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Relationships are to be treasured

By Don “Doc” Sanders

Some of you may have heard this story from years gone by, but one that is a favorite. Early in our veterinary career my wife, Judy, and I focused totally on building a practice that would provide the best service for our clients, their animals and a positive contribution to the community.

It was unusual for new grads to start a practice right out of vet school, so we were determined to prove ourselves by doing just that. We put in long hours while striving for excellence, providing vet emergency service at night and on weekends. We aggressively branded this style of totally dedicated veterinary medicine to our clients. Then several years into our practice we woke up and realized that smelling the roses was also important.

For most of our practice career we had the privilege to work alongside several fine associate veterinarians who gained their early career training under our tutelage. As we became more mature (long in the tooth), Judy and I treasured the relationships we developed with various young vets as they matured.

Jack is one of these individuals I’ll never forget. He came to us fresh from school — full of the idealism and fire that I also had at graduation. Maybe this is why Jack and I bonded as we did. Jack was very bright but somewhat inexperienced with farming practices and general practice. He worked with us for five years before sprouting his wings of independence, starting his own practice in Virginia.

Some of the proudest moments of our career have been seeing a young green veterinarian mature and eventually leave our nest to start his/her own practice. Today Jack has a successful equine practice with three associates.

Jack is a second generation Italian-American who grew up in Massachusetts. As Italians are often stereotyped, he held very close ties to his family, and friendships were important. And true to the stereotype, he was ardent in his opinions and spoke intensely about events and issues. But usually he was pretty good at holding his passion in check, even after getting kicked by a cow.

Jack and I usually met early in the morning to review the previous day’s cases, and I would spend a little time updating him on current diagnoses or therapy. However, it was a two-way street; he often brought cutting-edge information to me on the latest treatments. When we had time, these discussions often led to philosophical discussions about practice, communicating with clients or the human-animal bond. We became good friends.

Clients were usually interested in our lives, especially when we demonstrated our interest in their situation. I still remember one client, long since departed, who kept tabs on Judy and me as we started our family. We have three grown children, two daughters-in-law and five grandchildren. As most of you know after Judy passed away, I am now married to Kristen, widow with three sons, daughters-in-law, four grandchildren, a great-grandchild and two more in the “incubator.”

When my daughter, Michelle, was born, this client calculated back and determined that she was likely conceived while Judy and I were attending a veterinary reproduction conference the previous September. It became a big joke that each year we had a child in the month of June; he determined that conception had to have occurred at the same meeting each September.

Jack delighted in relaying to us the latest comments of our gestation-calculating client. Of course, I was determined to not let Jack escape retribution for his merriment.

When Jack joined our staff, we agreed to his request for two weeks off for his and his fiancée Sally’s fall wedding and honeymoon. Jack was really a special person, so it took no forethought to agree. Sally visited Jack a couple of times that summer. She was such a sweet gal and class act, albeit somewhat naïve.

A few days prior to his departure for the wedding at Sally’s home church in New Jersey, I casually asked Jack, “Where are you and Sally going on your honeymoon?” He almost told me, then caught himself. “Oh no, you don’t. I know better than to tell you. You’re up to no good!”

It was true that I’d thought a practical joke would be really appropriate since neither Judy nor I could attend the wedding. So, over the next week I tried to get one of our vet technicians to discover their destination. But Jack recognized the red flags and kept mum.

He left for the wedding with his secret unrevealed. It was almost depressing. Surely there had to be a way to find out. The frustration only made me more determined to learn their honeymoon location. I wasn’t yet sure what I would do if I did find out, but certainly a scheme would come to me.

Sure enough, a couple days later inspiration struck. (Now mind you, this was before 9/11, in a more trusting, less security-conscious time.) I called a friend at the phone company to request a favor. He agreeably checked Jack’s phone calls for the previous month. Four calls stuck out from the rest, which were to Sally or his parents.

I dialed those numbers and was connected to hotels on the New England coast. A hotel in Kennebunkport appeared to be where they intended to spend most of their honeymoon. The manager there became my co-conspirator. I sent her a check for a bottle of champagne, which she purchased and slipped in their room while they were out for the day.

To top it off, I instructed the manager to put a note, without a signature, on the bottle: “Sally, I still love you in spite of it all.”

You can easily get wrapped up being all business-like in life, never stopping to smell the roses or laughing and treasuring family and friends. An anonymous e-mail recently summed it up best: “Life is short, break the rules, kiss slowly, love truly, laugh uncontrollably and… never regret anything that makes you smile!”

It was several months before Jack caught me, after my daughter got blabby and spilled the beans. Jack told me the champagne bottle added a bit of mystery to their honeymoon. He knew it was a prank but was certain it couldn’t have been his boss’s doing. He said that Sally was distressed and that she insisted there had never been a man in her life but him.

As I recently reflected on these fond memories of our friendship with Jack and Sally, I decided to give them a call. It has been too long.

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