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.