On-Call Days

Down-time and Silent Days

Making the most of it

There are on-call days when the phone is silent. This silence comes with its own secret recipe for stress…4 parts foreboding for 1 part paranioa. It can feel like the longer the silence, the more intense the impending ER storm is going to be. It took me awhile to figure out what to do, or not do, during down-time while “on-call.” After trial and error, I have developed strong on-call-but-not-on-a-call habits. When I first started taking on-call, it felt normal to be poised by the cell phone just waiting for it to ring. When an ER did ring, I could spring into action and be out the door in less than 5 minutes. But when the phone didn’t ring, a faint feeling of regret would creep in. Not only did I feel that the day was (personally) wasted, but I also felt (professionally) unfulfilled.

For me, utilizing down-time while still on-call is essential for avoiding burn-out, promoting work-life balance and reinforcing the truth that work has not become my life. When I say utilizaing, I mean being productive enough that time doesn’t feel wasted in wait for an ER than never comes. On the other hand, any project that is started has to be one that can be dropped at a moment’s notice. But on silent days…I still check my phone a minimum 5 times/hr, confirm max volume 2 times/hr and check that airplane mode is not activated once/hour.

My most recent day on call was anything but silent. Between 7:30am and 11:30pm, we had attended 7 emergencies and saw 2 add-on appointments. That’s a full day, especially during the slow season. As I drove home at 1am, I found myself running through the day’s events and eventually mulling over two emergencies in particular. It wasn’t that these two emergencies were clinically distinct, fascinating or dangerous…in fact, they are both circumstances that I would normally shrug off as inconveniences of the job. However, I think the nature of the two circumstanaces is important when gaining perspective into a day-in-the-life of a veterinarian.


The “Nevermind” Emergency

The ER call rang 15 minutes before the start of our doctors’ meeting. Susan, who was not a current client of our practice, was frantic over the phone. While in the midst of explaining what was happening with her mare, she repeatedly interrupted herself to say

“My vet’s not answering. I can’t get ahold of my vet. I don’t understand why she’s not answering.”

I can imagine how confusion, fear and panic in the moment, is exacerbated when a client’s trusted lifetime vet of 15-20 years is MIA. Tone of voice, pitch, inflection and word-choice can paint a vivid emotional picture, especially of the client feeling pain and confusion brought on by a sense of abandonment. On rare occasions, bitterness and resentment are aimed at whichever vet does respond to the call. From firsthand experience, this type of treatment from clients is hard to swallow.

“Shelving” Client Mistreatment

When it comes to professional advocacy, I think simply swallowing mistreatment from clients does the profession a disservice. In my opinion, having the issue temporarily “shelved” vs. simply swallowed, establishes a line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. While I don’t think disrespect is something to just “put up with,” having an open discussion requires a particular environment and mindset that emergencies cannot always afford. Bottomline: In order for me to do my job, I have to focus on the reason I am there. This means “shelving” issues that are not imminent or critical.

On the otherhand, I know some vets get upset when they are called only as a “last resort.” Sometimes, clients say that.

“I am only calling you because my vet is out of town.”

“I just need a vet, any vet.”

“I wouldn’t be calling you if I had other options.”

I take these comments in context of the extremely difficult circumstance the client is in, the difficult spot this puts their vet in and the fact that I’m here to help. This thought process keeps the negative thoughts at bay. It also helps that I am an empath by nature.

8 minutes away

Returning to the ER at hand…I kept Susan focused, making sure she was in a safe situation, the mare was contained, and gave her a few minutes to call me back with their physical address. Caught up in overwhelming situations, sometimes you can’t remember how to spell your own name. In this instance, she had to find a piece of mail so she could read off her home address. According to GPS, we would arrive at Susan’s in 45 minutes. During the first half of the drive, the office relayed two other ERs to respond to. When my phone rang again, I recognized the number as Susan’s.

In my experience, when a client calls while you’re still in route, it is for one of three reasons:
– The situation has become dire, they are panicking and have lost all sense of time
– To find out where you are because it’s past your original ETA
– They are canceling the farm call for one reason or another

I answered the phone as google maps’ estimated ETA read 8 minutes.

“I actually don’t need you to come out. My vet just got here.”

