I’d like to relay a story. A story about Mr. Helpless. I don’t know how Mr. Helpless operates in the rest of the world. All I know is what I witnessed in the blessedly short time I got to experience his particular brand of expert impotence. He appeared to be in his fifties, so, in retrospect, I can infer that the apparent feebleness he exhibited was a learned behavior. And yet, not so old that you can blame his behavior on dementia or other mental diminishment. He was able to drive a car to our clinic, thus demonstrating some cognitive capability. Mr. Helpless had a large shepherd mix dog who had a prominently placed CAUTION on its chart and they were in to do a recheck of treating an ear infection. I had not been the original doctor to see the ear infection.
Our exam room benches have the ability to bend physics. Because, even though it seems like a finite and low-slung area, no matter how large the dog, they can fit under there. It’s like our version of a Tardis. Mr. Helpless’ dog, we’ll call him Self-Help, has ensconced himself under such a bench. My technician, who has indomitably braved the ignorant storms of previous Helpless visits, has gone in to get an ear cytology to start the exam process. Even though asked, Mr. Helpless seems unable to generate enough energy to even try to get Self-Help out from under the bench.
As an aside, and maybe a little bit in defense of Mr. Helpless, this kind of behavior isn’t that unusual amongst many clients. Once in the clinic they seem to defer all actions to the veterinary staff. They become unable to pull on a leash to bring a pet out from under or behind them. Some clients seem to be unable to follow verbal cues such as “can you put this muzzle on?” or “I can’t reach him when he’s behind your legs. Could you move or bring him around so I can reach him?” They just stare at you with blissful bovine unawareness. Now that I think about it, many parents seem to do this when they have their children out in public too. There might be a corollary here.
Anyway, back to the action! Or inaction in this case. My technician decided wisely to just circumvent frustration and get me. I entered the room and got the same non-response from Mr. Helpless about getting Self-Help out from under the bench. He just sat there like an languid, supine Jabba the Hutt. Now, having had before to awkwardly reach for (non-biting) pets, under a bench, and between the spread legs of owners sitting on said bench like I’m performing some weird New Age birthing delivery, I was not inclined on this day, with this dog, to do that. So, I asked Mr. Helpless to give me the leash and I think I might have seen a finger twitch in response, some vestigial synaptic reflex, but basically had to just take the leash out of his hand. Out came Self-Help, but it was like pulling a full bucket out of a deep well. We got the muzzle on without incident and I asked a question that I would soon come to regret. “How have the ears seemed to you? Are they better?”
This seemed to rouse Mr. Helpless from his stupor, “Well, I don’t know! My wife treats ’em! You want me to get her on the phone?”
Before I could decline, because to a large extent it was just a conversational gambit, he whipped his phone out with unexpected alacrity (getting someone else to do something even as simple as answering a question is the only thing he does quickly). He put her on speaker phone and set it on the exam table, yelling, “Hey! I’m here at the vet’s! He wants to know if the ears are better!”
“What?!” Mrs. Helpless’ voice crackled out of the speaker.
“THE DOCTOR WANTS TO KNOW IF THE EARS ARE BETTER!”
“What?! *crackle* I can’t *crackle* *crackle* hear you!”
This went on for a bit before Mr. Helpless picked up the phone and held the speaker horizontally up to his mouth, “THE DOCTOR WANTS TO KNOW IF THE EARS ARE BET-TER!”
“Yes, I can hear you better!”
This “conversation” continued and at this point I just really didn’t care. After he got off the phone (and I can’t remember what the ultimate answer was) he told me she’s not present because she doesn’t like to come out in the rain. I felt like telling him that there is a long tradition of owners sending ill-equipped and uninformed surrogates to deal with sometimes very serious health problems with their pets. I can’t imagine over in pediatrics (our closest analog) that anyone asks their neighbor or an aunt from another state to take their kid in for a visit. Maybe they do.
We looked in the ears, got an ear swab, and removed the muzzle. Upon removing the muzzle, Mr. Helpless suddenly remembered to ask, “Hey, can I go ahead and get a heartworm test?”
Thus upholding yet another long tradition of having to remuzzle difficult dogs because the owner really isn’t paying attention and aren’t inclined to let us know in any efficient manner what they are there for. I’ve even had it where I have asked owners specifically, “Is there anything else we need to look at or talk about before we remove the muzzle? Anything? Anything at all? Bueller? Bueller? Nothing. We have discussed everything that needs to be discussed and we don’t have to do anything else with Dahmer here? You’re sure? Ok.” And then, as if they’re clicker-trained, the snap release of the muzzle makes them abruptly remember to bring up the tiniest lump ever that they just noticed while they were waiting in the lobby.
We find out Self-Help’s ears are better but not completely cured. I decide to just refill the ear meds the previous doctor had prescribed for a longer time course. Unfortunately, we are out of the oral meds he had also been put on. I told Mr. Helpless that they will be in this week; we can call him when they come in. He declared, with an outraged and accusatory tone, that this will cause a “lack of continuity of care” and demands a written prescription. I really have to appreciate this sudden empathy in the care of his dog that he takes no part in.
He also had to call his wife, of course, to ask if they needed heartworm prevention. All of this activity has just been exhausting for him and he handed the phone to the technician so she could talk with his wife. She also scheduled a recheck appointment because she said he’d just mess it up.
Finally! Finally! We get everything together.
To compound things, Mr. Helpless was unable to pay. Mrs. Helpless, she of the aquaphobia, had to be called, again, to pay the bill. She told the receptionist how worthless her husband was and how he can’t get anything right. Really? And yet you send him to do tasks. Just reschedule when it’s not raining and come in yourself. Please! Besides, you have no right to complain; you picked him. You looked at all of those other viable, available male options and said, “Nope. He’s the one. He’s my forever-husband.” What does that say about the other choices you had? How bad could they have been in comparison?
Now, I’ve given you, the reader, the short version. On a Saturday morning, this one appointment, he was in our clinic for an hour-and-a-half. For an ear recheck. And a heartworm test. So, when people complain about having to wait, just remind them there is a whole clan of Helpless people out there. It is not the fault of the veterinarian or their staff; you are doing the best with what you’re given. If a client asks, feel free to give them the phone number and address of these Helpless people so they can complain to them.
As a side note, his “continuity of care” concern became a non-issue once he took the written prescription in and found out how much the medication was. He called back irate (seems he has plenty of energy for that) about how much it was and wanted to know how much our cost was (less, of course) and decided to wait until we got the medication in.