Dr. David Bledsoe
By any measure, at 54 years young I have plenty of experience in life, and by “experience” I
mean I have made plenty of mistakes. Some mistakes come with no lasting consequences,
others carry profound ones, to which a friend of mine recovering from a traumatic brain injury
caused by a drunk driver can attest.
Mistakes come in multiple flavors. In sports we talk about “mental errors” and “physical
errors”. In football, for example, an offsides penalty is a mental error and a missed tackle is a
physical one. Anyone in medical practice for more than a day has made mistakes. Some are
errors in judgment (e.g. a missed diagnosis). Some are errors in practice (a dose calculation
error, for example).
While it’s important to accept that medical practice involves mistakes large and small, it’s
equally important to accept the following principles:
1. Not all poor outcomes are the result of an error.
We all wish animals were like my truck (which I affectionately call La Trucka. Of course, I
see her as a woman). If my truck has a problem I just take her to the mechanic and he
hooks her up to the computer, which diagnoses her issues straightaway. He then
explains the issue to me in clear and simple Portuguese; “well looks like your
beamihater has busted your duel zibers and fucked up your fuel injectors. That’ll be
about a $1,000 to fix”.
Animals are so much more complex. We can run all the diagnostics available and still not
get to a diagnosis. Even if we do, there’s no Pep Boys or Napa Auto Parts from whom to
get replacement parts. Animals die in our care and so much of the time – I venture the
overwhelming majority of the time – there is nothing we can do. Period.
2. Responsibility is not the same as fault.
When we are in charge of a case, we are responsible for the patient’s care. No question
about that. We are the captain of the vessel and as the captain we have the
responsibility to make sure the best care possible is provided. The key word here is
“possible”. Sometimes we are limited by facilities, access to equipment (personally, I’ve
always wanted a Tricorder like on Star Trek), or often the greatest limitation of them all:
money. We do the best we can and take responsibility for the care we can provide
within the limitations in which we must sometimes work. And while we are responsible
for the care, it’s not necessarily our fault – or anyone’s – if things go badly.
3. Accept that we are not perfect.
Excellence is not perfection and one should strive for mere excellence. No more, no less.
4. Give yourself (and others) grace to fail.
In our pursuit of excellence, we will experience failure. Extending grace to ourselves can
be the hardest thing to do, even harder than extending it to others, but we must if we
are to maintain some semblance of professional sanity.
Life experience can be a tough teacher, but keeping these principles in mind can make the
lessons less painful.
The Admin Team of NOMV is a group of veterinarians dedicated to improving veterinary mental health.