What’s the Hardest Thing About Being a Vet?

Very often during a euthanasia procedure, a tearful client will mention that this must be the hardest part of my job.  I’m always torn at this question because part of me wants to just take the easy route and say “yes”, but the part of me that forces me to always tell the truth no matter what always prevails and says “well, not really.”  Which is horrible, because the death of the pet is the worst thing about pet ownership, by far. 

However, as the one who administers the fatal blow, I feel like my role is to end the patients suffering.  I know that there is all kinds of emotional turmoil on the client end, and I try to help as best as I can with the decision-making process, but on my end I have to wall off the emotional impact of what I do or I’d go nuts.  I think it’s a coping mechanism used by DVM’s, physicians and anyone who works in the industry where we have to deal with death.  The pet is suffering, his quality of life is poor, there’s nothing else I can do, I believe in The Rainbow Bridge, then euthanasia is a method I have to use to end the suffering. 

The worst thing about this job, the thing that keeps me up at night  and makes me fantasize about other careers is less clear-cut.

I became a vet because I like science, animals and figuring things out.  When I graduated all dewy eyed and idealistic I thought being a vet consisted of seeing a sick patient, then gathering lots of info about it via exam, history, testing, diagnosing said patient, then treating accordingly. 

Simple right? 

The reality is that there are times that I feel blindfolded, with my hands tied because I’m limited by the client’s financial constraints,  expectations and beliefs about what veterinary care consists of and costs. 

The bottom line is our patients don’t speak.  We don’t have a crystal ball that can tell us what is making your pet lay around more and not eat well.  We do the best that we can with our wits and whatever tests you let us run. 

Sometimes we have to make do with just our wits.

Usually we can get by with that, but in difficult cases it’s not enough.

There is a wealth of diagnostic testing available out there to help us make the diagnosis: ultrasound, MRI, CT, laproscopy, nuclear medicine, PCR testing, advanced serology.  It’s fascinating and exciting, but usually unavailable due to cost.    That’s when that blindfolded, tied up feeling closes in because the client still wants us to tell them, without a doubt, what is wrong with their pet. A physical exam can only get us so far.  We have to use whatever information we can get and give it our best guess.

The result of this limit to our diagnostic capabilities is a sense of constant lingering doubt: did I guess the right thing? Am I on the right track? Am I missing something?  What if the patient dies? What if the client is wasting their money?  What if I picked the wrong test?

It’s the “what if’s” that kill me.

Addendum:  I wrote this blog as a “catharsis”,  my friend and fellow veterinarian Dr. Rich Selkowitz (whose vet clinic in New York links to this blog) informed me, when I sent him a copy to read to see if it was too whiny. He was right. I was thinking about  a patient of mine who had just died before I could figure out what was wrong with her.  I felt awful.  Like I’d let the client down.  I called the owners to offer what meager condolences I could offer, fully expecting to get yelled at for my failure. 

The sweet client ended up consoling me.  The dog died peacefully in her sleep.  The owner said that the tests that I ran, the exam I did, and the normal results that I got gave them comfort that their dog was ok and not suffering.  It was just her time. 

A small ray of sunshine in an otherwise terribly sad situation.

It’s moments like that, that are some of the best things about being a vet.

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3 thoughts on “What’s the Hardest Thing About Being a Vet?

  1. I’m baffled by the clients that don’t want to hear what’s really wrong with Fido or Fluffy or how to fix it. They just want to drop the critter at the clinic and have you magically fix the problem during the day. Never mind that Fido or Fluffy is terrified, is in unfamiliar surroundings and never mind there might be some follow-up medications or instructions. “Just fix it!”

    I’ve often thought that the hardest part of a vet’s job is dealing with the human clients. The doctor asks questions and the human hasn’t had the time or interest to observe what’s going on with the critter. Or…. (my personal biggest peeve), the pet that could have been saved if it had just been taken to the doctor when the symptoms appear. The attitude of “give it a few days and see if it clears up” when the pet has been vomiting continuously (or something similar) for three days, in my opinion, would be torturous!

    I once made a comment to a veterinary internist that it must be wonderful working with animals all the time. He looked at me, chuckled and replied, “Well, not really, because vet practice is about 10% animals and 90% people.”

  2. My daughter has wanted to be a vet ever since I can remember. She even convinced me to contribute charity donations to several animal welfare groups when she was only eight years old, which to this day I’m proud of.

    She’s coming to that age now though that the realities of her potential profession need to be realized. I’m honestly not sure if she’d be able to handle saying goodbye to animals, she may care a little too much about them for it to be her profession.

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