I used to be a veterinarian
Trigger warning: discussion of suicide
Hi there, my name is Jennifer.
I like to write. I don’t know that I’m very good, but I like doing it.
I like language and semantics, particularly words that don’t translate well into in English. Meraki is my current favorite.
I like yoga and meditation. In fact, I am certified to teach. Haven’t actually taught a class in person yet, but we won’t talk about that right now (introverts, right?).
And until about 6 months ago, I was a veterinarian.
I used to be a veterinarian.
There is a certain type of person that is drawn to veterinary medicine:
the quiet overachiever
the type-A people pleaser
These are traits that make us very good clinicians. We are compelled to search for a solution. We know how to connect with people and animals. We have strong intuition.
We are smart - there are over 3000 accredited medical schools in the US, but only 30 veterinary schools.
We are multi-talented - there 26 recognized specialties in human medicine. Together, they oversee human life from prenatal procedures to post-mortem examinations, yet to your pet, we all 26 rolled into one.
We have strange senses of humor. You’ll have to say a lot to gross us out.
We are a rare breed.
But these same traits that make us so good at what we do also leave us vulnerable to self-destruction. Veterinarians now have the highest rate of suicide among health professions. But statistics are just numbers.
You don’t feel compassion for numbers.
You don’t feel empathy for numbers.
Statistics tell, but a story shows.
A good story can hit you right in the feels, inspire change and help heal.
So I’d like to you tell you my story, in the hopes that I can inspire change and help heal, and maybe hit you right in the feels.
On May 11th, 2015, I attempted suicide.
This is the first time I have put those words on a page.
Three days prior was one of the hardest days of my professional life. At this point, I was deep in the throws of compassion fatigue. I wasn’t eating well, I wasn’t sleeping well. I dreaded coming to work, but I had no solace at home. My personal life fell apart and my professional life was quickly following suit. In one day, I had told three different families that what they thought was a simple problem was cancer - terminal, inoperable cancer.
The last case was the worst.
It was a middle age mixed breed dog, happy as can be, tail wagging, but he wasn’t putting any weight on his right rear leg. This was the first time I was seeing him, but going through his record, he had been to the hospital four times in the past 3 months for limping/not bearing weight on the right rear leg. His owner came in ready for a fight. I try to introduce myself and she cuts me off,
“Save it. I have been back and forth to this place, spent a shit ton of money and my dog still isn’t better. You people are the most incompetent lot I’ve ever had the displeasure of working with. Ever. Now I want my dog fixed and I want him fixed today!”
She neglected to mention that every other time she’s come in, the possibilities of what could be happening were discussed and diagnostics were recommended but she declined them and opted for pain medication and rest. And that’s not to say she is completely wrong in selecting this option, but if it didn’t work after two attempts, we probably needed to do more digging. So confronted with an angry client, I did what I always do - shut my mouth and did my job.
I examine the dog - let’s call him Charlie. It’s difficult to hear his heart beat because he’s panting and moving. I feel the rest of his body, leaving the non-weight bearing leg for last. I get to his right rear leg and immediately my heart and stomach sink. What looks like a well muscled leg from a distance is in fact a large swollen mass deep with in the muscle and it hurts him when I touch it. His owner yells at me,
“What are you doing? Stop hurting him!”
I sit on the floor and rub his chin and he starts licking my hand and my face while I’m trying to muster the courage to tell this very angry person that there is something very wrong with her dog. I am trying not to cry. I take a deep breath, get up from the floor and look her in the eyes.
“Ma’am, Charlie’s leg is very swollen and painful and we need to take an X-ray to figure out why, and I would also like to give him some injectable pain medication so he’s not painful while we position him” I say.
“So you want to take more of my money, is that what you’re telling me?” she snips.
“What I’m saying is that in order to help you and Charlie, I need to know what’s going on beyond what I can see and feel. And yes, that is going to cost money” I say, defeated.
“Well how much are X-rays?”
I tell her the price for a series (usually two views so I can see what’s happening from different angles.). She only agrees to one view and no pain meds. It’s not ideal, but it’s something. I take Charlie through the treatment area to the radiology room, still happy and wagging his tail the whole time. My technician and I get him on the radiograph table, moving him very carefully so as not to cause more discomfort than we needed to.
