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Our biggest mistakes and the lessons we learn

The truth is time heals so much, and before long we find ourselves out of the shadows and back on the sunshine side of the mountains

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Is there ever a day when you don’t make a mistake? Sometimes it’s as tiny as Cheyletiella; other times, it looms as large as a pachyderm.

A classmate and friend of mine from the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine Class of 1980, the late Drew Turner, DVM, had a well-known father who was a beloved pastor from a large church in Seattle. A popular Seattle Times religion columnist and a gifted speaker, the Reverend Dale Turner had a quote about mistakes that I kept inside my day planner: “It is the highest form of self-respect to admit our errors and mistakes, and make amends for them. To make a mistake is only an error in judgment, but to adhere to it when it is discovered shows infirmity of character.”

I recently made a major mistake. Not my first, but one of my worst, and especially egregious because of the increased awareness of the pressures our profession faces and the problems of depression and suicide.

An honest mistake

I’m a voracious reader and consumer of news. I forward the links to as many as a dozen pet or veterinary-related articles to my trusted decades-long communications director every day. Sometimes they’re items I want to discuss, and other times, such as when I’m traveling or at a conference or meeting, I ask her to post them with my comments to my social media.

On one occasion recently, she mistook a news story I intended for discussion as something I wanted to share with my Facebook community instead. When I went online to check my Facebook page as I normally do, I saw there was an unusually large number of upset, sad, and boiling mad comments basically saying I had thrown the veterinary profession under the bus.

The article was about a client of an unidentified veterinary practice in Canada who accused the hospital receptionist of making an extremely unkind remark when the client had to surrender her pet to obtain care for him. Access to care is an important issue to me, as is client communication; that’s why I’d wanted to discuss the article with my communications director when I got back from my trip. Instead, because it ended up being posted publicly, I found myself in the social media equivalent of treating a pet who had been rushed into the veterinary hospital in agonal condition, not knowing what exactly happened or the details of diagnosis, just knowing it was both bad and my responsibility to fix.

With my heart about beating out of my chest, this founder of Fear Free was anything but. I don’t think I’ve ever had a panic attack, but that must be what it feels like. Reading caustic comment after comment was like dying from a thousand cuts, with some firmly, but politely pointing out why they didn’t think I should have posted the piece, and others wanting to cut my head off without a trial.

Being part of the media for almost 40 years, I know triage for mistakes or bad press as well as I know what to do when a cat takes a trip through the fan belt. Here’s how I responded within the first five minutes of being aware that “feces were hitting the fan:”

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1) I admitted the mistake. This was easy to do, as we weren’t talking about gray areas here. Both my communications director and I knew we’d made a big mistake.

2) Knowing, understanding, and appreciating we all make mistakes is important, but owning the mistake is paramount. I pulled down the post and explained why.

3) Whether you’re a person of faith as I am (or not), make a heartfelt apology. I said I was sorry to my colleagues, and am apologizing to all of you here now as well.

4) Prevent it from happening again. I’ve been on social media for 13 years, and while this wasn’t my first mistake, it was the first time I stuck both feet in my mouth and fell over writhing in emotional misery. But I am making a commitment to preventing this from happening again, and more importantly, working behind the scenes to learn from this mistake.

Learning from the past

When I look back over my life, mistakes I made have taught me about as much as the things I did right. I took money out of the offering plate as a five-year-old, a $in if you will, and learned right from wrong from a gentle pastor talking to me up-front. At around 10 years of age, I was fishing on the Salmon River in Idaho for steelhead when I lost my footing and fell in. Embarrassed and scared of getting in trouble, I blamed somebody for pushing me into the river. This taught me the cover-up was worse than the crime. Early in my veterinary career, I overdosed a client’s pet, causing his death, and lied about what happened (I wrote about this in Veterinary Practice News). The guilt of holding this lie worked on me like an abscess. It taught me the value of admitting personal and professional errors, and being completely open and honest about them as they happen.

Of course, I’m far from alone. Natalie Marks, DVM, CVJ, co-owner of Blum Animal Hospital in Chicago (the first Fear Free certified practice in Illinois) shared with me her experience with mistakes.

“Ironically, one of the easiest words in the English language is one of the hardest ones to say,” she said, referring to the word “no.” “At the beginning of my career, I seemed to have many of the personality traits of young and eager associates: a desire to please, empathetic, hardworking, perfectionistic, and emotionally invested in cases with minimal boundaries. These, subconsciously, led to the inability to say no to impossible client requests, assisting with projects that may not have evoked passion, taking on every responsibility that seemed within reach, and the failure to establish any guidelines for my own work-life balance.

