IndeVet Stories: Navigating burnout and depression in vet med and how relief work can help
This is part 1 of a 2-part series.
Like a lot of us, I wanted to be a vet for as long as I can remember.
Well, there was that brief period of time where I wanted to be a garbage man because they got to ride on the back of a truck and they bought lemonade from my stand, but I ultimately decided on the [only slightly] less malodorous career. Some days though, I often think riding on a garbage truck might not have been a bad way to go, especially the way these last 18 months have gone!
Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. I love being able to help an animal that is sick or suffering, I love finally diagnosing a difficult case, I love puppy kisses and kitten nibbles, and I also love educating clients and the public in general about animals and their care.
But despite all of that, I came to a breaking point earlier this year, and considered leaving clinical practice altogether.
I was working, on average, an extra 10-11 hours every 2 weeks above what I was scheduled (and paid) for. I was getting home some nights at 8 or 9 o’clock, with 2 elementary-aged kids in tow, who were tired and cranky and also dealing with the uncertainties of a hybrid virtual and in-person learning environment.
One Friday night in March 2021 around 8pm, it was dark, pouring down rain, and I had just worked a long and stressful day at work and then picked up my kids from my in-laws. I was exhausted and hungry, and the kids were cranky.
I didn’t even see the other car. With my dog in the front seat and my kids in the back, I crashed into the side of a dark-colored car in a roundabout.
Fortunately, no one in either car was physically injured, but that night left emotional scars on me that I don’t think will ever go away. The “what if’s” still haunt me to this day, and it was the morning after the accident that I knew something needed to change in my life.
Burnout and depression in veterinary medicine
Over the next few months I wrestled with how I could keep doing what I loved, without it destroying me and my family. I remember one night a few months after the accident, I picked my kids up late, and my six year old daughter asked me if I had forgotten about her.
Countless times, I had to say “no” to weekend playdates or birthday parties because I had to work or I was on-call. I missed soccer games, karate ceremonies, doctor appointments, and various school events. I had begun to lose my patience with my family, because I had nothing left to give after work.
A few years ago, I lost a veterinarian friend and former schoolmate to suicide. As someone who has struggled with both depression and anxiety throughout my life, I became fearful of the path that I was on, and the stress that I was under.
Some of it was my own doing — I had been at the same high-quality practice for over a decade, and I had become so close (too close?) to so many people and pets.
I would stay late doing call-backs, and talking people through difficult situations and medical decisions. I was (and still am) very good at these conversations, but they are hard and emotionally draining.
Things culminated the week of July 4th, when I had to euthanize my own 13 year old cat due to a hemoabdomen (bleeding splenic tumor — he always did act like a dog), and within that same week I had to help two beloved clients say goodbye to their dogs for the exact same condition, and then two of my other favorite patients also died — the sadness of it all was overwhelming.
A new path in vet med through relief work
Becoming an IndeVet has saved my career and quite likely also my life. I can set my own schedule, my down time is truly my own, I can take vacations whenever I want, I leave work on time, and I can spend every holiday with my family (if I want to, that is!)
But, obviously we cannot all take the path that I did, nor is it right for everyone. So where does that leave our profession? The struggles I speak of are in no way unique to me, and many are in far worse situations (I see you, ER vets).
Veterinary medicine is in a crisis, and while almost all of us in the industry recognize it, we don’t quite know how to fix it, because it is bigger than any of us as individuals. Stay tuned for my next post, where I will explore some of the ways we got here, and what, if anything, we can do as a profession to get out.
Kristen Dewey, DVM is an Associate IndeVet practicing in North Carolina.