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Sizing Someone Up

    • 146 posts
    March 19, 2018 7:23 PM EDT

    VetVine recently announced a partnership with Purdue University to bring awareness to a very important educational program that promotes embracing of diversity and demonstrating inclusivity (of both employees and clients) in the veterinary practice setting.

    I enrolled in the program to get a sense - first-hand - of the "Practicing Veterinarian and Veterinary Technician Certificate Program for Diversity and Inclusion in Veterinary Medicine." Before I could delve into the actual training modules themselves, I had to complete an individual "Intercultural Development Inventory Assessment." They present a series of statements and the participant is asked to indicate the degree to which they agree or disagree with those statements. I found a number of their questions or statements rather interesting and at times found myself pondering ... "How do I really feel about this?" I was surprised (and humbled) because I live in one of the most culturally diverse places on the planet ... New York City! I had to take pause to consider and reflect.

    In introductory remarks to my first learning module the program materials indicated that veterinary medicine - in the United States - has the distinction of being the least diverse of all health professions. They referenced a 2013 article published in The Atlantic that listed veterinary medicine as "the Number One Whitest Job in America," and that 96.5% of veterinary healthcare professionals are White.

    Also referenced was a 2011 report from the North American Veterinary Medical Education Consortium. In that report they stated that veterinarians should have "an understanding of the manner in which culture and belief systems impact delivery of veterinary medical care while recognizing and appropriately addressing biases in themselves, in others, and in the process of veterinary care delivery." As I contemplated on these words I had a flashback and started to recall a dog that I had cared for roughly 20 years earlier. It's a true story, but I'm altering the names of all involved. 

    I was working on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan at the time. A black man (Mr. Zeke) came in from Brooklyn to see me with his large Doberman Pinscher (Shabu) - a very sweet dog that was nearly blind. I can't recall for certain but the dog was 9 or 10 years of age. She was also a diabetic. She had developed cataracts in association with her diabetes mellitus. I vividly recall Mr. Zeke. He was an older man - late 60's at best - and appeared of very modest means. He was rather quiet and really only spoke when prompted so as to answer my questions about Shabu. His dog didn't look particularly well-cared for - not on the surface. I think she had some kind of chain or rope that served as her neck collar, and the most striking thing about her was that she was very dirty. Her coat was greasy and grimy. Come to find out that Shabu was a fixture in the auto repair shop and garage that was Mr. Zeke's workplace. I remember that when I helped my assistant to lift the dog onto the exam table, my white lab coat became soiled by the grease and grime.

    Mr. Zeke had been referred to me in hopes of helping to restore the dog's vision through cataract surgery. I remember that I had a feeling (cognitive bias) ... even before I examined the dog ... about whether this was even going to be a consideration for this dog. Given all that I had in front of me to see and smell (Shabu smelled like car grease), I figured that this type of commitment and the out-of-pocket expense of several thousands of dollars for cataract surgery was an improbable option.

    Nonetheless I proceeded that day as I did with any other client and patient. Shabu had a detailed exam and I gave the full "cataract spiel" to Mr. Zeke ... from "the soup to the nuts." To my surprise, Mr. Zeke wanted to proceed with whatever was needed to get started. He wanted for his dog to see.

    Long story short ... Shabu wound up having bilateral cataract surgery and her vision was restored. Mr. Zeke did everything asked of him. He followed medicating instructions, came in for every recheck, and subsequently brought in his other dog that developed an eye problem. Mr. Zeke spent several thousands of dollars on the care of his dogs' eye problems alone. He was so very appreciative that Shabu's vision had been restored and that we'd helped with his other dog's problem. He periodically visited his place of origin in the Virgin Islands and would bring me gifts from his trips home. Right before one Christmas holiday (in 2000) he came in for a recheck and was bearing a gift. In making small talk about the holidays I asked what his plans were. He said he had none. I sensed a loneliness and a sadness. I was to be co-hosting a holiday dinner party with a friend of mine that coming Christmas day and later called her to see if she'd be okay with me extending an invitation to Mr. Zeke to join for dinner. My friend was on board. I called Mr. Zeke and he gratefully accepted the invitation. Christmas day arrived. When I opened the door to welcome Mr. Zeke into my home I was stunned to see what was before me. I'd never seen him in this light or this way. He was impeccably "dressed to the nines" and came bearing more gifts of thanks and appreciation.

    Never in a million years could I have imagined any of this taking place that very first day I met Mr. Zeke and Shabu. One thing I know for certain ... had I approached this man and his dog with any less consideration and respect than one who "looked like they could pay" for my services, I would not have had any story to tell. 

    I wound up taking care of Shabu's eyes for several years but cannot recall what ultimately happened to her. I don't know what came of Mr. Zeke either.