3 boys came near to destroying some ancient archaeological artifact or another. It was chaos.
On the way home, my daughter showed me a poem she had written for school. Apparently part of the grading involved being critiqued by a classmate (blue). And my daughter, being MY daughter after all, had to have the last word.
And dangit, I want to cry but I also laughed my head off because I KNOW she wrote that response with the exact same eye-rolly sigh that I use. SO my kid, in so many ways.
Being a mother to humans is a confusing and often frightening endeavor that often leaves me feeling either inadequate, elated, or exhausted. It’s a sine curve with an amplitude of a million, which is why on Mothers Day so many of us buy a flower arrangement with the vague disquieting sense of guilt that “this doesn’t even begin to cover it.”
Being a pet mom is so much simpler, at least the way I do it. They eat, they go outside, we hang out, no one gets called by the principal. They are a stabilizing force in a world that’s always trying to destabilize you. I came home after that exhausting day, collapsed (barefoot) on the lawn, and let Brody console me with doggy kisses (with his probably gross tongue.) It’s a little more straightforward: Hi, I love you, yep. And for that, I am so grateful. I’m grateful for both experiences, actually; each so different and it makes me appreciate the other all the more.
They love us in their own special way.
May your highs be every higher and your lows, well, not so bad, and through it all a pet to call your own and make you glad.
-Old Irish Proverb I just made up
Up and Away, by the amazing Brittney Lee
May moms of all shapes, sizes and types have a wonderful Mother’s Day!
Hopefully, we’re kind to animals every week, but it’s good to have a reminder every now and then, and maybe a reason to go out of your way to do that thing you’ve been putting off. In last year’s post I listed 5 ways to go about this, such as the shelter drive-by (still love this idea! I’m due for another trip!)
But for today’s post, I would like to discuss something that’s been nagging at the back of my brain for a long time. It has to do with some pretty strong divides in the animal community.
On one side, the rescue community.
On the other, the breeder/fancy community.
The blame game can and does get nasty, sometimes. And that breaks my heart.
I’ve seen many posts- some from very well placed people in the dog community- arguing that until all dogs find homes, no dog should be allowed to breed. I disagree. It’s gotten so bad that many people I know are scared to admit on their blogs that they purchased their dog from a respected breeder because they don’t want to have people tell them how they’ve just killed a shelter dog.
I’ve also seen posts from some in the breeder community insinuating that the animal rescue community = animal rights activists who want to eventually eliminate all pet ownership. Ingrid Newkirk does not get to define what animal welfare means. Most animal rescue people I know are a lot like breeders I know- their lives revolve around the animals they love.
Why do we allow ourselves to be defined by the extremes? I think the vast majority of people fall somewhere squarely in the middle of these extremes, with many crossing over; people who have both rescues and purchased purebreds. There are good reasons for both and very different aims.
With rare exceptions, we want the same thing: finding pets a lifelong home with the right family who values them.
It’s unfortunate that the game-changing people doing innovative work in the no-kill movement are so often dismissed as people with their heads in the clouds by those who confuse the animal welfare movement with animal rights.
It’s also unfortunate that the people who work tirelessly to keep their breed healthy, who grill potential owners up one side and down the other to make sure this is the right home, take the blame for all the irresponsible backyard breeders and for-profit puppy mills as the cause of so many ills by those who refuse to differentiate the many ways one might purchase a pet.
We have so much to learn from each other based on our own experiences. Being open minded has put me at a table with AKC leadership at a dog show one day, and sitting with Mike Arms the next learning about the way effective marketing saves lives.
So this is what I ask of you this week, because it really will improve the lives of animals: Be Kind to Animal Lovers, no matter what kind of animal lover they are. I know you will probably never agree on whether someone is a pet parent or a pet owner. I get it. As a vet, I see posts from both groups complaining about how clueless we are. But even if you don’t agree on some things or most things, you may gain a new perspective.
When it comes to making animals’ lives better, we are all in this together.
I’d love for the comment section to be your list of people with a strong voice that you admire. Hopefully I can find some new people to learn from.
Someone said this to me the other day: “You have such a glamorous life.”
And I laughed, because I assumed it was sarcasm, but she said it with such sincerity that I paused and said, “Really?”