This isn’t too uncommon that another vet beats you to a call, either because the client called other vets to see which would arrive fastest or because their regular vet returned their call. I will be honest, this is frustrating. I wished Susan and her horse the best.


Order of Operations

Determining Which Emergency to See First

When faced with multiple ERs, I prioritize based on severity, urgency and the potential risk to human safety. Numerous times, I’ve been less than 5 minutes from the ER when the client calls to let me know that another vet showed up. This ultimately ends up in re-routing, lost time and money, but most importantly, an unnecessary delay in rendering aid to other patients and clients. Our policy is to bill an in-route cancelation fee, but I have yet to follow through with this. With new clients that don’t have established payment methods with us, pursuing payment is nearly impossible.

I understand the panic and desperation owners feel when their horse is injured or sick. In a situation of overwhelming helplessness, the only help they can provide is getting a vet on the premises. For this reason and out of empathy for clients in these scenarios, I have not had it in me to bill them a cancelation fee. And then there are those rare occasions when the driving force behind a client’s actions are not driven by shear concern, fear and panic. There are times when a client’s motives and intentions are not upfront or even honest…


ER Disguises

Critical, urgent and not-so-urgent cases

The second emergency was located 45 minutes south, within a mile of our office. It was a choke, which resolved mostly on its own by the time we arrived. As we were finishing up this second ER, the office alerted us to another emergency. Now, the ER waiting list included a mildly painful colic, a moderately painful colic that did not improve with banamine, and a laceration that had significant, uncontrolled hemorrhage. Despite pressure wraps, the owner could not get the bleeding to stop and she feared the horse would bleed out soon. We headed straight to the laceration emergency, ready to face a chaotic, blood-soaked scene upon arrival. As we pulled up to the barn, I could hear laughter and followed the voices to a small group of people standing around a bay polo pony in the wash rack. There wasn’t a drop of blood in sight, and pony appeared healthy enough.

“I’m here for an emergency, do you know where the horse with the laceration is?”

A middle-aged woman and what I presumed was her daughter, nodded.

“This is him. This is Emo.”

For a moment, I thought I had made a grave mistake and navigated to the wrong emergency (the mild colic). I reached out for something to say, still confused and mortified that I had made this profound error. The woman turned to look at Emo, walked over to his right front cannonbone and pointed at a scrape…a two inch long superficial abrasion with only the hair missing.

“I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to lacerate his leg here.”

I thought I had gone crazy, but was much more horrified upon realizing that this scrape was the previously described uncontrollable hemorrhage. She must have read my face.

“I didn’t want to be waiting around the barn all afternoon, so I might have exaggerated a little over the phone.”

She chuckled sheepishly. The other people started to dissipate once the uncomfortable silence kicked in. On an untimely cue, my assistant came huffing down the barn aisle with arms full of wraps, suture and scrub kits, fluids, clippers and even a tourniquet tucked into the v-neck of her scrub top.


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You never know what you’ll find

Prefacing this post with a disclaimer: Graphic wound images are contained in this post.


After working with particular clients enough, you get a feel for what kind of emergencies they do and do not call about. Depending on experience, knowledge and comfort level, some may call for a tiny cut or they may only call when it appears their horse may bleed-out. And with others, you never know what you’re going to find.

One of our clients left a message on the office phone the night before. Her mare had sustained a wound to her haunches that she thought might heal well on it’s own. She described the wound as superficial, probably a kick from a pasture mate. She said the wound was not bleeding and you couldn’t see any real obvious wound. She didn’t want to pay an emergency fee because finances had been tight, so the office asked if I was willing to work her into the busy day. Fortunately, we were running early and finished up with the day’s appointments a couple hours sooner than we thought.

On arrival, the small palomino mare was in a pen. I had seen her a couple months ago for a face laceration, and before that, an episode of choke. The mare was always suspicious as we approached her with a tote of supplies. Almost an entire roll’s worth of tape had been used to secure a bandage over the right gluteal muscles. As I pulled the sheet of tape off, I saw the soaked maxi-pad that the owner immediately commented on. “I figured, what’s more absorbant than a maxi pad, right?” I removed the maxi-pad and was surprised at the severity of the wound. It was definitely a wound requiring attention, and not superficial in the least.

The wound at first glance.

