The Truth About Veterinary Burnout: ‘We Can’t Continue At This Pace’
On a recent Thursday night, I ordered pizza. It’s all I had in me.
I rarely share much that goes on during my days. I especially don’t share much when it involves times that I struggle. I believe this is a typical character trait for someone of my generation. As a Baby-Boomer, I think it’s a result of being raised by parents who lived through the Great Depression and World War II, people who never wanted to ‘talk about it’ or bring any bad memories to the surface.
Let’s be clear though. I’m fine.
I don’t want this to come across as a whiny rant. My hope is that, by sharing what I’m experiencing, we might be able to help each other get through this (as in, the crazy onslaught of work vets have been experiencing over the last couple of years).
I know so many are going through the same stuff. It’s so easy to feel isolated and get into the mindset where you think nobody will understand.
I get it. We get it.
What I’m not sure about is how we can get to a better place as a profession. Maybe talking about veterinary burnout will begin a dialogue that will help us collectively work towards figuring a solution. The solution to which I am referring is that of our current predicament as a profession. I’m speaking of how clinical practice is now compared to 2, 5, 10 years ago. Here are the bullets from that Thursday to hopefully help paint a clear picture.
Veterinary Burnout: A Day In A Life
As a solo practitioner in a previously 3 doc practice (anybody else short-staffed?), more rests on my shoulders now.
My morning typically consists of:
A 17 pound, 10-month-old kitten with severe gingivitis in for a COHAT.
A 4-year-old spay in heat.
2 16-year-old cats with weight loss.
A 4-month-old kitten adopted from out of state with no medical history.
3 labs to report from the previous day.
6 refill requests.
Several ‘Can we squeeze this in today? Or should I send them to the ER?’ questions mixed in.
This was all great. Very interesting stuff. An amazing variety. No fractious cats, no anesthetic complications. To get through it my ‘do 3 things at once’ (all day every day, right?) had to be on point constantly, but I’ve got that down by now. While surgery is prepped, lab reports are being typed to email, and the owners of those dropped-off cats are being talked to about weight loss rule-outs and plans (I know you all do this).
My lunch was spent stuffing food into my face while in a zoom meeting for a new well-being initiative my state VMA is working on (I know, I know. The irony!). The afternoon was also filled with unique and interesting appointments back-to-back.
A very typical day.
The type where as soon as you step out of a room, there’s at least one staff member waiting to ask a question about another case, or about how a client wants the meds changed to liquid because they’re nervous about pilling, or to verify charges for an estimate…
It was a good day. Busy, steady, going by fast. It wasn’t until the last appointment of the day that I hit some sort of wall and just became totally spent.
It was a euthanasia appointment. The only situation when we had clients in the building at that time. It involved a mother, her young daughter, and their 17-year-old cat with a huge abdominal carcinoma. She had stopped eating. She was now uncomfortable. It was time.
No second thoughts on the medically necessary thing to do. It’s a blessing to be able to end suffering gently. Everything went perfectly while in that quiet room.
But the new ‘normal’ of the urgency of practice outside of that room hit me hard. While going in and out of that room between consoling, administering a sedative, and then that final injection, the contrast of being present completely with this family, and all the multitasking in the hallway for questions about patients going home and last-minute client concerns right before we close, really disoriented me.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not designed to shift gears that quickly. I wanted to sit on the floor and grieve with this family that has been bringing their little loved ones in to see me for over 2 decades, but there’s so much other stuff to get done, that giving myself that moment seemed overly greedy!
Working Towards Meaningful Solutions
I don’t have an answer for how to fix this right now, but with that feeling that a vise was slowly squeezing my brain, I know this ever-present urgency is not the best way to practice. I know we can’t continue at this pace. I know it didn’t use to be like this.
I’m hopeful that if we work together, we can see that it won’t always be like this.
I also know that on that Thursday, I didn’t have the energy to cook dinner. I ordered a pizza and sat with my wife on the edge of the lake and watched the sun go down.
Being able to slow down for that part of the evening allowed me to recharge and be ready to get back into the clinic to help more families and their furry loved ones on Friday.