Not just a receptionist

I do a damn good job at ensuring that everyone who comes through that front door is acknowledged. I remember most of their names, and if not theirs, their pets. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about seeing a client’s face light up after they’ve been recognised that has to be good for the soul. You can bet that I’m overcome with that warm, fuzzy feeling when that acknowledgment is reciprocated, because I’m not just an animal-person, I’m a people-person, and if you think you can do this job by only being one or the other, you’re wrong.

As someone who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Art History, I never imagined that I’d find myself working in a vet clinic. What use would my creative skills be in place that’s so, well, clinical? I always thought being a receptionist was about pushing paper and answering phones, but I quickly learnt that the job I found myself responsible for was far more dynamic than just that.

When I tell people what I do to fund my life, their reactions are more or less the same. They’ll usually say how wonderful it must be to work in an environment where I’m surrounded by animals. They’re not wrong. I could think of a fair few worse ways to spend my days. While this is undeniably one of the most enjoyable parts of my job, it’s not all puppies and kittens. No two days are the same, and each brings a new challenge in the world of animal healthcare, not only for our team overall, but for each of us individually, too.

Let’s set the scene:

It’s Monday morning. On one phone line I’ve got a client asking me what they should do about their dog’s raging skin condition, and on the other, I’m swarmed by a myriad of questions from someone who is looking to desex their kitten. Did I mention the queue of people forming at the front desk? Some of them are checking their pets in for surgical or medical procedures. Others just want to pick-up some food, arrange a repeat prescription for ongoing medication, or seek advice about flea treatment. Naturally, some of our clients grow impatient with the hustle and bustle. One was due to see the vet at half-past eight, and it’s now creeping closer to quarter-to nine. There’s a delay because a hit-by-car dog was rushed in, and now the vet has to prioritise their patients by matter of urgency. I can tell the client is annoyed as they mutter under their breath about how they’re going to be late for work. I do my best to politely explain the situation at hand and apologise for the hold-up, but truthfully, I feel powerless against the unpredictable nature of this industry. Eventually, the Monday morning madness winds down, and we’re back to the hum-drum of clinic life.

Finally, I can breathe.

So, sure, I get stressed at times. As soon as I answer that phone and a conversation begins, I’m navigating my thoughts, trying to find the words to provide the most accurate advice possible, from a mind that has received no formal veterinary-based training. There’s always this underlying fear that I’ll say the wrong thing, or make a mistake, or forget something important. On the not-so-good days, these internal and external frustrations make me feel like crying. But I don’t, even when I’m watching you say goodbye to your best friend with tears in your eyes, and let me tell you, that doesn’t get any easier, no matter how many times you bear witness to it. The whole point of being front and centre is to remain calm, composed and to do everything, within reason, with a smile on your face. In spite of these anxieties regarding decorum, it’s certainly not impossible to hold it together when you consider the bigger picture.

There is something incredibly exhilarating about the rush of clinic life. The fast pace can switch even the idlest of minds into gear, and it’s pretty incredible to see the respective outcomes produced by a team of like-minded individuals. I’ve been guilty of belittling my role amongst the network of vets and vet nurses who are largely responsible for the hands-on work. In the last two years, I’ve learnt that I’m anything but “just a receptionist,” as I have previously claimed myself to be. I play a vital part in ensuring that I’m supporting my team by freeing up their time to do what they do best and provide that line of communication between them and our clients. If anything, my ability to retain and understand information, coupled with a knack for communicating effectively has been hugely beneficial in allowing me to take on this role, not only with confidence, but with pride.

I do a damn good job at ensuring that everyone who comes through that front door is acknowledged. I remember most of their names, and if not theirs, their pets. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about seeing a client’s face light up after they’ve been recognised that has to be good for the soul. You can bet that I’m overcome with that warm, fuzzy feeling when that acknowledgment is reciprocated, because I’m not just an animal-person, I’m a people-person, and if you think you can do this job by only being one or the other, you’re wrong. For the most part, our clients, to me, feel like an extended part of our family. We know each other, we care about each other, and it’s our love for the wellbeing of animals that ultimately gives us common ground to stand on. After all, we wouldn’t be here otherwise.

People tend to ask me if I see myself working in the veterinary industry forever. Well, no, to be fair, I can hardly handle the sight of blood at the best of times! I’m a creative person who studied the Arts, and at the end of the day, I’m driven to find out how this will transpire into a career. Having said that, I can’t deny how fundamental this job has been insofar as my professional and personal development is concerned. My capacity for empathy, compassion and understanding both humans and animals alike has increased tenfold, and for that, I will be eternally grateful. 

 

Belinda is (not just a) receptionist at a small animal clinic in Auckland, New Zealand.

You only have so much to give before there’s nothing left.

If you asked me to describe myself, the first thing that comes to mind is “I’m a Vet Nurse”.

Strictly speaking, that’s not true. I was a qualified Vet Nurse.

These days, I’m a sales rep for a fantastic pet food company. Together with a team of passionate volunteers, I run a nationwide rehoming program. I’m a partner, sister, daughter, friend.

Mum to 4 dogs, 3 cats and a sheep named Maryanne.

I was a Vet Nurse. I lived and breathed Vet Nursing.

But I burned out.