And she said, “Oh, you know, maybe exciting is a better word- all the travel and….well, the trips and stuff you talk about.” She paused, tilted her head to the side, and realized she was talking to a person holding a grocery bag full of mops and Zero Odor. I was, in fact, on a trip as we spoke. To the grocery store. Which has been the extent of things lately, as tends to happen sometimes.
It was ironic to me that the person chose this day of all days to make that statement, because this is perhaps the least glamorous day I have had in some time. Apollo has been engaging in some marking behavior the last few months, and if there is one thing that turns my normally mild-mannered spouse into the Hulk, it’s the acrid stench of cat urine in the entryway of the house. Can’t say I blame him. So here we go again, off on a cleaning spree and figuring out what has so disturbed Apollo’s little kitty-brain that he sees no other option than to back on up to the nearest wall and let loose.
The offending area was easy to spot, a Niagara of urine splattered on the wood of the front door, pooling underneath and soaking into the grout and the tile. A lovely way to greet new neighbors, by the way.
I mopped it, dizzy with the fumes.
I mopped it once, I mopped it twice, and still not smelling very nice, I went ahead and mopped it thrice. Even then, it was no dice. My feelings then were not so nice. -Dr. ScrewLoose
After about 18 rounds of attempting to clean the area, including liberal doses of Anti Icky Poo, I could still smell it. I wondered if perhaps there was another area I was missing. I got out the blacklight and investigated the entryway, but if you are anything like me I have no luck with that unless it’s already pitch black in the house, and who wants to clean at midnight? So I went old school, sticking my nose to the ground and trying to ascertain if there was an errant area I was missing in my cleaning attempts by olfactory input.
Did I mention I have a glass door that looks right into our entryway that you pass on the way to the front door? It’s pretty private, which means you have to be in the middle of walking up to the door to see anything, which means of course that any time I’m doing something I’d rather not have witnessed, someone invariably shows up.
There I was on all fours, nose pressed to the ground sniffing like Scooby Doo looking for a Scooby snack with Brody dutifully trailing behind, when I heard a polite cough from the region of the front door. This seems as good a time as any to mention I had just gotten back from a run and didn’t see the point of showering before cleaning up cat pee, so I was in stinky gym clothes and my hair pulled back in a sweaty ponytail while I crawled around smelling my floor. I pushed up to my hands to see the UPS man trying hard to look anywhere but inside the door, well aware that I was probably going to be “sight of the day” at the UPS locker room this evening.
I took the box and shut the door. Sometimes explaining “It’s not what it looks like. I was just sniffing for cat pee” is not the correct answer.
So there you have it. The glamorous life of a veterinary writer looks a lot like the life of any person with a grumpy cat, bad timing excepted.
If there are any small favors in life to be thankful for, it’s that I was discovered by the UPS man and not, say, the neighbor kids who already have one story too many to share about the weird lady on the corner.
If there’s one thing that’s harder to get a good picture of than a black dog, it’s a black cat. At least Kekoa was easily bribed. Apollo- well, let’s just say this was an all-hands on deck sort of mission.
For National Hairball Awareness Day- which is today, by the by- we were invited by Furminator to participate in their Cats with Moustaches Campaign. The concept was simple: Furminate your cat (cakewalk), glue the hair onto a cardboard moustache (Messy, but elementary), then get a photograph of said cat posing just right with the moustache in front of their face (Level 23 Difficulty), and oh yes the cat and the moustache are monochromatic and the lighting in the house is bad (Pick up the ring, go into Mordor).
This is why we wound up with this picture:
Because without Photoshop, this wasn’t going to happen.
Apollo’s opinion of the matter was somewhere along the lines of, “You will pay for this.” Those of you who follow me on Facebook saw my frantic post about the best pet urine removers this week? I’m convinced that’s payback. And this, my friends, is why he’s so rarely on the blog. He’s antisocial.
Brody, on the other hand, noticed a camera and treats and happily posed free of charge for 15 shots with Apollo’s fur huffed to his face. He liked it.
To see what the other 11 brave cat writers came up with for this campaign, check them out on People Pets. In return for these photos, Furminator generously donated 25 Furminator tools to a shelter of our choice for each participant, so it was worth every second.
