I was not one of those people who knew from a young age what they wanted to be when they grew up. I tried on many different hats – rescue animal farm owner, concert violinist, writer of the great American novel, math teacher, human ophthalmologist, professional organizer – to name a few. I found myself adrift in my late twenties. I was working at a human hospital on an in-patient ward, watching the medical students and interns thinking, “boy, that is not what I wanted to be doing”. But what did I want to do?” The answer came unexpectedly from a suggestion from my brother. Why not be a veterinarian? The one consistency in my life was a love of animals. We always had cats and dogs growing up. Every year I asked for a horse for Christmas (still waiting, Santa!). I loved going to the zoo, watching wildlife programs on TV, yet I never thought about being a veterinarian. I knew they didn’t make much money, but hey, none of us are in it for the money, right? So, I took some extra classes while working at the hospital, applied to vet school, and low and behold got in on the first try. It was meant to be, right?
Vet school was miserable. I had been out of school a number of years at that point, and even then, I was used to the quarter system and 3 classes 3 days a week. Vet school was 8 hours of classes Monday through Friday, hours of studying every night and weekend. We were on the semester system, which meant the final exam covered twice the amount of material that I was used to. My classmates were all top of their class and I was convinced that the university had made a mistake letting me in. They all seemed younger, more experienced and much smarter than me. I graduated with a small mountain of debt and low self-esteem, but I had 10 years to pay my debt off. What could go wrong?
My first job was miserable. The pay was little more than the job I had quit before going to vet school. I lived with my mother and had almost an hour commute each way to the job. The office manager undermined me to the staff. I felt I had learned nothing in vet school about the practical, everyday tools I needed to do my job. Everyone knew more than I did, including the assistants and kennel help. I had never worked a job before where I felt people didn’t like me. I was hesitant with clients, so they didn’t trust me either. Needless to say, they didn’t renew my contract.
My next job was better. I had managed to learn a lot at my first job, and felt more confident. For the next 20 years of practice, I worked for many different clinics. In each practice, I would be happy initially, then somehow wasn’t. There were several times that after leaving a practice, I would take several months off and try to figure out another career path I could take. I always managed to talk myself back in to being a veterinarian again and would be happy for a while. But it’s all too easy to fall back in to the pattern of getting depressed over the stresses and failures of the job. We all know the down-side of veterinary medicine – too many complicated cases, clients that have high expectations of what we can do for a small amount of money, our own perfectionism, social media bullying, law suits or board complaints, not enough income, too much debt, risk of serious injury, feeling helpless wishing you can cure every case that walks through the door, looking at euthanasia as a personal failure. No wonder veterinarians are at high risk of suicide and substance abuse.
Luckily, I have a good social network of friends and family that have been supportive of me through all my professional ups and downs. I realized the secret to happiness is that I alone am responsible for my own happiness. I make a conscious decision of how to react to stress. Getting angry and putting someone down may make me feel better initially; but in the long run, I feel guilty and drag everyone around me down to share in my misery. My current job has a hospital policy of no gossiping and no bad attitudes. My boss is not afraid to fire people with bad attitudes, regardless of their skill level. This promotes a very happy atmosphere, and rewards those with good attitudes. There is no talking down about other staff members. Those with low self-esteem are praised in public about the things they do well. We don’t criticize if someone doesn’t know something. This promotes employees to be unafraid to ask questions and learn. When mistakes are made, we view them as a learning opportunity. This way, people are not afraid to fess up to their mistakes.
But most importantly for me, I have done some hard thinking about what I enjoy about veterinary medicine. We all have a tendency to focus on what went wrong today, rather than what went right. I got in to veterinary medicine, because I believe that people live longer, happier lives when they share that life with a pet. I want to do what I can to lengthen the life of that pet. I love being able to solve the puzzle of what is going on and see that I made a difference in that pet’s life. I try to find an example of that every day. Everyone loves to cuddle with the puppies and kittens that we see. I treasure those moments when they happen. I make a fuss over them. I focus on those pets that I helped feel better. I take a moment and pat myself on the back for that recheck appointment that is back to normal. I pursue my passion of behavior medicine and fear free handling. I go to the big conferences and remember how fun it is to learn again. I find humor where I can throughout the day. I talk to colleagues and commiserate on the challenges of the day. I look at euthanasia as a way of relieving pain, not as a failure to cure. I realize that I am not perfect and I cannot save them all. But maybe I can save the one in front of me.