Sunday, April 6, 2014

I Am More Than a Veterinarian - Guest Post

I had an epiphany today. I am more than a veterinarian. I have read that when you ask a veterinarian who they are, they answer, I am a veterinarian. And I’ve thought, well of course they do. Because in our culture who you are is what you do, right? Sure, I’m a mom and a wife and a gardener and the caretaker of a menagerie of animals. Recently I’ve decided to be a runner and am training for a marathon. I’m a cheese maker, a daughter, a homeschooler, a sister, and when I have time, a damned fine cook. But if you ask me what I am, I will tell you I am a veterinarian.

And that is a logical answer. I am the owner of, and the only veterinarian of a small, rural practice. I get up 6 days/week and go to work. I spend my entire day there, usually not leaving the building nor taking a break from the time I arrive until the time I go home. I often get home at bedtime, or sometimes even after the bedtime of my kids. Some days I don’t see my kids at all while they are awake. Because I am a veterinarian. My days are full of caring for my patients. I try to keep the healthy ones healthy. I try to make the sick ones well. I spend hours every week holding the hands of my clients (literally and figuratively) while they try to work through their own issues. Sometimes the issues we work through have little to do with their pets, but that’s OK, because I am a sounding board, a psychologist, a shoulder to lean on, a hander of tissues, a cheerleader, a veterinarian. I care deeply about my patients and the people who bring them to see me. I care about them so much so that I put my own life on hold, regularly, to be there for them.

But I am not there all the time. Sometimes I have obligations outside the four walls of my office. Sometimes I need to be a parent, a wife, a patient myself. Sometimes I need to get my hair cut. Sometimes my own pets need me to drive them to a vet across the state. Sometimes I try to squeeze in a run or an exercise class. Sometimes I try to weed my garden, or visit my elderly parents, catch up with a loved, but rarely seen friend. These things get put in the small hours, squeezed in between the big picture. I miss my run 8/10 times. The weeds will win the war this summer as they have every summer before. My husband is a single parent most days and nights. I have not been involved in my children’s homeschooling this year. I don’t get to stay home with a sick, feverish child who cries for me to stay. I have a nine year old who cried, asking me if I could please work less because I am never home. I pay this price because I am a veterinarian.

I was heartbroken today to talk to a client who was angry with me for not being available to her when she had an emergency. I had a local veterinarian and two emergency clinics who could have helped her. But I was not available. Her dog suffered waiting for me. She is angry with me. I have let them all down. She and her husband had a lot of things to say to me today. And one of them was something along the lines of, “you are a veterinarian and that should be your life.” It has been my life. For the last 15 years I have been a veterinarian first, second, and mostly. But today...today I spoke words I didn’t know I would ever speak. I look this sad and angry couple in the eye, and I said, “I am not just a veterinarian. This is not my whole life. I have a husband. I have 3 children. I have a life and hobbies outside of this building. I work 6 days each week. I can not there for everyone all the time. I can not please everyone.”

I said that. You don’t know me. You don’t understand the power of those words. But I understood. Instantly. In that moment I realized. I am more than a veterinarian. I am a lot more. And the rest of me is important. To my husband, my children, my pets, my parents, my friends, my sisters. And to me. It is easy to get caught up in the needs of your clients and patients in this business. They need me. And I have gotten lost in trying to be there to fill all of their needs. 


I have lost track of all of the other hats I am supposed to be wearing. I have sacrificed the needs of the people I love the most. My clients are quick to turn on me when they feel wronged. I wasn’t there for this woman. She turned to Facebook to let my entire community know what a monster I am. My family is neglected by me on a daily basis. They have rarely complained to me and never publicly humiliated me. They love me and support me for being...well...me. Not for being a veterinarian. Because that isn’t important to them. I have spent my life defining myself as something that isn’t even important to those that mean the most to me. I realized today that I am not a veterinarian. OK, I am a veterinarian. But that is my profession, it isn’t me. So, if you see me pulling weeds, if I invite you to a dinner I cooked, if you catch me reading a book to my toddler, running on a back road, sharing a morning swim with my girls, milking my goats or out to dinner with my husband, please know. I am still a veterinarian. I still care deeply about you and your furry friend. The wellbeing of both of you is important to me. But the wellbeing of me and my family is important to me, too. And while I will probably always define myself as a veterinarian, I will be a far better one for realizing that all those other things I do are important, too.

