Visiting Vet: Opening our hearts to each other

When my daughters were little I read them the Little House On The Prairie series. We loved learning about life on the frontier. The simple pleasures. The ingenuity. The hardships. Sometimes we watched the television show based on the books.

What always struck me was what happened when someone needed a doctor. Pa would hitch up the horse and buggy, then ride as fast as he could into town to find Dr. Hiram Baker, the local physician and veterinarian. When he got to Doc’s office, Pa often found that no one was home. The doctor might be ten miles away, delivering a baby, or tending someone on their deathbed. As far as I remember, there were almost no telephones in Walnut Grove. There were certainly no pagers, no cell phones. Pa couldn’t call, text, or email. If he needed Doc badly enough, he had to physically go track him down. My children couldn’t imagine such a world.

“Well, when I was your age, there were no home computers,” I said while driving them to school. “No wi-fi. No Google. If you wanted to find something out, you had to go to the library, search your subject in a card catalog, find the book in the stacks, look in the index, and see if that book could answer your question.”

They looked aghast. “I love Google,” one sighed. I agreed. It is very cool to have so much information right at our fingertips. Unfortunately, it means we also have a lot of misinformation at our fingertips.

When clients bring me tomes downloaded from “Dr. Google,” I have to wade through all their research, separating the wheat from the chafe. I don’t want to ignore an owner’s efforts. Perhaps there is some new treatment I am not aware of that might be useful. It’s nigh impossible for one lowly veterinarian to keep current with all the advances in medicine these days. But most of the time, I find they are bringing me information about some 21st-century equivalent of snake oil or magic beans.

Then there’s Facebook. I resisted mightily for a long time, but eventually joined in order to find an old friend. Then several old friends found me. That was nice. Then clients started to friend me. Okay. I like my clients. Then people I didn’t know started sending Friend Requests. “Do I know you?” I wanted to ask, but that seemed so rude. Then people started messaging me veterinary questions. All the time.

“It’s bad enough I can’t go to Cronig’s without having to talk about fleas,” I thought grumpily. “Can’t I even waste time on FB reading about everyone else’s perfect lives (children, vacations) without having to play James Herriot!” I longed to move to Walnut Grove where Pa would never hitch up the buggy after dark or on a weekend just to bother Doc about fleas or diarrhea. But in the midst of my Bah Humbugging, I happened to see that one of the animal-focused Facebook folks had shared a link about veterinarians and burnout along with a lovely comment encouraging people to appreciate their veterinarians.

Burnout. Also called compassion fatigue. It is a kind of physical, emotional, and/or mental collapse brought on by overwork, stress, and isolation. Medicine has come a long way since Doc Baker’s day, which is all well and good, but for physicians (and veterinarians) it means a huge amount of ever-burgeoning information to be mastered. This has led to a statistically proven increase in burnout among doctors, often manifested by substance abuse, depression, even suicide.

Doctors on the front lines of health care are at highest risk because they usually work the longest hours for the lowest pay. Primary care docs have a higher rate of burnout than specialists such as dermatologists or pathologists. (Though when you see how busy dermatologists are here on the Vineyard, there’s no doubt they have their share of overwork and stress.). General practice veterinarians are in a similar situation to primary care physicians, facing long hours, hugely diverse demands, and lower pay than their specialist colleagues.

People who are caregivers for the chronically or terminally ill also suffer from the depression associated with burnout. Faced day in, day out with a situation in which a patient doesn’t get better, it is not unusual to succumb to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

For veterinarians, because our patients typically have much shorter life spans than human beings, we see an awful lot of death. Probably more than your average primary care physician.

We also play a particularly poignant and personal role, guiding people through decisions about euthanasia, then personally performing the actions that lead to an animal’s passing. Add the loss of control of one’s time that comes with doing emergency work, and technology that now enables us to be available 24/7, and you end up with an emotionally exhausting life. Especially when you consider that most of us went into this business because really, we actually do love animals. Some of us even like the people that own the animals.

And hard as it is for you to lose your beloved pet, it’s hard for your veterinarian too. Hard for us to feel like we couldn’t fix the problem. Hard for us to say good-bye to animals we may have known since they were puppies and kittens. Hard to see you grieve. You, our clients, who often over the years have become our friends.

People in all walks of life suffer from burnout, from depression, from hidden struggles. It’s a good time of year to remember to open our hearts to each other. In the words of Laura Ingalls Wilder, “Christmas Eve was the time when everybody was unselfish. On that one night, Santa Claus was everywhere, because everybody, all together, stopped being selfish and wanted other people to be happy. And in the morning you saw what that had done. ‘If everybody wanted everybody else to be happy, all the time, then would it be Christmas all the time?’ Laura asked, and Ma said, ‘Yes, Laura.’”