1. Clark, Elizabeth-Ellen PhD, MEd, MSN, RN


What health care professionals should learn from veterinarians.


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When our guinea pig, Leelou, was more than four years old and nearing the end of her life, she wasn't eating well and appeared listless. My daughter asked me to take Leelou to the veterinarian. I hesitated. Leelou's symptoms were likely the result of old age and the veterinarian probably couldn't do much. I had never thought to take a rodent to the vet. My daughter was persistent. I called the vet's office and asked if they cared for guinea pigs. "Of course we do," the receptionist said emphatically. "We care for all animals!!" She said the office was busy, but if I didn't mind waiting, they would fit Leelou into the schedule that day.


When I arrived, the waiting room was crowded. The veterinary technician greeted me warmly, asking about Leelou's well-being. She apologized for the wait and offered me a cup of coffee. She frequently stroked Leelou's side and inquired as to how I was doing as I waited. Her gestures made me feel cared for and respected.


When we finally saw the vet, he examined Leelou gently. He asked me about her symptoms and listened with attention and respect. He looked into Leelou's eyes and ears, listened to her heart and lungs, and gently palpated her entire body, speaking softly as he did so. Then he looked at me and sighed. "What we learned about guinea pigs in vet school could be summarized on less than one page," he apologized. He suspected that it could be an infection, but there was no easy way to test for it. He demonstrated how to mix the antibiotic with applesauce in a small syringe and feed it to Leelou. Although she died the next day, I was glad that I had taken her to the vet. The experience reminded me of how one should provide health care and why doing so is important.


How many times have I been to a health care appointment with a family member and felt like I was an annoyance to the practitioner? I have seen family members stigmatized and stereotyped, because of their age, diagnosis, or physical characteristics, in a way that affected the quality of their care as well as the outcome. My knowledge of both the profession and my loved one has frequently been dismissed; staff rarely take the time to ask how patients are doing. They are too busy making sure that patients can pay the bill or that they've met their patient quota for the day. Many times since I took Leelou to the vet, I've found myself wishing that a veterinarian was my family's health care provider. Rarely have we received as much care and respect as we did from that veterinary staff.


In 25 years as an educator, I've found the affective domain-emotion, motivation, and attitude-to be the most challenging aspect of professionalism to model, discuss, and evaluate. I realized that this incident with Leelou was an excellent topic for a class discussion. During the next class, I asked how many students had ever owned a pet-almost everyone. Then I asked whether, given a choice, they would choose to receive care from their physician or their pet's veterinarian. The majority would choose the veterinarian. "In some cases animals are more valued in society than people," one student said. "It's easier to be seen by a veterinarian; they don't make you wait when an animal is sick," said another student. The class agreed that veterinarians are less judgmental about animals and that people tend not to stereotype animals as much as they do people. Pets have advocates at the visit, and veterinarians are more likely to listen to the human companion because the animals can't speak for themselves. Pets are treated in a calm manner because they're likely to bite or scratch.


The students' discussion touched on all of the things I was trying to convey: respect, empathy, caring, active listening, gentleness, and compassion. I hope the discussion brought them closer to treating people with the same quality of care that was accorded Leelou.