We’ve all done it. We’ve all had that gut-twisting moment that comes with the sudden realization that you’ve made a mistake. It’s inevitable. As a human being, we try our best to be perfect despite knowing we never will be. The only thing we can do is be accountable for our mistakes and learn from them. Occasionally, we might even laugh about it sometime in the future when the terror of the moment has dissipated. Maybe then, we can look back on our past selves with gentler judgement.
I have been working in the vet field for almost 9 years now. The Veterinary Emergency + Referral Center of Hawaii has seen me grow from an assistant to a registered technician in that time and many, many mistakes were made and learned from. I grimace at the thought of some of these mistakes. Others have been lost to the dark abyss where the Balrog sleeps. There is one mistake that re-emerges every now and again like the groundhog in the beginning of February. But instead of being the Harbinger of Spring, this particular memory throws a shiver down my spine like a frigid winter flurry even as others laugh at the imagery when I regale them of the story.
A Memory i will never forget
It was a cutting day like any other: overbooked, overwhelmed, and nonstop. I was on my feet rushing between the overflowing instrument sink, the newly vacated OR, the kennels, and the prep table. With me was Neko, a sweet, demure cat. She had medium length fur that looked and felt like bridal satin; brilliant white with patches of vanta black where even visible light gets lost. Though I was in a rush hustling from her kennel to the induction area, she was nuzzled into my arms with the slow demeanor of a sleepy sloth. At least, that’s what she may have looked like. She was probably scared out of her mind; desperately ostriching her face into the crook of my elbow to make it all go away. But unlike Dorothy, she couldn’t just click her heels and return to Kansas. She was slated for surgery.
All the boxes were ticked: IV catheter placed without a hitch, premedication’s given, flow-by oxygen initiated. I rested her on our prep table that had a towel laid out for whatever minimal comfort it may provide. I called her owner. The surgery SOP was followed without a fault. My anesthetist stepped up to the plate and we knocked her down, all without a single complaint from one of the loveliest patients I ever had the pleasure of working with. Her eyes rolled back and her whole body relaxed into the table. Everything was going according to plan.
With a flick of the wrist, I clicked on my clippers and went to work. I always prided myself on the neatness of my shave jobs and the ability to know exactly what margins the surgeon wanted. And cats are usually very satisfying to shave since their fur melts away with nary a suggestion from my blade. Neko’s long silky fur yielded with ease as my clippers mowed away, revealing her velvety pink skin. My anesthetist and I were cheerfully bantering away as the day had been going so smoothly despite the long list of patients we had yet to get to. In no time at all, her belly was shaved into a perfect, surgeon-pleasing rectangle, ready to be scrubbed down before heading into the OR. Our anesthesia time for the prep would have been record breaking if not for one small detail.
Suddenly, I felt it: the 6-foot 3-inch presence of my surgeon silently looming over my right shoulder. That’s all it took for a lightning bolt realization to shoot through my brain and a violent shiver rolled down my spine.
The neck! I was supposed to shave her neck!
I had done an abdominal shave on a patient slated for a thyroidectomy! My stomach dropped to the floor and all I could think to do was grab the significant pile of wispy, luxurious fur I had callously mowed from Neko’s belly and flatten it back on with the desperation of a TV competition baker slapping fondant over their falling cake. It happened in a flash, but it felt like an eternity of fear and abject horror. I stared down at the rat’s nest of fuzzy lawn clippings on Neko’s belly for what must have been 3 days when I was abruptly brought back to earth by the ear-splitting cackles of my colleagues. They howled at me like laughing hyenas at the idea that maybe if I put the fur back on, it would stick, and no one would notice; much like a windblown toupee precariously perched atop the shiny cranium of a balding man in a business suit. Having regained my mental faculties once the shock subsided, all I could think of doing was repeatedly yelling, “I’m sorry!” while resisting the urge to commit seppuku in order to restore my family’s honor.
As the laughter died down, I continued to solemnly bald my poor, unsuspecting victim to include the actual margins needed for the surgery being done. She had a long trapezoid cut out from her chin to her hind limbs that was geometrically perfect and yet somehow so wrong. Despite the shame I had brought to the Surgery Department that day, a gentle, soothing wave of relief washed over me. I had expected a much worse reaction from the surgeon who had to explain to her owner why Neko’s fur coat had been maimed so egregiously. Looking back on it, I think the fear fueled reflex to slap the fur back on her belly had defused the situation and saved me from having to leave this career and change my identity. The actual surgery went on with no complications and when dad finally came to pick Neko up the next day, I apologized and he simply shrugged, saying she needed a summer cut anyway.
Will I ever live this down? No, probably not. It’s too good of a story not to share. And it gave me a valuable lesson to always check and double check before you do. Had I just made the confirmation before cold stainless steel met soft cat belly, I could have avoided the debacle completely. Fur will grow back (most of the time) but some mistakes, you just can’t come back from. It’s harmless to ask for help to check the boxes and save your own skin, but there’s loads of shame when you have to tell an owner that their cat is now a part-time nudist. I can still feel the steam rising up behind my ears as my face flushes red at the memory. In the grand scheme of things though, I came out of it relatively unscathed and slightly more endearing to my witnesses. In hindsight, that might have made the whole ordeal worth it. It made for an embarrassing bonding memory for the three of us involved in my scandal and serves as a tale to soothe the nerves of trainees who may be intimidated by the pace we keep in my department. For everyone to know that even a person with almost a decade of experience can make hilarious mistakes is a reminder that I am no better than they are. Afterall, I’m still only human.
Written by: Kiara Sakamoto, Clinical Supervisor