There are a variety of reasons why people become veterinarians. It may run in the family, they may have grown up on the farm, they may have had an interest in science, they may have shown horses/dogs/goats as a child. They may have been a lot more comfortable around animals than people…and herein lies the problem for many. I remember being in fourth year vet school, in a clinical community outreach rotation. Here we would practice our exam and communication skills by doing vaccine clinics for the public. On the non clinic days we would discuss our performances. I distinctly remember one of my classmates commenting in one of those sessions, “I think I’m in trouble, I just realized something.” Now remember, we were about 2 months away from graduating from a culmination of eight years of university. The instructor asked her what the problem was, her response, “I hate people”. Yup, it’s a dirty secret of veterinary medicine. Many students are lured into this profession by the promise of advanced medicine and furry pets that don’t talk back, only to realize that, sadly for many, 80% of the day is spent on human interaction.
It turns out that to be a vet in clinical practice is to spend the day dealing with people. Fluffy can’t explain her symptoms, give a good history, and certainly is not carrying cash. Fluffy generally comes with a person attached. People can be helpful, friendly, funny, and inspiring. They can also drain your life blood like a vampire. Owners are often the reason that vets leave clinical practice and look for a career behind closed doors, looking through microscopes or advising on the spread of diseases.
This is where practicing in Belize comes in! I love clinical practice, but I needed a change, a change of scenery, of clientele, a new adventure. Like most vets I was growing weary of being yelled at over money, being told by clients what I should do, and arguing about medicine with people who received their degree from Dr Google online. I worried though, could I fit in? Would I be accepted? I cringed at the thought of being seen as this towering blond white woman thinking she could swoop in and save the day.
I guess if the Belizeans are thinking that, they’re being very polite about not letting it show. For the most part they are trusting and respectful. The Belizean people still afford a certain level of respect for the doctor that is almost gone in other countries. I take that responsibility very seriously. They bring me a problem and they expect me to do use my best judgement to fix it. I expect and even encourage questions. Second opinions are always best sought from another vet, not your neighbor, but here there is almost no opportunity for a second opinion as I am currently it for the island. I am the first one to start searching the vet network or emailing and texting colleagues back home for help when I need it. Clients here don’t bring me pages of internet opinions on their pet’s ailment. They don’t try to pick and choose the medications they’ll take home from those I’ve recommended. They don’t yell at me about the price, the wait, or the staff. In fact, if I have an emergency or am running behind they often look at me with confusion when I apologize. Sometimes they reschedule, often they just wait, in the heat, with no wifi or a/c. Patiently, quietly.
Dog needs a muzzle? Done. I need the tech to hold the dog instead of the owner? Done. I need the dog left in the clinic for 6 hours and no the owner can’t stay in the crate with it. Done. Of course there are huge challenges here involving animal welfare, but I am allowed each day to actually do my job.
I have always believed that owners should have an understanding of what is wrong, and the plan to fix it, or not. That they should not follow me blindly, but should be involved. I’m generally very straightforward. I’m here to give the best options I have and then help an owner choose. I make these decisions based on an extensive education and a decade in practice. I never take it lightly. I expect to earn people’s trust and actually be trusted. I do that by showing compassion, learning spanish, and being honest. One of the biggest compliments I’ve received here is when clients come back, they bring their other pets, they bring their neighbors, their cousins, their friends. When I’m riding my bike lost in thought and I hear a, “Hi Dr Sam!” with a wave, it makes my heart smile. It makes me feel like I am accepted and that I do make some difference here.
So, the next time you tell your vet that you’d like them to remove that tumor from your aggressive 65 lb dog without anesthesia while you hold it, please think to yourself, what would a Belizean do?