An L-shaped laceration resulted in a large flap of skin. Beneath the flap of skin, was a deep gaping wound extending several inches into the underlying musculature. The owner must have read my expression because she soon asked “It’s bad, isn’t it?”

“It is big, and it is deep. But luckily, this is fairly fresh.”

After clipping some hair, the large triangular skin flap became apparent

We set about clipped the area, scrubbing the wound and exploring the extent of the damage. Meanwhile, the owner wracked her brain about what could’ve caused the wound. Most of the time we never find out what happened. It is unnerving, knowing that what sharp object inflicted the damage, still lurks in the field with the possibility of a second offense.

Determining the extent of the injury

The front half of the laceration was sutured together easily enough. Dead space was minimized with a deep layer of sutures, and the skin was re-opposed with simple interrupted. Since some dead space existed, and considering the extent of the wound, a Penrose drain was placed. The mare was started on Excede, with the plan to add SMZs due to expense. Bute and SSD were also dispensed. The owner would continue on-farm care involving flushing the wound and readjusted the drain daily. Vaseline was applied to prevent scalding of the back leg from constant drainage that was sure to ensue.

Based on the location, a simple bandage was not possible. We put in 8 stay sutures that would allow us to feed a shoelace through just like you would a tennis shoe. This shoelace method, a tie-over bandage, would secure a clean towel or pad to the wound. Unfortunately, I did not remember to take pictures of the finished work.
In 4 days, the drain will be removed. If the skin flap survives, the owner will continue to flush the wound daily and may also end up packing some of the wound with gauze. However, profound swelling and reduction of dead space, did not allow for room to pack the wound.

It has been a couple days now, and due to financial concerns, the owner could not afford for a recheck. We will be back to remove the external sutures in 10-14 days, and next time I’ll be sure to take more pictures.


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The Doctors’ Meetings

Every other Friday, before each doctor sets out for the day’s appointments, the four of us meet at the only diner in town. Our practice sits on the edge of a quaint town with no need for a single stoplight or stop sign. One of only two restaurants, the diner is nestled in a row of buildings that look straight out of a stagecoach western. State patrol frequently choses this humble eatery as the location for their change-of-shift. On those particular mornings, the diner’s small gravel parking is overrun by patrol cars. This is also the only time when the town experiences traffic as a result of overly-cautious commuters going 10 below the 25 mph speed limit.

Our doctor meetings are held over breakfast, with discussion prompted by 2 or 3 items on the “doctors meeting list” or DML. Items that make it onto the DML come from a wide range of topics, vary in importance and certainly are not guaranteed to stimulate rivoting conversation. Over the past couple months, items on the DML have include updated pricing, barn packages, changes to inventory, on-call schedules, charging tax on products, assistant performance issues, standard protocols for packing equipment, damaged or missing equipment, new drugs we’d like to have on hand…etc.

Once the items on the DML have been checked off, there is an end to the meeting formalities. This is when the meetings get interesting. This is my favorite part of the doctors meetings, when I get to revel in the hard-earned wisdom of seasoned vets.

Case discussions.

It starts off with one of us seeking input on a particularly challenging case. Without fail, it leads to the opening of the case discussion floodgates. In discussing one case, someone inevitably remembers a case they would like insight on…which triggers another doctor to bring up their recent patients and so on.

I call it the case dominos effect.

These dominos turn half-hour meetings into 1.5 hour meetings, subsequently making us all late to our first appointments and causing a chaotic post-meeting scramble in the office. While fascinating and rich with info, there is another reason I look forward to these talks. Its the environment that has been created for the conversations. The table is a safe place to talk openly and without fear. There is no room for judgment, shaming or belittling. These moments are key to nurturing a honest, sincere comradery between colleagues and fosters a strong sense of moral and unity…things I have rarely seen in multi-doctor practices. In an effort to net suggestions or help from our combined 48 years of experience, we also create a robust support system and receive encouragement.

And there have rare occasions when our conversation divulges to less professionally astute topics in veterinary medicine, like the newest gossip about neighboring vets and practices. That’s a subject for another time, and a deserves it’s own blogpost.

And if the DML is blank? We still meet for breakfast because that’s just a pleasant way to start the day.

