Turn Right At….What?

By: Dr. Arn Anderson, DVM

North Texas has never been known for fog. Maine is known for fog but lately Texas is not known for rain much less any kind of airborne mist. That December morning we had fog as thick as gravy on chicken fried steak. The radio said we had minimal visibility and urged everyone to stay home if they could. We were supposed to be two counties away palpating heifers. This was a new client and a place we had never been. With printed directions in hand my technician and I headed down the county road; onward through the fog.

For the first thirty minutes we did pretty well until we crossed into territory where we had never been. But fog has a way to disorient, and common landmarks never appear and distances become lost in the haze. I asked the tech to read the directions the receptionist had taken from the new client’s phone dictation. She listed off the county road numbers, the right and left turns, the rail road tracks and even the big new convenience store. So far so good, even in the haze we had navigated fairly well and made the turn onto the farm-to-market road leading to the ranch. That’s when she read the last line; “When you see Jesus turn right”.

There was a short silence followed by my request for her to repeat the final crucial direction. I had heard her the first time but, like that spelling bee contestant asking for a word to be used in a sentence, I was trying to buy time for the direction to soak through the fog into my brain.

All rural veterinarians have buckets of stories about trying to follow directions to clients’ places. I’ve been told to turn at the big rock, the big tree and even the big bull. This works until the rock is bulldozed, the tree dies or the bull moves. I’ve been told to go to the cattle guard next to Joe’s gate, the pink house or the place where the clients’ parents lived. Again, Joe died in the 1930’s, I’m color blind and pink, well it’s not pink, and I’ve never known their parents.I even had one colleague that was instructed to come to the ranch to pull a calf by following the fire trucks. The client’s barn was on fire and he felt chasing the trucks would be the best way to find the cow.

Over the years we have learned the distance is arbitrary (a mile may actually be 3 miles), rural mail boxes usually do not have numbers on the side, and most people really don’t know left from right much less north from south. To make matters worse, in our county, roads can have three names; the state numerical designation, the new 911 name, and lastly what everyone really calls the road. Anyone that says the cow will be by the road has never thought that the cow can and usually does get up and move right after they call the vet. Clients are not confused, they simply know how to get home and rarely have to tell anyone how to get to their place over the phone.

I have tried a GPS with the sweet voice that tells you when to turn and how far to drive. After explaining to the Fort Worth police officer that the voice on my GPS had instructed me to nearly drive through the wall of the downtown bus terminal I have since resigned to the fact that I am not wired to be yelling at a talking machine and driving at the same time. Thus over the last twenty years my clinic has developed a unique shorthand of “L”s and “R”s, road numbers and geologic landmarks to successfully (most of the time) navigate through the back roads of Montague County.

That’s what made this set of directions odd. There it was “turn right at Jesus and go to the end of the road”. We were out of cell phone service, driving through the fog looking for Jesus. The more we drove the less we spoke. The fog played tricks with our minds and both of us were becoming worried in what form we would see Jesus. In Texas there are many euphemisms for dying. You can kick the bucket, pass over, buy the farm, go to your celestial home, croak, go to the other side and yes, for the faithful, go see Jesus. In the quiet fog we began to see things, shapes and movement; both of us imagining the worst scene from every horror movie ever made. What did the client mean by ‘see Jesus’? What did he mean by turn right? I wanted to meet a new client and palpate cows but not enough to see the bright light.

Out of desperation and in an unreasonable fear I took the next right and drove, looking for any house with a land line phone. We were soon rescued by a cowboy stepping over a cattle guard out of the fog waving at us. Even the blind hog will find the acorn, and we had turned right and driven up on the ranch. Trying to act relaxed and assured neither the tech nor I mentioned our directional apprehension. We checked the heifers and prepared to leave. I could not resist any longer and quietly asked about the cryptic directions. The owner said seriously everyone around his county knows about the giant statue right before his turn. No way could we have missed it right there on the corner. As we drove back to the county road I noticed the fog was starting to lift and the sun was coming through. As we rolled to a stop at the intersection there to my left, ascending through the fog, was a 30 foot concrete statue of Jesus with up raised arms complete with angels and a halo. The owner had given very precise directions. We simply missed the cue due to the fog.

Communication is essential to business, relationships and life in general. I think I am speaking clearly but my wife will testify that I mumble. She promises she told me something and I swear I never heard a thing. Our biggest problem with medical directives and instructions is simple clarity of communication. Clients hear what they want to hear and the rest is lost in the fog. As you work with your veterinarian on herd health take the time to have the directions, plan or recommendations put in writing. Read these recommendations and make sure you have your questions answered. The biggest mistakes I have encountered involved directions being misunderstood or not followed at all.

As we passed the big statue and started driving home I noticed a smaller concrete sculpture of Marilyn Monroe on the other side of the drive way. It was the iconic image of her with her skirt blowing up in New York. When I got back to the clinic I changed the directions in the computer to read “go ‘til you see Marilyn’s skirt, then turn right”. I figure if the next vet’s mind wanders the statue of Jesus will straighten him back out.

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