And he was such a good boy for everything too.
But there it was, as plain as day. Osteosarcoma - bone cancer - with a pathological fracture right though it. So we get Charlie off the table and I walk back to the exam room, without him so his owner would not be distracted. I bring up the single view on the computer screen. She sees it before I say a word.
“There’s no easy way to say this. Charlie has bone cancer. The swelling in his leg is a combination of the cancer itself and the inflammation surrounding it. Because the bone is abnormal, it is weak and fragile and it appears that Charlie has a fracture through the mass. It is a fracture that likely will not heal. I am very sorry” I say.
It feels hurried.
She stares at the screen for a moment before she speaks, very softly, almost as if she wasn’t really talk to me,
“The other doctor mentioned that cancer was a possibility but I just thought it was a scare tactic to get me to spend more money” she whispers.
With tears in her eyes, she redirects her focus to me, “So what do we do now?”
“With as aggressive as this is, amputating the leg would be the best option. I can give you the information for a veterinary oncologist and surgeon to discuss what would be best for Charlie. But before we get there, I recommend getting at least one view of Charlie’s chest to make sure the cancer hasn’t spread” I say softly.
This time she didn’t fight me. I went back to radiology and we got a single view of Charlie’s chest. It was like a snowstorm, metastatic lesions everywhere. Charlie was likely not a candidate for surgery. I show his owner the chest view and it broke the very thin veneer of composure she had left,
“We could have seen this three months ago. Why didn’t I...” she trailed off crying.
I could have been righteously indignant and agreed with her. I could have been cruel and said I told you so. I could have been angry and vindictive and that’s what you get for being rude.
But what would that have accomplished?
I prescribed Charlie the strongest oral pain meds we had and told her, “Take Charlie home and talk with the rest of your family. Make him comfortable, give him love, make the time you have with him count.”
Then I left.
I sat down at my work station and tried to compose myself. All this happened in 30 minutes and I still needed go see my next patient, a puppy for his next set of vaccines.
They had already been waiting 10 minutes and were getting impatient.
To my right was the doctor that had seen Charlie originally. I give the short version of what we found.
“I told her so,” was all I got.
In that moment, I became so angry. Like blind rage angry.
I knew I couldn’t trust my emotions anymore, I couldn’t trust my judgement.
Physically, mentally and emotionally flip-flopping between new puppies, chronic illnesses, vaccine updates, terminal cancers, ear infections and death, I started feel splintered, fractured, even schizophrenic.
IT WAS A HARD DAY.
Up to that point, it felt like 5 years of hard days:
(DEEP BREATH) my grandfather died-ended an abusive relationship-quit my job-started a new relationship-moved-started a new job-get laid off from said job-scrambled to find another job-end up working at a very toxic place-health failing-quit said job-moved across the country-found a job-lost my cousin in a car accident-had back surgery-loss a job-found a job-ended relationship with man I thought I was going to marry-found myself dealing with a workplace bully (EX - *#$!%^ - HALE)
And I never dealt with any of it.
I plastered a smile on and said I’m ok.
But I wasn’t okay.
That weekend, I took myself to two concerts. I had a great time at both. A guy even bought me a drink. I’m thinking maybe that was rock bottom, maybe things will start to turn around.
On May 11th, I decided to keep the trend going and take myself to the movies. On the way to the movies, I get in a car accident.
Head on collision.
Front end of my car is crumpled like an accordion.
My airbags never went off.
I shouldn’t have survived.
I am staring at the front end of my car and all I can think about are the pictures of my cousin’s car from her accident.
And why I walked away and she didn’t.
And all the ways my life is screwed up.
All the ways I’ve screwed it up.
Your brain has an uncanny ability to block pain when you need it the most. I completely dissociated from what was happening and ran on autopilot for what seemed like hours. Called 911, called the insurance company, called work, called my parents (talked to Mom, left a message for Dad), got home, had car towed. When I got all the ‘adulting’ done, the dissociation seemed suddenly stop. It was just me and the voice in my head. And that voice in my head can be cruel.
