What a country song teaches us about patient/client care

When it comes to patient care, practice like the pet owner/parent/guardian is looking over your shoulders

My beloved wife, Teresa, and our daughter, Mikkel, are big country music fans. I like country music, but I admit I don’t love it. Still, since it’s often playing in our home or in the car, I get to hear a lot of songs about cheatin’, lovin’, and drinkin’ whiskey.

Recently, I heard a song from popular singer Luke Combs called, “Even though I’m leaving.” Here’s a sampling of a few lines from that song: “Just because I’m leaving doesn’t mean I won’t be right by your side,” and “Even though I’m leaving, I ain’t going nowhere.” The song reminded me of something I’ve been saying and doing for more than 30 years to start my work day.

Out of sight, but not out of mind

Around 1990, I was visiting a friend’s practice in a suburb of St. Louis, Mo. I watched as Dennis Cloud, DVM, revved up his team by playing high-intensity music, putting up the day’s financial goal in bold marker on a big whiteboard, and asking team members, “Are you ready to rock and roll?!”

But then Dr. Cloud turned off the music and became very subdued and serious, almost prayerful, as he said, “Let’s remember to practice today like pet owners are right there looking over our shoulders.” Those words hit me hard, making a major and permanent impact on how I wanted to practice and how I wanted veterinary teams that I led to operate. Dr. Cloud showed me a path to “doing well by doing good.”

It’s one thing for words to arrest our attention in a world where even instant gratification takes too long. It’s a whole other thing to make them part of a permanent life change. Dr. Cloud’s words did that to me. Why?

Because I loved animals, loved people, loved the practice teams I worked with, loved the profession, and felt compassion for all. Looking back, what I failed to consider was how I was paying attention to the emotional well-being of pets. That would come 20 years later with the dawn of Fear Free. Simply put, we couldn’t treat animals one way in front of their owner or guardian and another way in the back, behind closed doors, or even in secret. Additionally, these pets were used to being treated with the utmost tenderness, love, and attention at home, and deserved a mirror image of that when they were in the care of others, whether that was in veterinary medicine, grooming, pet sitting, boarding, or training.

Let me explain what Dr. Cloud’s mandate means in practical terms in a hospital setting. If the client was right there watching the veterinary health-care team work on their pet, they would expect to witness:

1) The pet being moved lovingly from place to place (say from the cage to treatment table or radiology table). No jerking or dragging the pet by a leash, or God forbid, a rabies pole!

2) When the pet was placed on a table, she would be handled like a fragile Christmas present, not plopped or, worse yet, dropped.

3) When the pet was positioned for a procedure, such as taking a radiograph or placing a catheter, she was treated as something sensitive, scared, and possibly in pain. No stretching an arthritic dog out into two zip codes on the radiology table while trying to get a spine or hip shot. Same goes for pulling a cat’s head up to the ceiling and feet down to the floor to get a jugular stick.

4) Their pet would always be in a cage or run that had clean, soft bedding, with no feces, urine, or vomitus. They’d always have clean water and hopefully some visual screens and/or a hiding place so they didn’t have to watch other pets undergoing stressful procedures.

5) Their pet having human observation and comfort when waking up from surgery, a dental, or other procedure that required sedation or anesthesia.

6) The use of pain medication so the pet never had to suffer.

7) If necessary, their pet would be put in emotional isolation where they didn’t see, hear, smell, or sense other pets in distress. The area would have pheromones, calming music, warm/padded bedding, and a quiet place to rest. If needed, the pet would be given medications to reduce fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS).

8) At treatment time, the pet would be handled gently when given oral/SQ/IM/IV medications or having their wounds treated, etc. If appropriate and possible, distraction techniques would be used and they would receive treats.

9) The practice team calling the dog by his/her name in a loving voice, full of compassion, using encouraging words such as, “You’re going to be well soon and able to go home to your family.”

10) A sincere effort made to ensure the pet can get some solid sleep.

11) People on the veterinary health-care team who are of faith would offer prayers. I do this as often as I can—QID or more!

Just like family

Practicing like the pet owner/parent/guardian is right there looking over our shoulders can impact the animal in four important ways. In every one of these scenarios, ask yourself: If this was a human baby—or even more meaningfully, an infant who is part of our family—how would we treat her?

1) Physical well-being: Pets who are in pain are spared anything that will exacerbate it, and pain is never left untreated. We all know pets who have robust pain control heal faster. Pets who aren’t stressed are less likely to throw up medications. Pets who have rest/sleep are going to heal faster.

2) Emotional well-being: This is what Fear Free is all about. We monitor and score FAS and take steps to prevent, reduce, or treat it. We want the pet to be neither mentally harmed nor suffer permanent emotional damage while under our care.

3) Quality of care: Can you image visiting a family member in the hospital who is in a large, chilly, noisy room that had dirty linens or towels, no water, a toilet that wasn’t flushed, and cold, unappetizing food being served, all in an antiseptic-smelling room with perhaps a dozen other people? Remember, most clients think of their pets as family members, and increasingly, as their children.

4) Spirituality: When people of faith have family, friends, neighbors, or coworkers go into the hospital, they offer up individual prayers, put the person on a prayer chain, and publish details on social media so a chorus of people can send positive, healing energy. While these blessings can be as powerful as any medicine, or even more so, I love to have physical contact with the pet, as I ask the Lord to heal her, cure her, relieve her suffering, and have her either go back home to mom and dad or have a peaceful journey to the final grace.

Thinking back to when I started veterinary school in 1976, this farm boy came with a palpable love of all animals and a heart full of compassion for the biblical refrain:

All things bright and beautiful,

All creatures great and small,

All things wise and wonderful,

The Lord God made them all.

If you’re a person of faith, just hitchhike on God’s healing hands. If you’re not, or that’s not part of your healing repertoire, always keep that baby who is a member of your family in your mind and ask yourself how you’d want her to be treated.

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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