The Unanswerable Question

Clients have asked me a lot of questions through the years. I generally lump the questions into the following three categories:

THE “I’M SO GLAD YOU ASKED THAT” QUESTIONS

These are my favorite types of questions, because they often allow me to discuss important things like behavior or nutrition with clients. Examples would be “What is the best food for my cockerdoodlesnicker puppy?” or “I am a small, frail elderly woman and my grandchildren want to buy me a Lab puppy. What do you think?”

(For what it’s worth, Lab puppies in general are NOT good gifts to give your frail, elderly grandma or grandpa. Same with Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, or Saint Bernards)

THE “BREAK OUT THE TINFOIL HAT” QUESTIONS

The “tinfoil hat questions” are the questions that make me want to put on a tinfoil hat to ward off the crazy beams radiating out from the client in front of me. If you are confused about the reference, watch “Signs” starring Mel Gibson.

A few years ago I was wrapping up an exam I did on an adorable Siamese kitten. When I asked her owner if she had any further questions for me, the owner cocked her head, furrowed her brow, and said “Well, yeah. She like, totally wants to nurse on me like a baby would.   I let her, even though I don’t make milk. Is that weird?”

Ummmm…..yeah. I bit my lip really hard, and mumbled something about orphaned kittens and the suckling reflex. I managed to talk to her about it with a straight face, but what I really wanted to do is open up my skull and pour some bleach on my brain in order to clean up the image I suddenly had in my head.

I would also include in this category the men who have asked if I could do their prostate exam, the women who ask if I believe in alien mutilations, questions about government conspiracies and microchips, and pretty much any question that begins with the phrase “My breeder said…”

(Oh, and by the way, NO I WILL NOT DO YOUR PROSTATE EXAM YOU CREEPY OLD MAN. EWW. )

THE ONE UNANSWERABLE QUESTION

This question is the one I am most commonly asked, and the one that I still don’t have an answer to. It is usually asked by grieving clients who have just euthanized their beloved dog or cat.

“How do you do this?”

By ‘this’ they mean euthanasia. They are asking how I deal with euthanasia….with the loss of an animal, and with the grieving, heartbroken families.

Here’s the thing…euthanasia is part of my job. I personally consider it to be the most important part of my job. I am there to give an animal the gift of a peaceful, painless death, and to help the owners start the grieving process. I want the last memory an owner has to be of their animal passing away quietly in their arms.

We are fortunate as veterinarians that we have euthanasia as an option. I cannot imagine being a human doctor, and having to watch as a patient dies a painful, slow, excruciating death. I have felt the most sorrow and anger in dealing with owners that absolutely refuse to euthanize their pet, and instead watch it slowly and painfully fade away to skin and bones.

That being said, euthanasia can be very hard on veterinarians. We all have had those days, weeks or even months where it feels like all we do is kill our patients. We usually react to times like this by it by making jokes about how our name should be “Dr. Death” or “Dr. Terminal.” We stuff ourselves with chocolate and/or wine. We go home and watch trash TV. We jump at the chance to see a kitten/puppy appointment. We exercise. We read. We somehow push through it and carry on.

Except….sometimes we don’t. Sometimes all of that death and grief can be overwhelming. As a profession, we have one of the highest suicide/addiction rates. Get a group of veterinarians together and ask who among them knows a colleague who has been treated for addiction or committed suicide. Most of them will raise their hands.

Over the past year I have given a few lectures to vet tech students and shelter workers on compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is just what it sounds like…it gets so emotionally/physically/spiritually exhausting to care for grieving clients that we get to the point where we cannot care for anything anymore…including ourselves. We withdraw, isolate, self-medicate, become angry, bitter, and zombie-like.

So far, every single time I have lectured on the causes and symptoms of compassion fatigue I have seen most people in the audience nodding their heads or wiping away tears. It is a real problem in this profession.

A few years ago, I went through a nasty bought of compassion fatigue myself. I dreaded going to work. I had once loved my job, but found myself dragging myself to the clinic. I was easily annoyed at my clients and co-workers. I wasn’t sleeping, and kept obsessing about patients that were dead. I was told by some that I was perhaps not meant for this profession…that I needed to toughen up or get out of it.

Fortunately, through the love of my family and friends, and the invaluable help of certain colleagues and other professionals I pulled through that dark period and returned to loving my job. I found healthier ways to cope with the tougher aspects of being a vet. I learned valuable lessons, and now I try to help others when I can.

So, for any vets/technicians/others that are reading this, here is my advice, for what it is worth:

For starters, as simple and new-agey as it sounds, make sure you are taking care of yourself. This means all of those things like eating well, exercising and sleeping. I know that many days we are lucky if we have time to cram down a Del Taco burrito and slurp a Diet Coke, but I personally have found that when I force myself to take care of me, I am in a much better space to handle the tougher parts of my job.

Second, make sure you have a life away from veterinary medicine. As best as you can, when you leave the clinic leave your work behind. I used to go home and read vet journals and watch Animal Planet. Now, I read trash magazines and watch shows like Toddlers and Tiaras (Seriously).