After several months of leading the kids around our new and blessedly quiet neighborhood hoping to find some children running about, the spring temperatures have brought them out of hiding like little hibernating bears. We have both two little girls and a little boy within the block, and now the kids self-eject from the house as soon as their little feet can take them in the morning to go bike riding. As an added bonus, the little girls have a 12 week old Golden Retriever who comes by on his walks and visits us.
I like the springtime temperatures as well. It’s gotten Brody and I out of our own winter hibernation and back on a “great outdoors routine,” exploring the trails that run around and behind the neighborhood. We saw a deer bound by on the trail last week. It was beautiful.
There was even a muddy creek to wallow in. Life is good.
Several days after that last hike, the girls were over and playing with my kids and with Brody. The younger one was petting Brody and said, “What’s this bump?”
I knew before I even looked.
Ticks are sporadic in San Diego, and the only other time I ever found one on Brody was last spring, when we were also hiking in a backcountry-ish area. He went on tick prevention while we were hiking that area, then when we stopped heading that way, I went back to Trifexis (which is an oral flea and heartworm preventive and works just great for what I needed.)
I always do a once-over after hikes to look for parasites or foxtails or any of the sorts of things that can annoy a Golden, but Brody is hairy and rather than just put on tick preventive like I should have, I figured that so long as I wasn’t seeing anything, I might as well finish off the product I was using.
Grasses, check, deer, check. Bad vet who should know better, check.
And of course- OF COURSE- it would be the neighbor kid who found it.
A part of my brain whispered to me, “lie. Say it’s a sebaceous adenoma. She’s six, what does she know?” but I figured it could be a teaching moment, so I told the truth. What a sucker. The news of course sent the girls screaming with hands waving in the air in the way only little girls can do, this despite my calm reassurances that they would be just fine and so would Brody. I removed the tick, confirmed no others were present, had the kids wash their hands, and figured that was that.
I left Brody in the backyard away from the kids while I stood in front of a ceiling high stack of as of yet unpacked boxes, cursing myself for not labelling “OVERFLOW ECTOPARASITE TREATMENT MEDS” in large block letters. Eventually I found it, a box with at least a six month supply of myriad tubes and collars for just such an occasion. Tick meds in hand, I went to plunk it on Brody.
When I came back into the living room, I found my daughter giving the wide eyed neighbor kids a lecture about ticks using all the dramatic tricks she learned in theater. She was projecting. She was using her hands to illustrate their arachnid ways. She was telling them, with great relish, about the one other time Brody had a tick last year and how traumatized she was by the whole experience.
In short, she just ensured the entire neighborhood would now know us as the Nasty Tick People.
I sat at home mortified for the next day, and when the girls came by with their dog, they stood apologetically by the front door and said my kids could come for a walk with them but Brody could not, so their dog wouldn’t get ticks.
“Is he on meds?” I asked of the now 13 week old pup.
“No,” they said. “He’s too young.”
I bit my tongue, knowing full well that when their dog goes for a walk down the very same trail we walk and ends up with a tick, because that’s usually how it happens, we’re going to shoulder the blame for it. In a flash, I saw my new life flash before my eyes. Denied a contribution to the PTA bake sale. Well coiffed blond women scooting their chairs so very slightly off to the left when I sit down next to them. Neighbors squealing in horror and crossing over to the other side of the street when we run by.
My husband thinks I should talk to the other mom.
I have not met this neighbor. I have no idea if she’s the shake it off kind of person or the kind who would tell me “It’s fine, don’t worry,” with a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes. I decided it was best to take the ‘ignore it and just tell the kids to tell her Brody’s on meds’ approach.
“Did you talk to the mom and tell her you’re a vet?” my husband asked.
“Somehow,” I said, “I don’t think that will improve the situation.” Do I want to be the Gross Tick Neighbor or the Bad Vet Neighbor? Don’t answer that.
Ah well. Onward and upward. Lesson 1: Moving on to topical flea and tick preventive in the new casa. Lesson 2: Gave me a good opportunity to talk to my daughter about “stories not to share on the first day at the new school.”
In other news, the little girls came by today with their puppy, bearing the tell-tale greasy spot of a recent ectoparasite treatment. My methods of getting people to get up to date on treatment may be unconventional, but they are very, very effective.
