Sept. 23, 2014, Winnipeg - As a firefighter-PCP working in a busy urban centre I often get the opportunity to talk to families about the medical care that their loved ones are getting. I’ve written about this before in columns and blogs but this issue came to light again when I had some medical issues recently with my 10-year-old terrier cross pooch. I realized during the excellent description of the problem the vet was giving me that I was now the family member and the roles were reversed.
I was getting superior customer service and it was so awesome to have the facts quickly and spoken in a way that I could understand. From the time I called the vet (911) to the helpful vet assistant who immediately moved some appointments around (dispatch) to get my dog into the clinic, I was taken care of.
My dog had suddenly stopped eating for a day and then decided to have copious amounts of bright red arterial blood leak from her butt. My kids immediately told me I had to save her as I Googled “blood from dog butt” and was immediately informed she was dying, because the information overload could only mean that death was on the doorstep.
It’s funny how Googling human medical conditions is something we all do now, and we always seem to find the worst possible diagnosis. C’mon you know you’ve done it! I actually auscultated my dog’s bowel sounds and cleared her chest bi-laterally, which is totally ridiculous, as I have know idea what the heck I heard, or what I was supposed to hear, or not hear. But it made me feel like I was doing something. It’s not as if I could assess shock symptoms or an elevated heart rate, as I have no idea what to check for. Even guessing the amount of blood loss was useless. How much blood does a 40-pound dog have? Yes I have a med bag in my house and I know you do too, I just never though though the dog would require it.
The vet told me after a quick exam that my dog has an irritated bowel and because she was acting normal and the exam shows no obvious signs of distress, that the proper thing to do was to watch it and check her stool for blood over the next day or two. And if it happened again, or she didn’t start eating the next day, I was to come for a few $1000 diagnostic tests. The vet didn’t say “$1000 testing” but that is what I heard regardless, and I immediately clenched my wallet and tried to run out of the office as I was nervous but somehow feeling like I got a way with one. Both the dog and I wanted out of there as fast as doggedly (I don’t want to go in the ambulance) possible.
While I was paying at the counter, the vet came over and asked me if I had any questions. I probably looked a little nervous, but since us medics think we know a few things, I asked for a possible worst-case scenario based on money, and, of course, clinical finding. All I could think of was thousands going towards surgery to remove socks from a bowel or a rabbit skull from her stomach. I was so focused on the doctor’s information that I don’t even remember paying the $80 for the visit that day.
My kids, who were with me, were extremely calmed by the doctor and it took me the drive home to realize that the most likely scenario will be that the dog will be fine. That night, the dog ate her dinner and we never saw blood again. When I look back I realize that the doctor’s language changed in front of my kids to ease their concerns; this also helped me deal with the stress of possibly losing man’s best friend.
The lesson here folks is that we may not realize how often our non-technical skills are important – simple humanity, compassion, and taking the time to provide care. Your communication skills in times of crisis can elevate or deescalate a situation by several degrees. So, as the dog days of summer leave, remember that your communication bark should always help to remove the bite of a bad memory. (Had to do it, sorry!) Your call may be the one opportunity to provide a positive or negative life-long memory. How do you want yourself, your crew, and your department to be remembered?
Jay Shaw is a firefighter and primary-care paramedic with the City of Winnipeg. Along with multiple fire and emergency services courses and certificates, Jay holds a master's degree in disaster and Emergency management from Royal Roads University and is an independent education and training consultant focusing on leadership, management, emergency preparedness and communication skills. Contact him at
and follow him on Twitter @disasterbucket
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