When he sees my car pull up, the graying golden retriever grabs the nearest tennis ball and runs to my car door, tail wagging and eyes smiling. “Hello Tomkins!” I say as I get out. I throw the ball he had dropped at my feet. “He loves you!” says Jean, his owner. I smile, grateful for another moment in the day when I say to myself, “I love my job.”
Rewind to two years before. “I don’t know that I can do this job another day,” I remember saying to my husband when I came home from work. Mind you, I had a good job doing general practice at a veterinary clinic with really nice clients. I was only working 4 days per week. I had wanted to be a vet since I was seven years old and I was doing it! Why was I so burned out?
People are surprised to learn that burnout is a very big problem in the veterinary profession. We are all die-hard animal lovers, a nurturing and smart folk. Upon graduation, we are chomping at the bit to finally get to better the lives of animals.
But then stressors await us out in the real world. Real ones: ones that make veterinarians susceptible to high rates of depression and anxiety. Ones that make us four times as likely to commit suicide than the average population, which is twice as high as any medical profession. It’s an awful statistic.
So you might wonder what are these stressors? To name a few:
1. Economics: Veterinarians have the highest debt load relative to their salary than any other medical profession. We have to work and often feel “trapped” in a job we don’t like because it pays the bills.
2. Our nature: People in the veterinary profession are perfectionists and emotional people. We hold ourselves to a high standard. We take any complaint or misstep very personally and have trouble getting over it.
3. Our “typical workday”: A typical day consists of 15 to 20 minute appointments from 8am-6pm. Three to four times an hour, you’re supposed to get a medical history, examine the animal, perform diagnostics, make a diagnosis, and explain the plan to the client. Rinse and repeat. There is no time to spare for emotion and good communication. No time to witness the human-animal bond. Detachment between client and practitioner inevitably occurs. Then, communication breaks down. Unhappy clients and mistakes occur which is bad for our perfectionist emotional selves (see #2), not to mention the animals and clients we care for.
4. Client and animal stress in the hospital: It’s a rare animal that loves to come to the vet. Alongside owners who are often stressed if their animal is sick, it’s hard to enjoy caring for an animal when they would rather try to kill or run away from you. The chance to build a relationship with the pet parent and their pet is doomed from the start.
5. Lack of work/life balance: This is an increasing problem, as 90% of veterinary graduates are women who are traditionally tasked to manage the family as well or at least traditionally feel the “pull” of wanting to spend more time with their families (of course men feel this too). Trust me, it’s hard to connect with a child and find pleasure in the “nightly routine” after a long day of work. You end up feeling like a failure in both work and life.
6. High exposure to grief: There is rarely time to help the owners how we want to, or to adequately partake in the grief when you are thinking about a million other things or just feeling burned out in other ways. But we do grieve and often don’t have outlets or time to process it personally.
This paints a bleak picture and honestly, it was starting to make me mad! Why are there so many caring smart people who feel so burned out? “There must be another way,” I thought.
What if I could re-establish connection with that human-animal bond I fell in love with as a child? What if I could work around my schedule and not feel like I was burning the candle at both ends? What if I could work with a staff that was also happy with their work/life balance? What if I could really get to know clients and animals by being able to take more time with them in a less stressful environment?
I knew in my heart of hearts that the best medicine is practiced when veterinary staff is happiest. I have always believed that when (a) there is true interest in getting to know a pet and their owner and (b) there is enough time to listen, we can start to nurture and protect and see the human-animal bond that made us as veterinary professionals want to do this in the first place. And that is a win-win for everyone!
Then it came to me: I was going to be a house call vet!
And let me tell you – this is the best job ever! In the past year and a half building Vet At Your Door, I have re-discovered my love for this profession. This is thanks to the incredible people and pets I have had the time to get to know. I have more time to spend with my family and more time to take care of myself.
As a result, a happier and more emotionally available veterinarian is appearing at your door. I am a better veterinarian now because I really get to know the owner and pet and am able to develop a medical plan that makes sense for both. The “brain cloud” that accompanies burn-out is gone. Typical stress felt by owners and pets alike that often accompanies a visit to the vet's is largely gone. What a beautiful thing! And I have hired another veterinarian and a veterinary technician who are absolutely amazing and who also enjoy a well-balanced life. We feel like a true family.
And clients have noticed this too. We have had so many people tell us “I am so happy we found you and had you come to the house!” For any service we offer, from wellness visits to acupuncture to sick visits to euthanasia, there is such intimacy in the home environment. We feel honored to be able to be fully focused on the pet and owner in front of us, to be able to nurture the bond that exists there.
It’s been a long and bumpy road to get here but I now feel fortunate to be fully present, available, and focused when I pull up my car into someone’s driveway. And when a dog like Tomkins is just as happy to see me as I am to see him? Well, it doesn’t get much better than that. It is a childhood dream come true.