34 comments:

  1. Interesting, and true. Since I've left clinical practice, I can't even begin to tell you how many people have asked me why I decided to quit being a veterinarian. In many people's minds, it really is the sum total of the person you are. Sad.

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  2. Wow. As Wendy said, this is something I realized only after I left clinical practice. Enjoy your life... all of it! Good for you. :-)

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  3. On top of that, you cannot be a good veterinarian if you are *only* a veterinarian. To stay sane, you have to have your life and especially the people who support you through this profession. Thank you for sharing this. It's something we all do well to remember.

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  4. This rings so true. Thank you for sharing. I have found that working as a full time veterinarian absolutely encompasses my entire life, and I sacrifice my health and loved ones for it. I feel like the reason it burns me out is exactly because I care so much and stay late to call clients and help patients and study cases. I always feel like no matter how much I give toward the profession, that the profession is always asking "why couldn't you give more?" It is burning me out.... to the point of considering leaving the profession altogether.

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    1. This is part of what is burning out a lot of us. We've given our all for many years only to find ourselves in a position of defending ourselves more and more, fighting harder and harder to get paid because the public doesn't seem to think we deserve to earn a living, and realizing that the childhood dream we all had to be an Animal Doctor was really a pipe dream about a very hard job. I know that, while I try to find the good in my day and I try to stay positive, I absolutely cannot wait until I can say, "I am a retired Veterinarian". I've also reached a point where I simply do not divulge what I do, so I can avoid the onslaught of stupid questions from people wanting free advice. :)

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    2. Wow. I could have written this article and this comment.

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  5. Veterinarians work so hard to make sure that pets can and will recover. I love that they do so much for animals. They are the reason for pets being healthier and live longer.
    Jak Manson | http://www.swahjc.com/

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  6. I felt I needed some time away from my practice. I've learned to recognize those subtle clues that suggest I need a brief respite from this place. I've learned that if I sit angry in the car in the clinic parking lot before going in each morning, angry because that is a healthier emotion than sitting trembling and on the verge of tears at the prospect of another day of life force sucking stress and frustration that passes for a day's work here, that I need to get away. I've learned that if I sit in the car in the clinic parking lot too tired to turn the key at the end of another interminable day, that I need to get away. I've learned that if my family is afraid to be around me as I sigh through the simple things at home, I need to get away. Now, taking time off from the clinic this time of year is impossible. We are simply too busy now, which means that too many people need me to be here. Plus there are those taxes, those other taxes, and the rest of the taxes plus the accountant and book keeper I must pay so I can in turn pay my taxes, that must be paid this time of year. So no, I cannot take time away. A day off will have to wait. Sure, I'm generally not working from noon Saturday until 7 AM the following Monday, except for those Saturday afternoons we stay to do that three hour emergency surgery or something. And I go in on most Sundays just to catch up on stuff. But at least I'm not working then. Anyway, I was feeling this way so we made the arrangements to spend one night up on the coast, away. We left after work on Saturday. Saturday was fun. Sunday was less fun as we spent most of it in the ER of the local hospital. Nothing monstrously serious, and we can sorta joke about it now. But I realized as we parked the car in the clinic lot this morning that I didn't dread going in. Even though our brief weekend vacation turned out a bit less than we had anticipated, it was time not here. Precious moments of life not spent here. That was all it took. Not so bad here today.

