In the back, there is kissing. So much kissing.
Buzz, a dapper silvery Schnauzer in for a teeth cleaning, gets kissed on the head. He’s told he’s handsome. And good. Such a good, good boy, Buzz. And then he’s kissed again.
Smokey, a 13-year-old min pin – miniature pinscher – needs the same procedure and needs it bad, if you can gauge by the look on the face of the tech who has just kissed him. She turns her head and waves at the air to move the stinky-breath molecules away. Smokey is not offended. He likes being kissed on the head and gazes up, shooting affection at everyone from his cloudy eyes.
During the line-up at the beginning of the day, the staff learns who is on the schedule. At the bridge, a desk that juts out into middle of the big room, sits Susan Wada, the doctor who will be in charge that day. Three other docs will be seeing patients in rooms after veterinary assistants get their histories and pass them along in concise but detailed narratives. Some will be taken from their owners and brought to the back for procedures.
On this day’s schedule is a guy with a rep. Dr. Wada says, “Last time he was good, but he’s not generally very good.”
The doctor-owner of Southcare Animal Medical Center, Greg Benoit (aka Dr. B, GB, or Geebz), says, “Not with me.”
There’s agreement: That patient does not like Dr. B.
This leads to gentle teasing directed toward the boss, who tries to rein things in. “Let’s get back to schedule,” he says, clearly enjoying the attention.
“Sympathy cards,” one of the techs says, “there are eight,” and the temperature in the room drops. They go over the toll. Everyone will sign, and everyone will write personal messages. One is for Mojo. Even in death, his nickname is used – Moj. Amid the sadness, laughter; memories shared of the rascally little pug.
This is the difficult part of the job. To a person, when asked, everyone mentions how much it hurts to lose a patient – a friend, a loved one.
For a euthanasia, they turn off the music and dim the lights, even in the back. A lit LED candle in the lobby signals waiting clients of the need to be quietly respectful. “When we do it,” Stephanie, an assistant, says, “I can hold the pet and tell them I love them, but they look for you.” The hurt is in her eyes and she says it again: ‘They look for you.”
The dozen or so women wearing magenta scrubs, assistants and techs, two of whom are named Jennifer, chat like book clubbers or friends from a mom’s group. They sit close, leaning a head on a shoulder, preening each other like birds. They are easy and companionable colleagues, but more. They are teammates. Sisters.
These people share a passion and there’s no other way to say this and, yes, it’s going to sound corny as all get-out, well, love. Love for what they do and love for those they serve. One of the vet assistants says, “Some of these people, they don’t have kids, or partners, they live alone. Their pets are all they have. They’re their babies.”
A good death, most agree, is a blessing, something we can do for our pets. But it’s still the hardest thing for most of those who work here. The vets say it’s also painful to see cases where there’s a clear and solvable problem that the owner doesn’t want to treat. Usually because of cost but sometimes just because.
Veterinary medicine is expensive, and the doctors must be able to lay out options for clients, give them choices and prices. Dr. B is a small business owner, responsible for 20-some employees, and he’s got to keep things running and make sure everyone understands that even if something can be done medically, it’s always the owner’s call whether to go ahead. Shaming will not work and is in no one’s best interest. Difficult conversations must be had: Often people with obese animals are, themselves, overweight. These are delicate situations that need to be handled with care and empathy. With humility.
The road to mediocrity is often paved with arrogance. Here in the back, if you want to find big egos, you have to look in the cat kennels. (While most dogs seem grateful to be treated, the cats act like people who dressed for the opera and were forced to go to McDonald’s.)
It’s easy to imagine Wada, whose youthful looks belie her 50-something years, as the careful student she no doubt once was, the one who finished tests early and then kept checking and rechecking her answers. She may not have been the most talkative in class, but you can imagine her studying late into the night, looking things up, always aware of how much there is to know.
While answering questions, she’s got a row of prescription bottles lined up in front of her. She opens each one, takes out a pill, and checks to make sure it’s the right medication. “There’s usually a letter on them,” she says. “I just like to make sure everything is right.”
There may be hip and cool vets, but they are surely as rare as otterhounds or Peterbald cats. Most veterinarians are not hip and cool. They are earnest and quick to laugh. Their edges are soft. They are not cynical. They are friendly, and they drop to the floor to put their arms around critters they’ve just met and tell them sweet, mushy things.
One of the important questions asked of those who want to apply to vet school is, “Do you like people?”
It goes without saying that aspiring veterinarians like animals. But dogs don’t drive themselves to get vaccines and cats probably wouldn’t pay the bills, even if they could. Handling people is a big part of the job.
When you’re in the exam room, sitting nervous with your shivering pet, it feels like the vets and techs and assistants are here to serve you. They ask and answer questions, give reassuring pats, and tell you your animal is sweet. “Oh Helen, she’s one of our favorites,” they say, and you think, “Well, of course she is. She’s the best.” And then you realize if someone wanted to scam you, to make you feel like a satisfied customer willing to pay just about anything to make your dog better, that’s exactly what they’d say. You wonder if they say the same things to all the owners. You wonder if they’re sincere.
Then, in the back, far from the gaze of clients, you watch Candice, a vet assistant fresh off a weekend serving as a court monitor for Hoopfest, tell Bailey that most other dogs would need to be sedated for this procedure.
“You’re so good” (kiss on the head). “You’re such a brave girl” (kiss, kiss). Bailey is stoic while someone inserts an instrument in her floppy ear and comes out with a big poky piece of cheatgrass. Is there something else still in there? Again, in go the pincher pliers. Bailey yelps, more from discomfort than pain, and Candice reassures her it will be over soon and she’s so good, so beautiful. She kisses her on the head. “So good, Bailey.”
It’s harder to get into vet school than medical school, and the financial rewards at the end of that long tunnel are a lot dimmer. And they have to know so much: animal medical professionals practice family medicine – cradle to grave – internal medicine, orthopedics, ophthalmology, urology, oncology, radiology, cardiology, nephrology, dermatology, epidemiology, parasitology. They are anesthesiologists and surgeons, and they also have to give pedicures and haircuts, do laundry and clean up pee, poop, and puke.
Vets must learn how to treat eight different species. Plus, there are major differences between breeds. Greyhounds have such thin skin you can look at them and they’ll get a laceration. White-footed dogs are sensitive to many types of medications.
“It’s impossible to know it all,” Dr. B says. “We do the best we can.” And that, you can tell, is not enough for him. He wants good outcomes all the time. It’s a high-pressure business, even if you do get to play with a lot of puppies.
The women in the magenta scrubs are uncomfortable just sitting around; they’re the kind of weirdos who find vacuuming relaxing and whose kitchens are always sparkling. During slow times they look for things to do: wiping already clean counters and refolding laundry. They line the holding cages with soft fuzzy fleece blankets. They whisper to patients who are coming out of anesthesia and yowl like drunks.
Procedures feel choreographed. People work in smooth and efficient duos. While the job descriptions might be hierarchical, it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like one team.
The card with the logo of the clinic has on it a statement: “Our mission is to build strong personal relationships with our clients by improving the bond between you and your beloved pets. We strive to offer compassionate care and the most current and comprehensive medical diagnostic and treatment options for your pets.”
Facing this corporate verbiage is a list of the “core values.” This feels authentic, like the result of a group brainstorming effort where everyone gets listened to, heard.
We are Sunshine, the card says. Compassionate. Committed to Excellence. Here to Serve. Eager to Learn. Kind. One Team.
You can see these values on display to every Frenchie, Siamese, and mutt who come through the door and every worried man, woman and child who brings them in.
But only the animals get kissed.
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