The Best Medicine

The Best Medicine
I'm not sure if cats have a sense of humor, but then again a lot of vets don't either. 

When I see an ugly dog, I laugh. I don't even try to stifle it, even it's a client's dog. In my defense, ridiculing ugly canines appears to be socially acceptable behavior. What's weird is that, even in a professional setting, the dog's owner isn't usually offended. Many of them seem to appreciate it! I mean, objectively, an obese chihuahua with bug eyes named after a Swedish actress from the 1930's is just funny. No question.*

Now, veterinarians are not known as stereotypically funny people. At least not, "Funny, ha, ha". We've spent a lot of time training ourselves to pass multiple choice tests (How many times do G protein-coupled receptors cross the lipid bilayer? Seven! On which day of gestation does ingestion of Veratrum californicum cause cyclopism in sheep fetuses? Fourteen!), not workshopping our one-liners. Okay, I admit, I spent more time preparing for a live performance of Jurassic Park for my vet school classmates than I did for my physiologic chemistry final.**

But sharing a laugh is genuinely the most enjoyable part of my day, be it with a colleague or a client. It's actually useful, too. It shows confidence and builds trust. Humor is an excellent way to connect to people in a medical setting. People want to laugh; it's deeply rooted in our psychology. There's even a theory that laughter evolved as a way to release tension after the windup of a perceived threat. It feels good to laugh! That's why Vizslas exist.

Sorry, puppy. Oh wait, you can't get offended. Because you're a doof. A doofy, doofy doof-bungus.

For example, getting client buy-in on any particular recommendation can be a challenge. But not if you make them laugh. Humor defuses distrust. Here's a peek into my handbag of clinical jokes. I'm not saying these are crowd-killers (ahem, are those crickets? Is my next case a bearded dragon?), but often enough they get a chuckle (roughly equivalent to 2.32 guffaws), and I can wedge in some clinically-relevant information afterwards:

  1. Example: Client concerned about pet's hazy eyes.
    Joke: Explain nuclear sclerosis and counsel against letting the dog drive them home at night.
  2. Example: Pet owner anxious about feeding the correct "natural" ingredients.
    Joke: Discuss canine nutritional requirements do not include specific prey items and speculate aloud on the potential success of a pack of dachshunds taking down a caribou.
  3. Example: Client upset about cat peeing on the bed repeatedly.
    Joke: Explain inappropriate urination and the distinction between medical and behavioral causes. Ask the client to consider the option of a soiled, damp Port-a-Potty or an adjacent and peaceful grove of trees when needing a micturition break at a music festival.
  4. Example: Someone dreading euthanizing their animal "too soon"
    Joke: Point out the current and unmitigated suffering. Discuss the unlikely event that their pet will regret never having seen Paris or writing their great novel.

Hey, I'm a veterinarian, not Richard Pryor. I swear they do occasionally get a laugh. But more importantly, they have a purpose: reassurance and education. Which is like, my job. And yes, I do joke during euthanasia. People probably need laughter more then than at any other time. Who doesn't want people to enjoy their funeral?

It's really bizarre to me that veterinarians aren't actually encouraged to laugh more. It's not like anyone discourages it (maybe in corporate practice, since it doesn't have an immediate transactional value?). But despite all the lip service paid to problematic mental health in veterinarians, how many CE lectures on comedy have you been to? If you're going to let the AVMA suggest you get Orf from a yoga class, what's so crazy about taking laughter more seriously?

For me, humor cuts through depression like a lightsaber. In the absolute darkest year of my life, my rotating internship right after finishing vet school (in which, yeah, I worked long hours but more importantly there was no good Mexican food within 500 miles!), I was very lucky to have funny intern mates. We started cracking each other up right away. The hand-written label on a medical pitcher full of pleural effusion fluid, "$5 - Fresh Squeezed Dog Juice" still makes me chuckle (the patient did great). An exaggerated impersonation of the callous neurologist, delivered just after rounds and just around the corner from the MRI machine was especially choice. It's what got me through the day.

Okay, sure. Maybe I'm just a goof-off. Maybe I spent more time being the class clown than trying to grasp the material. No argument there.*** But you know what, gallows humor is a real phenomenon. Laughter is crucial in challenging times. It's a reminder that in the grand scheme of things, there's not really anything to be upset about. It's a coping mechanism for unavoidable suffering. If you think the veterinary profession is suffering, why leave humor out of the treatment plan?

And just to be obnoxiously self-righteous for a moment here, it's possibly the most important thing. How realistic is it that we'll all suddenly get paid more to take more time off? We don't need more free donuts from the Zoetis rep (diet starts tomorrow!), we need to enjoy our careers more. What's more enjoyable than laughing?! I don't mean we have to start putting Whoopie cushions instead of warming pads under our patients. Inappropriate laughter is... well, unsettling. But can't we all learn to have a bit more fun?

So yeah, let's meditate and take lunch breaks and all that. That stuff's fine. But let's also try harder to laugh, and to amuse our clients. It's okay, no one's going to think you're weird(er than they already think you are). Don't you remember any really good talks at conferences? Don't you have fond memories of professors in vet school? I'm almost positive you remember the funny ones. Didn't you have a particular distaste for the humorless ones? Don't you think your clients would enjoy the experience more, would listen to your heartfelt recommendations more, would forgive all of you (very human) foibles more, if you could make them smile? In fact, go ahead and put Whoopie cushions on your exam rooms. If nothing else, it'll get that nervous German shepherd out from under the chair.

*To be clear, the dogs are not offended. That's the great thing about dogs, they never get offended. Cats? Well they're always offended, so I think it's fine to laugh at them too.

**I'm not bragging, by the way. Someone out there has a video of it, and I'd pay a significant amount of money to have it destroyed.

***Although a boarded parasitologist did actually endorse the accuracy of the information in this music video to me once.

Greg Bishop

Greg Bishop

A veterinarian with unquenchable creative impulses. Unquenchable? Hmmm... creative "tendencies"? Well, it depends on how well I slept last night. Also a writer, illustrator and whatever-elser.