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    1. You know, Dr. Bob, something that is highly underappreciated in this profession is regular time off. I don't mean vacation, I don't mean those CE vacations we all talk about, or even the occasional full week we sometimes take. I mean taking 2 days off each week, every week... on a regular basis. Or hell, maybe even 3 days off a week. I've put a lot of thought into this, and even saw someone post about this on one of those other message boards recently. He said something to the effect of, "I've found that if I work my associate DVMs more than 4 days a week, they burn out too quickly." I found that to be sage advice. I think it's something to strive for - regular time off, that is. I used to think that busting it, balls to the wall, for weeks at a time, then taking a week of vacation... well, that was gonna fix my ailments. How wrong was I. Time to decompress every single week is what we all need. We all need to get over the idea that we must work 6-7 days a week just because that's what we were taught.

      Yes I know finances often dictate this. But it's an idea worth evaluating and a goal to consider.

      I don't quite know how to make this work yet except with a partner, but I'm striving for it. Yes I am going to give up a significant part of my income to make this happen. But I believe it is necessary for my own mental health. I want to find that part of me that still loves that I am a veterinarian and who feels pride for what I do. The only way I can do that is to get the hell away from it on a regular basis. I used to joke about "staycations" but now I realize how soul-saving they really are.

      Good luck, Dr. Bob - keep taking those staycations down at the beach and you know, you just might find the sunrise to be a little better when you pull into your clinic parking lot next time.

      Other than that, it's all I got. :)

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    2. So many of these comments ring true to me. I haven't been in the profession for a very long time (5 years) but I have spent all of it in mixed practice. In rural Scotland the on call rotas are time consuming and the work is heavy. So the days in the surgery are long, you are out through the nights, you are out all weekend then you are straight back into another week at work. I felt in the past year like i was grinding down, losing enthusiasm in cases, losing time with my family, losing patience with my boyfriend. I felt like I was giving everything else up just to keep going full time. I felt ashamed to admit I wasn't coping, all my friends seemed to be fine. I felt guilty thinking of all the time I had spent working towards this career only to find I had started to hate it.

      I recently decided to go part time, which was a difficult decision. But only working a portion of the week and spending the rest of the week doing other things I enjoy has made an enormous difference. I am slowly taking pleasure in cases again and no longer feel like I'm going to have to leave the profession entirely. I am beginning to feel pride in my work again. I agree with everything Doctor Sarcasm is saying, the regular intervals away from it are necessary for me.

      I agree that the finances have been drastically cut, though I am lucky that I can still afford rent, food and fuel! I wish our clients could appreciate how serious this decision is for us - either burn yourself out 7 days a week to earn a quarter of the wage that they think we are getting (and they are quite vocal about how much money they think we have!), OR drop the hours to learn how to live and breathe again and struggle away on part time pay, unable to pay off the student loans that got us here in the first place.

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  7. You must definitely try to have vacation. Just like they've said you don't know if in your upcoming day off you will see your sunrise and eventually make you even better.

    Vets Minster

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  8. God bless you - Clients will demand more and more from you - there is literally no end to what they will expect from you. They will drive you to the emotional precipice - many in our profession have been pushed over the edge, never to return. People in our profession, I think, have a strong urge to please people, to make people happy at any cost. More of us need to realize that most of our clients will never be happy with us, no matter what we do, how much we give of ourselves, it will never be enough for these people. Meanwhile, the people who genuinely love us get shortchanged every day of our lives. When we finally break down, have the heart attack, the emotional collapse, it is the people we have continually shortchanged who will be there for us. The clients won't care - we will have only failed them once again - they will move on to drive another vet to the brink. Good for you for realizing what they were doing to you before you got to that endpoint and standing up for yourself. More of us need to do that. People treat us like servants - they would never treat MDs that way, because MDs would never stand for it. Why do we?

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  9. Bravo. I am a vet tech, and the only vets in my practice (5 drs) who really can handle it are the part-time ones. The full-timers are usually teetering on the edge of exhaustion and/or homicidal rage. Clients want full service for free. And not to mention the hours and hours of unpaid phone time spent talking to people who just can't understand why you can't just come to the phone whenever they call.
    We're open 12 hours a day 5 days a week and 6 hours on Saturday. We only have 2 techs right now so we're pulling 60-hour weeks. Clients still demand to drop-in and get service (we are appointment-only) and then complain about having to wait and then bitch about the cost.
    I wanted to be a vet when I took this job. Now I am rethinking it. I don't see any benefits anymore.
    Spend time with your family, cut back on your hours or get a relief vet for a day a week. This is what you will wish you had done when you look back at your life. You won't say "I wish I had worked more." And your family will thank you for it.

