Veterinarians and their staff have evolved and have had to adapt as society has evolved in the human-animal relationship. They deal everyday with clients who value their animals as they do, and they get to know details of humans' lives better than mental health professionals do sometimes. But how might a veterinarian know how to talk to a homeless person who owns a pet? How would they know how to help an owner with PTSD who is losing an animal when day in and day out, the pet enabled a bit more normal life? Every actor needs new skills which are relevant in the acceptance of this new millieu of animal-human relationship. And veterinary social workers help.
Behind, beside, or shielded by every person is just a person, though we sometimes fear they are not "normal." As a society, we shut out, and even oppress, those who are disabled or who cannot control whatever ails them and prevents them from living a conforming role. Yet, when we are disabled in some way, physically, intellectually, or emotionally, the animal companion may not only be a companion. The animal may be a life-line, a tether to some normality. In a milder form for all of us, we have all been disabled with flu, illnesses, or grief. Our animal may have given unforgettable nurturance during those times. Imagine suffering through a prolonged term of disability in which you could not see the end. IF graced with an animal, I bet the chance of survival and resilience would be increased.
There is someone I have recently met as a client whose life has exemplified much of my passion in this journey. She has given me permission to share. Sheri is a giving and receiving member of our pet loss group. She was homeless for several years. She continues to suffer from PTSD. Even after Token left her, she continues to strive to be her best.
Sheri's canine love Token, died on Thanksgiving 2017 after months of treatment for cancer. Their story is this blog. We as different species, really should never be divided, or placed in a heirarchy. Humans need other species, and they willingly help us survive. Sheri and Token's story is one that characterizes the partnership of the discipline of social work with the discipline of veterinary medicine. Both disciplines should work together in offering support to these families which include animals. This story exemplifies the core concerns of both disciplines and where compassion might reside. It highlights Sheri and Token. Please watch this short film starring Sheri and Token by clicking this link:
And please see this newspaper story:
Sheri is alone now; she has no animal companion. She is fighting PTSD, and her symptoms are much worse without Token. However, I hope you can see from the film, Sheri will survive. She is gifted, very intelligent, possessing remarkable personal resources, very articulate, and mostly giving of herself. She doesn't allow fear to prevent her from revealing her vulnerabilities, and she is into helping others. No doubt if you look over that list of her qualities, she learned some of that by living with Token as her support and her mentor/teacher.
A couple of weeks after Token died, Sheri thought of us. She gathered all of the people who knew Token to write HIS DOCTORS and STAFF at our clinic a thank you. I cannot even express how much this meant to all in hospital. The card is pictured below.
Token led Sheri into my life. I asked Sheri to thank him out loud. She said she did. And that's what I wanted, really, to say in this blog. I am so grateful to you, Token, for leading Sheri to us. And thank you all for sharing your creatures with me. I am honored each time you do. I never forget their contribution and their meaning in living beside us. Token will always be remembered by everyone he ever met in life, and through Sheri even after his death.
Know that I work part-time at a specialty/emergency veterinary hospital in my “retirement.” I maintain a veterinary social work internship and a VSW program which will be a model for all programs that I am helping to develop throughout this country. Thankfully, the events of this week happen infrequently, but they are worth sharing for those interested in Veterinary Social Work.
An advanced VSW intern, who does many of her hours at night, texted me to tell me that a mother and teenage children had come in. The husband had bludgeoned their dog. The husband used a baseball bat to beat the dog, and he threw free weights at the dog. The dog was on the bed (a crime I guess). This man was reportedly the most heartfelt of animal lovers in the household. The older teenager, witnessed the entire act and called his mom who was home within minutes. The mom took the children and the dog to our hospital where social work interns are under my supervision. The intern who texted me was intricately involved with the mom and her family that night. With her assistance, the mom demanded the husband exit the house indefinitely while they were out. This man was previously without mental illness or anger issues, and he had no history whatsoever of violence. That sounds familiar this week, meaning the Las Vegas massacre.
