This weekend my brother’s dog had an accident. While romping around his backyard, with his usual goofy-dog flair, he jumped and landed belly first on a fence post. The initial injury didn’t appear to be much, nothing more than a yelp and a bruise, but after a trip to the dog park the next day, his condition became markedly worse. The bruising on his abdomen increased dramatically, and his groin and leg became very swollen. He was taken to the local emergency hospital, where a few days in the ICU and a few thousand dollars of diagnostics later, he was discharged with with a questionable prognosis, and no clear diagnosis.
Having worked in animal hospitals as a vet tech for 10 years, I’ve seen my fair share of illness and injury. I’ve held hands and paws while animals made their final transitions into the peaceful unknown. I’ve celebrated with owners and pets alike when they turn the corner and finally start to recover. I’ve spent countless hours coaching clients through tough decisions, and done my best to patiently explain the whats, hows and whys of what we are doing over and over, until the client felt some sense of comfort and understanding. But even with all of that experience, I still felt extremely frustrated at the lack of answers regarding what was wrong with my brother’s dog.
When something happens to a pet, and we take them to a hospital or a clinic, we put our trust in the veterinary staff. We trust they will have the answers, and will know exactly what to do to fix it. We trust our pets will be handled lovingly and carefully. We trust the staff will treat our case with professionalism and efficiency. We trust attention will be paid to details, and things discussed in the coveted once-daily conversations with the doctor will be followed up on. We trust mistakes won’t be made. Additionally, we hope for the diagnostic process to be straight forward and clear, preferably with a simple fix.
But more often than not, the road to answers isn’t straight forward and clear, and blame is assigned, often unfairly, to the incompetency of the staff, or (not so unfairly) the price of services. While these things, especially finances, do play a role, there are other factors that must be considered.
For one, that’s not how it goes because that’s not how injuries and illness go. They often aren’t straight-forward and clear. They are complicated, confusing, and dynamic. They require diagnostics that need to be run again and again to monitor progress. They require patience and time, and often trial and error, to make themselves fully clear.
That’s not how it goes because that’s not always how medicine works. Medicine is an inexact science, with subjective observations made by doctors of all different backgrounds and experience levels playing a role in what steps are taken when.
When a pet gets sick, sometimes everything goes in our favor, and answers are obtained with ease. In these cases we celebrate our vet staff, and thank them for their knowledge, patience, and kindness. We tell the stories of how Dr. Doe saved Bucky and isn’t he a hero? But sometimes, even when everything is done right, we don’t get the answers we so desperately want. In these cases, many animals still manage to make a full recovery, and while owners may wonder what ever really happened to their dog, they still have their dog and can hopefully put the hospital stay in the past. But other times a patient’s condition worsens even as more tests are run- tests that just lead to more questions and speculations about what is actually going on. Sometimes, at the end of this road, you leave the hospital with an empty leash and a bitter hole in your heart.
The hard truth about sick pets is that diagnosing and treating them can be a guessing game, one where at the end, no matter what anyone does, you don’t get an answer. This hurts. This sucks. This instills doubt and frustration into hearts filled with sadness and worry. The hard truth about sick pets is it can bring out the worst in us.
I can say this because the worst part of me came out this weekend when second-guessing everything being done (or not done) by the team of veterinarians and support staff working on my brother’s dog. Although at present his condition appears to be at the very least stable, we don’t have any real answer as to what exactly is going on with him, or what his road to recovery (hopefully) will look like. As my brother drives to the hospital to pick up his beloved dog, I can’t help but feel like somehow someone didn’t do their job right, because otherwise we would know what was wrong with Wyatt.
But deep down I know that isn’t true, because I know first-hand how much love, care, attention and heart the staff at your local animal hospital puts into each patient. I know when they discharge that dog today, they will ache for answers just as much as we do. They will wait, willing and able to respond any time of the day or night, for the call that tells them their services are needed again. They will rejoice at the news of his recovery, or, if things don’t go that way, they will cry at the news of his loss. I know this because I have done this.
The hard truth about sick pets is sometimes we just don’t know. Sometimes all we can do is hope.