In light of the “Not One More Vet” movement and the end of National Suicide Prevention Week, my heart felt compelled to write about this topic along with sharing the story of my best friend and colleague. After practicing veterinary medicine for a little over 7 years now, I feel that I have gained a wide range of experience and perspective. I have had the opportunity to work as a full time practitioner in general practice where I spent several years getting to know my clients and patients on a personal level and giving my all to tending to their every need. I’ve also worked vaccine and spay/neuter clinics for lower income families. More recently, I have jumped into the world of being a relief vet that has allowed me to work at hospitals all across Tennessee. So throughout the years, I have experienced quite a variety of clientele, hospital dynamics, and quality of medicine.
Every day comes with it’s own challenges that make it difficult to thrive as a veterinarian. Whether that be giving your heart and soul to a difficult case, all for that patient not to make it through. The sleepless nights of how you could have done better (which are most nights). The insurmountable school loans that you owe that are keeping you from taking a much needed break or leaving a harsh work environment. Taking the extra time to educate an owner on their pet’s illness and empathize with their frustration and concern, all for that client to later turn on you and slander your name on the internet despite your best intentions. Having a client hold you at gunpoint because they can’t handle the pain of losing their dog that had passed away before it even got to your hospital. Leaving your family reunion to take care of a patient after hours. Watching a client commit suicide in your lobby over the grief of losing their pet. Running by the vet hospital to take care of one more patient before you take yourself to the hospital to give birth to your baby. Having to take down your Facebook account due to constant threats from a client. Giving away free services because a client told you to do everything to save their pet, yet they never pay their bill. Having your spouse not know what to do with you when you can’t pick yourself up off the floor after another grueling day. Working with the flu. Having to listen to a new client tear down their previous vet, knowing that 90% of the time that veterinarian really cared and did everything they could despite a less desirable outcome. Missing your lunch. Missing your weekend. Missing your kids. Missing your life.
Every scenario that I have mentioned have either happened to me or one of my colleagues. My heart is called to raise awareness to the mental state of my profession. I titled this article “Dear Client” because I wish the general public knew how their words and actions are a huge part of why we are killing ourselves. Veterinarians as a whole are extremely hard on themselves. We start our profession with a tender heart determined to provide the best medicine to every patient under our care. Unfortunately, as the years pass and the hardships continue, it becomes harder to maintain that tender heart. Client expectations are a huge part of the problem. I wish that more clients would understand that we are doing everything we can and we really do have you and your pet’s best interest at heart. If you are feeling hurt or confused, give your veterinarian the respect of a conversation. Start that conversation assuming their intentions are good. Ask questions for clarification if you need to. We understand that it can be difficult to pay for the tests and treatments that are best for your pet, but we will always offer the best and work with what you’ve got. However, expect that when we can’t provide those tests and treatment, it will be difficult to diagnose and treat them properly. Just know that we care.
I do want to take a moment to thank all of the wonderful clients out there that are kind and respectful to their veterinarian. Personally, I have been fortunate to have developed close relationships with many wonderful clients. Your support and friendship throughout the years means more to me than you’ll ever know. My most prized possessions (aside from the physical people and furbabies in my life) are the letters, cards, collars of your pets, and gifts that you all have given me throughout the years. And although I am at a point in my life where I am getting rid of all the excess… I will keep these treasures forever. Whenever I have a hard day, it is your kind words that bring me comfort in knowing that my hard work and dedication meant something to you. So thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
I have personally witnessed many of my colleagues (including myself) fall into deep depression and poor overall mental health. There are many aspects of this career that need to change in order to save our profession. I have watched as new graduates boldly put up boundaries and be a part of changing the work culture. For example, instead of working 10 to 12 straight hours without a break, they just leave and take a much needed lunch break or trip to the gym. Kudos. Support groups such as NOMV are developing and brave veterinarians from across the world are sharing their stories to help raise awareness. One brave veterinarian in particular is my best friend, Dr. Lindsay Clark. She is an incredible vet and human being, and she too has battled poor mental health like many of us. We have lived far apart most of our post-graduate years, and at times, I was really REALLY worried about my friend. I can’t imagine life without her. I am grateful to say that we are both in a much happier place and are still enjoying our profession for now. I have included her story below. To all of my colleagues out there, I see you. I hope you are staying attuned of your mental health and when needed, make brave changes in order to better your situation.
Here is Lindsay’s story:
Being a veterinarian is the most amazing feat, BUT also the hardest job I’ve ever had. My struggle within the profession started even before graduation.
Do I know enough?
Am I ready for this?
Can I help them?
Am I going to make mistakes?
I can’t possibly make mistakes because they are counting on me.
I can’t let them down.
Because of these inner thoughts, I pushed myself to do an internship after graduation (which is not required). The internship was additional training. I wanted to be better. I wanted to know everything. I wanted to be the best version of myself as a veterinarian. It was all for them – those furry little creatures that can’t speak for themselves. They give us so much and deserve the best.
Fast forward 4 years…
I’m in corporate general practice and I’m put into situations that I feel uncomfortable. The surgical anesthesia protocols are lacking. All of a sudden, I’m feeling as though these pets aren’t getting the highest quality of medicine that they deserve. On top of seeing 30+ patients in a day, I’m faced with untrained staff. I feel as though I’m completely out of control. I’m overworked and no one has my back on the quality of care.
I can’t fall asleep because of the day that comes next. I worry about those animals. I want to give them and their owners everything but the schedule won’t allow it. Therefore, I don’t sleep. I worry. When I bring it up to the hospital staff, no one listens. This goes on for over a year.
The body is an amazing thing. It has its own alarm systems. My body started alerting me to the danger I was causing myself. It began with debilitating neck/upper back pain…followed by lymph node enlargement over my entire body, fever, diarrhea every day. Initially specialists thought I hurt myself or contracted an infectious disease, but I was tested for everything possible. At the end of the day, everything was a manifestation of stress and depression. I lived with lack of sleep and pain in my back for a year…medication only helped slightly. I even tried leaving the profession…twice.
Everything changed when my uncle lost his life due to mental illness. I realized that the path I was on could ultimately lead to suicide and I wasn’t going to accept that fate. I reached out for help and it changed my life forever. There is an amazing lady at the University of Tennessee that helped me climb out of the emotional hole I was in. With one session, she helped me alleviate my pain and other physical manifestations of stress/anxiety.
With some time, I’ve been able to set boundaries in my work life. I can now say that I’m happy.
Historically, we are a profession that is supposed to be able to do EVERYTHING, but that’s just not the case. Everyone is better at some things than others. We should rejoice over what we love and what we are good at. I feel the future of this profession will continue to become more specialized….as it should.
I hope that those that have a passion for animals will stand to together to do what’s right for their care.
Lindsay Clark, DVM