Conquering compassion fatigue in the veterinary profession

Conquering compassion fatigue in the veterinary profession

Rationing empathy and other emotional energies can be a job in itself—but learning to listen to yourself is key.
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Dec 01, 2013

The old saying goes, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." But in the case of our pets, maybe it should be, "The Lord giveth and the vet taketh away." Veterinarians are given so much responsibility. Pets' lives are in our hands. That makes us prone to a condition known as compassion fatigue.

A tough situation

Our ability to maintain a high level of empathy for every patient and every client is unrealistic. Our ability to mirror each client's expectations while maintaining some emotional distance requires a strict code of rationing emotional energy.

It hurts to care so much, to invest your whole heart in your work, which is what many of our clients want us to do as we try to heal and save their four-legged family members. Other clients ask us to remove a pet they see as a burden. To juggle these ends of the emotional spectrum makes it hard to navigate through each day.

How does a rational, empathetic person put to sleep a pet they watched grow from infancy to old age in one room, then walk 10 feet away to another patient and expect to be jubilant and clearheaded to examine, diagnose and treat? Somewhere along the way, we learned we needed to mask or disregard our emotions from room to room, from moment to moment. It's a recipe for disaster—and we do it all the time.

A caring answer

How do we keep the emotional stress from accumulating to the point where it breaks us? Well, now's the time to learn. Listen to yourself and notice when things don't feel right. I will be the first to freely admit that I grapple with compassion fatigue every single day of my professional life. So how do I keep going? I always pay attention to my emotions and my well-being. I have to say "no"—a lot. I'm honest with my clients. I stand by my core values and stay true to who I am. If clients don't care about their pet, I'm not the right vet for them.

I invest my whole heart into what I do; I know that I cannot practice any other way. To do this, I have to understand that there are certain clients that I'm just not right for. I can't care more for their pet than they do, and I can't be a compassionate veterinarian any other way. Most importantly, every day I remind myself how much I love to be a part of my clients' families and how lucky I am to be living my dream.

Dr. Krista Magnifico owns Jarrettsville Veterinary Center in Jarrettsville, Md. This is adapted from a longer blog of hers at http://kmdvm.blogspot.com/.

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