Thursday, 1 October 2009

Erm...is there anyone else working today?

I finished work today and confidently strolled out of the back door of the practice, whistling a merry tune and secure in the knowledge of another day's work done well.

(Okay, that's a lie. It was a horrible evening surgery, I was in a rotten mood, I'm struggling with man flu and one of my favourite vets to work with handed their notice in. But otherwise it's all true)

On my way to my car (a shiny newish red Fiesta of which I'm inexplicably proud, especially considering that it's a red Fiesta) I passed the clients (a nice young couple) who I had just finished seeing, waiting at the entrance of the practice with their cat, Peanut, presumably waiting for a taxi to come and take them home. I nodded and smiled at them, and they nodded and smiled back (expect for Peanut, who was in a mood with me on account of the fact that I had just stuck a needle into him) and approached my car.

Balancing an 8kg bag of dog food on my shoulder (it had just gone out of date. Nothing but the best for my pooches!) I manuevered the car keys from my pocket into my hand, and pressed the button which is supposed to open the boot.

(Or trunk, for my American readers. I would complain about the Americanism, except that, really, if you think about it - doesn't calling it a trunk make more sense than calling it a boot?)

Still pleased with the whole dog-food-balancing-on-shoulder thing, and glad that I hadn't dropped it and so made an idiot of myself in front of the clients, I failed to notice that the boot had not, in fact, unlocked. I only noticed when I tried to open the boot, was thwarted by it's still firmly locked state, and dropped the bag of dog food on the floor.

Undaunted (okay, a little daunted), I pressed the button again. No reaction from my car. Again. Nothing. Changing tack, I decided to press the button that unlocked the doors to the car, not just the boot. My Fiesta remained stubbornly inert.

Losing patience with the stupid car now, I pointed the key fob directly at it, and very very obviously pressed the 'unlock' button, not once, but twice, leaving my car in no doubt as to what I wanted it to do. Unbelievably, my car ignored me. I stared at it, angrily. The bag of dog food lay reproachfully on the ground at my feet, a constant reminder on the client's eyes boring into my back.

I couldn't resist it. I turned round to see if they were looking at me. As I did so, I pressed the unlock button three more times, just to show my car I meant business.

The clients were staring right at me. Why wouldn't they? What else would they look at in this car park other than a vet making a tit of himself? However, as I glanced, a flash from next to them caught my eye.

The flash came from the car that they were sitting next to. A Fiesta. A red Fiesta. My red Fiesta, that had been frantically flashing me to step away from the random person's car that I had somehow decided was mine.

Recovering my cool, and trying not to think about how many times I had pressed the button on my key fob to an answering click and flash from the car right next to the nice young couple and Peanut, I picked up the bag of food, approached my car, nodded and smiled once more, slid the bag into the by now very open boot, drove around the corner, and sank into a deep pit of embarrasment.

(On a side note - why is it you can remember embarrassing moments in your life with near-perfect clarity? Happiness, misery, depression all flit by in my mind as vague feelings, but I can remember perfectly when Sarah Hawkins turned me down in front of all of my mates in the first year of college. Thanks, brain.)

I suspect those clients probably won't want to see me again (and Peanut certainly won't) but the whole incident reminded me of something I've known for a little while. Which is this - clients really don't care how good a vet you are. They don't care how many textbooks you've read, or how much you know about the immune system, or kidney disease. If they like you, it's because they think you're a nice young man (and not the kind of idiot who can't even work out which car is his). And if they complain about you, it's not because you've made some major medical mistake. It's because you got off on the wrong foot with them.

I'm not blaming the clients for this at all. I mean, what else have they got to go off? All they know is whether they trust you or not. The sad thing is, this has got very little to do with how much you know about veterinary medicine, and everything to do with how charming you can be.

I have known absolutely terrible vets, with a client following that would eat their own pet's head if their hero vet told them to. I personally have made some dreadful mistakes medically, admitted them to the owner, and not been blamed for them because the owner trusted me. I (like most vets) have a string of clients that will 'only see me', despite the fact there are far better medics and surgeons than me in the practice I currently work in.

But, in all things there is a balance, and in this case, it's with the complaints. When someone complains about you, it's a fair bet it will have absolutely nothing to do with your skill as a veterinary surgeon. The astute amongst you may have noticed I have removed the first blog I ever wrote - this I because the case I talked about in it has been referred to the Royal College, a complaint of negligence against myself and a colleague. Now, I am normally phenomenally good at beating myself up about making mistakes (rivalled only, coincidentally, by my aforesaid colleague) but I can genuinely, wholeheartedly say that neither of us could have done more in that case. Royal College aside, this is not an unusual situation - complaints come from poor communication, or (rather more frequently since the credit crisis) from the bill.

So, there you have it. A brief rail against the vagaries of fortune, that reward undeservedly, then just when you start to celebrate, turn around and bite you in the ass without warning.

I can understand what it's like seeing a vet, and building up a trust - but please remember that all the other vets in the practice passed their exams and qualified too, and a small part of them dies when they call you through to their consult room and you say 'Oh, I only see Tim.'

And, most importantly, if you see a man struggling with a bag of food behind someone else's car, when he works out what he's done, just nod and smile as he walks past, and try and let him leave the scene with as much dignity as possible.

Thank you. Goodnight :)

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