Hang on to Your Heart

If you spend just a little time searching the web, you’ll find groups whose sole purpose is supporting the mental health and well-being of veterinary professionals. They are welcoming, inclusive, and, with open arms they offer a place of respite and an ear of understanding to those whose hearts are in pain.

Someone to walk with

Many of these giving folks have had personal battles of their own. Triumphing over personal struggles can give someone deep empathy for others. They collectively crusade on behalf of those of us whose voices are diminished.

Never before have we seen our veterinary community suffer so with compassion fatigue, burnout, ethics fatigue, and what I call SOUL fatigue. These advocates for mental wellness and healing are some of the unsung heroes in our midst. I salute them.

A woman in the midst

I started out in mixed animal practices, working for two doctors who were partners in two clinics. I got great experience working between the two practices. The doctors felt confident enough to let me make my own farm calls.

One of my classmates worked there and decided to go back to his home state. He’d be taking over the family farm. And, that left the job open. It was a perfect position for me to slide right into. And, I had my friend right there to help train me.

I loved it! I loved making farm calls. I loved the farmers. And I really loved the animals….cows, goats, pigs, horses….I was a city girl in my glory! The farmers weren’t used to having a woman coming out to take care of their livestock, though. Don’t forget, this was the early seventies. Women were scarce enough in the veterinary field and even more uncommon in large animal work.

Having my friend along to train me helped break through the barrier, though. Initially, the farmers were wary but generous. In time, we became warm friends.

The reality

I knew I had a lot to learn coming out of school. What I didn’t foresee, though, was how many times my heart would crumble in pieces.

I came into this profession with so much passion! I was one of many who embrace this vocation as a calling. This is ‘heart’ work! But, what a paradox it is. Once in practice we come face to face with suffering and death often on a regular basis.

A common frustration emanating from many just out of school is the feeling of not being prepared in some areas. The intensity of death and the complexities that surround it are often fragile circumstances – on everyone’s part! Many out of school do not feel prepared. An example of how there are at least some things that haven’t changed over forty plus years!

We put labels on everything

Death and dying is part of the field. But, if you’ve not had a lot of exposure, it can be hard to navigate. College curriculums are jam packed and it’s hard to cover everything. The clinical aspects are priority. Areas such as, what has been termed, “soft skills” are oftentimes skimmed over. That can leave many either learning on the job or doing independent study.

Young and inexperienced, after some time, I had to find the courage to look closely at the reality of the world I’d chosen.

Somehow, I had to dig deep inside to ask the question – was this my life’s purpose after all? And, I had to be brave enough to look at the answer.

Labels that put me in a box

They said I was “too sensitive”, that I got “too close” to some cases. I was told I took the losses “too hard.” I had to “toughen up” if I wanted to stay in the field. In essence what I was being told was to harness my “bleeding heart.” Either get over it or, probably better to just get out.

But, I didn’t want to get out. I wanted to make it work. I sure could have used a little kindness and understanding. But, in those days it’s the tough that survived. And, I didn’t want to look weak. I felt I had a lot to prove.

I ended up pushing the anxiety down where no one could see it. I would hide my feelings so they couldn’t have fun with them. The caveat to that is anxiety, then, comes out in other ways.

Exposing vulnerabilities can be risky business. The fear of being judged and laughed at or, worse for me, dismissed, is humiliating. I could have used someone with insight to walk with in those days.

Even today

I recently read a thread on a message board. It could have been written by a young me. The writer laid bare a story I bet she was afraid to tell. She said that in school there is so much information to remember. And there is just so much time and energy.

Studying is grueling enough. Life is grueling enough. Still, there are some practical areas of education that could use more depth. She felt she wasn’t prepared.

How could she begin to know how to care for her grief stricken families in a poised manner? How could she put her feelings on the side when having to euthanize a healthy pet whose family could not afford treatment?

And, when her personal life didn’t provide respite, what could she do to find just a little peace? Did that mean she wasn’t cut out to be in veterinary medicine? The letter was written anonymously so as not to expose the writer further. There is always such a concern for being harshly judged.

Clearing the path

I wanted to give her a hug and tell her there are ways to dive into herself, to figure it all out without getting bruised.  Cleaning out your house doesn’t mean you have to skin your knees while you’re learning.

There are mentors out there. Find one. Find a merciful guide or guides. I’d tell her, there are kinder and more forgiving ways to heal yourself. You don’t have to get bloody in the process.

As you’re making your way to finding your guide, use what you have available. Use the power of animal love and the balm of nature medicine. All that forgiveness from the earth, from our animals…use it. Tap into it. You can access it for free. And, that’s perfect on a veterinary professional budget. The trees are there…roots deep in the ground. They have the power to anchor! Say it out loud to your animals. They listen without judgement. Use the magic from nature and animals to sustain you until you find your mentor.

Looking ahead

Today there are options for finding your way through the maze of life and career. There are many modalities of healing and more ways than ever to discover life’s enrichments. There are mentors of many skills and teachings. Sometimes it’s helpful to find a compassionate ear, someone with a tender understanding. Find someone who you resonate with. Someone who speaks your speak.

You might be surprised how different the scenery is with someone to walk with you. The act of declaring you are ready to resolve an issue that is affecting your professional life is you taking one step forward.

What we didn’t have

The veterinary world has changed so much since my jumping off place. Life would have been different if I’d had the gifts of some of the masters available today. Brené Brown, Simon Sinek, Pema Chodron and many more have emerged to shine a light on our path. Their messages are true and delivered with so much love, understanding, and, yes, down-to-earth!

Today’s a new day

To those caring people who are trying to clear a path for themselves, you are not alone. You may have an extra dose of empathy, an extra dose of sensitivity, an extra dose of compassion. Good for you! You have the magic that is needed in so many ways in veterinary medicine.

There’s a place for you to sit at the table with those that are a bit more clinically minded. Keep in mind, there’s nothing saying you can’t have both! The teachers are out there. And, never forget…we need you and your sensitive heart!