I remember being a young child and dreaming one day of becoming a veterinarian. The thought of working with animals brought me great joy, and I longed to save every furry creature that came across my path. Most everyone knows that I achieved that dream and proudly serve my community as a small animal veterinarian. It makes me happy to help animals in need and to educate pet parents simultaneously. I love my job.
I love my job…at least I keep telling myself that.
To be upfront, I really do have a passion for animal welfare and I honestly cannot see myself doing anything else as a career. Yet I believe there are a lot of misconceptions about my field of expertise by the masses…and even by those who aspire to stand where I stand now.
There is a reason why burnout is so high in my profession…and there is a reason why my profession has the highest suicide rate of any white collar job (yes, we vets have surpassed dentists in that macabre statistic). I’ve lost two classmates to suicide, and 2014 proved that no veterinarian is immune to depression with the announcement of the suicide of Dr. Sophia Yin – world-renowned veterinary behaviorist and lecturer. I’d met Sophia on several occasions, and she seemed so happy and vibrant. She was the last person I thought would take her own life, but I guess it goes to show that you cannot really understand anyone by judging simple appearances.
I am writing this as a means of helping clients to understand the stresses that their veterinarian endures, and to supply a more realistic description of the role of veterinarian to those who are considering it as a career path. Allow me to give you a glimpse of a typical day in my life…the following is a synopsis of what occurred yesterday:
7am: My alarm goes off. I sit up in bed and grab my laptop to check out VIN (the Veterinary Information Network) and see if any noteworthy news has come across the boards. It’s a quiet news day, so I check my email and review a few acupuncture posts that hit my inbox, followed by a few minutes of “me” time on Facebook. A quick pushup and pull-up set to get the blood flowing, and it’s off to the shower.
8:45am: I make the drive to work. While en route, I hear my phone beep a couple times. Both are messages from friends asking about their pets. I shoot them some quick responses after I arrive at work.
9:15am: I prep for a morning of surgery. First I have to get a urine sample via cystocentesis (ultrasound guided needle stick of the bladder) for my boss, which is quickly done.
9:20am: I’m reminded of a case that my other colleague took in yesterday and has returned for more treatment/monitoring. That doc is off today, so I take the case. Surgery gets delayed so I can continue the barium intestinal study that was started late yesterday afternoon. Xrays done, and I call the owner with a prospective plan for the day…the owner failed to answer the phone, so I left a detailed message with my plan and asked the owner to call back to authorize what I had suggested.
9:30am: Finally ready to start surgery. Four routine procedures to handle first, followed by a very complicated cruciate and patellar repair on a husky – whose anatomy is so messed up that it takes almost double the amount of time to perform the necessary repairs.
10:30am: While in the midst of the knee surgery, the owner of the barium study dog calls back. Receptionist comes to surgery stating she is on the phone and would like to speak with me. I stare back at her and flatly reply that I’m sterile and cannot talk on the phone…to which I learn that my detailed message was never listened to by the owner. I instruct the receptionist to tell that owner to listen to her voicemail and call back to authorize my plan.
12:00pm: Surgery finally completed. I write up my surgical notes and call the owner of the dog who had the knee repair to discuss the outcome of the procedure. Then spend the next 40 minutes returning phone calls to clients who had left messages for me earlier in that morning.
12:40pm: Phone dings while I’m working on notes and phone calls… Another text message from another friend asking about their pet. I learn that my friend had not yet heard from the pharmacy that I faxed a prescription to several days earlier. I frustratingly call the pharmacy to find out what happened, only to learn that they did indeed try contacting them and left a message on Mr. Friend’s phone. I respond to Mrs. Friend, telling her that I gave the pharmacy her number for future contacts.
1:00pm: I take a look at the afternoon appointment schedule. I’m the only doc that is scheduled to see clients in the afternoon. I am subsequently triple booked for a majority of the day due to a high volume of sick patients that needed to be seen. I took a deep breath and grumbled to myself. I was going to be in for a busy day.
1:30pm: I shove my homemade turkey sandwich and an apple down my throat and continue writing notes and returning phone calls, taking sips from my water bottle in between sentences.
1:40pm: The first appointments of the day arrive. I’m not supposed to start seeing clients until 2pm, but necessity required fitting in sick patients wherever they could be crammed in – which usually means doc misses a real lunch break or a trip to the bathroom.
1:45pm: Walk-in sick patient – cat who was virtually comatose and owners who had a history of being sent to collections TWICE by our facility. These people conned the very nice no-kill cat shelter to pay their bill. After diagnosing the cat with a urinary blockage and learning that the cat had been ill for FIVE DAYS, I explain to the owner that this animal is gravely sick and suffering. I recommend euthanasia due to the animal’s toxic state and horrible prognosis. Owner refuses and insists that we spend the shelter’s money to save the cat.
