Facing Up To The Past After An Accidental Surgery

Declawing cats is my least-favorite elective surgery, but because my employer offers it, I long ago made up my mind to become very good at it and use the maximum possible pain medication that would be safe for the patient.

Since our practice has an age and weight limit on declaw surgery, many patients present for simultaneous spay and declaw procedures. Two years ago, I accidentally declawed an 8-month-old, 5-pound kitten that was at the clinic for only a spay. When I began entering the surgeries into the computer, the surgery consent form stared back at me with the simple word SPAY. I gasped.

No amount of squinting at the line or fiddling with the paper’s angle would change the fact: I made a mistake, the claws were in the wastebasket, and I had to cowgirl up and eat a slice of humble pie.

Taking a deep breath, I called the client and put my cards on the table. I apologized, explained our pain management protocol and told her I would send home a bag of special cat litter used for declaw patients, all at my expense.

Lucretia (not her real name) took the news well, and by the way, she asked if the kitten seemed physically sound. It seemed her toddler daughter had been a little rough with the kitten after it had scratched her. I told her I hadn’t noticed anything amiss, and hung up feeling grateful and relieved. Maybe I’d done them a favor.

Taking Responsibility

When Lucretia arrived to pick up the kitten, I reviewed her home-care instructions, again emphasized our pain-control policy and told her how sorry I was and that her understanding was deeply appreciated. While we spoke, I became aware of an older woman with a small child nearby who seemed to be eavesdropping. I later learned they were Lucretia’s mother and child.

I returned to my office, shaky but fairly confident I’d dodged a bullet.

But about 20 minutes later, a staff member reported that the moment I was out of sight, Lucretia, flanked by her mother, was appealing to the receptionists for information on who to report the incident to to request compensation for damages. She said she believed declawing was inhumane.

Betrayal is powerful and sharp. I was hurt and angry. If that was how she felt, why allow me to believe my mistake was forgiven?

I sought out my bosses and told my story. Sure enough, Lucretia called shortly and informed them she wanted a monetary settlement for the unwanted declaw surgery. They were surprised at my error, and a bit nonplussed at her demand.

I called my veterinary malpractice insurance representative to start a case file. He instructed me to refer Lucretia to him for further discussion, and told me it was unlikely the company would pay a claim on a correctly performed surgery for which the client was not charged. If it had been a show animal, he said, the client might have had grounds for compensation.

At least I had allies, but I was taking this hard. It’s easy to forget that a first-time client would have no way of knowing my true character and intentions. I felt humiliated.

The next day, Lucretia showed up at the front desk with the patient and another woman. She said she needed help removing one of the bandages. I invited them to the exam room, took the kitten to the back, deftly removed the bandage and returned.

I offered another pain injection for the kitten. "Oh, do you think she’s in pain?” she asked. Why did I get the feeling that anything I said could and would be used against me?

"I don’t know,” I said, "but I told you yesterday I’d be glad to give a pain injection if you wanted me to. By the way, I have contacted my malpractice insurance company about the surgery,” I added. Then her companion jumped in.

"Oh, we’re not trying to get anyone in trouble,” she said. "We just … ”

"Of course you aren’t,” I smiled.

Lucretia then asked if she could have the bandage I’d just removed from the paw, "just in case I need it later.” I gazed at her, probably a little longer than normal, then nodded and produced the bandage in a Ziploc bag. "Call me if you need me.” I bade her goodbye with a clench-toothed smile.

And that’s the last I saw of Lucretia and her declawed kitten. She called my bosses a couple more times to ask for money, which they did not pay, but failed to follow through with her malpractice claim.

Later On…

Fast-forward two years later: During a vaccination clinic, I heard Lucretia checking in. Was that who I thought it was? I quickly called up the name in the computer and it all came flooding back. Suddenly I was trembling with anger.

Could I refuse service to her? The women at the desk were checking in her declawed cat and a dog, calmly and efficiently processing the paperwork with no idea of the back story.

I looked around for someone to turn to. What to say? How to behave? I hoped Lucretia couldn’t see how hard my hands were shaking as I turned the knob and entered the room.

OK, my veterinary colleagues. I know what I did. But I’d like to know what you’d have done, faced with this situation. Please e-mail your thoughts, and we will print as many as we can, plus the rest of this story.

Lou Anne Epperley, DVM, may be emailed in care of VPNEditor@i5publishing.com. Put "Dr. Epperley” in the subject line.


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