“However, at a certain point, saying ‘yes’ to others meant saying ‘no’ to myself. Saying ‘yes’ to every client meant I had not been successful in delegating and mentoring other associates to share cases. Saying ‘yes’ to every project meant I had not really prioritized and checked my passions appropriately. Saying ‘yes’ to answering every client email, even after 18-hour days, meant I hadn’t truly set appropriate boundaries. And saying ‘yes’ without ever saying ‘no’ started to develop into less-than-optimal engagement in everything I valued, and led to compassion fatigue and the risks of burnout.

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“I had to learn that saying ‘no’ does not equal being unhelpful. Saying ‘no’ does not mean your career is over. Saying ‘no’ doesn’t mean you’ve shut the door on the only opportunity this career will present to you. Saying ‘no’ does mean you want to protect your inner value, your kindness, your compassion, and your endurance. This profession is not meant to be a sprint, and I want to be enjoying that 26th mile of the marathon.”

Jessica Vogelsang, DVM, CVJ, a San Diego veterinarian and author of All Dogs Go To Kevin, had this to say: “I think we’re taught early on, particularly in the hyper-competitive medical fields, that winners succeed and losers fail. In school, we ask each other who got the best test scores, who nailed grand rounds, who got the best internships. They were the gunners, the ones who never missed a mark, and they commanded respect. They were always stressed close to snapping, even back then.

“Fast forward 15 to 20 years and some of them are still at it, like an earthquake fault perpetually on the verge of an 8.0 rumble. The rest of them already had their ruptures, because that is what life does to you. Of the two groups, they seem happier. We think our brains and our tenacity make us immune to failure. They don’t. Stumbles are inevitable and oftentimes necessary to succeed in a meaningful way.

“I never knew what I was truly capable of until I got broken, despite my best efforts, into a hundred unexpected pieces. It happens to everyone in some form or another eventually, in your career, in life. It is only in the relentless self-examination of reassembling your world that you really see the layers you’re made of, the geological history of your own potential.

“I wish I could tell you the wonderful things I get to do now were by design since my veterinary school days, but that would be untrue. Falling on your face forces a new perspective on you that often can be shockingly delightful. You’re in good company. Good things lie ahead.”

Here’s what Julie Reck, DVM, owner of Veterinary Medical Center of Fort Mill, S.C., told me: “Leadership expert John Maxwell wrote a book called Failing Forward that reveals mistakes are stepping stones to our success. The key is to develop the humility to recognize one’s mistakes, learn key lessons from those mistakes, and decide to take a different course of action in the future. We learn very little about failure in our veterinary education, and many of us (myself included) are ill prepared to deal with the outcomes and emotions surrounding failure.

“I have made many mistakes as a veterinarian and practice owner. One of the biggest is related to developing a vision for my practice. Thinking long term and developing future plans come very naturally to me. I would ponder new strategies and initiatives, and then I would roll them out to my staff. I would grow frustrated when interest or commitment to these initiatives dwindled in my practice. In my frustration, I found myself concluding people just don’t like change. It took several years, but I eventually realized I was the problem. I failed to create a process that allowed a collaborative vision to exist in my practice. The change I created in my practice ‘happened to’ my staff instead of happening with their input. I failed my way forward and learned the importance of carving out meeting time in my practice where we can all be part of future plans and improved patient care.”

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Evan Antin, DVM, of Conejo Valley Veterinary Hospital in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and host of the TV series Evan Goes Wild, commented, “No veterinarian is perfect, and even the best veterinarians have cases they wished they had managed differently. And honestly, we’ll all continue to make mistakes because that’s one important way we grow as veterinarians. The silver lining to making a mistake in our profession is you’ll learn from those mistakes more than if you did it right the first time. You will also probably never make it again.

“The truth is medicine is an art and there’s not necessarily only one right way to practice it. Many ‘mishaps’ I’ve made as a veterinarian did not necessarily seem like mistakes at the time I was making them; however, every patient is different and all factors about a given scenario must be taken into consideration.

“On top of learning from my personal mistakes, some keys for my success have been: Going with my gut; being humble and readily seeking advice and consulting with colleagues; taking time to read and research new or unique patients/pathologies, sometimes refreshing myself on things I’ve even seen before; keeping very open and thorough communication with pet owners or wildlife caretakers; and always connecting with each individual animal patient on a personal level and making my best effort to keep them comfortable and minimize their stress.

“You can’t beat yourself up if you’re truly doing everything you know best to treat your patients. But that’s the key: Always be true to your patients and yourself.”

Let me end with something my beloved mother always said: “This too shall pass.” That famous line isn’t really found in the Bible, but wherever these words originated, do they ever ring true. When the world seems to end, or thoughts of ending it may enter our minds, the truth is time heals so much, and before long we find ourselves out of the shadows and back on the sunshine side of the mountains.

Marty Becker, DVM, writes every other month for Veterinary Practice News. He is a Sandpoint, Idaho, practitioner and founder of the Fear Free initiative. For more information about Fear Free or to register for certification, go to fearfreepets.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

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