First, I want you to know the dog is ok and getting better. The children are ok and will have contact with therapists. The mom is knowledgeable and cognizant of the risks and the correlation of animal abuse and domestic violence. She has made sure that the husband is no longer allowed in the home, and she required him to get treatment before any discussion of return, to which he agreed. The family is experiencing concern for the dog, disillusionment, trauma, and grief as their family implodes. Because of VSW services, all authorities are working it: Animal Control, Police, Child Protection. All are safe, humans and animals. Having a social worker and social work interns within the hospital have been incredibly instrumental in this case.
This mom was trying to get her child that witnessed the incident to open up and express his feelings. She told me that she was able to use what happened in Las Vegas, pointing out that the Vegas shooter did this once and once only. She said they discussed how much pain and suffering the gunman wrought. She said to her child "One time is enough." She meant that though there may be no pattern in past behavior; this can still happen, and even though it was once; they will never forget. She is broken-hearted as she loves this man and her children love him too. All is topsy turvy now for them.
People can crumble into their worst selves quickly. We all need to be awake and attuned with our intuition and gut. This past week was hellish for our hospital staff. We had this case of animal abuse and three more assailing cases. In one of the other three cases, we were able to calm an owner temporarily. But VSW's found that their job was more of supporting the veterinarians and staff, because the clients were intractable. The staff and veterinarians dealt with these clients who threatened lawsuits, threw numerous expletives, hung up the phone repeatedly with staff/doctors, and demanded innumerable hours of attention. Their language was intimidating and abusive. They also complained about the money required, saying the hospital was all in it for the money. Advanced veterinary medicine provides so many choices, but no veterinarian is in it for the money. Look at their salaries. If you want to go the distance for your animal, and have the best, it costs. There is little insurance reimbursement for animal medical care.
Sometimes clients' behavior is due to grief and frustration regarding their inability to financially afford a possibility for survival of the pet. When this is purely emotional, or an acting out of grief, VSW's help a great deal with the client. However, occasionally, a client's behavior is a product of their own personality and patterns of behavior, as in these cases. No doubt, their behavior has undermined their attempts to have good relationships with professionals before these incidents.
Veterinary staff and veterinarians model the non-judgement and positivity of the animals who are their patients. Sometimes, like in these cases, veterinary professionals are blind-sided by people who push, and manipulate, until they become out-right abusive. Veterinarians are not trained as social workers are: they are not trained in boundaries or self-care. Abuse of an animal or human being or community of human beings cannot be tolerated.
The animals who inhabit our lives and hearts exemplify non-judgement and trust. Please be kind to the people who have devoted their lives to them, and to your love for them. Their job is very very hard.
First, an honest confession. I was interviewing for other jobs in 1994 because I wanted LSU to compete with an offer to keep me there. I had my dream job at LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, which was Coordinator of Counseling Services, but it was part-time at only 20 hours per week. We had hired an assistant for me, Stephanie Walker Johnson (who took over in my capacity and is still there), because I lived 73 miles away, so how could I cover full-time? When my divorce necessitated that LSU bring me on full-time and at a good salary so that I could move closer, I interviewed with several opportunities in pretty places to help me negotiate. I found the position of Assistant Professor at Idaho State University and applied. Lo and behold, they asked if I would interview. I was not one of so many who had dreamt of teaching as a profession. I taught at LSU, but that I considered different…within my passion, and worth transcending my shyness. I knew I only had a Masters degree, so that of course put me out of consideration too. Sure I had published as much or more as many Ph.D. candidates, but I thought, really thought, I was just going to have a conversation and meet people.
It was February, and I had never been to the Northwest. I rented a 4 wheel drive, and I did that without knowledge of the place; I thank God or guardians or guides. I parked fine, but slipped and slid in the parking lot on my way to meet with the faculty. It was very casual, and when I think back, I know they never thought they would hire me, or that I would accept and be part of their lives for a long time. All of us were going through the motions. I remember lunch, where I wasn’t questioned much at all, and they all mostly conversed passionately with each other. This would be a draw for me. I will always remember being intrigued by Henry Durham who engendered a discussion about suicide as a violent act. Then there were a few more questions in the main office of Sociology and Social Work, not behind closed doors but right behind the receptionist in the main office. I remind you that I never expected to be a serious candidate, so all of this was alright with me.
