Personal Experience Narratives in Veterinary Medicine

By Ware, Carolyn E. | Narrative Culture, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Personal Experience Narratives in Veterinary Medicine


Ware, Carolyn E., Narrative Culture


In recent years the field of veterinary medicine, like that of human medicine, has discovered a "narrative medicine" model that emphasizes the crucial role of storytelling in diagnosing and treating illness (Charon, Garro, Good and Good, Greenhalgh and Hurwitz, Hunter, Hurwitz, Mattingly, Mattingly and Garro). Physicians are encouraged to regard each patient as a storyteller who constructs her or his medical history through personal narratives, but veterinary professionals face a more complicated task. Because their animal patients cannot verbally tell their stories, the animal's owner acts as a surrogate, using anecdotes and narratives to describe the patient's symptoms and progression of illness (Degeling, Myers).1 According to this model, the resulting medical case history reveals "who the patient is and what this means to the client" (Degeling 522) and thus influences the veterinary caretaker's relationship to the animal patient.

From the perspective of folklorists and other narrative scholars, however, this narrow focus obscures the richness and nuance of medical narrative culture as a "communicative essential that shapes and accompanies human connection" (Marzolph and Bendix). As folklorist Diane Goldstein has pointed out, medical professionals largely ignore other forms of narrative, as well as issues of context, genre, and narrative emergence. Goldstein's critique applies equally to veterinary culture. Veterinary hospital personnel regularly tell each other a range of informal narratives, including legends, anecdotes, jokes, personal experience narratives, and other genres that comment directly or indirectly on their work. Until recently, these stories have received little scholarly attention (Ware "Rabid Cows," "Real Doctors," and "Veterinary Medicine").

This ethnography-based article focuses on the personal experience stories that veterinarians, nurses, and veterinary technicians share about their work experiences. Over the past few decades, folklorists and other scholars have recognized the significance of personal stories as a folk narrative genre (e.g., Borland; Labov and Waletsky; Stahl "Personal Narrative," "Study of Meaning," and "Literary Folkloristic"). Studies of occupational culture in particular have demonstrated how personal narratives reveal the beliefs, ideals, values, unofficial rules, and hierarchies shared by members of a specific profession (Bennett, Berkman, Dorson, McCarl, Santino, Tangherlini).2

The specific narratives I examine here belong to the vernacular category of "memorable patient stories."3 As sociologist Clinton Sanders observed, most animals are regarded by their medical caregivers as generic patients and are quickly forgotten or vaguely remembered (UnderstandingDogs 88). A few patients, however, make a lasting impact and are remembered in personal narratives. Typically these stories incorporate some of the structure and medical details of medical case histories, and (like the formal medical history) they establish the animal as a distinctive and cognizant being that possesses an "interior, psychological life" of its own (Mangum 37). In the language of sociology, the stories remind us that nonhuman animal companions are "social actors" who "engage in minded, self-presenting, and intersubjective interaction" with human beings (Arluke and Sanders 50). Thus, they offer insight into how veterinary professionals understand their work and their relationships to nonhuman animal patients and human clients.

The contexts in which these stories are performed vary. Traditionally, colleagues tell them during slow times at work, away from clients: in hospital treatment rooms, around lunch tables, or at social gatherings. Occasionally, a veterinarian or technician uses a personal narrative about a former patient as a teaching tool to convey a specific lesson to vet students or a client. Increasingly, stories about memorable patients circulate on veterinary message boards and other electronic forums, where fellow professionals comment and add their own narratives. …

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