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.