This blog was written with the help of a few friends. Two are lawyers, one a veterinary malpractice attorney. These two dear friends also urged me to not publish this. It is "too personal and could paint me in a precarious light." I have grappled with this for weeks. If you want to be anyone of merit you have to be true to who you are and go beyond what others will. I have had two brushes with the legal side of veterinary medical practice. Both were cases where I put my neck out to help a pet and their family and both were times that that family tried to make me responsible for their pets misfortune.
**I must provide a disclaimer to remind everyone that I am NOT an attorney. Please seek an attorney for assistance should you find yourself in the cross hairs of a legal dispute.
In an effort to help calm my nerves my husband reported that he had done a little research and the "average veterinary practice is served with a lawsuit once in every three years." Based on my 10 year veterinary tenure I would say that I am one lawsuit short of the average. Two suits in 10 years is two more than I would like to have faced. Both are behind me, and both have left me a little smarter, a little thicker skinned, and more determined than ever to help other vets when their 36 months run out.
Here is some of what I have learned when the suits meet the scrubs;
- You cannot tip toe through life trying to remain unscathed and off the radar. Pets are, and continue to become, integral parts of the family. With emotional attachment comes the responsibility to provide for both our patients and our clients. That, and,,,
- We live in a crazy litigious society. No escaping it, but, please try not to become it.
- Be prepared for stormy weather. There are many wonderful glorious days of slaying illness, thwarting cancer, and soothing disease ridden pets so that they can live to see another day and with each bucolic day break lurks a thunderstorm somewhere on the horizon. It is life. There is good and, therefore, there has to be bad. Embrace both, they are life in its entirety.
- You will feel the problem cases coming. As soon as you do hit the medical record and start shoring up the records to cover your ass. If your handwriting is like the rest of us take a few moments away from the constant barrage of phone calls, barking dogs, and pestering people and sit down to read your record. Think about where the holes are. Fill in as much detail as possible.
- Relive every single detail of every interaction about the case and write it down as soon as you remember it. I walked around everyday with a notebook to jot down things I had forgotten, or neglected to tell my lawyer. I then sat down and assembled the whole case from day 1 to the final blow over a weekend. I drafted a 10 page recount complete with timeline, thoughts, and perceptions. I also provided guidance to my lawyer about my clients that I thought might possibly be relevant.
- Re-living and writing all of this was both painful and cathartic. I could put it on paper and walk away. Getting those interviews, meetings, documents, and thoughts out of my head and in someone else's hands was the only time I could get some small degree of normalcy back.
- Never ever lie. That's the stuff that will get your butt nailed. You will in all likelihood have to swear on it in court. Start with the truth the whole truth and stick with it.
- Keep your trap shut. Once a client starts circling over head it is best to not try to minimize the damages by offering more fuel for their fodder. Shut up and get legal counsel.
- When the State Medical Board comes knocking take the same advice. They, in my experience, are gathering information to use against you. They expect you to talk but they will use it against you and they have the unfortunate ability of taking it out of context when you have no way of proving otherwise. "Yes" and "No" answers will serve you best. Should I ever have to face this again I will be using technology to my advantage. Get your lawyer on Skype, use Meerkat, or video tape the entire proceeding. For my case there were gross egregious errors and the guy who took my interview mysteriously disappeared to never be seen, or held accountable, again. I know it sounds ridiculous, but that is exactly what happened.
- Take the advice you give your new associates. When a challenge of a new unknown case raises the little hairs on the back of your neck, and you think that you cannot face the challenge, nor succeed, jump in anyway. Never let fear, doubt, or insecurity halt your ability to heal and help others. That is what we are trained to do. Do it, live it, and jump in!
- Never back down from a case that needs you and has no other option. In the end tis better to have tried and failed than to have never tried at all.
- Don't walk away and leave a patient to suffer because you allowed your fear and insecurities to govern your ability.
- Be prepared. Expect every amazing, devoted client who you believe trusts and cares about you as you cared for their pet to stab you in the back. It happens, that's why lawyers make so much more money than we do.
