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One man and his dog

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I ARRIVE home from work and get out of the car, thinking of food and bed. It's been another long day at the practice and not a particularly easy one: lots of challenging cases and a few sad outcomes, all of which have stretched my communication skills and necessitated a great deal of patience and empathy.

As I approach my front door, I hear a voice. ‘Hello! How are you?’. It's already dark so I can't see the face, but I squint up the drive at a man with a whippet-like breed on the end of a lead. His greeting convinces me that I must know him, but I can't place the face of the man or the dog. A client? A neighbour? I go up the path and bend down slightly to greet the dog, which then proceeds to urinate all over the top of my drive, while the man praises him for his deed. I realise I've never met the balding man or his dog before.

I listen as he launches into an explanation of how he's just left his wife and how he's moved back in with his elderly parents just up the road. I watch his big belly wobble as he laughs while repeatedly telling me how good the dog is and how it lies in bed with him, how it's nervous as the children used to bang things to scare it. It's true, the dog's as jumpy as a rabbit in car headlights.

I start to quietly panic as I can't think of a way to get away from him, only half listening as he explains to me why his dog is eating the grass on my drive. ‘For his belly. Means he's going to be sick’, he says, among other vulgar descriptions. ‘Please, no! Not on my drive. Not tonight’, I think. ‘I really don't want to have to clean that up’. At the back of my subconscious a voice asks ‘does he know you're a vet? Surely no-one would discuss digestive matters this crudely if they were talking to a complete stranger?’

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My mind darts to the bags that I still need to retrieve from my car, and my eyes catch a glimpse of the warm light from inside my house. ‘Well best be getting inside’, I say, brightly wishing I had a consult door to open so I could hint at the exit. Unfortunately, the man carries on talking regardless. I think of all the conversations I've had over the past week at work and realise that I'm saturated with ‘my pet does this’ talk and I'm exhausted from trying to find suitable answers. Are they wanting me to just listen or are they expecting a solution from me? After all, I'm the vet and I'm hardwired to listen, assess and attempt to find a solution. ‘Well, best get in and get my tea. Goodnight!’, I say.

Back inside I lock the door and put my bags down. Ah, peace! Then the guilt sets in. Poor man, he's probably lonely. I console myself that I gave him 10 minutes more than I had to.

Having relayed the event to a friend, and survived her reproach at me having engaged with a strange man on my drive late and after dark, I reflect on the skills and personalities of members of the veterinary profession. Where does the ‘vet me’ end and the ‘person me’ begin? Can they be separated?

I can only conclude that my ‘vet mode’ is extremely dominant: ‘must bond those clients. Must be available to help. Active listening is important. Must look for the hidden values, ideas and beliefs in what this person is saying. Must make a diagnosis. Must find a solution’. However, with all the recent coverage of the importance of looking after our mental health, I also realise that I am entitled to ‘switch off’. While I live by the beliefs of ‘treat others as you would wish to be treated’ and ‘listen to others, even the dull and ignorant for they too have their story’, if I am to avoid being overwhelmed by the drive to always put the needs of others above my own, I also need to ‘switch off’ the vet mode and be gentle with myself. To be of use to others, I first need to look after myself. Good thing I've signed up to that mindfulness course!

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