2:00pm: I call the cat shelter and speak with the operator, explaining the advanced situation with the animal and inform them that diagnostics would be around $300, and treatment would be several hundred more should the cat even survive. Shelter agrees to cover cost of workup to confirm the problem but anything above that amount would need to be handled by the owner.
2:30pm: Blood tests and xrays confirm the cat is toxic with an electrolyte imbalance that is not compatible with life…which I already knew was the case before any diagnostics were done and am frustrated that almost $300 was spent by the shelter unnecessarily to confirm something that I already knew. I relay the results to the owner, who seems unwilling to believe what I am telling her. She is insistent that the cat be saved; I respond that the shelter will not shell out any more money (obviously spoken in a more diplomatic tone, but my frustration is becoming more visible by the moment). Owner starts screaming that I’m a bad person for not saving her cat and that all I care about is money. I flatly reply that if she had brought her cat in 4 days ago, we wouldn’t be in this situation.
Meanwhile, the appointments are backing up because I’m spending an exorbitant amount of time arguing with a client who cannot accept reality.
2:45pm: After 15 minutes of being subjected to screaming and witnessing uncontrollable wailing and childish, selfish behavior by a woman who is easily twice my age, I excuse myself by stating that I recommend euthanasia because the cat is suffering and will give her a few minutes to think about it. This gives me a few moments to try to see a couple more patients. I grab a chart from the rack, which is now 10 charts deep. Sigh…but it’s my job to not subject my other clients to my stress, so I fake a smile as I walk into the next room for what is fortunately a wellness exam and vaccine appointment.
3:10pm: I return to the room with the combative cat owner and ask if she has come to a decision about anything. Her response is that she wants to take the cat home to die. I do my best to remain calm and explain to her that I will not allow that to happen because it is inhumane to the cat to allow further suffering, and again offer euthanasia. The owner then states she wants the shelter to pay for a private cremation for the cat – I refuse. I am done with this woman feeling entitled to whatever she wants and putting up an innocent shelter to foot the bill for an animal that she is responsible for. We finally reach the decision that the cat will be euthanized and she will take the remains home to be buried. I relieve this poor creature of its suffering, take a deep breath, fake another smile, and move on to the next chart. The chart rack is now 14 deep and the waiting room is mass chaos.
3:12pm: I walk into the next room, apologizing for the extended wait and explain of the sick patient who took vastly more time than expected. The owner proceeds to berate me for being 50 minutes late in getting to their dog. I apologize again, take care of their needs, thank them for being patient and move on. Another deep breath, another fake smile on my face, and into the next room I go.
4:00pm: For every 2 charts I clear, 3 more come in. My medical notes can’t get done because I’m so backed up. I’m relegated to making a few quick notes on each patient’s check-in sheet so I am reminded of the case for later, when I’ll have the time to sit and type everything up.
4:45pm: Xrays need to be repeated on that barium study case from earlier in the day. My techs handle that but I need to take the time to review them and have a final plan of action for when the owner shows up in another hour. Thank God, it doesn’t look like we’re dealing with an obstruction, although this dog’s intestinal motility is not normal.
5:00pm: Back to catching up with charts that need to be seen…except from this point on, my day staff is off the clock, leaving me with a skeleton crew to operate the remainder of the night. I’m fortunate that my remaining two techs are very good and know me well, so they can often times predict my needs before I ask them…but two techs and one vet can only do so much, and I’m still horribly backed up.
6:00pm: I’ve seen skin infections, ear hematomas, diarrhea, pneumonia, corneal ulcers, ruptured cruciates, underweight dogs, overweight dogs, upper respiratory infections, chronic nausea, urinary tract infections, and a score of vaccine appointments in the last 3 hours. Most of my clients were rather understanding about the wait time but a few were extremely unhappy despite my apologies and explanation of the delay. My brain hurts, and I still have several charts to see. I run back to my office to grab a sip of water and see a slew of notes stuck to my desk with more clients to call back when I have free time.
Free time…I’m not sure I know the definition of that.
And let’s not forget that the owner of my barium study dog arrived at 5:30 expecting to pick her pet up and speak with me then, but is still waiting…patiently, mind you.
6:50pm: I discharge the barium study dog and go in with my final appointment of the night (after scrambling to catch up). One of my favorite patients and clients, I removed a tumor from the dog 2 weeks ago which came back as a sarcoma with dirty margins. The dog was back for suture removal and to talk with the owners about their visit to an oncology referral facility about radiation therapy. I remove the sutures and take a feel of the surgery site, only to note another nodule beneath the incision – that stupid tumor was already growing back. I advise the owner to call the onco department first thing in the morning to get an earlier appointment for a second surgery to take wider margins and follow up with radiation.
