I'm a veterinarian—not a superhero

I'm a veterinarian—not a superhero

Or, Dr. Dean Scott's unapologetic objection to the veterinary profession's seemingly obligatory requirements to work long hours, be the good guy or care more about pets than their owners.
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Jun 25, 2015

Illustration by Josh FultzThree recent things prompted me to put some thoughts down regarding the ongoing discussion about mental health in our profession. One was Dr. Andy Roark's video "Five signs it's time to quite your job;" another was a short article Veterinary Medicine Medical Editor Heather Lewellen, DVM, wrote on her personal battle with compassion fatigue; and the third was a post on a pre-vet Facebook page where a student expressed that he will "do whatever it takes" to become a veterinarian.

Dr. Dean ScottTaking all three into account, there seems to be an unfortunate, all-or-nothing response that we think is required to do our job. It's a pressure we not only put on ourselves but also is reinforced by others both in and out of the profession. It starts when we’re veterinary students and carries through our careers as we tell ourselves we must enjoy every aspect of our job and do good works at all times—and it's making us miserable.

Here are a few initial—personal—takeaways:

> No. 1: I'm going to complain about my job just like anyone else in any other job does and that's OK. It doesn't mean you should leave your job and it doesn't mean you should feel bad that you're not as enamored with it as a fellow colleague. To complain about legitimate frustrations is a relief valve for many of us.

> No. 2: I am thrilled when I don't have to work. And I do not feel the need to do more than I already do.

> No. 3: While I haven't forgotten why I got into this job, I have come to the conclusion that what I currently do is not the job that I thought it would be.

It's a job

Ultimately, no matter what else, being a veterinarian is a job. You may call it a vocation or a career or a calling; it still comes down to being a job. I don't define myself by my job. When I say I'm a veterinarian, it's not who I am, but what I do.

Some people might see that statement and think that I'm less of a veterinarian because of it. Here's the thing—I do this job well. Just because I don't invest even more of myself than I currently do is a choice. When I read about Dr. Lewellen feeling emotionally disconnected from a client not wanting to pursue treatment or diagnostics for a pet, I thought that odd because I do the same thing. I try not to take things personally and purposefully create some emotional distance from clients and their choices. I think it’s a healthy protective mechanism, and I think it's OK to do it. We have a tendency to internalize and make ourselves sick because we don't understand people who don't feel about animals the same way we do. I find that I care more about most of my clients' pets than they do.

I don't suffer from compassion fatigue so much as I do idiot fatigue. Granted, there's a lot of overlap. The idiots interfere in our ability to treat their own animals and that incurs frustration on our part. Advocating for animals to some people who don't follow or appreciate our advice is a serious stressor. That's why you have to divorce yourself from that stressor, to some degree. While I will continue to advocate for appropriate veterinary care, if an individual pet owner doesn't want to pursue something, more effort on my part is not necessarily going to get them to do it. It is not a failure on our part for someone else to make bad choices. I think we suffer from the realization that many pet owners are not as invested in their pets as we thought when considering this profession. It can be very disheartening.

Put veterinary 'heroism' on a shelf, not a pedestal

We raise up on a pedestal those of us who are involved in charitable organizations, spay days, vaccine clinics, rescue groups and all of the myriad other ways in which we can do animal care outside of our main jobs. And that's fine and laudable. However, it seems that when we talk about these people, there's internal pressure we put on ourselves to do all of those things also—because if we aren't doing those things, there's something inherently wrong with us.

When I hear the list of what some people are doing, I feel intimidated too. And I wonder in what other areas they may not be so accomplished. Because when you're devoting so much time and energy into one aspect of your life, other areas will suffer. If that one area of your life is sufficient and makes you happy, then that's good and I'm happy for you. I just worry that there are many of us out there who are letting things in our life slide while trying to live up to this idealized version of being a veterinarian.

I'm sure you've had clients say hurtful things about how "you don't love animals" or "you're just in it for the money." Again, the message here is that if you don't do things for people and animals all the time—if you don't change your hours for their convenience, if you don’t give discounts and freebies when asked, if you’re not there for them every waking moment—then you aren't doing your job.

Look, I go to work, do a good job and then leave work. I don't do extracurricular animal-related activities. And that's OK. It’s enough to just do your job well. I'm not always perfect in keeping tendrils of work from following me home in my psyche. I recognize, however, that as long as I do my best, that's all that should be expected from me.

Get over the 'good guy' complex

Someone pointed out to me that when you get a group of veterinarians or veterinary technicians together we start a game of one-upmanship as to who works the hardest. We don't intentionally do it. We just start talking about what we do: how many hours we work, whether nights and weekends are involved, how we incorporate our family into working pet adoption shows, what rescue groups we work with, etc. And I think we do this because we have a worry of how we are viewed or judged, not only by our peers but also by society. We want to be viewed as the good guys. We seem to think that the more we do for others in this profession—especially when we’re not compensated for it—the more the world will like us. This causes many of us to over-extend. It starts in veterinary school. Look at how many hours of volunteer time are required to get into veterinary schools—hundreds. You know how many hours are required for medical school? None.

I see the pre-vets already doing one-upmanship with how many volunteer hours they’ve logged, already putting pressure on themselves and their peers to do more. Look, folks, there is only so much any one person can do.