I take the emergency exit row on a plane whenever I can get it. Who doesn’t, right? When the attendants come around and ask if you are willing and able to assist in the event of an emergency, I nod, but think to myself “My job ends once that door’s open then I’m outta here.” I’d like to think I would stick around and help carry out the elderly or infirm, but there is a deep and guilty part of me that thinks I wouldn’t. I would run away.
Running away is an easy way to deal with life. I run when I can because when the exit door’s open, it’s much easier than sticking around; trying to help, trying to change, trying to make things better. Easiest to leave and start over, when there’s a choice. And all I have to say to that is, I am not a good example of humanity and I know this.
When the horrific events of Boston unfolded today, I watched in dismay as did the rest of the world. Hours of “Who? Why?” over and over, 15 second Vine videos of the blast, screaming people running away. I turned it off after a bit. I, too, ran away. What were they going to say that made sense? Would someone step forward and say, “I did this, and this is why,” and that would somehow explain it? It was a horrific evil act regardless of the perpetrator’s identity or reasoning, and so I took a break from the nonstop onslaught of smoky images.
But I turned it back on later, to see if there was any new news. I saw that an eight year old died, a child the same age as my own, one who was likely there cheering on a loved one on a happy Patriot’s Day. And I held my head and turned away, but something in the images starting to come forward changed my mind, despite the despair, despite the urge to run from reality.
In the seconds after the blast, while confused runners and spectators were fleeing, I saw the first responders sprinting towards the victims. Knowing a second explosion had just hit and unsure if more explosions were coming, still, they ran towards those who needed them. I know a lot of these ‘Massholes’, as they call themselves. I grew up as one. I still drive like one. Massholes run towards.
I saw marathoners, who had planned this event for months and months, robbed in a moment of this happy journey, leave the course and continue running, towards the hospital to donate blood. Elite athletes are often accused of being selfish to the point of narcissism in their quest for glory. They, too, ran towards.
I saw other marathoners, paused on the roadside with their shirts off, tearing them into pieces to apply tourniquets to the victims. The one time I ran a marathon I couldn’t even remember my name by mile 23 and here they were, at the end, applying first aid knee to knee with spectators. All labels gone, just humans in the thick of things, compelled to run towards.
You may think you have your life on track and then without warning, reason, or explanation, it can derail in a second’s time, and until it happens, you have no idea of what kind of person you will be. And while there will always be crazy people and awful psychopaths and run of the mill jerks, I’m reminded of the fact that the reason we consider them sociopaths and villains is because most of us, yes, the vast majority of us, even those we don’t like or agree with most of the time, are good and want to support our fellow man, not drown him.
Not one of those people stopped to ask a victim, Romney or Obama?
Do you feed raw food or kibble?
Did you rescue your dog or buy a purebred?
Perspective is a precious gift we can find in the most wretched of circumstances. And on this day, I hope that if I ever find myself faced with a choice, I choose to run towards my fellow man.
When I first began practice as a veterinarian, it took all of about three months before I got tossed out on my own. This was not by choice, mind you. My clinic had opened up a satellite office and sent my ‘mentor’ over to staff the place, leaving me at the main clinic with a couple other part time vets. To be frank, I was glad to have a break from the guy. He was a nightmare. Within one week the entire staff at the new clinic threatened mutiny if they were forced to work with the vet in question one more day, so off I went to be a solo practitioner, an agreement that, had I known what I was getting myself into, I would never have agreed to.
Trial by fire: a tale as old as time. And the outcome is usually the same no matter what, a sort of horrified bemusement in retrospect, the realization that That Never Should Have Happened, and a great relief that you survived. Or in this case, my patients. My patients all survived.
Granted, I have a bad habit of rushing into things by myself without the benefit of guidance, mentorship, or advice. That’s how I would up in vet school in the first place, and that worked out ok. That’s how I ended up hiking to a 14K foot peak in Africa with a group of strangers and 0 camping experience. I’ve decided that being the overly cautious risk aversive type that I am, when faced with adequate information, the only way to take a chance in life is to go in with inadequate information- I call it the “too stupid to know better” approach- and hope for the best.
