One sunny afternoon, author and Bark contributing editor Lee Harrington met Nick Trout, UK-born and -trained staff surgeon at Boston’s Angell Animal Medical Center, at a crowded café in Cape Cod, Mass., to discuss dogs, writing and the incredible success of Dr. Trout’s debut book, Tell Me Where It Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon.
Bark: In almost every review of Tell Me Where It Hurts, the reviewer compares you to James Herriot. Do you consider yourself a modern Herriot?
Nick Trout: Not at all. As far as I’m concerned, there was only one James Herriot and I’m not trying to emulate or copy him. What I am hoping to do is to show that the characters one meets as a veterinarian, and the passions we share, are the same today inside a modern sterile hospital as they were in the Yorkshire Dales of the late 1930s.
B: How did you come to write this book?
NT: It just got to a point where a lot of stories were buzzing around in my head, and I asked myself, I wonder if I could do anything with this? I had no idea whether it was any good or not. I had no audience other than my wife. She’s honest, a great editor and she reins in my English colloquialisms.
B: In your book, you talk about the guilt of euthanasia—both your own and that felt by clients once a decision is made to put a beloved dog “to sleep.”
NT: I write about my first dog, Patch, a loyal and protective German Shepherd. He was the dog I grew up with, and like so many of his breed, arthritic hips were compounded by the neurological disease degenerative myelopathy. My father and I conspired to keep this poor animal alive for longer than we should have, and the guilt of that decision still haunts me. Like many teenage boys in that position, I didn’t cry when he was finally put to sleep, but I also didn’t forget. It was a valuable lesson in understanding when it’s the right time to let go, while dignity remains intact, before doubt and denial have a chance to take hold.
B: Now that you’re a vet, how do you approach the situation?
NT: One of the big challenges facing modern veterinary medicine and dog ownership is the fact that we have so much more to offer the animal. In the Herriot era, if a dog had bad hips, pain relief in the form of euthanasia might have been the only humane option. People turned to vets for assistance, and this was the best they could offer.
These days, veterinarians can come back with all sorts of medical and surgical options, forcing the owner to ponder two difficult, interrelated questions: How far should we go, and how far can we afford to go? We are making owners face tougher and tougher decisions about beloved family members all the time.
B: Not only do you show a great affinity for animals, you have a good read on people—your colleagues and clients. I fully confess that I am one of those wacko clients who is a complete hypochondriac, not for myself, but for my dog.
NT (laughs): I prefer it when wacky clients admit they’re wacky. Part of my approach—and one of the things I hope comes across in the book—is my fallibility. I want the owner with me in the decision-making processes. I want to hear what they are thinking. I want to know whether they think what I’m doing is reasonable … or not.
B: So, note to Bark readers: Talk to your vet. Hold nothing back!
NT: Yes, communicate. There was an article in the Boston Globe many years ago about how people wished their MDs were like their vets because it seems that we have much more time to spend with our patients. We need to—and we get to—communicate more.
B: What do you hear about the book from your fellow vets?
NT: Some of the nicest feedback has come from vets. They’ve thanked me for putting into words so much of what we internalize, particularly with some of the tough emotional cases. We may act strong and supportive, but we’re human and fallible too. The only certainty in veterinary medicine is how hard we are going to try to do right by your pet.