- Don't be stupid enough to believe your demeanor and generous time provide compensation when a client gets pissed off.
- Do have an exit strategy. For the day, the week, the month, and this career. Sometimes a light at the end of any tunnel is enough to keep trucking ahead. Even through the worst of times.
- Walk into every situation with a best and worse case scenario. Have a plan for each. We do this for every patient we see. Learn to do it for yourself.
- Never surrender your voice or your purpose. The State Medical Boards, the courts, the community can beat you up and strip you of years of your blood, sweat and tears, but in the end you walk away alone. In the end it only matters that you walk away alive and proud of the little tiny moments no one saw, paid for, or wrote Thank-You cards for. There is not one veterinarian who hasn't made another life better.
- Protect yourself. Hire people who are versed, experienced, and prepared to go the distance. This includes your staff, your associates, your accountants, and your legal advisers.
- Relinquish the reins to those you hire to protect you, and to those who will care for and protect you while you cannot stand alone. Only greed, arrogance, and grossly negligent immaturity will destroy a career.
- Go to sleep at night with a clear conscious, whatever that costs you. Write a check and settle when a court case looms ahead.
- Break it down to simple unbiased mathematics. Hard and soft costs accumulate quickly. Disease doesn't choose a one year old puppy as a personal vendetta to a life just begun. How many times have we seen that? Life isn't fair. Step out of your emotional anger and apply science and math to a problem.
- When the storm recedes and there is an the end, (there is always an end), you have to be able to face yourself tomorrow.
- There is a winner and a loser. Money can buy you better odds, but ultimately fate, luck, and timing decide the narrow margins. Just accept that.
- Don't undersell your day to day health and blood pressure. Try to take a few steps back, see both sides, and be the rational person in the room of people who lack both the desire to have a clear conscious and a moral compass. Somehow lawyers can be bipolar, vicious and blood sucking and still smile at both sides of the gallery with equal conviction and genuine probity. It is the antithesis of a veterinarian. If Themis holds a scale blindfolded there is a lawyer on one side and a vet on the other. Find a lawyer as opposite as you are to provide some semblance of balance. For my case it required a short bearded man with a devilish smile, witty sense of sarcasm, and a heavy hand delivered in a slow calm slicing hand shake.
- Call the AVMA and have PLIT insurance. Notify them of every potential case. Get a team in place before the letters, lawyers, and subpoenas arrive. Remember that your PLIT appointed lawyer works for a company, not you. They are there to protect you but are paid and must remain employed by someone else. I think that in 10 years I have called them 6 times to alert them of the potential of a suit. I am sure my folder isn't the thickest in their office, but I may be the most proactive client they have. Oddly, I still only pay $69 a year for them to answer my paranoid phone calls.
- There are battles where no one wins. There are fights that cost you more than green backs. Lawyers will be paid, you will lose time and money and the case will close. Let go of being angry. Don't swap one bad emotional crutch for another.
Get out alive. Preferably not bitter and hating your fellow man. We have a legacy of humility, generosity and compassion to live up to. Leave the ugly stuff to the lawyers. I recommend you find one who is the yin to your yang now. The clock is ticking. Have you had your 36 month case yet?
It has been many months since I had my last brush with the long arm. I remain a bit bitter and biased and convinced the vets with friends in influential and politically flirtatious positions avoid being placed in the spotlight, or questioned when complaints are filed. It is a seriously flawed secretive system. As with much of veterinary medicine is archaic and severely lacking jurisprudence legitimacy. Any legit constitutional lawyer would laugh at our Lord of the Flies self governed veterinary judicial circus. I take great comfort in being reprimanded for not offering euthanasia to a 5 month old puppy with treatable injuries who I had treated, was subsequently blackmailed (by both the MD State Board and owner) to return and refused to. Turns out you can kill a cat with an arrow and still keep your license. Laughable, ridiculous, and inane.
Stand up for what you believe and never let fear of reprisal abandon your compassion.
Find me at the clinic, Jarrettsville Vet, on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or providing free vet advice on Pawbly.com.