Along with my passionate belief in the “good” of veterinary medicine, I’ve shared with you in this column my faith in God, and many colleagues responded with their own testimonies.
Now it’s time for a confession.
While many times in the past I’ve asked God for forgiveness for my sins and have been very open with my family and friends about egregious fraternity pranks, too many times drinking and driving when younger, and not being respectful enough of women when I was in “lust” and not in “love,” I’ve never opened up about the serious mistakes in my veterinary past. Some deadly.
One of the most, if not the most popular column I’ve ever written for Veterinary Economics was titled “My Biggest Practice Mistakes … and the Lessons I Learned.” I literally had hundreds of colleagues over the years come up to me and tell me how they appreciated my honesty in that piece, that it was good to admit mistakes rather than always pretend as a communicator/ expert that your, pardon, “feces don’t stink.” They said they felt better about themselves, their careers and more open to admit mistakes.
But there was one big mistake I omitted because, at the time, I didn’t have the courage to put it out in the sunlight. I killed a dog because of an avoidable mistake and then lied about it. Then I lied again. That lie has rotted inside me for over 30 years.
I was about 30 years old at the time and out of veterinary school about four years. My colleague and partner Dr. Bill Strobel and I owned two very busy veterinary hospitals in Twin Falls, Idaho. Since I’ve tried to keep this hidden under a callus, I’m unsure of the exact names here, but I seem to remember it was Mrs. Dalton, a younger widow with a beautiful Pekingese named Bingo.
I remember the circumstances of my mistake and cover-up, however, very well.
Bingo was in for what we would have called a routine spay. Our typical spay at Twin Falls Veterinary Hospital in1985 was knocking dogs out with sodium thiopental, intubating and then putting on metofane. Then they were put on a stainless steel, V-shaped tray and crosstied on the table.
No pre-surgical blood screens, no patient warming and, worst of all, no patient monitoring. It sounds so primitive, even barbaric today, but that was the standard.
This was a long-established, very busy practice, and even with only a few years of practice, I was very proficient on “spay day,” doing five to 10 surgeries. Even with the quality of care at the time and using products that certainly aren’t as safe as those we use today, almost all routine surgeries were just that. In. Done. Out.
But this was not the case with Bingo. She was overweight, and her respiration was compromised. That would have put her at greater risk, but this isn’t what caused her death. I overdosed her.
I don’t know what I was thinking, or not thinking, but I gave her a dose of barbiturate for a dog three times her size. She crashed, I panicked, we failed to revive this precious dog and she died. No one but me knew I’d made this mistake.
I remember feeling flushed with panic and sadness, but rather than doing the right thing and telling the owner about my mistake, I made up a story about how Bingo probably had an undiagnosed kidney or liver problem that had caused her to react to the anesthetic in this way. I had tears in my eyes to match the real ones in hers, and Bingo’s owner said that it was OK. “God’s terms.”
She asked me if I would take care of the body in a respectful way, and I said that I would, but I didn’t. I told her that I’d bury the dog in the orchard on my farm, but I didn’t. The farm and orchard were real, but my word wasn’t.
Bingo went with all the other pets in the hospital freezer to be commercially disposed of (no crematories at the time). I know what you’re thinking: Sickening. Unfathomable. Unforgivable.
Going “Cold Case” meets “C.S.I.” on Marty’s brain and integrity, I don’t have a clue why I did that heinous series of actions and lies. But soon it was buried behind the hectic realities of day-to-day practice, and I never spoke of it to anyone, until now. This would be a sad enough way to close this story, but I know that I most certainly had a hand in other pets’ deaths that could have been avoided.
I know there were almost certainly dozens of pets in my earliest years of practice that might have been cured or successfully treated if I had done one or more of the following:
- Rounds. What if I had a pet where I wasn’t sure of the diagnosis or that the treatment plan wasn’t working and the pet was failing and I didn’t ask a colleague for a second opinion?
- Referrals. We were hesitant to refer patients to other veterinary hospitals or to the veterinary school because we wanted to keep the patient and profits in-house.
This is not just a mea culpa later in life. I learned a valuable lesson, and after that incident there have been plenty of times I screwed up, but told the truth (missed something on the radiographs, misinterpreted the lab work, misdiagnosed, chose the wrong medication to start out with, tried to spay a tom cat).
I can almost split my career into thirds. The first third was about me, my skills and my business. The middle third started my focus on “we,” as in our skills, our commitment and our passion for helping the pet be optimally healthy. It included robust second teamwork on cases, routine referrals and a commitment to always be honest about mistakes.
The last third, and going forward, is about looking after both the pet and the pet owner's physical and emotional well-being.
Pet owners often say that they wish their veterinarian were their doctors, and we are happy that we don’t have the paperwork or oversight that human medicine requires. But, on the flip side, veterinary medicine doesn’t feature transparent body bags, and unexplained deaths don’t typically have review. (Some corporate practices have inside review, but I’m not aware of any with outside review.) So it’s easy to get away with a mistake, known or unknown.
Looking to the future, I continue to proudly practice in the greatest profession on earth. I’ve asked for and received forgiveness. I use Bingo and other instances in the past where I didn’t put the pet’s best interests first to fuel a near evangelical mission to do the right thing.
Have you hidden anything from your past?
Checks and Balances in Human Medicine
Twin Falls Veterinary Hospital suffered a fire in the early 1990s that destroyed most of its records. I was no longer a partner in the practice at the time of the fire.
In writing the book “The Healing Power of Pets,” I met back in southern Idaho with several members of my old hospital team, and nobody could remember the pet or the pet owner described above.
But I remembered, and so did God.
I recently had knee surgery, and the degree of checks and balances was amazing. The nurse, the anesthetist, the scrub nurse and the orthopedic surgeon all asked me what surgery I was in for and what exactly was being operated on.
I’d answer, "arthroscopic surgery on the medial meniscus of my left knee." The individuals who verified their inquiries wrote their initials in indelible marker above my kneecap.
If something avoidable went wrong with my surgery, from the correct limb and correct procedure to the right anesthetic dose and possible complications (asked multiple times about having motion sickness, allergies to medications, etc.) they would help in determining what happened.
Of course, veterinary medicine doesn’t have this option.
While I’m not petitioning for added layers of scrutiny and review, it does put the entire onus for owning up to mistakes on each of us. That’s a big burden to carry; maybe too big.
Originally published in the February 2016 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today!