When I finalLU stopped moving, I realized just how utterly exhausted and drained I was after living in a near-constant state of fight-or-flight for so long.
“I’m just so tired. Everything hurts - physically, mentally, emotionally. Don’t know how much more I can take”
The silence was deafening.
In veterinary medicine, we can euthanize our patients to end their suffering. My mentor used to say, “Letting your pet die with no pain, with dignity. It’s the last gift we can give to our cherished friend.”
I think it’s part of why suicide is an option for us.
I had muscle relaxers left over from my back surgery. 21 cyclobenzaprine. I sat on my floor counting them over and over.
I took one.
I took another.
I took another.
I was about to take a forth one when my phone rang. It was my dad returning my call.
And I swear to you, it was like I was present again. Just hearing a familiar voice ask “Are you okay?” was enough to shake me out of this 5 year delusion.
“I’m not okay. I need help. I need to come home”
So that’s what I did. I moved back to my childhood home.
For me, there was this feeling of tremendous guilt.
Here I am.
I have fulfilled a dream.
I wanted to be veterinarian and now I’m doing it.
This is the career I’ve always wanted.
And I have the nerve to complain?
I have the nerve to say it’s hard?
There are people stuck in jobs they never wanted.
Jobs they hate.
Jobs just to pay the bills.
Without joy. Without passion.
Oh I never told you what meraki means.
It means the soul, creativity, or love you put into something; the essence of yourself that is put into your work.
Veterinary medicine, for a lot of us, isn’t just a career, it’s a calling.
It gives our lives meaning to know that we are capable of helping those who can’t help themselves.
But how do you reconcile it in your head when a client says, “You’re only in this for the money” when you willfully entered a profession that leaves you with six-figure student loan debt and a salary 1/3 that of your human counterpart?
How do you reconcile it when a client says, “if you cared more, you’d do it for free” when your at the tail-end of a 14 1/2 hour shift where you ate 4 triscuits and a 5 hour energy but that was 7 hours ago and you still haven’t gone to the bathroom because three of your hospitalized patients are trying to die.
We shrink. We retreat. We bury ourselves in work. We give more than we have. We get angry. We shut down. We cry ourselves to sleep and tell you nothing is wrong. We push everyone away because we don’t want to be a burden. We realize we can’t do it all and it’s hard to ask for help.
In my first few weeks home, I had gotten a lot of questions about why I had moved back. So I drafted a substantial Facebook post explaining what happened (minus the suicide attempt). It was well-received and got tremendous amount of love and support from my friends. However, I was worried what my parents would say. I was worried there would be a fight, that they would be angry. My parents are intensely private people, so making a mental breakdown public was definitely not in our wheelhouse.
But I felt I had to, it was a necessary catharsis.
So Mama Bear and I went on our walk like we usually do.
“I saw your Facebook post”
“Airing your dirty laundry in public are we?”
“Yes,“ And I braced for it...
But then she said something I never expected
“I just want to say I’m very proud of you. It was brave to do what you did, put yourself out there. But you’ve always been a brave one”
And for the first time, in a really long time, I believed it was true.
Years later, I am still a work in progress.
I returned to the profession again in 2016, specializing in Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine and, at least for awhile, I had found joy in my work again. I had had my moments overwhelm and overwork, but I sought help this time around (big thanks to my therapist, Tina) and I learned to recognize it before it got out of hand. Therapy helped me unpack a lot of other trauma that I wasn’t read to face a few years ago, and this started a healing journey that has been incredibly difficult but necessary and ultimately valuable and rewarding.
I no longer work as a veterinarian these days.
The pandemic and everything that came up with it forced me to slow down and figure out who I wanted to be and what I wanted to my life to look like. I wanted - no, needed - to heal all the things inside.
Would I choose it again if I had the chance?
Knowing what I know about the profession and about myself now, I don’t think so.
Do I regret becoming a veterinarian?
No, not all. I am grateful I’ve been able to help all the patients I’ve helped and to connect with the clients I’ve connected with. Some have become great friends and the best cheerleaders.
I’ve moved back home again. This time I am doing the deep dive into shadow work and it is so hard some days.
Yoga and meditation help.
I love words.
Meraki is still my favorite.