Stress – it’s something we all deal with at some point in our lives.
Recently, I experienced the most stressful eight days of my 15-month veterinary career so far. It was hard, yet, like each of you reading this, I got through it.
Anyone that is in their veterinary career has probably dealt with stress at some point in their day-to-day schedule. Just like anyone else who experiences stress in their career, there are ways to cope and manage.
Here is an example of a stressful situation I have experienced in my vet career and how I managed.
A Stressful Day in the Life of a Vet
It started on a Saturday. I was the solo vet that day with my vet nurse. Our clinic hours on Saturday are reduced to 9 am-1 pm. At 7 am, I was woken up to a call. “My dog has had a heart attack, I need you to come now.” Immediately, I snapped out of the groggy ‘I just woke up’ headspace.
After asking a few questions, I determined this was a house call as the dog was a 35 kg boxer with an elderly lady at home. I rushed to the clinic to collect my house call box —including euthanasia equipment. Upon arrival, the dog got up to greet me and after a physical examination I determined he was fine and just needed to continue his heart medications.
By 9 am, I only had one consultation booked for the day. By 9:20 am my nurse had answered 15 phone calls and I was now fully booked even to the extent that the last consultation for the day was after closing time. I had my second consultation after running blood work. We ultimately determined he was in end stage kidney disease. This was a hard phone call to make. While his owners were deciding which of the treatment options to take, I started my next consultation. This was a dog that was dealing with diarrhea that quickly became a quality of life conversation.
Halfway through the consultation, my nurse ran into my workspace “Lianne, you need to come NOW”. I excused myself while following my nurse at speed to the crates in the back of the practice. Our kidney patient’s heart had stopped and we started CPR immediately. While doing so, we called his owners. No answer —10 minutes passed. We called his owners again and had to let them know CPR was unsuccessful. Tears from them. Tears from us.
I was now running behind on time for all my consults but I still had to go back and finish the quality of life consult. I walked in and started talking to them but my mind was elsewhere. I had just lost my first CPR patient. This was day one of eight.
Steps To Less Stress
Step One: Take Time For YOU
I went out to collect medications for this diarrhea/ quality of life consult but then stepped back into the room and told the owners, “I’ll be with you in 5 minutes, I just need to go cry quickly”. They were so understanding and I felt better for it. Embrace your emotions. You are only human.
The rest of the day was difficult, too. It ended with another euthanasia. My nurse and I were emotionally exhausted so we ordered some food, sat in the clinic, and processed the day.
Step Two: Talk it Out
Over the eight days, I spoke to so many different groups of people about my emotions; my work team, my parents, my best friends and my vet friends. I didn’t always go to them for advice. In fact, most of the time I just wanted to share how I was feeling.
For me, verbalizing the emotions I experienced helped me work through them. Instead of talking it out, you might find journaling more helpful. By reflecting instead of dwelling, you’ll set yourself up for success if another stressful situation happens in the future.
Step Three: Therapy Can Help
Each morning when I walked into work that week, I had a euthanasia consult booked. Instead of focusing on the emotions tied to putting an animal to sleep, I would actively (and still do prior to each euthanasia consult) think about the positives.
Three months into my working veterinary career, I booked myself a therapy session. Was I nervous to do so? Yes. Did I think people would think I was “weak” for doing so? Also yes. Did I do it anyway? 100% yes. I wanted to go to therapy because I knew euthanasias was taking too much of a toll on me to allow me to stay working in the veterinary industry for the rest of my life. I needed coping strategies.
Going to therapy if you’ve hit rock bottom is incredibly important but going to therapy even before you’ve hit “bottom” is just as important! Just understand that you may need to visit a few therapists before you find someone that you “click” with.
Step Four: Be Honest With Yourself
One of the biggest tips I learned in therapy is to find a positive, yet achievable spin on the things you’re doing in your everyday life.
Say you wake up in not the best of moods to go to work. Instead of telling yourself “today is going to be a great day,” try “today is going to be manageable.” While it doesn’t sound super positive but it certainly sounds much more achievable and you won’t feel as though you’ve lied to yourself if the day isn’t actually ‘great!’
For euthanasias, I acknowledge that it is okay to feel sad but the only words I have in my head prior to walking into those consults, during them and after them is “I’m taking pain and suffering away from the animal and owner and I’m allowing peace to follow”. Those words helped me to not only get through the difficult days, but to give the pet and their owner everything I could to ensure it was everything they needed during each and every one of my euthanasia consults.
Even though I have strategies in place to help me during the days, I was exhausted by the end of the day. Again, I always go back to the tip about doing things for yourself. Even if I hadn’t finished my notes, I would leave work at sunset so that I could sit up the top of my favorite hill and watch the sun go down. I used this as a way to pay tribute to each animal I had helped cross over the rainbow bridge that day and as a way to make a not so good day manageable.
Final Step: Change Up Your Schedule
By this I mean, don’t be afraid to ask for some rescheduling!
Throughout the week, my team tried their hardest to avoid booking euthanasia appointments with me. The difficulties came with the fact that I was on call so they couldn’t reschedule those appointments. So, at the end of the week, I messaged the work group chat and requested not to do any euthanasia appointments the following week (when I wasn’t on call) unless clients had specifically requested me. This gave me a chance to focus on the more happy sides of being a vet… like first puppy vaccinations!
All in all, stress is no stranger to us in the veterinary world. With some patient situations being more difficult than others, it can be hard for us to cope at times. It’s important to take the time to step out and collect yourself, reflect daily, go to therapy, focus on the positives, and adjust your schedule as needed in order to help manage your stress in these sorts of environments!
Dr Lianne Mellin
Dr. Lianne is a recent graduate veterinarian working at a companion animal clinic as a general practitioner in New Zealand. Her interests lie in soft tissue surgery, dentistry and helping owners care for their pets with a keen focus on preventative health care.
Over her years at veterinary school, Dr. Lianne worked hard to build a social media presence on both Instagram and YouTube in order to help prospective vet students, support those in the industry already and educate the public!