Treating more than the horse

We treat more than pets. Legally, of course. The person attached to our patient is just as important as the patient itself. Whether it is an annual exam or late night emergency, attending to the client is, in essence, attending to the patient. Help the client to help the horse. I think there are floating misconceptions among some vets, and about vets, that our profession only serves the patient part of the equation. By ignoring, negating or dismissing the client half of the equation, I believe vets are neglecting the very reason we even have a patient…that someone reached out to us.

Why did you become a veterinarian?

I’m always curious to hear other veterinary professionals discuss their reasons for choosing this profession. By far, the overwhelming majority of answers are centered around a core feeling of compassion/love for animals, coupled with a desire to maintain, improve and advocate for animal health. On a rare occasion, I hear a starkly different answer along the lines of “because I don’t like people.”

People and Medicine

The “because I don’t like people” reason strikes a contrast with the more common reason. Firstly, it comes off as void of sentiment and does not even mention a regard, concern or care of animals. In fact, there is no mention at all of the locus- animals. Second, the veterinary profession is comprised of and dependent on people. People infiltrate the entirety of veterinary medicine, filling diverse roles such as colleagues, professors, CE conventions, receptionists, assistants, lab technicians, owners, trainers, buyers, caretakers, transporters, state and federal government personnel, pharmacists, sellers, externs, drug reps, students…

There’s comical memes out there about this very reason for becoming a vet. Or similar ideology such as “the only thing I like about you is your pets.” I appreciate the humor. Truth is, this is a sincere reason for pursuing a DVM according to some. I’ve never heard a practicing veterinarian cite this reason. The only subset of people I’ve heard use the “Because I don’t like people” are vetmed hopefuls.

Ideal vs. Real

Veterinary hopefuls seeking a career free of people, are bound for personal and professional disappointment. Travel the road to DVM long enough, and it becomes unmistakably clear that the there can be no veterinary field without people.

Over the last year and half in private practice, especially as an equine practitioner, I have become increasingly aware of the importance of people skills. Not just refined communication skills and strong bedside manner, but the ability to perceive, listen, collaborate and recognize client needs. Especially as an equine practitioner, we are on the forefront of this interface and often times dealing with all interactions one-on-one. Back to the basics, there would be no patient if there was no owner caring to have their pet seen.

Don’t like people? Doesn’t mean you aren’t capable of being a veterinarian. There is already a tremendous, seemingly infinite list of inherent challenges that come with the job. Adding another parameter obstacle, not only increases this weight of challenges…but I imagine it becomes a thief of what would otherwise be some of the richest, most rewarding experiences in veterinary medicine. Even more detrimental and profound, is what this limitation means for the care of the patient, quality of medicine and overall health of the profession.

I’ll say this. You don’t have to be a social butterfly or extrovert. Plenty of “I”s in the vet field. But if you don’t like people, maybe one of the most rewarding outcomes of joining this profession will be a change in heart.


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Logistics behind Ambulatory Work

Occasionally, we have ride-alongs or people doing job shadows, usually students ranging from high school to vet school. For those considering a career in veterinary medicine or future ambulatory vets, it is an interactive, uncensored day-in-the-life experience. The types of questions I did not really expect to get were regarding commuting and driving. The questions I get asked most often include:

  • How big of an area do you serve? What are the logistics behind scheduling appointments? Who determines the route? How do you know how much to charge for a farm call?
  • How much time do you spend in the car on average per day? What is the longest you’ve ever driven to one place? What do you do in the car all day?
  • Does getting car sick mean you can’t be an ambulatory vet?
  • Does the truck ever break down? Have you ever gotten in an accident with the work truck?

I’ve received these questions often enough that I decided to write a couple posts about this side of the profession from my personal experience.


The Realm

Our service area (which I refer to as the realm) is vast, one of the largest I’ve seen. From where our office is located, we service up to an hour and a half in every direction…meaning our call radius is 1.5 hours, not factoring in traffic. The realm ends up being a large part of the western side of our state. While the majority of our work is North, an emergency an hour South of our office could mean a 2.5 hour drive from one end of our range to the other. Most practices I’ve spent time with service a 40 minute radius around their hub.

As for navigating the realm? I have to give a shout out to navigation apps. All of this would be a lot more difficult without today’s smart phones, GPS etc. I consider myself very fortunate to practice in a time when this technology is easily available. Not afraid to admit that I cannot imagine the farm call experience before Google maps existed. For the vast majority of our navigation, we use Google maps and Waze, which do a great job 95% of the time.


