Saturday, 24 July 2010

The other side of the table

I don't like mechanics.

Okay, that's not entirely true. I'm sure there are lots of mechanics who I'd really like if I met them socially. (Well, okay, even this is stretching the truth - being a socially-inept geek I don't really have a lot in common with the average grease monkey) What I'm trying to say is - I don't like taking my car to mechanics.

Part of the problem is that I'm a man (please don't take that quote out of context) and so it seems to be assumed that I was born with some deep underlying insight into how a carburettor works (or even what it does) and so the fact that I don't have the slightest clue already marks me out as a failure the second I step out of my car.

But how do they know you don't really understand the secrets of the internal combustion engine, I hear you cry? Don't try that with me. They know all right. They know the second they lay eyes on me, that I'm not the kind of man who takes pleasure in reading What Car magazine. They can tell just by looking that I used to get picked last in PE lessons. The bastards.

Once, taking my car in for a routine service, the guy behind the counter (with deep, ingrained oil around his fingernails - the kind that looks like it could never wash off even if he had his hands flayed0 asked me the mileage of my car. I had no idea. He looked quizzically at me like the cop in the Terminator when Kyle Reese grabs him by the lapels and demands to know what year it is. How could anyone not know what their mileage on their car is? I felt such a deep sense of masculine failure, I wanted to jump up on the desk and cry out 'I changed a tyre! I changed a tyre once, and it was raining, so there!'.

I didn't, of course. I was too humiliated, because his first question was 'What is your registration?' and I hadn't known that one, either. I had to go outside and check. Once, I was standing in a queue to pay for my fuel at a petrol station, and a woman in the shop was looking for oil for her car. She wasn't sure which one it needed, so she glanced around. It suddenly dawned on me that I was the only man in the whole building. The fact did not escape her either, for rather than ask at the counter she approached me, waving a tub of Castrol something-or-other, and asked me 'Is this the right one for my Peugeot?'

Everyone in the shop turned to look at me. I was so caught between umbrage at her sexist assumption and embarrassment that I didn't know the answer (of course!) that I just mumbled 'Don't know.' I couldn't leave the shop then, which would have been my preferred option, because I still had a car full of unpaid-for petrol, so I had to slowly wend my way up the queue of shame to pay, everyone there knowing that I had failed at some unwritten man-test.

You may get the impression from the above that I have something of a man-chip on my shoulder when it comes to mechanics, and you may well be right. You may also be wondering by now what the hell this has got to do with being a vet. Well, be patient (heh. Little medical joke there, see. Patient? No? Please yourselves.) Here is the tenuous link...

What I really don't like about going to the mechanics is that, basically, if something is wrong with my car, I don't have a clue what to do about it. I'm going to have to take it to someone else, who is going to look at it, tell me what's wrong with it, and then, hopefully, fix it. I will wait anxiously for the bill, really not having the slightest idea what it will be, and hoping that I haven't picked some cowboy who instead of fixing my car has just hastily Sellotaped in back together. I have no way of telling a good mechanic from a bad one, and all I can do is pick someone who seems vaguely nice and hope for the best - though whether being vaguely nice has anything to do with some one's skills in engine repair, I have no idea.

Sound familiar?

What I'm saying is - it is very easy to forget, as a Veterinary surgeon, what a depressing, stressful, expensive and scary experience it can be to take what is essential a family member, and leave them with a stranger for a day whilst they do unpleasant things to them, and charge you for the privilege. Now (and I cringe at saying this because I'm a thoroughly middle-class English person, and any hint of self-praise is usually enough to send me almost into a coma of embarrassment) I am, as it happens, fairly popular with clients, and they seem to quite like me. Part of the reason for this is that I'm a dreadful toady, and am almost unbearably nice to people because I don't like to cause a scene, but a lot of it is because that I do understand that it's not fun to take your animal to see a man in a green coat, and the more you can relax people, and explain as clearly as you can what you think, why you think things happening, and why you would like to stick sharp things into their beloved friend, the more they will trust you.

I do keep that in mind, but even so, a number of things have rather reminded me what it is like to be on the other side of the consulting room table. The first is that my own dog is not very well herself. Being vets, we thought that anything that happened to her we would probably sort out ourselves, but being the stubborn little so-and-so that she is, she decided to develop a condition that needs surgery, the success of which greatly depends on the experience of the surgeon with that particular op. And the experience we have with the op is zero, so we have had to refer her.

Which basically means we have had to ring round vets, getting appointments, getting (dare I say it) quotes for the operation, and generally worrying. Then we've had to sit in vets waiting rooms, trying to make small talk with other people whilst worrying about leaving our dog, and the bill, and whether the anaesthetic would go okay, and whether the vet would be nice to us, and so on. Karmically, it was probably some form of cosmic payback for the stress and misery I have unwittingly caused to other clients in a similar situation. Doctors, apparently, make the worst patients, but it's a fair bet that vets make the worst pet owners, because I was a blubbering mess the night before she went it.

