The doctor is in
Wearing my "mommy hat," I raced into school, trying to squeeze a meeting with my daughter's teacher into an already hectic day. Okay, I was sporting a surgical scrub top, because I was coming from work, but I was definitely not in a veterinary frame of mind when someone stopped me in the hall. "Can I ask you a question?" she said.
I eschewed my adolescent snappy comeback of "You just did," and took a deep breath, trying to stifle my annoyance. Day after day, as I go grocery shopping, to school meetings, out to dinner, to synagogue, to the beach, day after day, someone comes up to me and says "Can I ask you a question?" I know what that usually means. It means "Can I ask you for veterinary advice?" Here. Now. While you are picking your kid up from school. While you are trying to decide what to make for dinner. While you are praying, relaxing, eating. I once had someone corner me in the bathroom of the Hot Tin Roof during a Livingston Taylor concert to discuss her dog's medical problems at length, while out on stage, he sang song after song (Livingston, that is, not the dog).
It is a challenge for all of us, living as we do in this wonderful, inescapably close-knit community. How do we integrate our personal lives with our professional lives? When do we say "Call me at the office?" When do we say "Of course. How can I help?" It's not just veterinarians who face this dilemma. It's plumbers, doctors, nurses, and lawyers. It's teachers, clergy, electricians, and ferry workers. It's artists, landscapers, massage therapists, and probably you, whatever you do. It's a fact of Island life.
This year I have been lucky to work with two born-and-raised Islanders. Elise, my calm pillar of front desk efficiency, is a member of the Ben David and Barrett clans and just married into the Dolby family. Molly, my loyal and talented assistant, is the daughter of Vineyard Haven town clerk Marion Mudge. Her dad is Dale McClure, well known in his role as president of the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society. Some days it seems as though every client who walks in the door is either related to Elise or Molly, or has known them since kindergarten.
Private and professional lives
I started to notice something interesting. These two seem unaffected and unconfused by the intersections of home and work. Was it their youth? Their inherent temperaments? Or the fact that they had lived here all their lives? So I asked them. "Do you think that having grown up here, you are just more used to the personal and the professional being so intertwined? " Where I grew up, it was less common to see someone from one aspect of your life walk through a different aspect. In other words, you didn't run into your veterinarian at the movies very often. Here, however, there are times, especially in the winter, where I can name the pets of everyone in the popcorn line.
Molly admitted to having been a bit peeved once, when someone called her at home at 9 pm asking her for proof of their dog's rabies vaccination, but other than that, they both said they didn't mind being asked work questions outside of work. Hhhhmmmm. I'll have to ask them again in, say, 20 years. My guess is, they'll have the same attitude. They simply accept as natural and expected that in a small town, on a small island, everyone is connected, and our roles may flow seamlessly from one to another as we move through our day. Our professional personas are not confined to any particular physical space.
But does this mean we shouldn't set any limits, establish any boundaries? Is it OK to ask your doctor to look at that rash on your leg if you run into her at church? What about asking the landscaper how to winter-proof your inkberry bushes if you see him at the gym? If you've lived and worked here for any length of time you have probably been on both sides of this equation.
Since it's time for New Year's Resolutions, I've been thinking about my own struggles with these situations. You'd think I woulda figured it out by now. Hey, I've got it down how to pill a mad cat. I finally can navigate our software program and take a credit card payment (well, most days). But this blending of personal and professional has had me stumped.
In the very early years, I was surprised and pleased that people recognized me, so I answered everyone's questions. Then for a while, overwhelmed by the lack of personal privacy, I hid out in my house. When I was out and about, I replied to every veterinary query with a curt, and sometimes angry, "Call me at the office," and then felt bad that I had been rude. Then I began developing an arsenal of socially acceptable replies. "Sorry. I'm in mommy mode right now." "If you want really good advice, call me at the office where I can give it my full attention." "I can't remember the details without seeing Snoopy's record." "I'll be back at work at 2 and can talk with you then." But sometimes, being caught off guard, I will still be too brusque. Or I will sigh inwardly, surrender, put on my metaphorical doctor's hat, and answer the question with apparent cheerfulness.
"I was wondering..."
That morning at school I was really not up for an impromptu consultation about fleas or diarrhea, but before I could reply, the woman continued. Now what you need to know is that the week before a client had rushed into my office with a cat that had been hit by a car in front of her house. She thought it might belong to a neighbor. The cat, sadly, was DOA - dead on arrival. We sat together for a few moments, as I confirmed that there was nothing we could do. Then she wrapped the cat tenderly in a towel and left with the body to bring to that neighbor. This incident was far from my mind as I heard the familiar phrase "Can I ask you a question?" As I paused, considering my reply, the woman continued, tears welling up. "The cat that Linda brought you the other day. She was mine. I was wondering... do you think she suffered?" In that moment, I was so grateful I had not replied with a terse one-liner. I stopped. We talked.
The older I get, the more I notice the cyclic nature of... well..., everything. Life and death. Nature. Bad habits. Good intentions. Hard feelings. Resolutions. Think about it. The word resolution is actually re-solution. Like we have to keep solving the same problem over and over again. It's human nature. Otherwise we would just have New Year's Solutions once and be done with it. No one should have to be on duty all the time. Maybe it's good to gently remind each other about our limits. On the other hand, my New Year's resolution is to remember that, living on a small island, so intimately with the tides, the shifting sand, so closely intertwined with one another, there is a fluidity to boundaries. An ebb and flow. And maybe that's a blessing.