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COMPASSION FATIGUE: A CARE WORKER'S DILEMMA
I left the veterinary field about three years ago after ten years of working as a veterinary assistant and technician. Friends and family still come to me for veterinary advice and ask, "Why didn't you go through with going to vet school?" Or, "You've really missed your calling."
The answer is complicated, and sometimes I question the decision I made.
I miss being a tech and think I would've made a great veterinarian. I struggle finding work that is as meaningful to me. Seeing your patient get better with every recheck, educating clients, and helping dogs and cats in intensive care improve every day is incredibly rewarding. Handwritten thank you notes and other sweet gestures from clients are the cherry on top. Being the teacher, the healer, and the receiver of plenty of slobbery dog kisses are the perks of the job.
Sure, we have plenty of personality clashes between coworkers, clients, and animals that seem to have entered into this world through a portal from hell, but the veterinary field contains darkness that not many people are aware of. This darkness can be found in any profession that attracts empathetic and caring humans who have a propensity for altruism.
The statistics for suicide deaths by profession rank veterinarians as 3.5 times as likely to die by suicide than the general public. This isn't new, but it's still startling. This information along with the thought of crippling debt haunting me until I'm ready to retire, witnessing poor work/life balance, and the stress veterinarians I worked with experienced daily was enough to keep me from following through with veterinary school.
When I worked in a general practice we could end up euthanizing five or so patients in a day. I teared up during every euthanasia and sometimes sat and cried with the owners. Oftentimes there are whole families present during euthanasia. I usually couldn't hold back the tears for those.
Offering euthanasia in the veterinary world shows animals a kindness we don't get offered to us as humans. It is a peaceful way out of suffering. That being said, repeated exposure to euthanasia alone isn't the only emotional stress veterinary workers encounter on the job.
Exhibit A: Kristy 4 months into working at a giant veterinary specialty center in ICU and ER. I have a few vivid memories from this experience. As melodramatic as they might come off as, I guarantee you that other veterinary technicians, especially those who have worked in the ER, can tell similar stories. Here's one of them:
I'm sitting on the floor holding a soaking wet and bleeding dog. No. There are two giant dogs. There's a third close by in a makeshift kennel held together by a carabiner. All other kennels are full. I am covered in blood. The dog to my right is laterally recumbent and has labored breathing. I don't know who's bleeding. There are two ICU techs helping by triaging another large dog on a stretcher. I thank them as they take over the case. I somehow keep these animals organized in my brain. I work with one other ER tech who is also on the floor with patients. We swap places a few times with others -- lab techs and doctor's assistants who abandon their posts to help. Now I'm holding a vestibular terrier trying to keep it from flipping around the room as its world is spinning. I haven't had food or water since breakfast and it's now late in the afternoon. Eventually I'd make it home after working overtime, strip off the scrubs covered in unknown substances, and immediately fall asleep.
I quit the veterinary field for good one year after that. Before I quit I gave it another shot by switching departments and working with a verbally and emotionally abusive specialist.
I'm offering my experience to you to raise awareness about compassion fatigue--especially outside of the human health field. Many people think of their animals as family, but I can't imagine what human doctors and nurses go through on a daily basis.
We need care workers. We cannot function as a society without them. So what should we do?
I'm not sure there's a perfect answer for that. We all process trauma differently and have unique needs to aid healing.
A good start would be to increase pay, incorporate efficient wellness programs, treat care workers with respect and understanding, and have sufficient staff to cover any additional/emergency care. Those are general, but great steps toward helping prevent and treat people vulnerable to compassion fatigue.
Sometimes all we need to know is that we're valuable to society, we are worthy, we're getting paid what we're worth, and we are not alone in the fight.
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