Stop the associate bullying

This next comment is to practice owners, because I hear far too much about how we are expecting new grads to endure the same hardships we went through when we graduated. Listen up. The pressures are different than even 20 years ago. Trust me. They don't need us to ride their backs and work 70 to 80 hours a week because they have to "pay their dues." Why do we think that's OK? It wasn't really even OK when we were subjected to it. Considering the enormously higher debt load, what we owe those who come behind us is to find ways to make things easier for them, not harder.

We need a paradigm shift in practice. And it's going to be hard for many of us. Forty hours is enough to work in any job, even a veterinary one. If you want or need to do uncompensated animal work outside of the job, pace yourself. Learn to say “no.” As trite as it sounds, we need to find balance.

When we’re students, we have all that time and energy and it's easy to log those hundreds of hours of volunteer time. As we mature, however, we get friends and family and hobbies and children, yet we still have that impulse that we're supposed to be always doing and giving for the sake of the animals. And we feel guilty, or are made to feel guilty, when we aren't fully occupied in doing animal care. We have to decide whether we are in this profession for the short term or the long haul, because we are literally killing ourselves as caregivers. You can only give of yourself so much before the tank runs dry. And you don't have to be all things to all people at all times—because if you are doing that, you aren't being what you need to be for yourself.

A graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Dean Scott has enjoyed 35 years in the veterinary profession, including five years with the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps. He now practices small animal medicine at Animal Clinic of Brandon in Brandon, Florida.

Superhero Article

I want to thank you for your article, it really hit home. I graduated 6 years ago and it took me 2 years into the profession to burnout, and I felt I needed a break (or a new profession). I ended up taking about a year and a half off which coincided with the birth of my second child, and I am glad that I did that. The first 2 years of my working was a real eye opener to the profession (I was one of those that wanted to be a veterinarian since I was a little kid and saw it through rose-colored glasses). As a new associated I saw a lot of pets that hadn't been to a veterinarian for years and only came to see me because their pet was very sick. I ended up euthanizing a lot of them. I quickly got compassion fatigue because I felt that none of the owners wanted to spend the money to try to help save their pets when I knew we could fight for them. I learned in that time that I took off that there are some things you have to do in order to protect yourself in this profession, and you hit the nail on the head with your article. You can't beat yourself up if an owner chooses not to pursue treatment and you have to find things to do outside of veterinary medicine. I have since forgiven myself for not being able to convince owners to do right by their pets. I have learned to offer everything I think the pet needs and if the owner declines, that is OK, it has nothing to do with me and my powers of persuasion or my caliber as a veterinarian. Magically more owners seem willing to do some form of treatment since MY mindset has changed. I think it has helped me to be less stressed in this field and I feel like I could continue in this profession without burning out again from compassion fatigue. I too consider being a veterinarian a "job" and prefer to define myself by my other roles, such as wife and mother, and this has let me compartmentalize and try not to take too much home with me each night. Thank you again for the article as it seems a good message for all of us out here in this profession.

Dr. Scott's article

I had to jump through hoops to respond to this article but it was worth it. Thanks for saying this. I am so glad I spent some time doing other things besides vet medicine in my career. The only thing I regret is that I didn't do more of the things I enjoy. There are no rewards for practicing for 43 years--35 of them as a solo practitioner. You think you are doing a good job and the clients you trust the most will turn around and stab you in the back. Other veterinarians used to be "colleagues", now they are competitors and they also will stab you whenever they can. I am very glad to be out of the profession and I will discourage anyone from entering it. It is very different than it was in 1968 and not for the better.

yes Dr. Scott

Dean,
I am first naming you on purpose! Why? Because you are obviously my veterinary hero. I could not have said any of this better.
I believe this is the first time I am commenting in a vet journal. No, not a hiking journal ( hiker), not a family journal ( dad, hubby, grand-dad), not a music journal!
If i had decided not to seek balance early on in my vet. career, I probably would have left by now. And I know you understand my relief.
I do enjoy my profession.Outside interests are very important.

Brian witkov, 36 years a veterinarian and a lot of other things which keep me sane...mostly!!!!!!

The good old days

I stated my association wit this profession in the late 70's and I have never seen an 80 hour work week..then or now. I did that an an infantryman in Vietnam and even under those circumstances it was not sustainable..and it sure ain't as a vet.

But if you long for the 40 hour week..too late. There was time Vet Med was a Monday to Friday..8 hour a day profession. No more. We "improved" it with extended hours . Remember how great the Gods of Vet Med told us that was going to be? Then Saturdays. Now Sundays.

Saturday and Sunday are family days. At least they are to most folks. What have we done?

Great narrative on our jobs!!

Dr. Scott your narrative is a breath of fresh air. I've enjoyed my "job" for nearly forty years now. I was that superhero guy the first half of my career as a dairy vet. Superheros's are not bullet proof nor are they irreplaceable. A very serious practice injury forced me out of large animal and into a better phase of balanced life. I've enjoyed the later "balanced" part much more.
Pay attention young vets and superheros! If you die today all your clients will have a new vet tomorrow! At your wake they stand around saying "Gosh Doc shouldn't have worked so hard".

Thank you for saying it out loud!

As one of those veterinarians who has exhausted myself for 28 years trying to do everything for every animal every minute of the day and night, I appreciated reading your comments. I will be saving up some of your lines, printing them out, and posting them on my desk. While I will continue to work and do rescue for as long as I can manage it, I will take comfort in knowing that other veterinarians "don't suffer from compassion fatigue so much as I do idiot fatigue". Thanks!