Pets: Q&A with Dr. Nick Trout

Angell Animal Medical Center surgeon Nick Trout talks about his new dog-centered book, Love Is the Best Medicine.

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We catch up with the Boston vet and bestselling author as his latest work, Love Is the Best Medicine, hits bookstores in March.

A staff surgeon at Angell Animal Medical Center in Jamaica Plain for more than a decade, Nick Trout launched his writing career with the 2008 memoir Tell Me Where It Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing, and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon. Now he returns with Love Is the Best Medicine, which centers on two dogs — Helen, a cocker spaniel mix who is rescued from the streets only to face a devastating prognosis, and miniature pincher Cleo, whose fairly routine surgery takes an unthinkable turn — and how these animals and their owners touched Trout’s life.

After finishing Tell Me Where It Hurts, had you been planning to write another book anyway? Or did the cases of Helen and Cleo tug you back to the keyboard?

I felt like the story of Helen and Cleo needed to be told. In this job I’m fortunate enough to cross paths with some remarkable owners and remarkable animals. When this combination yields so many valuable life lessons, and you happen to be a writer, it’s pretty much impossible to resist the tug of the keyboard!

The new book has the storytelling feel of a novel, partly because it includes scenes in the owners’ lives that you didn’t witness first-hand, but instead reconstructed. What was that experience like for you, as a writer?

I wanted the reader to understand how these two dogs came to be in their owners’ lives. In this way I felt like the reader would become so much more invested in the outcome. Through interviews, phone conversations, and e-mails I recorded all the pertinent details and facts. Though I couldn’t witness all the events first-hand, I felt like I could be true to the essence and integrity of all the characters, on two legs and four.

Have Cleo’s and Eileen’s owners read the book yet? If so, what’s been their reaction — is it what you thought or hoped it might be?

Yes, they have all read the book. Their response has been humbling and more than I could ever have hoped for. I wanted everyone concerned to realize how much of an impact they all had on me and the way I approach animal healing.

More so than in your previous book, Love Is the Best Medicine shows the bond between vet and owner, in addition to vet and patient. Can you talk a little about the challenges or rewards of that person-to-person connection?

I think the relationship between veterinarian and patient and owner is triangular. In part, it stems from the patient’s inability to “tell me where it hurts.” Denied this luxury of direct, unambiguous conversation, veterinarians must engage the owner in the quest for a diagnosis. Striving for great communication provides an opportunity for the owner to feel like an integral part of the process, that they are right there with me, weighing the options, making the decisions, working together for a common goal. Oftentimes, owners will share what makes this animal special, their motivation for pursuing treatment, the joy of having this creature in their lives. Getting to discover this part of the back story is wonderful and it never ceases to amaze me. I may be working to cure an animal, but my efforts can have much greater reach and impact on humans that I ever imagined possible.

When and where do you find time to write?

I still work full time at Angell and, yes, my schedule is crazy. I write at night and on weekends but my most creative hour occurs during my morning commute — I scratch out all sorts of thoughts on Post-it notes.

Has being an author affected how pet owners interact with you?

Because I see primarily second-opinion, referral surgical cases, I imagine most pet owners who have fears of being included in a future book would choose to avoid me. From time to time I do meet owners who would like to be included in my writing — in fact, very few owners ever want me to change their name or identifiers when I ask them if they would like to be anonymous. I guess they are intrigued to see how I describe them and their pet.

James Herriot’s name inevitably comes up quite a bit in your reviews — how does that comparison sit with you?

I grew up reading James Herriot, and was fortunate to meet the man himself when I was a kid and my parents lived in the heart of Herriot country, in the Yorkshire Dales. There will only be one James Herriot and no one else will ever come close. I can only try to bring his stories into the 21st century and, in doing so, try to point out that the humor and the pathos of Herriot’s novels, the passion to heal sick animals, the quirky and charming characters, still exists in today’s veterinary medicine.

What other writers inspire you?

Any writer who can give me goose bumps with the quality of their prose in the first chapter, will inspire me to try harder, to see a different perspective or innovative way to move the story forward. I talking about Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Safran Foer, Michael Chabon, Tom Perrotta, Dennis Lehane — I could go on and on. I guess I’m trying to make up for quitting my formal education in English when I was just 16 years old!

Will you continue to write books and if so, do you have a sense of what the next one will be about?

Yes, I will continue to write. My next book comes out in March 2011 and focuses on the animals I think of as my own pets, and some remarkable creatures from my professional life that have stepped up and provided some of the most defining and resonant moments of my life. These lessons have been subtle, startling, and inspirational, playing a small but vital part in helping to shape the person you see with the stethoscope around his neck.

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