Cultivate hobbies. Play an instrument. Hike. Fish. Read.  Take a vacation, even if you don’t think you should.  These are ways to recharge yourself and keep your brain and spirit strong.

Third, you know those cards and letters that grateful clients send you? Keep them. When you feel like you are doing nothing but killing animals, go back through and read those cards. Remember and recognize the people that you have touched and the good that you have done, even in the face of euthanasia.

Fourth, remember that it takes a strong person to recognize when they can’t heal themselves. There is no shame in seeking out the help of a therapist or family doctor. Many times just having a sympathetic, compassionate ear can be a life saver.

Last, remember that MANY of your colleagues have gone through this. You are not alone, and you are not some weird weakling. There are many resources out there for you…use them, and then pass what you learn onto others. There is always hope, and you can find your way back to loving and enjoying this profession.

So…to answer the unanswerable question. How do I do this? To be honest, I still don’t know. It is something I know I will work on and struggle with every day. I’ll be kind to myself, play with puppies and kittens whenever I have a chance, and ensure that my tin foil hat is nice and shiny.

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About hteyler

I decided in 8th grade that I wanted to be a veterinarian. I never deviated from that goal, and after a ton of studying and hard work I graduated from Colorado State University with my Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine in 2004. I spent the first few years out of vet school in the southern California desert. After a few years I missed the mountains, so I took a job at a small animal practice in Park City, Utah. Somehow, in the middle of all of that the teaching bug bit me. I am now the Resident Veterinarian at Broadview University, West Jordan. Also, I have four cats, Pete, Sally, Tommy and Roger. If I told you much more, you would decide I am a hopeless nerd. For example, I am obsessed with the TV shows LOST and Supernatural.

Posted on July 9, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. While no one wishes to do it or to make the decision to do so, I think of euthanasia from a more positive outlook. At least we have the choice to end the suffering of our pets. As big of a responsibility as that is, I think it’s one of the last nice things we can do for our friends and companions of so many years. I try to guide people from a medical viewpoint as to what we can and cannot offer to help and what is reasonable and fair to put them through for a hopeful outcome. A lot of people want to know if they are in pain and I find that quality of life issues and comfort are more predominant issues than overt pain. My fatigue in this profession doesn’t stem from euthanasias and grief, but more from the inconsiderate, ungrateful, and angry clients I have to deal with on a daily basis. My defense comes in the form of humor and finding something to laugh at everyday. Often it is myself. It is important, as you said, to have a life outside of the job. It is also important to not feel like you have to shoulder the responsibility of other people (clients) who really should step up and take care of their animals. You can’t go home with these people. They are adults and while you can do your best to persuade them, the ball is in their court and we shouldn’t be burdened with the “what ifs” (what if I had said it this way, what if I did such and such free) that create illness, both mental and physical, in ourselves.

  2. As a veterinarian who has also recently been through a bout of compassion fatigue, I thank you for your blog. You have no idea how much it helps to know that I am no just some “weakling” that feels like I sacrificed 10 years of my life to no longer enjoy what I do. I do in fact LOVE what I do. However, there are circumstances, usually human driven, that make me lose faith in humanity. I seize every opportunity to be on “Puppy Patrol,” and kittens absolutely bring the child out in me. Thank you, again, for sharing your insight. You are a blessing to those of us that take the time to read your blogs.

  3. This post moves me to reply. I have been one of those clients who has brought in a beloved pet for euthanasia. Your post makes me wish I had taken a minute to say a word to the vet and tech who were there, maybe given them a hug. Since our dog was 14 1/2, I knew what had to come soon and made preparations. He had multiple issues associated with aging (arthritis, a degenerative spinal issue) but my vet guided me through seeing that he still enjoyed a quality of life, and we minimized his discomfort. On the morning he woke up with no strength or movement on his left side, I knew that we had done all we could. We drove to my parents town, where we intended to bury our Dalmatian in the spot where all the family’s best dogs were laid. We had checked procedures, costs, and information with their vet beforehand. We spent a lovely hour-long drive having some family time. And when it was done, we laid him to rest in a beautiful sunset. He had such a good, love- and fun-filled life.

    I honestly think that we did the best, most loving thing we could do for him that day. And although it is tinged with sadness, it isn’t tragic. It was such a blessing. And one that wouldn’t have been as easy nor as peaceful if not for a veterinarian.

    So for all of us clients who leave in tears, let me tell you that at least some of them are tears of joy, because we know that we loved our pets responsibly, compassionately, and whole-heartedly until the end. And our vets helped us to do that. It is a mitzvah that you do. Please forgive us if we forget to tell you how much we appreciate you on that day.

    Then go home and put your feet up. But for goodness sakes, find something besides reality TV to watch (Ts & Ts?? seriously?). Have you tried BBC America? FX? There’s always Vampire Diaries if you want guilty, over-the-top melodrama. Please. Be good to yourself.

  4. You are awesome! I think I need a tinfoil hat! That was great! My vet did a paw print of Sweet Tart and sent it to me. That was such a special way to help us cope.

  5. That was awesome, Hope! We both say you are a writer…always have been…and we say it in all honesty …not because we are your Grandparents! Silly!

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