I realize that this often results in people dying. But for now, it’s working for me.
It was in this spirit that I decided to take my new mountain bike out for a spin yesterday. I needed the exercise. We live in an area with a nice bike trail loop. I’ve done spin classes for a while. How hard could it be?
As I circled the driveway six or seven times with my shiny new wheels practicing gear changes, it occurred to me that there was a good chance I would end up pushing my bike back home with either a flat tire or a broken ankle, but it was a risk I was willing to take, because I’m not quite sure who would have the patience to walk a novice through bicycling in the first place.
I learned many things out on the trail this sunny morning.
“Steep” is relative. When pedaling is involved, “gentle incline” = steep.
Taking Brody along in our current condition would be a suicide mission.
I am so glad no one was following me with a cameraphone. Because that scene was ugly.
I spent a good amount of time huffing, puffing, cursing, and screaming at branches I mistook for rattlesnakes as I skidded by them. By some miracle I emerged, dusty and unscathed, 50 minutes later having covered probably a mile or so of San Diego’s finest amateur trails.
I spoke about my misadventures with a friend today, whose husband is into mountain biking. She told me he bought her a $1500 bike and took her to a flat lake area, where he proceeded to chastise her bad form for so long he eventually left her behind as she sat on the curb, crying. She hasn’t ridden it since. That is a perfect analogy for many of my colleagues who have since left the veterinary profession, convinced of their insurmountable inadequacy. Sometimes it’s better to muddle through as you go without the benefit of knowing how badly you are doing.
So far I’ve done a ridiculous amount of things the wrong way- raising kids, writing about vet life even though vets aren’t supposed to blog (“Conventional Wisdom 2008” in action), mixing white wine with red meat, you name it, I’ve messed it up. That being said, constructing life without an instruction manual has been immensely rewarding for me, so I guess I’ll just keep on soldiering on and seeing what happens. Though I do suspect I would benefit from a tire repair kit somewhere along the way.
I spend a lot of time thinking about customer service, and how we as veterinarians are sometimes so focused on being amazing clinicians we neglect to remember the fact that we are in a customer service industry. You can be the most astute diagnostician in the universe, but if your front desk staff or technician (or you!) is rude, ambivalent or just generally unpleasant, it ruins the whole client experience. It doesn’t take much to be minimally pleasant, but I’m amazed how uncommon that has become.
I’ve always held Disneyland to be the ultimate in the customer service experience. I remember going as a kid and being followed around the park by chipper young men in starched white uniforms, cheerily scooping up the popcorn we were dripping behind us. “Have a magical day!” they’d wink, and we did. The haunted mansion staff got really into being creepy. My friend, who worked there in high school and college, was taken to task for wearing non regulation pink lipstick. The Disneyland Experience was no joke. Yes, we knew it was fake and those cheery people went home and were crabby humans just like everyone else, but we all appreciated the artifice of good cheer.
I know things have changed a bit. Disney has gotten a little more corporate, the college aged employees too stuck in hipster mode to bring themselves to actually act like they’re happy, but I had no idea how bad it had gotten until this past week.
My aunt and uncle were visiting from Massachusetts, and my aunt decided she would like to enjoy Disneyland with my kids- who were on Spring Break. My aunt has MS and uses a wheelchair, which as she reminded me allows you some measure of benefit in the form of getting to enter the rides through the exits, thus a shorter line. The kids were happy to hear this.
Now I know Disneyland and I have had our moments in the past- the Splash Mountain debacle, for one, and a heartbreaking encounter with an accordion playing D-list celebrity I used to be a fan of, but still, I figured how could they screw this one up? All you have to do is make some reasonable accommodation for a disabled guest, blah blah Magic of Disney etc, right?
Yeah. It seems somewhere along the way they have forgotten some of Business Tactics 101, applicable to any place hoping to retain customers, be it your friendly local DVM or a once well regarded amusement park.
1. Staff appropriately.
Part of the problem was that we went during spring break, and I know this. That being said, I had to push my aunt hither and fro round each and every ride looking for some guidance as to where one might enter as it seemed like no one was actually working the line. We wandered through Indiana Jones’ exit line for 5 minutes before finding a line of wheelchairs 30 deep marinating in the shadows, staffed by an ambivalent kid in khakis who was not, I suspect, as into archaeology as he should be pretending to be.
