I’m kneeling next to Baxter examining his toe. Baxter is a sweet old pit-bull mix that is patiently letting me hold his foot as I stare at an ugly tumor that is growing from his nail bed. The growth is bleeding and the owner had it wrapped in a make shift bandage. I’m doing all the right things, reflecting back what the owner is telling me, positioning myself next to the owner, not across from him, sitting at an even level to the owner and using words that are easy to understand. All of my training in client communication however is failing me. Baxter’s dad looks at me like I have three heads. I gently explain that the growth’s appearance and location, along with Baxter’s age and breed really concern me and that the only thing to be done is to amputate the toe. I assure the owner that Baxter will be able to walk comfortably after surgery as the toe is not a weight bearing toe and that he would be well medicated throughout the recovery process. Baxter’s dad continues to talk about some kind of cream or ointment that I could prescribe to make the growth go away. I’m getting nowhere with him. It’s like he doesn’t believe me and unfortunately, I have no way to prove this to him. I look at Baxter’s dad. He is an older white gentleman and he seems really nice and concerned about his dog. I know that my senior vet is in the building doing a dental. He is also an older white gentleman who is also really nice. I ask Baxter’s dad if he would like me to see if that doctor can come in and look at the growth as well. He happily and eagerly agrees. I warn him that it may be a little while until that doctor is free. Until then I’m going to give him something to read about nail bed growths while he waits. He is happy to wait.

I make my way to my colleague and ask him to consult about Baxter. We walk in together and he looks at the toe and he say the exact same things. Right away Baxter’s dad agrees and is ready to move ahead.

What the heck just happened here? Unfortunately, this is not the first and I’m sure it won’t be the last time this has happened to me. Being a young woman veterinarian has its disadvantages at times and being a young woman brown veterinarian even more so. As much as we like to pretend that appearances don’t matter, that it’s our merit and not how we look that counts, the sad truth is that it does matter. Client perceptions of us can happen before we even meet them. My last name is Hispanic. I look every bit of it. Whether I like it or not there are people out in the world that will judge me based on those things. I’ve had more than one client ask me “where are you from, how old are you, (and my favorite) what are you?” Early on in my career these comments would eat at my self-confidence. They would spark the fire of imposter syndrome deep in my belly. It’s really, really easy for an already uncertain young vet to feel this way and doubly crushing when you feel the sting of discrimination. Discrimination for all things that are completely beyond my control. For being young, for being inexperienced, for being a woman, for being a minority. It all stings. Even when the request to see the senior vet is as polite as can be, it still stabs at your core.

Did I feel like that with Baxter’s dad? No, I didn’t. I didn’t feel like that because along the way I’ve learned lots of things that have helped me to navigate this situation in a much healthier way. I didn’t take it personally. I didn’t make it about me. I realized that part of Baxter’s dad’s wiring caused him to react to me with disbelief. It’s not my place to fix that or worry about that. That part is completely out of my control. What is in my control is my reaction. My choice to choose my response instead of knee jerk react. My response to stay open and ask questions about what might make this easier, about what might be helpful for HIM, led to the solution that we all needed. Had I gone to my knee jerk reaction to start the negative self-talk I would have shut down and the man would have left and his dog would still have a potentially life-threatening growth on his toe. That reaction would have served no one. By staying open, by choosing curiosity, by not letting my significance or my ego run the show I was able to achieve my goal. Baxter’s life has a chance to be saved. And if that’s not worth all the hard work and growth that I’ve put myself through, then I don’t know what is.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the DrAndyRoark.com editorial team.

Dr. Ericka Mendez is a small animal veterinarian on the east coast of Florida. She loves reading, teaching and writing about veterinary wellness and channels all her loves into her site The Purposeful Vet.  She shares her life with her husband and daughter and can often be found at the beach, at a Disney park or on the couch watching Harry Potter movies.