Monday, August 24, 2015

The Culture of a Monthly Column

Regular readers of the veterinary industry magazine DVM360 may recognize this name: Dr. Michael Obenski. For those of you who don't, Mike, a retired feline practitioner in Pennsylvania, was a columnist for the magazine for 37 years. 37 years. 37 years. 

Holy cow.

You understand, I just had to talk to this man. Here's what he had to say about life, vet med, and writing to a monthly deadline for over three decades.
Michael Obenski, DVM
"I was in a small animal practice in 1972," Mike says. "It was my first job out of school. A very nice job. I stayed there for six years. Around 1974, it was decided in the practice that it would be a good idea to have all the veterinarians go take the Dale Carnegie course, How to Win Friends and Influence People. This course is largely public speaking and as part of the course, you are called upon to tell the group something about your life. So, I found immediately that when I got up to tell a story, it was phenomenally received. It was fun. So having seen that I could tell stories and people loved them, that got me to try writing."

Mike wrote a few columns and sent them off. Initially, magazines weren't biting, but Mike caught the interest of a brand new veterinary publication, the now-known DVM360. "This magazine was just in its first year and trying to build itself, so I decided to give it a try," he says. "And that's it. I continued with them for 37 years."

Having retired from writing late last year, Mike has hundreds of columns to his name. Hundreds. I asked him where all his content came from and how he stayed fresh. "The thing is that when you practice veterinary medicine every day, I mean, come on," he says. "Strange stuff happens so consistently. And when it didn't, veterinarians from all over the world would occasionally send me some story or unusual thing that happened to them. You might notice that I was a cat specialist exclusively from 1978 on and yet I wrote stories about horses and cows and dogs because not every incidence necessarily happened to me."

"The thing is that when you practice veterinary medicine, strange stuff happens so consistently."

As we've read about in this blog before, both veterinarians and physicians have a tight rope to walk in memoirs when it comes to patient confidentiality. Mike had a fantastic tool in his writing when it came to tackling sticky issues. "In my columns, I have a "friend" whose name is Arnie and he practices down the road," Mike explains. "Well, Arnie of course doesn't exist. If something was a little controversial or a statement was going to be taken wrongly by somebody, I often attributed it to Arnie."


Mike continues. "Arnie's existence has been questionable over the years. I've had veterinarians from other states ask me exactly who is Arnie, really? There was a vet in Florida who wrote me a letter describing exactly who Arnie was. He quoted Pogo and said: 'We've met the Arnie and it is us.' Anyway, Arnie was supposed to be the well-established, big hospital veterinarian and he was a reflection of many of my friends but he wasn't a real person."

Another method Mike used for protecting privacy actually added to the entertainment value of his columns without belittling the character in a personal way. "One of the things my writing became known for, if you could call it known--I don't want to act like I'm a household word or anything--was the use of names. I made up hundreds of names over the years. I always used what I called medically humorous names. My cantankerous colleague was called A. Brasive, my large animal colleague was called Juan Armup. I never used names like Bill Jones or Mary Smith."

Perhaps the strongest feature of Mike's columns was his sense of humor. "Everything I've written was light," he says. And then an interesting comment on the state of people nowadays reveals itself: "People have become so much more serious. I think a lot of people have lost their sense of humor. Once in a blue moon I'd hear from someone who would be very upset and say that I was mocking my clients or I'm biting the hand that feeds me. And that was usually one person who read one column and took it the wrong way. Anyone who read my columns for years knows that I mocked my colleagues, I mocked the clients, I mocked myself, I mocked the technicians. You weren't immune."

"I mocked my colleagues, I mocked the clients, I mocked myself, I mocked the technicians."

Speaking of now versus the 1970s, Mike and I discuss the changes seen in veterinary medicine over the past few decades and the emergence of the specialty doctor. "If you come to me with a broken leg, I'll fix it," Mike says. "Does your cat have an endocrine disease? I'll fix it. But now, I have to tell every single client: well, you know, I could send you to an orthopedic surgeon or endocrinologist. When I was a kid, if you broke your leg, your family doctor set it. Now, if you tweak your pinkie, you're sent to an orthopedic surgeon. Veterinary medicine has become the same way."

"I wanted to be a veterinarian my whole freakin' life."

Mike has had two books published, both compilations of his columns in DVM360. With his extensive column experience and two books under his belt, however, he still strongly puts vet med first and foremost. "I did enjoy the writing but never ever ever did I look at myself as a writer or someone who wants to be a writer. My entire life I wanted to be a veterinarian and that's what I was. I wanted to treat animals every day and what's what I did. The book thing and the column thing were totally off to the side. I don't look at myself as a writer. I don't think: oooh, now that I'm retired I'm going to work on a screenplay. No. I wanted to be a veterinarian my whole freakin' life and I practiced every day."

"I did enjoy writing but never ever ever did I look at myself as a writer."

Admittedly, this black and white cut off of writer/non-writer struck me. How can you write regularly for 37 years and then just turn it off? Retired now also from practice, Mike says he's moved on. "I'm just living out my golden years happy as a clam," he says. "Works for me."


  1. Thank you for this interview! I enjoyed working with Dr. Obenski immensely before his retirement from writing. It was a sad day for all of us when he hung up his pen, but we have his treasure trove of columns to enjoy for the foreseeable future. -- Kristi Reimer, editor, dvm360

    1. Hi Kristi!
      It was fantastic getting to talk with Mike - very entertaining, very humble, and a true believer and lover of veterinary medicine. Thanks for the comment!