As a veterinarian I have seen death aplenty. I have been responsible for the ending of thousands of little lives, inflicted the pain of loss on thousands of people in my own “professional” way, and experienced loss of my own – family, friends, pets, patients. There are times that I feel as though I specialize in death and dying.
This isn’t unusual for veterinarians, of course. Our dog and cat patients have short lives compared to ours. Many of my clients, like myself, feel empty without the love that a pet can provide and will have the opportunity to live with many animals over the course of a lifetime. They will also have the opportunity to say goodbye to those pets one by one, experiencing the pain of loss and the psychic and emotional toll that takes over and over again.
As their veterinarian I will hopefully ease some of their pain by providing a peaceful ending for their pet. This doesn’t, however, entirely negate the effect that each euthanasia has on the person performing the procedure. (See that? I can distance myself from the reality of death a bit by becoming clinical and calling it a “procedure”. But it’s still killing.) After every euthanasia I feel a little heavier, like I’ve got lead in my pockets. Over the years the amount of lead grows from ounces to pounds, and it really starts to weigh you down.
In addition to death, we get to deal with being business owners, human resource managers, therapists, mediators, negotiators, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, imperfect human beings existing on planet earth and interacting with all the other imperfect beings around us.
For some reason people in this country are becoming more and more edgy and intolerant of actual signs of humanity. Veterinarians (and human doctors) now simply can’t make mistakes. Most of us are intrinsically perfectionistic anyway (and self-critical) but we’re not perfect, and for me this sets up a big internal conflict. I have made mistakes, some serious and some minor, and each mistake I make adds to the lead in my pockets. The joyous dance of early practice inexorably becomes a funeral march.
Thankfully, I haven’t made a fatal mistake yet. My clients know about the mistakes that impacted their pets; I am very up front about things like that, and I tell my clients when I screw up. Lately, though, I’ve considered rethinking this.
The down side to telling clients about minor screw-ups has suddenly grown, with the advent of Yelp and cyber-bullying hate sites directed at veterinarians. When one mistake, something as small as trimming a dog’s toenails too short, can result in a complaint to the veterinary board, vile postings to your clinic Facebook page, calls to burn down your hospital, and picketing on the street, I really have to think twice before admitting to any imperfections. And the supply of lead in my pockets grows and I battle with the moral issues this raises.
As a veterinarian, doing the moral thing can get you killed. Dr Shirley Koshi, a veterinarian in New York city, was presented with an abandoned cat. The people who brought him in had found him living in a city park and had tried supplying him with food, but he wasn’t doing well. Dr Koshi treated him at her own expense (because that’s what vets often do with the abused innocents that grab at their hearts), got him well, and adopted him.
A couple of months later a woman of dubious mental health claimed that this cat belonged to her, because she “owned” a “colony” of cats in a public park in the city, and this cat was one of them. What followed was an all-out hate-a-thon, as the woman demanded the cat back to release into the park again and Dr Koshi declined to subject him to a short life of starvation and cold. After enduring months of abuse and bullying online and in person, picketing in front of her clinic, the consequent loss of most of her clientele, and looming bankruptcy, Dr Koshi committed suicide. All because she took a stand and wanted to give a poor little cat a better life. I read about her, and the lead accumulates.
Last week we lost Dr Sophia Yin. I don’t know how it’s possible to be so affected by the death of someone I’ve never met. Maybe it’s just that the lead is becoming really heavy, and I’m feeling the little additions. Maybe it’s just that she seemed so… normal. So just like all of us who put on our brave faces and every day go once more unto the breach. I have no idea what was going on in her personal life, what the factors were that went into this decision. But I can start to understand, late in my career as I am, how very tired one can get from all the weight in one’s pockets.
Every month there is another veterinarian who can’t take the pressures of personal and professional life and decides to end it all. Veterinarians lead all professions now in rates of suicide. Sadness.
I don’t know what we can do about this as a community. Maybe just reach out a little, check on each other, make a phone call, pay attention, listen. Behave more like a family. Give each other the benefit of the doubt. Doing the right thing is easy when it doesn’t cost us anything, and benefits we can gain from the suffering of others is tainted, so go out and support your colleagues who are being bullied online, and do it publicly, especially if they are your “competitors”. Become vets united in adversity.
If you are reading this and are not a vet, consider reaching out to your own veterinarian. Just say thanks, if you mean it. Or tell him how much your dog loves him (or his treats). Or bring her cookies just because. Lead is a soft metal and easily scraped away by kindness. You have no idea how a little thing like this can remove some of the weight your vet is carrying around.