This week, there were reports of three veterinarians who have taken their own lives by their own hands. I didn’t know them. They are not personal friends. This week they were not classmates or close colleagues. But when I told my best friend, she commented that it was an epidemic. She went on to suggest that it might be a timely topic for my article this week. Maybe it is.
It may surprise many to know that the current suicide rate for veterinarians is 3-4 times the national average. Client stresses, debt, declining profits due to internet and alternate subsidized care are all issues. I am not in danger, but I have had to walk away from financial complaints and have totally delegated these things to other staff members. Personally, I find it very stressful to give my whole to patient care and then hear it is not nearly good enough. I take all patient complaints very seriously, and work hard to continuously improve patient care.
This week was a busy week. I joke that I eat stress for a living, but I really am good at dealing with and defusing stress. (Mindfulness and enjoyment are paramount!) Dealing well with stress allows me to excel through the several major medical cases that were in the hospital and any one of them could have died. We did 4 different sets of specialized blood tests, cardiac work-ups and had some very sick exotics. This is the kind of stress that I thrive on.
However, when a treatment does not go well, vets tend to take it hard. I, and many veterinarians have devoted everything they have to their clients and patients. The case that goes bad, the unexpected death, combines with long working hours and on-call pressures. It could get to almost anyone. Vets may be especially susceptible because they offer a pleasant death to their patients as a routine part of the day. Death can be a way out. We have easy access to drugs that quickly, painlessly kill.
I am very good at this job. Veterinarians are taught to find the wrong, the sick, the negative and then fix it. I try hard to listen and find a solution for the whole problem. But all things in life cannot be fixed. I think people especially cannot be fixed by me. This week, five of my clients had spouses with cancer. These were not chemo and treatment, but was either a new diagnosis or a remission lapse. I cannot fix that. Others have adult children struggling with addictions. I cannot fix that. Some are dealing with job loss or financial stresses. Every once in a while I can help this, but never as much as the need. Regardless of the cause, these stresses are often passed on to the veterinary staff and doctors.
The vast majority of my clients are great! They listen, ask good questions and do their best to take care of their animals. They come to me because they appreciate my knowledge and care. There is probably 1 or 2 percent that are not and a few more that can lash out when they are stressed. Remember that “stress” rolls downhill. But 80% of my clients are absolutely wonderful and 15% are pretty darn good.
That remaining 5% can be a problem. In the last few weeks, clients have stopped payment with no cause, written a bad review for a $25 exam and treatment, argued, put me in the middle of “I have very limited money” and a very-very-sick-pet. Clients who did not listen have had to have legs amputated because of owner “fixing” splints or bandages after we have advised to leave it to us. My staff and I often get told that “you don’t care,” because I cannot do something for free. Sometimes I get told that “if I cared”, I would see their pet on the weekend or late at night. Sometimes, maybe, I can, but sometimes, I need to recover from the day or the week. I was speaking to an attorney and he said veterinarians have 5 to 6 times as many complaints as any other licensed profession. This client stress is the kind of stress that does get to me.
As a veterinarian, I encounter death much more frequently than my MD counterparts. We vets also have some moral issues doctors never face. I do not think my MD friends have ever had to counsel an owner who is forced to choose between a costly operation for their pet or sending their kid to college or maybe the clients own food or medicine. Many times an MD does not even know what a procedure costs.
Everyone thinks that the euthanasias and deaths are the difficult part of this job. It is not. Almost all euthanasias are in the best interest of the pet. It is a wonderful thing that is laking I understand that. Soon, even new staff get to see the misery of a sick pet that is not euthanized. It is hard to see the owners, to know that they will not go home with their best friends. I feel for the owners, but I know it is best for the pets. I care so much for the pets, that it allows me to help the owners.
On the other hand, sometimes I get told to euthanize healthy pets. I can refuse, but I know that I can make it better for the pet than if the owner does it. And owners will find a way. I once told a client that their up and bouncing lab did not need to be put to sleep for arthritis and that we had medicine for that. He took her home and shot her that evening. I won’t lie and say that didn’t/doesn’t still bother me!
Meanwhile, many veterinarians carry huge vet school debt (as much or more than medical school) and yet most veterinarians will earn less than a third what doctors and dentists do. (One vet posted that they had half a million in debt and would never be able to have a home or be debt free.) Veterinary charges are much less than human charges and vets don’t get reimbursed by Medicare, Medicaid, and insurance. (Pet insurance does exist, but few people have it.)
I asked on my vet list (NOMV or Not One More Vet that my coloring book is dedicated to) what the vets thought the reasons we had more suicide than our counterparts in the U.S. Although there were several comments about debt, long hours and loneliness a recurring theme was “unrealistic expectations of owners triggering abusive and manipulative behaviors” by clients. Many vets mentioned social media attacks, reviews and complaints. (One of the three deaths this week had a cyberbullying component.)
Another reason was that veterinarians try to fix everything or to be perfect. When they are not, or even if they do everything right and something has a bad outcome, it bothers them. “It was bad when a treatment went wrong before, but now with social media it is so much worse.”
Another vet said: “Isolation. I put 100% into my job. I have very little left for friends, and the thought of trying to start a relationship is exhausting.”
My walking partner tries to find beauty in every little, and big, thing. She makes me stop and look at trees, the squirrels and rocks. I humor her and will try to notice good things. I am better at seeing the wonder of a new puppy or kitten or a sick pet that gets better. I definitely witnessed a couple of miracles this week, and yet sometimes I let the negative get to me. Not enough to ever be a danger, but enough to spend a few hours in a mindless video game.
When I have posted this week about the suicides, I have suggested that people consider being kind. I doubt, that it is just veterinarians that could use kindness, many people could. I know yesterday, when a client said that they really appreciated me, I was taken off guard. We try so hard, that I assume we have satisfied most clients, but it was nice, if unusual, to hear it.
Turns out there were only two veterinarians that have taken their own lives by their own hands this week. Still that is too many. I didn’t know them. I don’t even grieve for them. But I grieve for the situations that made them think this was the best option. I mourn for when we had respect for each other and gratitude for all things.