Helping veterinarians heal

veterinary-85925_1280 - Pixabay

How can we better support those who care for the animals we love? (Pixabay)

I’m as skeptical about studies as the next journalist, but this one got my attention. Veterinarians committed suicide between two and 3.5 times the national average between 1979 and 2015, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. Mounting student debt (without the salaries “people” docs get), the physical and emotional strains of the job, scathing public criticism, and the ever-present shadow of death were among the reasons cited in a Washington Post story.

The story describes a second-career vet who was beset by debt, depression, and increasing chronic illness that fueled gossip and anger in real time and online. A conversation with an “old friend” was the last straw. She wrote goodbye letters and, using drugs meant for euthanizing animal patients, prepared to end her life. Then she looked into the eyes of her dog, and couldn’t do it.

Others are no longer here to take that chance.

You can stop here and say whatever you want about personal choice, being cut out for the job (or not), or those darn media people playing stuff up. So much is hidden from the view of everyone but God. I do know the depths to which a heart can sink, and break, over animal suffering and death.

If you’re still with me, let’s consider how we as pet parents, people who work with animals, and animal advocates might support the veterinarians among us so that we can all do what we do best: love and care for God’s creatures. Here are a few thoughts.

Photo by Kerri Lee Smith on Foter.com : CC BY-NC-SA

(Photo by Kerri Lee Smith on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA)

Respect the profession. Veterinarians have gone to school, learned multiple systems (“people” docs only have to study one), and done all kinds of work that most of us could not. Though I am not a fan of unquestioningly accepting whatever experts say, if you’ve done your homework and chosen a good vet or clinic, trust them.

Practitioners of complementary and alternative modalities such as massage, Reiki, essential oil therapy, etc. as well as vet techs, kennel owners, trainers, groomers, and more — would do well to work with vets as much as possible. We may not always agree, but we’re all in the business of helping animals and the people who love and care for them. Our collective efforts might just surprise us.

When a client wants to address a particular question or problem through animal communication or animal Reiki, my first question is always: When was the animal last seen by a veterinarian, and what did he or she say or do regarding the issue? I make it clear that I am not a medical or veterinary professional and do not diagnose. Anything I do is in support of — never instead of or against — veterinary care.

Show appreciation. Does your veterinarian administer the dreaded annual vaccinations in such a way that your dog barely seems to notice, let alone mind? Was your veterinarian exceedingly kind and gentle with your cat … and with you … when you faced the gut-wrenching decision to put her to sleep? Did your veterinarian come in on a Sunday when your dog got stung by a bee … again? Is your veterinarian patient even when your little darling is doing a spot-on Tasmanian devil imitation?

Notice. Say something. Your comment, however small it may seem to you, could make a big difference if your vet just had to put an animal down because the pet’s owner basically didn’t care, if an angry review just turned up on Facebook or Yelp, or if it’s simply been a long day.

Be aware, and use discretion. If you have reason to believe your veterinarian is struggling with a physical or mental health challenge, especially if it’s affecting his or her work, carefully consider the most kind, fair, and discreet way forward. You’ll have to decide whether you feel comfortable asking him or her directly or taking your concern to the clinic owner or even a state licensing board.

Whichever option you choose, do so in the spirit of help and accountability, not getting even. Likewise, anything you say on the subject to others in real time or on social media — and the best choice may well be to say nothing — should be in that same spirit.

Healing ourselves is so much easier when we can stand together. The animals deserve no less.

Bitter “Olive”

Unknown“Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is one of those books I’m glad I read, but which didn’t leave me with a very good feeling. Making the reader feel good is hardly a requirement for good literature, but I was still wishing for a tiny glimmer of hope for the human spirit within these pages.

Olive Kitteridge is a seventh-grade math teacher — the one the kids hate and fear but secretly respect and want to please — in a small coastal town in Maine. She is openly rude, abrasive, and has no concept of the effects of her actions on others. She is like a storm that her husband, kindly pharmacist Henry; and son Christopher have learned to steer around, tiptoe through, and clean up after (sometimes all three). Yet she has an extraordinary sensitivity to what is going on in the hearts, minds, and lives of others. She instantly takes a young woman suffering from an eating disorder under her wing, and her well-honed instincts zero in on a former student who is contemplating suicide. Depression is a thread that runs through the novel, as Olive’s father committed suicide and she herself lives with depressive illness, although she is loath to own it or get treatment.

This is actually a novel in short stories, “Spoon River Anthology” style, featuring other characters, plot lines, and desperation in the same town. All are connected to Olive, if only peripherally. It was a little dizzying trying to keep up with who was who. I wanted to know more about what happened with some of the characters, but others appeared to have been stuck in as an afterthought.

Central to Olive’s story is her disappointment over her son’s move to California after she and Henry have built a house for him and his new bride (who, not surprisingly, she can’t stand). After he has divorced, remarried, and moved to New York City, with a child on the way, Christopher invites his mother for a visit. Henry by this time has suffered a stroke and is confined to a nursing home, but Olive calls every night while she is away and has the staff put him on the phone even though he cannot speak. She is hoping to reconnect with her son, but before she knows it, she’s screaming at him — and he is responding calmly to her accusations, which of course irritates her even more.

I have not seen the HBO miniseries based on the book, but the reviews were positive (you can hardly go wrong with Frances McDormand in the lead). If you’ve read the book, seen the miniseries, or both, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.