(By the way, the operation has been delayed for the moment, because the condition - laryngeal paralysis - isn't quite bad enough for the surgery (a laryngeal tie-back) yet - some more stress ahead! Yay!)

The second thing that reminded me was talking to some friends a few weeks ago - they had taken their cats to see their local vet to get them vaccinated prior to a house move - and ended up feeling cheated and a little annoyed because the vet responsible gave a vaccine that they didn't feel was necessary without telling them, and generally not really explaining what they were doing. To use my mechanic analogy - it's like me being told that my flange nuts needed tightening, and it would cost me eighty quid. I've no idea whether they do or not, but if the mechanic doesn't take the time to tell me what a flange nut is, why its come loose and why it needs tightening again, I'm going to feel a bit ripped off even if my car would have exploded in a shower of oil and surprised vet had he not done so. It's not so much what they did, as how they did it, and this kind of thing contributes to the feeling amongst people that vets are money-grabbing bastards. We really don't do ourselves any favours on this front.

The third thing is the elephant in the room. Not literally (at least I don't think so - I'll go and check, Hang on....nope, no elephants) - but this week a programme was shown on BBC called 'It shouldn't happen -in- a vets' (very clever, see what they did there? I would never stoop so low to use a pun of a James Herriot title for my blog). Now, I have my fair share of issues with this programme, and I don't want them to turn into a rant, but I'll mention a few here. Panorama (which I think the program was - it wasn't clear from the opening credits. I do wonder if it was supposed to be a Panorama but was extended into it's own show? Anyhoo...), which used to be a paragon of impartial reporting, seems to have stooped to the lowest brand of journalistic mischief making. It always starts with the worry-maker-in-chief, Jeremy Vine, standing outside (see! This is an important issue, far too important to sit around behind a desk and tell you about), suddenly telling you that something you previously had no worries about at all may actually kill you/spend all your money/give you cancer. The programme then goes on to tell you, in no uncertain terms, exactly what you should think about this particular issue (which is always WORRY WORRY WORRY WHY AREN'T YOU WORRIED THIS PERSON/THESE PEOPLE IS/ARE OUT TO KILL YOU/STEAL YOUR MONEY/WORRY YOUR LIVESTOCK) - and the vet episode was no exception, right down to the freeze-framing the bad vets in black and white vaguely mugshot poses whilst apparently throttling cats, whereas depicting the nice vets in their living rooms, or in a lovely green field surrounded by nice cows.

I could write a whole blog on the show (which seemed to suggest you'd be far better taking your animal to a vet who has worked on his own for twenty years, than a large, well-supported practice with state of the art facilities. I don't work for one of the large franchise practices that seemed to be taking the brunt of the flak from this programme, but take it from me, I would rather have my own dog operated in one of them than in a single-vet practice.) but that isn't really what I want to waffle about. The thing that upset most of my clients, watching the show, was a brief image of the EVIL vet swinging a cat around the room holding it by the scruff of it's neck. Well, it may be a surprise, but this is a recognised restraint technique for cats if you're on your own - watch the video again and you may well notice that the cat itself doesn't look stressed or upset, and neither vet or cat were at risk from harm during the procedure. It's a technique I have used myself on many occasions (including on my own cat!) and in front of clients too - the point being, I have explained to the clients first what I am about to do, and why. Everything looks bad taken out of context (like my comment above, about it being a problem that I'm a man)

(Incidentally, don't get me wrong - there were a several rather upsetting things shown, like the dog which had it's leg amputated being -very forcibly- restrained post operatively, and a senior vet squeezing used blood back into a bag so it could be re-used on another dog, as well as a pretty depressing laissez-faire attitude amongst student nurses towards animals)

The point, for the purposes of this blog, was that scenes of animal restraint that look fairly routine to me, can be extremely shocking for people unused to such a thing - especially in the animal being restrained is their beloved pet. I'm sure those clients, with horrified looks on their faces, would understand a lot more if they weren't shown the footage of such by the pantomime Jeremy Vine, which accompanying operatic music, but were talked through the procedure by someone who actually knew what they were talking about.

Well, the torrent of words is slowly so I feel I need to creep towards a conclusion, which I suppose is this. If you're a vet, try and remember how horrible it is taking your pet in when you've been worrying about that cough he had all week. If you're not a vet (and really, why would you want to be?) - shop around! Find a vet that explains things to the level you want them explained. If they don't, you'll feel ripped-off whatever the bill, and it's a recipe for misunderstanding and all manner of Royal-college nastiness.

We're all human, you know. Well, except for mechanics, that is.