Enter CLIFF, in a tie-dyed T-shirt, unkempt long hair, and quite frankly looking like he was without a shower in his home. He certainly didn’t fit my ill-conceived image of a faculty member. I assumed he might be the department mascot or helper. Lol. He was either getting coffee or copies from the Xerox, I don’t remember, because coffee was next to the copier. I was quite piqued in my southern innocence when all faculty greeted him with such respect and friendliness. But remember, I’m a N’Awlins girl, and this pleased me. Yeah, even social workers have stereotypes (former students should remember my teachings i.e. redneck vs cowboy) . They introduced him to me, and he turned around and grinned his shy but welcoming grin, and then he disappeared. It took me some seconds to integrate the parts of my mind. This is and will be my first memory of Cliff Bryan who would become so important to me. And I value this memory, because Cliff has dedicated his life to just that…getting people to integrate those parts of their minds and align them with their hearts.
Cliff and I have had few of the meaningful, sociologically relevant, and profound conversations that so many are describing on Facebook. I envy those that had the conversations. Cliff and I were connected through mutual best friends and many students. There are too many to name but you know who you are. Some of his besties were mine as well, and now that I think back, our approaches to them were similar when they needed a friend. Yet, Cliff got to do the fun stuff (i.e. say irreverent things, quip and change their lives, or get ‘em drunk or something akin to that). I want to say here and now that any friendship with any of that circle was fun for me too, even if I didn’t get included in some of the debauchery. And I say that because they, these many of the circle, were all so incredibly fascinating, heart in front, and some were geniuses; most had no idea of their worth to me and to Cliff. I knew this: if Cliff valued a person, then I needed to pay attention to that person. I also look back to see that so many of Cliff’s closest friends were social workers, and it is because he has always loved the human in all of us and valued non-judgement. He personified that throughout my relationship with him more than most social workers.
So by now I hope you assume that I was hired at ISU. I was, and I accepted, and I spent 14 years with the wonderful faculty and students there. It was a best time of my life. And Cliff is in a majority of happy memories. I laughed more there than I ever had in my whole life, partly because of Cliff, and I laugh less since I left. So much happened between 2005 and 2008. And not just for me. Henry got sick, Hurricane Katrina necessitated my help, and I had several other deaths/losses. Henry’s illness was something for all of us. Again, Cliff and I never sat down and talked about Henry’s illness, impending death, all the particulars. But somehow we just supported one another through that. And it connects us today, without words.
I am realizing as I write that THAT is what I will miss most about Cliff. I know and he knows without words. I know he knows me without words, and I know him without words. I guess for professors that’s pretty rare. For friends, it makes us pretty profound friends.
When I have returned to Pocatello, Cliff has made an effort to see me every time. I have met Reta, and I am so grateful to her, to him for being open to that relationship, for the knowledge that he has been loved these past years. That she is the person he needed speaks all to me, because Reta is real.
I don’t know all the reasons my tears keep coming for Cliff. I understand it will be a well-deserved exit, and an exit he has thought about a lot and for many years. I think a lot of my tears are of gratitude. None are regret, because he and I just understand. I know I will miss him in this world for sure. In July, I sent him a follow up to a text message conversation, in which he was pissed because he was already ready to go. In it was https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tEWSOPUfYF0. He sent me a big “like,” but just for you who won’t listen to it, here is part of the last verse:
Here where the angels
Have appeared and are gone
Your face like an ember
Glows in the dawn
But I want you to remember
All wild deeds live on
All good times, all good friends
All good things got to come to an end
The thrills have to fade
Before they come 'round again
The bills will be paid
And the pleasure will mend
All good things got to come to an end
All good times, all good friends
All good things got to come to an end
Yes. It was good Cliff. All good, sometimes hard, but all good. I hope you’ll be able to see me when I come, and I thank you so much for even trying. I will miss you when you go, and there is no hurry for me or for all who love you. I hope you’ll visit in spirit if you can, and that you get together on the other side with so many you’ve lost. If none of that exists, I want you to know you are in me and my heart forever and for good. I love you very much, Sandy