It’s a weird feeling to write about it. But it’s something that needs to be said. We’re starting to talk about emotional fatigue a lot more these days, the awareness is (thankfully) growing, and steps are being taken to avoid this situation where possible. But I still feel like Nurses aren’t being represented here. And I bet I’m not the only one.

So.

In the beginning, everyone said to me “You’ll learn to deal with this better as time goes on”. “Euthanasia gets easier with practice”, “You’ll learn that it’s not your place to cry”.

In my experience, this only got harder with time. It wears you down after a while. There are days when you are saving lives. But there are so many days when you aren’t. And there’s always the lack of money, lack of care, lack of education that compounds this.

Vet Nurses out there, you are important. You aren’t just the assistant who cleans up after the Vet and serves clients, and preps for surgery.

Vet Nurses are at the front line every day. We meet your dog on his first visit at 8 weeks old, take him through puppy class and desexing, we know his name, your name, your kids’ names.

Every milestone in his life, we share with you. He becomes a part of our family too, and so do you. And we grieve with you when the time comes to end a beautiful life.

Vet Nurses are advocates, trusted advisors, friends, confidants, social workers. They are caregivers, experts in their field. Anaesthetists, surgical assistants, radiographers, nutritional advisors.

And on top of all this, they are the support team for their Vets.

For the most part, Vet Nurses do this for less than $20/hour, up to 7 days a week, more often than not outside of normal working hours.

And it’s hard work emotionally.

Eventually I realised I was getting panicky about going to work in the morning. The phone ringing made me want to scream, everybody needed me ALL the time. And I just couldn’t DEAL with it anymore.

So much sadness. So much need.

So I resigned after 7 years. Took a 3 month break and tried again.

But it just wasn’t the same.

Will I go back to it? Hopefully one day, but right now I just don’t know that I can.

If you’re reading this and it’s striking a chord with you, I encourage you to talk to someone. See what the options are for sharing some of the load. It’s so important in this job that you care. But it’s even more important that the burden of caring is shared around.

You only have so much to give before there’s nothing left.

The writer has chosen to remain anonymous.  

As the research veterinarian, I realized that a part of my role was to uphold animal welfare standards but yet I was limited in what I could do. The feeling of guilt, despair and hopelessness often loomed, resulting in sleepless nights and silent tears.

I knew very little about mental issues faced by veterinarians while in school.  There wasn't very much talk about it or how to manage grief.  Although the curriculum was demanding, school was immensely enjoyable because I was surrounded by caring friends who became my family away from home.  

I only became aware of the emotional and mental struggles faced by veterinarians after I graduated and began to work at a small animal veterinary clinic.  I quickly realized that not many clients were willing to go that extra mile for their pets even when you were willing to do so.  People generally wanted a quick fix at the lowest cost.  Some clients who could not afford treatment refused to euthanize their terminally ill pet, even if it meant that their pet would continue to suffer.  This was starkly different from the hospital setting I was trained in and the difference in culture and practices shocked me. 

The worst experiences were with the breeders.  Their animals came in filthy, covered in a variety of ectoparasites and were often deathly Ill. I could not even imagine what their living spaces looked like.  Some of them came in collapsed from severe tick fever or had been in labour for more than 48 hours. 

Clients expect a lot from their veterinarians.  We are required to be knowledgeable and to make an accurate diagnosis with minimal diagnostic tests performed.  We are presumed to have an endless supply of empathy, compassion and pairs of sneakers to travel that extra mile for as little as possible for our clients. 

Training at school had not prepared me for what I was going to experience in private practice. I could not comprehend why animals were allowed to suffer nor could I make any sense of the foul attitude of many clients.  I didn't know who I could talk to; who would understand?  Certainly not management.  Not even my close friends could empathize.  The physical and emotional demands soon took a toll on my body which landed me in hospital just 3 years into practice. 

In my 4th year of clinical practice, I chanced upon an opportunity to work with non-human primates in a research laboratory.  Wanting to understand and learn more about these creatures and the research industry, I didn't hesitate when I was offered the role of a research veterinarian.

Although this position allowed me to have a more balanced work life, I soon realized that my new job was far from perfect.  There were too many unauthorized deviations from approved protocols, and needless culling of animals. Avoidable human errors were made due to complacency and negligence; which resulted in the extended and unnecessary suffering of research animals. 

As the research veterinarian, I realized that a part of my role was to uphold animal welfare standards but yet I was limited in what I could do.  The feeling of guilt, despair and hopelessness often loomed, resulting in sleepless nights and silent tears.

As experimental protocols were confidential, I did not share my feelings or experiences with friends or family.  The solitude was at times unbearable. 

Despite the struggles, I found immense joy in leading a close knit team and mentoring internship students.  Till today, my ex-colleagues, internship students, and I remain as firm friends.  The satisfaction from interacting with internship students led me to seriously consider a career in teaching and I was very fortunate to be offered a lectureship position at a tertiary institute at the end of my contract with the research company. 

Looking back at my journey thus far, I am very thankful for the trials that I have experienced and conquered.  There are few that will fully understand the difficulties and grief people in the veterinary profession face.  I am able to share my personal experiences with my students and mentees, but more importantly empathize and support them through difficult periods and prepare them for possible adversities in the working environment.

 

The writer has chosen to remain anonymous.