Saturday, March 12, 2011


Well, so it's been a year. And, as is the way in life, things are different but still the same. I quit my job at the second veterinary clinic where I worked in order to decrease my hours and save my sanity. I picked up a few more hours at the primary clinic so I wouldn't be entirely destitute, and I'm trying to live on less. Not much fun when you have only eight bucks left in your budget week, and I eat cheese and crackers for dinner occasionally, but I have a home and a car and, better yet, I have not felt like yelling at a client, quitting my job for a lucrative stripping career, or banging my head against a hard surface since the new schedule has happened. I'm sure my friends and family appreciate this part as well.

It's a hard job sometimes. When I tell people what I do for a living I often get one of two responses: "I always wanted to be a vet but couldn't do that--it would be too hard," or, delightedly, "Don't you love what you do?"(The expected answer being yes). Maybe I'm just too honest to answer with a simple "yeah" and move on. Or maybe I'm not like other vets--but in talking with my colleagues I think I am. (And this may come as a surprise to you, but substance abuse and suicide are fairly common in my profession, sadly.) But I don't always love my job. In fact, sometimes I hate it. But probably not for the reasons people might think. I wanted to become a veterinarian to be useful, to help others (animals and people), and to find meaning in my job. But like any job, there are parts I'm good at that I like, parts I'm good at that I don't like, and parts I'm only average at. (For my vanity, I don't think there's anything I'm terrible at, though I could be wrong. Hey, still employed.)

And as for the first comment: I know what people mean when they talk about what seems hard about my job. But the things I find hard aren't always the things that people expect. What's hard for me is explaining inconclusive test results to owners, when we both really really wanted answers. What's hard is explaining why we have to run another expensive test when this one didn't get us there. What's hard is giving advice and having people ignore it. Of course the sickness, the illness, that's hard too. But sometimes the sickness has a second side for the doctor, completely separate from the terrible fact that someone's pet is sick. There is the thrill of diagnosis, the skill of answering the why and the what to do that is rewarding. In fact, this is the key, I think, to the reason why I did become a vet and the people that make that first comment didn't. It's tied to the other common thing I hear, mostly from younger people who are giving reasons for why they want to go to veterinary school: "Oh, I love animals." And the most valuable thing I can say to these folks is this. You must love more than animals. Loving animals in my profession is almost beside the point. Of course you love them. But so do a lot of people. It's called owning a pet. But you have to have something beside the love of animals to get you through the hard days, or truly, the sickness and the illness WILL bring you into a dark place. You need to love science, and medicine; you need to have the curiosity, to feel the little twinge of excitement when you get an interesting case, and the surge of satisfaction when you figure out the answer. You need to love giving advice, and be prepared to let go of your ego and sense of responsibility when people can't hear the advice. If you go into this profession with only a love of animals, you will have no reserves when they die.

And even with that love of medicine, some days are hard. Today was hard. And so I write to think of the things that do get me through, because today I lost a patient. And he was a good dog, a well-loved dog, a dog that his owner would have done anything to save. And there was no way to save him. No superhero, no magic, no medicine that could have saved him. I can be grateful his death was quick and painless, and that in some ways this death may have been kinder than the one I see more often: the long, grinding, slow halt. But today that thought is not a comfort. I am simply sad that he is gone, and sad that all my knowledge and skill would have done nothing for him. These are the ones you carry with you for years, and that you struggle with. I struggle with: how to carry them without letting them turn into heavy stones in the heart, how to move forward. For as much as he was not my dog, grief calls to grief, and becomes a sign of how we all suffer loss. How do we go on when those we love die? How do we remember them without living in darkness, and how can we not grieve? It is natural to comfort one another, but I think we are too quick to passify and to turn away from painful feelings. Maybe it's ok to sit with grief a while, and be with sadness, and feel sorrow. Maybe that's another way to move through loss.

Hey buddy--you know who you are--I'm sad. I feel terrible for your mother, who is devastated. You were a good egg, one of my favorite patients. And I will always remember you.