Today I went to my dentist for my semi-annual teeth cleaning. Overall a routine event to a doctor I've been a client of for several years. I'm taken back by a hygienist that I hadn't seen before, but that isn't unusual. As I'm sitting in the chair and she's getting ready she suddenly asks "Are you a vet?" I reply in the affirmative. "Do you work at [clinic]?" I said yes. "I thought you looked familiar! You've taken care of my dogs!"
Situations like this make me (and many other vets nervous). It's not that we don't like our clients or dread the fact that they see us in our "normal" clothes (shorts and a geek t-shirt for me). It's that we don't remember the clients as well as they remember us. And that can be embarrassing.
I see around 75-100 patients every week. Some of them are regulars with whom I'm very familiar. Others I may only see one or two times per year for routine preventative care and check-ups. I certainly have clients I've seen so often and for such big things that I'll remember them instantly and could summarize their pets' medical history without ever looking at a record. But the clients that I would know anywhere number less than two dozen out of the thousands we see at our clinic. Most clients are simply one more in the hundreds seen every month and there is rarely anything that makes those clients stand out. Also, most vets tend to remember the pets better than the clients! I have many patients that I know instantly by name or by seeing them, but I couldn't tell you what their owner looks like if I had a gun to my head.
To the client the situation is very different. I may be the only vet they have been to in years. Even if they only come in a few times per year, it's always me that they see. So while they may be one out of thousands to me, I'm one out of ten (or one out of one!) to them. It's just a numbers game and not surprising that they remember us better than we remember them.
But we don't want to say "I'm sorry, I don't know you." It's true, but we want the client to feel special. I've gotten good at saying very neutral, general things like "How's your baby doing?" "Everything okay with the crew at home?" "Great to see you again!" Is this a little bit of chicanery? Sure. But most clients don't think that we wouldn't recognize them instantly and I don't want to be rude to them. Also, because I care about my clients and patients I do feel a little bad that I don't remember them, even if I've literally seen 1000 pets since theirs was last in.
To a lesser degree there is also the idea that these things happen when I'm not at work and during those times I want to forget that I'm a veterinarian. I just want to be Chris, not Dr. Bern. I'm certainly not going to avoid talking to them and even briefly discussing their pets, but I want my private time to be just that...private.
I also project a slightly different image off work than on. At work I wear khakis, button-up shirts, and a lab coat. Though I don't hide my geek side (I have a Thor watch my son gave me for Father's Day last year and a Celtic ring from a Renaissance Faire), I also don't fly that flag as much as I do outside of work. Today I had a t-shirt from last election season:
While sitting in the dentist's chair my phone's text alert went off quite loudly: "Priority one message from Starfleet coming in on secure channel," a sound clip from Star Trek. I realize that some of my clients would greatly appreciate this personal side, as I've discussed such things with them in the exam room. But to others it may be strange to see that side of their doctor.
In today's situation I finally did recall the hygienist's pets as one of them had had an uncommon heart arrhythmia when I neutered him last year, which stuck in my mind. However, I didn't remember her. Once again, I know pets better than their people.
So if you are a client and you see your doctor or veterinarian in the "real world", be patient with them. They want to remember you but may not be able to. And don't worry if their phone rings to the theme song from "Firefly" (yes, mine does).