2. Anticipate problems.
See someone trying to get through your front door with a huge crate as big as they are? You open the door for them. Same goes for someone trying to back a wheelchair onto a train platform before the door slams shut on someone’s neuropathic feet. Theoretically. It’s the little things, right?
3. Keep track of your clients.
I heard horror stories of a physician going home for the day, leaving an increasingly agitated client in an exam room who never got past the nurse. I think it’s reasonable for the person in charge of traffic flow to be keeping an eye on things to make sure no one gets left behind.
Which brings me to my most egregious Disney misadventure to date.
“Actually, we have 999 happy haunts residing here but, there’s always room for 1000. Any volunteers, hmmm?”
Anyone who has been on the haunted mansion is familiar with the ride itself: you step onto a moving conveyor belt and run into a little whirl-a-gig buggy thing, ride around for a while getting spooked, and then extricate yourself from said buggy back onto a moving platform. All fine and dandy for those without mobility issues, but it gets dicier when you’re moving slowly.
Doom buggy, as apropos a title as any.
I entered the ride first, with my kids. My mother and aunt got on the buggy behind us, after asking the person running the line to slow it down so she could get on. This is SOP in these cases.
On the other end, I got off with the kids and they started up the one way escalator off the ride. I heard my mother behind me, saying, “Stop! STOP!” in louder and louder degrees of panic. Apparently, in a cost cutting measure they got rid of whoever normally stands at the far end to make sure people get off ok, and there was just one girl at the near end of the ride who couldn’t hear my mother yelling as there was a horde of 30 people pushing off past her. None of whom, by the way, seemed alarmed by my mother’s distress.
My children, sensing a disturbance and me pausing at the bottom of the escalator, were valiantly attempting to rush back down to me, only to be pushed up by people telling them not to goof off. I turned and saw only the sad sight of my aunt’s hand hanging out the side, waving sadly to us as she disappeared into a dark tunnel to join the 999 Happy Haunts in parts heretofore unseen.
I went up the escalator after my kids. A few minutes later, my mother appeared, sans aunt.
“Where is she?” I asked.
“They don’t know,” my mother responded, which seemed like a bizarre thing for them to have told her. I mean, she’s on a fixed belt and can’t walk, so one might think she would be easy to find. “They said she’ll probably pop up at the entrance.”
Probably. Else they found their thousandth happy haunt.
I went to the entrance, which is an entirely different area, to see if she might arrive there. No one knew where she was there either. My mother, having exited the turnstyle, couldn’t go back down to the exit to wait for her there. Eventually my aunt texted me: “Going through again.”
She did indeed make it back to the entrance, shocking the hell out of the people about to get in the cart with her. The person there stopped the ride and asked her off, but seeing as though her family and her wheelchair were now at the exit, she demurred. Eventually, she arrived back at the egress and had to pick her way, slowly and gingerly, up to the exit turnstyle where my son was frantically holding on to her chair. I had to explain to my kids why I was laughing so hard while we rolled right on out the park and back to our car, pooped.
“Because your auntie is a cool lady,” I said, marvelling. And she is.
On the bus ride back to the parking lot- which was incidentally the best ride of the day- we were helped by an old-timer named Clarence. “You don’t say,” he said, when we told him of our misadventures. “I’ve never heard that one before. Losing a lady on a ride.” He could barely kneel himself, but he helped me maneuver her chair down the bus ramp.
It’s the little things that stick with us in customer service. But all’s well that ends well; at least we got her back.
Two weeks ago, I had the honor of speaking at the AAHA National Convention as a part of the BlogPaws veterinary social media track. In a fit of what I can only imagine was perhaps a hypothermia-induced lapse in judgment, Bill Schroeder invited me to co-present for the day.
