Veterinary medicine, the happiest field on earth, land of puppy butts and kitty snuggles and Pet Doctor Barbies in hotpants, or so they told me when I was 10.
Or perhaps it is the land of crushing student debt, clients frustrated that they are priced out of affordable care, and the unending mental strain of not being able to make every client happy and whole at the price they want you to provide it for.
Maybe it’s somewhere in between, but to be honest it seems to me like it’s leaning a little more towards the latter than the former. It wasn’t always this way, and yes, there are plenty of vets who still tell you they couldn’t imagine doing anything else, but for many, they can. And do. I was shocked to see how many of my colleagues- good, smart, compassionate veterinarians- have left the field. It happens a LOT.
Burnout rates are high, depression is rampant, and though the world was shocked to learn veterinarians have the highest suicide rates of medical professionals, no actual vets seemed too shocked by the news. The truth is, this is a tough, tough field, and the toll it takes is financial, physical, and mental, each and every day. We are expected by society and each other to buck up and put your own needs on the backburner, day after day after day, and it. wears. you. down.Justine Lee has a great article on the topic: one in four vets have considered suicide.
Last week, a colleague followed through, and our field is all the less for her loss.
It might surprise you to know that while our field tiptoes around the concept of compassion fatigue, it’s not regularly acknowledged as an almost inevitable part of what we do. Those who feel the strain are often left to feel guilty and disappointed in themselves for feeling that way. When the timing is wrong, when the wrong case hits at the same time as a broken water main or someone delivering a court summons, it can be very easy to forget that there is a way through that mess.
Animal lovers are deeply sensitive by nature, and I think both animal care providers and clients may be prone to those intensities of emotion that can veer into unhealthy places. I’ve dedicated my work the last year or so to acknowledging we need to do a better job supporting the emotional needs of our clients, but the truth is we need to so the same for our own.
I sincerely hope our field is able to provide better support for our own in terms of learning to cope with the unique stressors of this career, that those support groups that exist within the veterinary community are not kind of shoved in the corner to be sought out in desperation but held up as a standard for healthy venting and encouraging each other to live well and live outside the clinic.
I bring this up for several reasons, namely because I was very saddened by Dr. Koshi’s death and the circumstances surrounding it. I want my colleagues, especially those of you who are young and still learning how to do this vet thing and do it well, to understand that we all know how hard it can be. The internet has not made this easier. We need to be able to rely on each other and on the profession as a whole.
If any of you are struggling, please reach out, to your friends, to a hotline, to me, I don’t care who you reach out to but just stick your hand out and wave and we will take it. I am happy to hear multiple veterinarians including Dr. Lee, Dr. Myers, and others at NAVC met up to discuss what we can do to be more organized in our support of each other and stop being ashamed of admitting sometimes, this field is HARD.
And for you non-vets, because I know many of you are amazing clients, I want to thank you for being the kind of people who make going to work worthwhile. You are the reason we continue to pull our lab coats on every day.
RIP Dr. Koshi, and know that we will acknowledge and remember the wonderful work you did in this world.
Wonderful post, Dr. V. I often think you vets must carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, because what you do is so closely tied to people’s hearts. One day I thought I was going to lose one of my cats and I broke down crying at the reception desk. I thought the vet and the staff were going to start crying with me. Bless all of you….and Dr. Koshi. I’m certain she is surrounded by light and furry love now.
That is very sad, my condolences to the whole vet community. For whatever, reason, one does not tend to think of veterinarians as ones who can get that depressed over their work. That makes no sense that I think that, because any profession, any person, can find things too difficult to cope with at times. Indeed, rest in peace, Dr.Koshi.
Not to hijack this heartfelt post, but I guess I am anyway. I lost my doggy tonight. She, after only two days of minor symptoms, was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma ten days ago, started palliative chemotherapy the day after that, was doing pretty well since then, took a sudden downward turn this morning, and I made the decision to let her go tonight. Our regular vet, bless her compassionate and caring heart, came to our home to help my doggy over. This good, good woman came over after a full day’s work, spent time with my dog, gave her treats, and did not do anything until my dog was relaxed and unstressed about whatever was going on. It was, I think, as easy a passing as my dog could have had. Today, at the oncology clinic, the ultrasound tech cried when the procedure was painful for my dog and she was told to stop; our oncologist cried when she had to tell me it was not good news. I, for one, know how much you guys do for animals and owners, and I am forever grateful. Sincerely, truly, forever grateful for loving compassionate carers.
