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Pet Docs: Seeing best of humanity offers hope we will get through coronavirus crisis

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Charleston's stay-at-home ordinance allows people to go out for a walk, but not to shop. A woman walks her dog past the Charleston City Market in March after the bustling market area closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

We have heard the messages over and over again about how we must behave differently if we are going to “flatten the curve” of this terrible scourge affecting everyone.

Unfortunately, there are still many among us for whom these messages still fail to resonate. So, they go about their lives engaging in travel, trips to the store and gathering with friends.

It's discouraging to see because it's that collective behavior that will prolong this mess for all of us. Sometimes its enough to discourage me (Henri Bianucci) to the point of thinking that the worst case scenario will actually play out in our country. It makes me sad, and it makes me angry.

Although working in this profession exposes me to some of the very worst aspects of humanity, it also provides me the opportunity to see the best, and it's those glimpses of what we are all capable of, that gives faith that we will emerge from this crisis and prevail after all.

In a very short time, our practice has had to radically transform how we handle patients and interact with clients. Gone are the waiting rooms full of clients, and exam room visits that afford a face-to-face discussion of our findings and treatment recommendations.

The interpersonal dance that allowed us to gauge our clients reaction to bad news, and tailor its delivery accordingly, is replaced by a detached and impersonal phone call. Our patient exams occur while our clients wait outside, unseen, in their car. Communications are entirely by phone. For now, one of my favorite aspects of this job, client interaction, is suspended.

Our personnel are putting themselves on the front lines and working to continue to provide patient care to our communities pets, while knowing that every day they are working closely with someone who could be COVID-19 positive. They have to wear masks all day, clean continuously and know that at any time they could find out that a co-worker has tested positive, and their job may be temporarily eliminated. The dark specter of uncertainty hangs over every person on the planet. Although it takes an emotional toll, it also unites us. And that’s why it will not defeat us.

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I had a client a couple of weeks ago, who brought in her beautiful, all white, 1-year-old cat named Oprah. Because of COVID-19, we were seeing clients out in the parking lot. The cat had a broken thigh bone. The client and her family loved that cat and were determined to do the right thing for her. I recommended surgical repair as the best option.

She asked the cost of surgery, and then decided to go ahead with it. As we were preparing for surgery, I was informed that the owner needed to talk to me. I went back into the parking lot, and she tearfully told me that they had a family meeting, and that they had decided they could not afford this surgery after all. She explained that her husband was their breadwinner, and he had just been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer. He could not work, and his prognosis wasn’t even clear. Given this COVID-19 crisis, her job may also be affected, and they just could not risk being without finances.

She asked what would happen if they did nothing, and I explained that the leg may heal, but function would probably not be good. She wondered about putting her to sleep, but I explained that this was not necessary because Oprah has three other legs, and could still live a nice life. The owner then asked about turning her over to the Charleston Animal Society, to see if they would have her treated. In spite of the incredible difficulties she was facing in her family, this person was desperately trying to find a way to provide her beloved cat the care it needed, even if it meant giving her up. In that moment, it became clear to me that I was going to fix this cat one way or another.

So, I asked her if the estimate were cut in half, could she do it. She said yes, and I told her then that would be my contribution to her family. Through her tears, she approached to give me a hug, but, sadly, pulled back. I went back in the hospital and told the staff to continue preparing for surgery.

I didn’t know it, but another of my clients had overheard this conversation. What I could not have known was this particular client is a devout Christian, who tithes every month. This particular month, she had forgotten to do so, and when she woke up that morning, she prayed to God to show her where she could help someone else in need. Having heard our conversation, she and her boyfriend approached Oprah’s mom and asked if they could help, in response she poured out her heart. Right in the parking lot they prayed together. The next thing I knew, my receptionist informed me that these other clients had paid half of the bill. Shortly after that, they returned and paid the rest.

Things may look pretty dark right now, but as long as I see people caring for animals and caring for each other, I know brighter days are ahead.

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