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    1. Excellent advice! I always feel that when the techs see what we go through and experience it themselves as well, that it somehow validates all of us. Hedge, I applaud your decision NOT to got to vet school. There are many more better, more rewarding ways to earn a living nowadays that won't put you into student loan slavery for the rest of your life.

      Thank you for reading and for your sage advice. :)

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    2. Thanks :) I still really want to be a vet. I think I'd be good at it. But I already have $65k in debt from my Masters degree program (undergrad loans are paid off as I am 10+ years out of college). Only a few vet schools accept "older" grades. My GRE score was excellent, I have great references. The cost-benefit ratio just isn't working for me.

      I have nothing but respect for the vets at my practice. They are all 30+ years out of school, have ridiculously good skills both with people and animals and are wonderful diagnosticians. They're all very different personalities, and yet each has been an example of how to be a good vet. The owner had a heart attack a few years ago and cut back to part-time and he's never been happier. He used to work 60 hrs a week and wasn't ever unstressed and missed out on a lot of his kids' early years.

      I watch, I learn, and I try to absorb what I see. And sadly that lesson is that it isn't going to be economically feasible to go to vet school.

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    3. So much of what I've read here rings true. I have been a veterinarian for 18 yrs but I have also been a wife for 21, a mom for 19, a daughter for 48 and many other things. I feel lucky that most of my clients appreciate that I have a life outside of the clinic but I also am deeply hurt by the comments about "your weren't here when I needed you." I practice in a small town and my phone number is listed so yes I get the calls at home at all hours and I admit to having my husband screen them and sometimes reading to my daughter or playing catch with my son was "she's not home" Trying to be all things to all people all the time ate me up and I am not ashamed to admit it drove me to a lengthy illness and eventual diagnosis of depression and anxiety. Now I will look a client right in the eye and say, I'm sorry but I have other people who need me too and I won't always be here for you but I will make sure someone is. I ask my associates to work 4 days most weeks, never more than 5 and try to discourage them from coming in on their days off. The ones that are in the clinic every single day calling clients and checking on cases are the ones I worry about the most. I think we all need to think about being a veterinarian as what we do, not who we are.

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  10. I look into my Vet's eyes and I see love, compassion and a person who dedicates themselves to help the animals....I am appalled at that person .Other folks appreciate you and may not thank you but they are there....don't let the one bad apple ruin it....take time off, get s relief vet in the middle of the weeks so you work 2 on, one off, three one, one off and repeat. you need time for yourself, you family and your mental and physical health.

    Remember the old song. "Cat's in the Cradle"

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  11. GOOD FOR YOU! I mean it.. Thank you for saying it. I feel guilty for thinking it/feeling it .. but it's true, and hearing it from another fortifies myself.. I am a veterinarian. We define ourselves by out career more than ANY other career person does.. Its high time we made time for ourselves... THANK YOU FOR SHARING.

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  12. Great post addressing what I think is a pretty major problem in our profession. My first job was for a man who, ultimately, I did not see eye-to-eye with on a lot of issues. But one thing he taught me at the beginning of my career and that I will be eternally grateful for is that you can't please everyone, so don't even try. Love the patients, do your best for them, but take care of yourself first and foremost. I'm still a very sensitive person (as I suspect all vets are deep inside) but this is one area that I have developed a very thick skin. I haven't had to go to war with a client, either in person or on social media, but I will fight to the death over my right to my own life if it ever comes up.

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  13. While it may take more words, I like to describe that being a veterinarian is what I do, not what I am. There isn't one word that can encompass what you are. Except that you're human and I would like clients to know that at some point, because I'm human, you're going to be disappointed by something at some time. Just like I would express disappointment to those clients who wait on their pet's care because they have a psychological need to only see me. Guess what, sometimes I'll be on vacation and one day I'll retire. What are they going to do then?

