It is no great revelation to admit the title “Travels with Kathi” is not original. There are few similarities between my meager writing prowess and John Steinbeck’s displayed in the book “Travels with Charley”. Steinbeck described his travels from New York to California, then back to New York. Our travels hardly carry us more than fifty miles from home and returns us to home each night. Steinbeck was accompanied by a standard poodle named Charley. I travel with my soulmate Kathi .
There also are some similarities between the two. Both Steinbeck’s story and ours rely on transportation via pickup trucks; he traveled in a pickup hauling a camper, we travel in a pickup hauling a vet box. Both happen in times of political turmoil; Steinbeck’s in 1960, ours today. The goal of both relates to a description of life in America during a specific time. Steinbeck looks at random people met along the way, while we look at life with animal people, animal lovers and veterinary care providers.
The current news cycle with all the discussion of the public’s perception of, and expectations for, service providers to be perfect in decisions and actions has stimulated thought as I drive through the country-side with Kathi. The subject of expectation of perfection is not new in our country. I’m sure Steinbeck found critics looking for perfection in 1960. As for me, my focus has been related to perfection in veterinary services provided to our clients.
This country has always been obsessed with the concept of perfection. We keep statistics in baseball on perfect games. We had a movie called “10”, about a perfect woman. We talk about a perfect storm. But the perfect baseball game is only perfect by definition: a game where the other team gets no hits or runs; The pitcher can still have thrown balls or have wild pitches. In the movie “10”, Dudley Moore found Bo Derek had a poor personality that made her a poor companion and went back to his old girlfriend, Julie Andrews. The perfect storm occurs because of certain meteorological conditions; it’s hard to say how it could be perfect.
Could the pursuit of perfection be counter-productive? In the 1700’s Voltaire, a French philosopher, was credited with saying “perfection is the enemy of good.” He was saying if people don’t complete a project until they have reached perfection, they may never complete the project. In 1982 the great American philosopher-musical group “Alabama” gave us the song “Close Enough To Perfect For Me”, where they told us a woman doesn’t need to be perfect to be a 10. Maybe our goal shouldn’t be perfection at all.
We tend to define perfection by outcome. It is certainly possible to think a favored outcome was accomplished by a perfect effort. But if we Bronco fans remember the perfect outcome at last year’s Super Bowl, we know Peyton didn’t complete all his passes nor did the defense keep the Panthers out of the end zone. Conversely, many times a task can be completed perfectly while the outcome is terrible; airplanes go down when they fly into a flock of birds. Could the outcome be due to bad luck? And who is having the bad luck; the pilot, the passengers, or the birds? When a policeman or policewoman walks up to a car during a routine traffic stop and the police officer sees the driver has a gun pointed at the officer, there must be a decision made that has a high probability of a bad outcome even if the officer followed his or her police manual perfectly.
Pursuit of the Perfect Outcome
All veterinarians fight a constant battle striving for perfection of diagnosis and treatment, while dealing with the uncontrollable negative outcomes that are part of nature. And when our patient is a very special friend to a client, a poor outcome seems unbearable to both the client and the veterinarian. I can tell you all negative outcomes are painful, and some are devastating to the veterinarian.
To obtain a level of competence of “good” or “excellent”, veterinarians must spend a great deal of time going to continuing education courses, learning the results of the latest research and learning to use the latest equipment. Even then a veterinarian will not reach a level of perfection of diagnosis and treatment. And even if we did, we can’t predict which patients have drawn nature’s short straw where even perfection of veterinary skills will not result in a perfect outcome.
So, what can a veterinarian or, for that matter, a police officer, or pilot do to convince a client they have done a good job when there is a bad outcome? The answer is trust: trust that they have done their best, that their decision was made based on “good” or “excellent” decisions. We ask our clients to realize a bad outcome may be due to bad luck, everyone’s bad luck, not the result of poor diagnoses or performance of veterinary tasks.
As veterinarians, we know we can’t be perfect; but we hope our clients will trust us to do our best. We must put bad luck, whomever is the recipient of the bad luck, behind us. We must get up each day and go forward if we hope to have a chance to help our patients and clients. That is what we have been trained to do, it is our goal. And your trust in our skills is our greatest reward.