Breaking bad news in a veterinary clinic.
I enter the exam room. The owner is patiently awaiting my arrival, scrolling through their phone in an attempt to distract their mind from the coming conversation. The news that I have to give is not good. The X-rays were unmistakable, and my patient, their pet, is in trouble.
It started small, a network of abnormal cells within an abdominal organ. It grew slowly at first, dividing cell into cell and each subsequent cell into another at an exponential rate. It grew even larger as time passed. Insidious, creeping, sending tendrils deeper into the organ of origin, and launching its deformed cells into the blood stream to seek new organs to conquer. Once these mutants found new places to grow, they started the process again. First a single small nodule in the lungs. Then a second and a third. There seems to be no end. The body cannot recognize what is happening, and it’s far too late. The disease has won.
“Mr. Smith,” I say, “Lucy has cancer. It is; unfortunately, a bad one too.” I pause, meeting only the silence that typically follows receiving terrible news. “It probably started in her spleen, but it has spread all throughout her lungs. There is nothing we can do.”
The words form slowly for Mr. Smith. “Wha-”
He cuts off. Choking on the rest of his sentence, he clears his throat. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t usually get emotional.”
I go through this exact same scenario with so many people. People apologize to me for getting emotional after news like this. I just told him his pet isn’t going to make it much longer; he has every right to feel. I wish he wouldn’t think that he has to apologize to me. I wish to help him realize that painful emotions are a totally acceptable response to this type of news.
I am stuck giving my prepackaged response of, “You don’t need to apologize to me; you have nothing to be sorry for.” That response always feels inadequate. As soon as it leaves my mouth, I wish it were better, more meaningful. If only after breaking bad news to someone I could show them this article.
As your veterinarian, I am here for you. I am here for this emotion, and I am prepared for it. I know that, when I discover a disease like Lucy’s, I will soon be breaking somebody’s heart. There is no easy way to present this information; believe me, I know there is no easy way to receive it. What I want to express to everyone, and what I’m sure your own veterinarians wish to say also, is that it is okay to feel. It is okay to process your emotions however you wish. You should never feel that you must apologize to me. I am here for you however you need me to be.