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  14. I'd like to offer up this cartoon of mine also as relevant to this topic: http://funnyvet.com/index.php/cartoons/?g2_itemId=36704 For those of you who can't link, basically it's a Practice Tip: If you never anger, irritate, or upset a client, you aren't doing your job.

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  16. This unequivocally rings true for me. I could have written this 2 years ago.... down to the detail of 3 kids (but minus the goat). I am proud of you for speaking your truth to that client.... but more importantly for speaking it to yourself.
    We all deserve to have what we want, and the demands of our profession can, at times, suck the life out of us. I am so happy that I've found a solution to the vet lifestyle and can determine how much or little I work.... which is no longer tied to my income. And the best part is that I am able to help other women (who are vets... or not) do the same. If anyone wants to checkout what transformed my world... you're invited to www.BestVetLife.com. You deserve to design your best life. Thanks for sharing your story!

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  17. Reading this post it could have been me, up to a point. I am a sole practitioner at a practice I started in a rural community, I homeschooled my daughter, I have animals, I garden and cook, and I hope to have goats again.... but the similarities stop there. I made a different choice when I had a child. I chose to be there for her and she spent all her time with me and staff at the clinic when she was little. Reading these posts I am so glad I chose to not work myself into the ground, but to have four-day weeks and long lunches. The cost is that I don't make much money at all, but I can house and feed myself and my daughter. The payoff is that I still love my work and I never want to retire. I felt glad when I read the part of your post when you told those clients that you are more than a veterinarian. How dare they dictate how you should live your life!? Just because someone makes up an expectation and puts it on me does not mean that I have to embrace it.

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  18. applause applause. Well said.
    I lost 3 family members in a 6 month period.
    None of them said I wish I had spent more time at work.
    All of them said, go enjoy life while you are young and can. One waited until she retired then got cancer and died before she could enjoy her dream vacation.
    All of them told me family first then everything else.
    Once I started doing more for me and cutting my hours back..my life blossomed. If you are not my client, I do not provide you with any emergency service. That took away a lot of stress (and made more profit in end because most never paid up.) Once the emergency service came to town, when we close we defer to them.
    I actually began to enjoy practicing again instead of dreading each day.
    Another tip. Fire the negative people. Seriously no how much experience they have their ego and diva like behavior is not worth it!
    Once I got rid of the negative clients and staff members..it was amazing thing just starting getting better and better!
    Life is too short to have a long list of regrets. I got that message installed in me 3 times in one year!
    once I got over the guilt and realized I have a life too..I started to enjoy it.
    Another tip..if my stethoscope is not around my neck..I'm off duty. So if you walk up to me at Walgreen and expect me to talk to you about your dogs condition; you will be politely told I'm out of the office and please call the office to schedule an appointment to discuss your dog cat horse s issue when I can review the medical record and take notes!
    trust me it gets easier with time! and its ok to leave your phone on the charger accidentally on purpose on the weekends!

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  19. Isn't it, ultimately, client education? Not to put the fault in your court (people do have a responsibility to think for themselves and there's droves of people who are very bad at taking responsibility for any of the bad stuff happening to them), but you might have spoilt them a bit the past years.
    Luckily we were in a position to join an emergency clinic as soon as we took over our practice. And the people generally understand the whole "we've got a life outside of work as well" thing. The ones that don't... well... there's a few other practices in the area who don't want a private life (or are very bad at making business decissions).

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  20. happy to see someone say it publicly. i've faced the same "turn on you" moments many times and they are soul crushing. thanks to my current circumstances i am able to have a life now. i work only 4 days a week and no after hours. but i do maintain a small housecall practice on the side for my long term best clients. even so, they know i am not there for them 24/7 and i only maintain the one's that show an appreciation for the fact that i am there for them at all. i'll never be rich. probably never even have a retirement fund. maybe not ever pay off my student loans. but after 15 years, i still LOVE being a veterinarian and don't feel like i have a "job" at all. it CAN be done and i applaud you for changing your mindset.

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