Scheduling

Luckily, our front office staff are all locals with an excellent knowledge of the cities/towns and road system. Equally important is knowledge about traffic. The commute to a particular barn in the morning could be well over an hour, while the same route could take 30 minutes if its around lunch time.

Efficiency requires concise, well-planned routes, the front desk carries the heavy burden of scheduling. And they are phenomenal at avoiding the big scheduling mistakes, which off the time of my head are:

  • Return trips (same barn more than once in a day)
  • Same stops (different doctors to the same barn in a day)
  • To-and-fro (alternating near and far locations like North  South  North  South …vs. starting north and working south throughout the day)
  • Localizing (keeping all farms in a particular direction, vs having calls at complete opposite ends of the service radius)

I have full respect and appreciation for the skills of the front desk staff, because I dabbled in scheduling at my previous job and found it to be a pain-staking, hair-pulling mess.


The Financial Side

Minimizing drive time is essential, as our farm call fees (ranging from $80-140) over times barely cover the overhead and wages one way…not to mention if the next call is equally far at the other end of our range. Often times, the company actually loses money as the basic, rough example below shows:

Farm call 40 miles from office, 1 hour drive time

  • Farm call fee charged to client: $100
  • Gas: $10
  • Vehicle wear and tear, mileage, licensing, insurance: $25
  • Assistant’s time (company cost): $25
  • Doctor’s time (company cost): $60
  • Total cost to company for farm call (one direction): $120

Not a precise or perfect example, but easy to see why scheduling and routes are so important. And after all the effort is made into tactfully planning an efficient day, there comes an emergency call that changes it all…and even if the call is at the other side of the realm, traveling in peak traffic hours, those facts don’t register because the focus shifts to getting there safely and as soon as possible, so that we can do what we joined this profession to do- care for our equine patients and the clients attached to them.

the Vet’s Assistant

The idea of having a vet assistant in the field was obscene to my first employer. She viewed them as an unnecessary (and even impossible) expense and liability for any solo practitioner. Whether it’s for the similar reasons, most vets in the area do not have assistants. I remember reading an AAEP article back in vet school, which discussed a multitude of reasons and scenarios in which it does pay off for a solo practitioner to hire a field assistant. I remember reading the article, never having seen an equine vet with an assistant, and thinking what a luxury it would be.

Then I hit that job lottery, the place I work now. It’s not that assistants are merely an option, but that taking assistants in encouraged…and there is the obvious list of reasons. There is also the not-so-obvious list of benefits and rewards that come with having a comrade out in the field.


Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

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DVM 360 has a recent article about this very topic, called Equine vet techs deserve a seat.

Our assistants are wonderful, and with individualized training, their potential is endless. The basic responsibilities in our practice include managing daily truck inventory and restocking, manage truck maintenance/repairs/cleaning, cleaning/maintenance/trouble shooting of all equipment (xrays, ultrasound, endoscope, dental equipment etc), cleaning/organizing/packing up for all appointments, horse handling (some vaccinate and draw blood), processing in-house lab work, uploading all digital imaging/lab results, help manage schedule, driving (allowing plenty o time to SOAP and invoice for the doctor) and so forth. With the help of the assistant, I can do 3 dentals in the time it took me to do one alone. I easily see three times the number of appointments in a day with how our team works.


Unsung Heroes in the Field

But aside from the logistics, there’s the other advantages…company. It’s a lot of hours in a truck most days (2-3 hours of driving usually, sometimes up to 6 for a day with ERs and appointments). You can’t put a dollar amount on good company, especially on long exhausting or stressful days, where you have someone who was with you for every moment of it. It’s both a professional and a personal bond. Comic relief, podcast discussions, small talk, singing along with the radio, reviewing cases we saw that day, an ear to listen, or even just the feeling that you’re not alone taking on the world of equine medicine. Not to mention the safety…unfortunately, not all owners are as skilled at handling their horses as we would hope. There has been many a time (and more often than not) that the situation becomes significantly safer by having the assistant handle the horse with special restrain techniques, or even just positioning for exams/flexions/nerve blocks. I remember coming back from an ER at 3AM, after a full day of work, and rolling down the windows singing at the top of my lungs trying to stay awake on a windy back-country road….I came close to falling asleep at the wheel multiple times, and am very thankful I haven’t had to do that again.

