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Lending an Ear

Lending an EarThe students who run the pet loss hotline at the Cummings School are enhancing their education while helping grieving pet owners.

No. Grafton, Mass. [11.20.08] Veterinary student Rebecca Bragg knew that volunteering on the pet loss support hotline at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine would improve her client communication skills and give her valuable community service experience. What she didn't know was the impact her work would have on her clients.

One day, a letter arrived from a woman who had called the hotline after losing her pet. The call had not particularly stuck in Bragg's mind, but in her note, the woman talked about how helpful Bragg had been during that time in her life.

"I didn't realize it really helped them that much," says Bragg, who adds that working on the hotline emphasizes that there's more to veterinary medicine than just science.

"You could be the best vet in the world and have the answers to everything," she says, "but if you can't communicate well with your clients and empathize with them and really connect with them, it doesn't really matter."

Bragg now co-directs the hotline along with fellow third-year student Lindsay Mortlock. Founded in 1996 by student Tammy Pierce (V'97), the hotline is completely student run and is funded entirely by private donations. Typically, about a half dozen volunteers, mostly first- or second-year students, work on the hotline in the course of a semester. But this fall, thanks to a recruiting effort in Dean Deborah Kochevar's human-animal relationships class, nearly two-dozen students are participating.

Dr. Lisa Barber, an assistant professor of clinical sciences and faculty advisor for the group, says the experience is useful for the students because they have the chance to interact with pet owners outside of the doctor-client relationship.

"They get to see the clients from a very different point of view," says Barber. "Things that clients won't tell the veterinarian about what they're thinking, how they're feeling, they tell those students on the hotline. It makes them much more sensitive to what clients are actually feeling, and they can look for those clues when they end up in the clinics."

Phone lines are open during the school year from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and calls number between 10 and 20 per week from around the country, with more traffic during the holidays. According to standards set by the American Veterinary Medicine Association, pet loss hotline volunteers on must be trained by a licensed counselor, social worker or psychologist. They offer support but not counseling or medical advice.

In veterinary medicine, pet loss is a tough but unavoidable reality. Bragg says that working the hotline provides student volunteers with a useful complement to their studies, helping shape them into more well-rounded doctors.

"It is scary for students to think that as veterinarians they will be called upon to tell people that their pet is going to die," says Barber. "I think there are some students who recognize that [working on the hotline] helps them to be exposed to people who are going through [pet loss]"

Adds Bragg, "I think it reflects on the school that we have students willing to step up and do this. In reality, that's what a lot of us will do as clinicians."

According to Barber, the opportunity to work on a pet loss hotline appeals to the mindset of the typical veterinary student.

"If you're going to be a veterinarian, you generally are a very caring person," says Barber. "You're doing it because it's your passion, not because you think this is a great way to make a buck and go home at the end of the day. There are people who just want to connect with others."

An important thing for volunteers to keep in mind, say Bragg and Mortlock, is that every caller is different and reacts to grief in his or her own way. Mortlock remembers one older gentleman who had adjusted well to the loss of his pet, but still felt lonely.

"He was very eloquent about how he felt and he expressed himself well," she recalls. "He was so calm and kind about it. He just wanted someone to talk to."

In a day-to-day routine filled with labs, exams and clinical rotations, the students say working at the hotline helps ground their veterinary school experience.

"The experience when they come to a vet's office is not just you having the answers," says Bragg. "It's having you listen to them and having you care about their pet and showing that. Just learning how to communicate with the clients is just as important as the science, really."

Adds Mortlock, "The hotline brings you back to the reason you got into veterinary medicine, which is to help people and their animals."

The pet loss hotline welcome donations from individuals or organizations. For more information, visit the hotline's website.

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