7:15pm: Our clinic closed 15 minutes ago, but I’m just now sitting down to write up my medical notes from the afternoon. In a 5 hour span I saw almost 30 different patients. And that means I have almost 30 different medical reports to write up. I sip my water and take another deep, cleansing breath. I type while I return some phone calls to clients who had left messages earlier in the day. Thank goodness that I can type over 100 words per minute. Phone dings again – a facebook friend asking about her parent’s dog and hinting that she was upset that the dog wasn’t able to be seen earlier that day for the dog’s eye problem. I ignore the complaint and politely answer the series of questions she has and ask her to call first thing in the morning for an appointment.
8:00pm: Charts are finally done. I look in on my patients who are staying the night before leaving for the evening, and hurried to get my things. I rush to the gym to get a quick workout done so I can release the insanity of the day. The gym closes at 9 pm. I contemplate joining a 24 hour facility just so I can go at 2 in the morning and avoid seeing people.
9:00pm: I sit and eat dinner while working on some extracurricular projects. Phone dings again – another person tagging me in a facebook post about their sick pet. We proceed to message back and forth about his sick kitty, and I recommend the cat be seen by a vet due to concern for an infection, and I apologize for not being of more assistance.
9:45pm: I finally can relax for the evening… Except my over-exhausted state has me wired and unable to sleep. I proceed to read more on VIN, check email, and respond to some personal messages that have been in queue for the majority of the day. I sign on to my student loan website and pay my monthly statement for obtaining my veterinary education….a bill I’ve been paying for 10 years and will continue to pay for another 15 years. Several hours pass before I’m tired enough to sleep…as in it’s almost 4am now and I’m still awake.
And I gotta do it all over again in 3 short hours.
Being a veterinarian is not glamorous. It is often an ugly, depressing, heart-wrenching job. To say that it is stressful is a gross understatement.
You see, veterinarians are perceived by society as completely selfless people who would do anything to save a pet’s life. Don’t have the money to treat you pet? No problem! Oh, you forgot that the boarding facility told you that your dog needed a bordetella vaccine to stay there, and you’re leaving tomorrow for vacation and are 30 minutes away, even though the clinic closes in 10 minutes? Sure, come on over! Wait, your cat’s been sick for 5 days and is on death’s door? Just walk on in to the hospital unannounced and get seen immediately, meanwhile completely disrupting the schedule of appointments for the remainder of the day!
Why not…we veterinarians can handle it….can’t we?
People forget that our hearts break when we see an animal who is suffering, knowing there is little we can do to save them because the owner waited too long to get them into the hospital. We lose sleep over the cases of abuse and neglect that we see. The forced smiles on our faces to prevent clients from knowing that we just euthanized a pet moments beforehand are painful to put on. The disdain we carry from knowing that we are often times being used for free advice by people on social media who “know we’re vets” and rarely get a simple thank you for suggestions that were made is depressing. We feel crippled and helpless when money limits an owner’s ability to save their pet – and many of us try our best to discount services and work out payment plans whenever possible; but free services do not pay my technicians, receptionists, or the electric bill.
Nobody needs to worry about me…I admit to suffering from some burnout but it’s not to the point of danger and nothing a brief vacation won’t fix. But that is not why I’m writing this – my point here is for people to take into consideration what their veterinarian has to be subjected to on an average day (and my hand to God, the day I described above is a typical day for me). The next time you have to wait 45 minutes to be seen, try to remember that your vet isn’t in her office playing games on her computer; it is more likely that she had spent the better part of the last hour trying to save a dying animal. The next time your vet comes into your exam room looking haggard with a weak smile on her face, it’s not because she doesn’t want to see you…she’s probably trying to hide her sadness of having to help another client say goodbye to their best friend.
And to those who are veterinarians in the making: think long and hard about why you want to do this. If you’re here to make money, you are sorely mistaken – expect to have human medical school student loan bills on a salary that is about 25% of what a human doctor makes. Expect to work long hours, not get a lunch, and stay late after work. Expect to witness a lot of very sad and depressing cases. If you don’t think you can handle that, then I suggest you seek another career path. Our field doesn’t need another statistic.
I’m here because I make a difference. Because I can handle the bad and cherish the good. Because I won’t let people define me by their parameters. Because I believe that, in the long run, I can improve the education level of my clients and the quality of life of my patients.
My actions define me. I define me.