And for everything they do, the things doctors expect, appreciate and need….there is an endless list of all the unseen, unmentioned ways that they support us on a daily basis. Being a veterinarian, you face challenging, humbling, heartbreaking and gut wrenching experiences…and experience equally rewarding, uplifting and inspiring moments. It’s those rewarding experiences that give me the feeling of happiness…and the only thing that makes that happiness even greater, is when it’s shared with a teammate.


Thank you to all the veterinary assistants and technicians who remain unsung heroes in the veterinary field. Whether you’re in the exam room, surgery suite or field, the wonderful aspects of vetmed would not be nearly as wonderful (or even possible) without you!

Facing the Repercussions

To really understand this post in context, you’ll need to understand the backstory. If you haven’t already read the predecessor to this entry, I highly recommend it.

In order to make an employee’s last two weeks a “living hell,” Dr. Cray gave the office staff and myself her decree to engage in work-place warfare. My last post left off at a pivotal moment. I accepted the reality of the work-place situation and the brutal truth about my boss’s nature. Then, I did the thing I should have done months ago. I spoke up. I refuse to make someone’s life a living hell. And from that point on, the work-place is becoming my living a hell.


My Redefined Role and Responsibilities

Everything but a Veterinarian

Unable to hire new employees, the office was severely understaffed. Now, instead of seeing appointments in the afternoons, I was assigned to the front desk as a receptionist. This is when I began to struggle, both personally and professionally. And the troubles didn’t stay at work. With only two other employees, Dr. Cray’s started singling me out. She became uncharacteristically kind to the other two office personell, bringing them gifts each morning and asking about their weekend. When she turned to face me, she snap at me to go clean her instrument tray from the ER last night or go count the vaccines in her truck. Everything became a test or barrage of rapid-firing questions (to which some of the questions were about patients I never saw, prescriptions I was never involved in, or billing accounts that were from 5 years ago). She seemed content if I did not know an answer, and became vicious when I did. She took to devaluing me in front of clients and other employees.

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Within a couple weeks, she allowed me to see appointments only 1 day a week. When clients requested appointments with me, she told the office to tell them I wasn’t available…little by little, I watched the only benefit to my job dissipate. Veterinary experience, the only thing worth staying for, was slowly replaced by my new duties which included:

  • Restocking supplies, tracking orders,
  • Create and maintain inventory system
  • Truck inventory, maintenance
  • Manage all social media accounts
  • IT for all office equipment (phones, computer, scanners, fax, internet)
  • Invoicing
  • Equipment maintenance
  • Barn tasks (feeding, stall cleaning, turn-out)
  • Yard upkeep

Veterinarian turned Receptionist turned Detective

All those hours I put in at the front desk paid off. In an attempt to fully analyze the situation, and come up with a plan…I started gathering intel. When the UPS guy saw me up front, he said he wouldn’t bother learning anyone’s name because no one sticks around long enough for it to be worthwhile. Thanks to the UPS guy, I started looking for more information about the previous associates. I remembered she didn’t order me business cards for the first 2 months in case I was going to quit. She said she’d spent too much money on wasted cards. After looking into the business card order history, what I found was startling.

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Over the past 10 years, 9 associates were hired, and of the nine associates not a single one worked for Dr. Cray longer than a month. No surprise there! I also had mixed emotions about what this said about me. Obviously someone with a healthy amount of self respect would not put up with or stay in this type of environment. I don’t like to quit, and I will endure, endure, endure. Although I gave myself credit for getting through the last four months, I also had to change my way of thinking. I’m not here to endure. My goal and aspirations are not to endure life, endure each day. What is the sense in being in the profession I love, if every day I dread and resent going to work? I suffer, my relationships suffer, and it doesn’t do the profession any good.


If someone doesn’t know whats wrong, how can they fix it? I’m a believer in that concept, and I had been silent for too long. If we were going to make this work, we were going to have to make some changes. It was time to sit down and have a chat with Dr. Cray. I worked the meeting into our schedules, and gave her a heads up that there were some items I wanted to discuss with her.

And in 2 days, that’s exactly what we’ll do.

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