Bill Schroeder, Dr. Patrick Mahaney, that one person, Tom Collins, Dr. Lorie Huston, Kate Benjamin (courtesy Dr. Patrick Mahaney)
For those of you who don’t know, Bill helms In Touch Vet, a veterinary marketing company that works with 8,000 vet clinics across the country with website design and social media. And I, well, I manage one site, which is slightly less impressive, really. He’s spoken all over the world. I’ve spoken all over the midwest. I’m not entirely sure what he was thinking, but I didn’t want to correct his mistake, so I accepted his offer. And this is why:
Five years ago, there were about three veterinarians on the web. I attended a social media lecture at Western States and they held it in the basement, on Saturday night in Vegas, where a woman with no veterinary experience whatsoever got up in front of the bored looking crowd of 10 and attempted to explain what a “Facebook” was. Now, things have changed. I see more vets trying to get on board. I say “trying” because this is what tends to happen:
1. They attend a lecture, think to themselves, yup, I should do this.
2. Log onto Facebook, become immediately overwhelmed.
3. Back to work / consider asking receptionist to share some pics from George Takei’s page, or worse, post some dull news brief from an academic journal.
Done right, social media is fun, and engaging. I wouldn’t be here all this time later if I didn’t think that were the case (because trust me, I’m sure not making a living off writing on this site.) We’re lucky, as vets: we don’t need 20,000 fans or fans in Dubai or strangers we’ve never met, though I like all of those things; we just need a small and loyal group who support what we do. Being here makes me a better vet because it forces me to concentrate on my communication.
So I got up there with Bill, and he said all sorts of profound things and told some great jokes and showed some compelling slides. I watched. I said a few things, the most profound of which was probably my comparison of Twitter to a one-night stand (it’s not about long term relationships there, and that’s OK), but the one thing that struck me more than anything was: wow, we’re all still pretty far behind the eight ball as a profession. That, and the fact that I should wear lower heels when speaking.
The Fallacy of That One Vet From Michigan
Let me share with you something someone said after one session: a veterinarian, and I won’t guess his age because, well, I never do that anymore, came up to us and said: “yeah, this is great and all, and I’m sure where you are in San Diego everyone’s all into this social media thing (I can’t recall if he used air quotes or not), but I don’t need this where I am.”
So we asked where he practiced, and he said, “Michigan.” Then he said, “Only 2% of my clients use social media. I know this. We have data.” I wasn’t thinking of calling him a liar, since we are an honest profession of course, so I believed him. But then he said this: “So I just think maybe we need to focus on our traditional methods of new client recruitment. Like going to Rotary Club.”
Now look. I like Rotary Club. My father in law is a past president of a well renowned local chapter and the members are amazing. But I think even he would agree, that as a sole way of looking for new faces to come in the door, maybe it is a somewhat limiting strategy.
Social Media: Old People Like Me Use It Too
Then I really pondered what he was saying. Only 2% of his current base uses social media. Who are these people, 98% of whom eschew online interaction? Other than the local Rotarians, I mean. We know, generally speaking, that 67% of US adults are active on social media. According to pingdom, half of all social media users are 25-44, with another 20% 45-54. That’s plenty of middle aged people with pets, I think. More than half are women, who, at least in my practice, show up in the waiting area more than half the time. That works out well.
So I ask myself, does this person live in a small town of Luddites who eschew all forms of web based communication out of a sense of nostalgia? Is there really some place in this country so far off the national average outside of Amish country? Or is he simply handing over, to the clinic down the street, this huge chunk of potential clients who aren’t even aware his clinic exists because they don’t go to Rotary meetings?
Maybe it’s a San Diego thing, but I really can’t comprehend a town where more pet owners attend Rotary than go on Facebook, or yelp, or any of the other places we now go to find recommendations for businesses. Perhaps, like the good men and women of the Old Mission Rotary, they do both.
I sense from many veterinarians the feeling that the internet, and social media in particular, is overrun with 14 year olds who go onto reddit, post a few LULZ and then get on with their day, none of which involves being the primary caretaker for animals. If that were the case, I would have abandoned ship long ago.
I, however, have spent the last half decade getting to know all of you, and I’m pretty sure that none of us are shopping in Forever 21. I think we’re all pretty solidly Ideal Veterinarian Client Demographic: educated, emotionally vested in our animals, and committed to their well being.
Social media: it’s not just for college kids and Beliebers.
And that connection I share with you all, that sustains me in my moments when I questioned my sanity going into the profession in the first place, is why I wanted to speak at AAHA.
I thought it went well, at least until I saw the first group picture.