Dr. V says
Oh Von, I am so very sorry for your loss. I am heartbroken you had to say goodbye and so grateful you had a vet who was able to make an awful time just a tad bit easier. Huge hugs to you.
Carma Poodale Allen says
The same thing happens to those who work in animal shelters. We get burnout and have to walk away for a while. Our heart is still there but walls get built around it. Most come back to what they love but many stay away.
So sorry for the loss to the vet community. I truly hope that all those that feel like they are at the end of the rope reach out to someone anyone. I lost my Father to suicide and feel like I failed him. But no one know what was going on in his mind. RIP Dr. Koshi and may you meet all the furry love in heaven.
Megan Taliaferro says
I was shocked to read the story about Dr. Koshi. My colleagues and I saw the Facebook post by the AVMA and were so saddened to hear of the circumstances surrounding her death. So many vets are coming to her defense now, I just wish we did a better job as a profession rallying around each other before someone gets to the point of suicide. I think her story particularly resonated with me because I’ve been in her shoes before. I’ve had one person drop off an animal at the clinic and then another try to claim their pet. It can be very hard sometimes to determine true ownership in that kind of situation. In my first year of practice I had someone rush in a very sick Pekingese that they found on the ‘side of the road’. The owner of my practice would let us help abandoned animals if we paid for the costs of the materials/medications and donated our time. We all pooled our resources and saved her life with emergency surgery (she was a closed pyo and in septic shock). Three days later those same people came back to claim ‘their’ dog and were able to prove ownership through photos and records from other vet clinics. We had no choice but to relinquish this little dog to those owners without them ever paying the bill. (while I had her charges deducted from my paycheck for the next month). Their final parting words: ‘we knew you would save her if you thought she was abandoned’. These are the kind of things that drive our profession to the edge and cause rampant depression among our colleagues. RIP Dr. Koshi.
Dr. V says
My blood pressure is rising just reading that, but sadly I am not one bit surprised you have had to experience that. And people wonder why veterinarians become jaded? I’ve been in a tense situation (who hasn’t, right?) and to have to just sit and allow someone to tell lies because fighting will do even more damage. I had a veterinarian who didn’t know me from Adam get dragged into it as well and her words of support to me sustained me through a really awful time. You’re right- our legacy to Dr. Koshi needs to be exactly what you have stated, to remember the vet down the street is a competitor second and a colleague first, and to aid them in this draining work.
Jessica Dolce says
Thank you for writing about the emotional needs of animal professionals. After my own experience with compassion fatigue (working at a shelter), I became a Certified Compassion Fatigue Educator and am just now beginning to offer resources to support others. Compassion fatigue, burnout, and emotional stressors are prolific in animal-related work, yet almost universally ignored in our professional training and support. It is critical that we change this.
I wanted to share this book – When Helping Hurts – for anyone who works or volunteers with animals: http://www.amazon.com/When-Helping-Hurts-Compassion-Veterinary/dp/1583261818
And if it is helpful to anyone, here is my own experience with compassion fatigue: http://notesfromadogwalker.com/2013/09/07/self-care-is-not-optional-how-burnout-ended-my-career-at-the-shelter/
Thank you again for shining a much-needed light on this.
Thanks for the book recommendation, ordering it today. I’m also going to check into the Compassion Fatigue Educator certification. Thanks for the tips!
Dr. V says
Thank you for your work and for sharing that resource!
E.A. Summers says
I have no understanding of any of this. I am so sorry that a good vet was victimized.
I am even more sorry that a LOT of animals will not get good treatment because of the loss of this good DVM.
And yes, I do NOT understand leaving the animals in need behind.
Thank you for bringing this to the forefront. It’s so terribly sad to hear that news.