Most kids go through a ‘I’m going to be a vet when I grow up, because I love animals’ phase. I didn’t that I can remember and maybe that should have been a warning to me that vet wasn’t a job I was cut out for. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my cats with a kind of sycophantic obsession that bordered on pathological, but the job itself wasn’t one that I’d fantasised about. Coming up to the end of year twelve it was obvious that I was going to get a decent enough score to get into something big: law, engineering, OT, physio, pharmacy, dentistry—vet. This was problematic because the competitive nature of my personality made me apply for the most difficult possible courses. (Yes, I did apply for medicine, and clearly no, I didn’t get in. Something for which I grateful every day.) I didn’t have a burning desire to do any course, so because I got the score, veterinary medicine seemed as good an idea as anything else. I adored animals, I liked science and I wasn’t grossed out by blood and guts. Bonus.
My five years studying vet at Murdoch were awesome. It was everything that I’d dreamed university could be. Gone were the flakey pot-smokers and heavy drinkers (I went to a pretty rough high school) that looked down on someone who knew how to spell their own name correctly and in their place were some of the most amazing people I’d ever met, who are still some of the most important people in my life. The course was exhausting, exciting and fascinating. The lecturers and clinicians were in equal measure inspiring, terrifying and objectionable. It was bliss. Everyday I was taught new things, pushed, encouraged and because vets have a unique perspective on the world, my dry and often scathing sense of humour actually made me friends for the first time (instead of solidifying my place firmly on the fringes). It was gratifying to tell people you were studying vet. After all, everyone had wanted to be a vet when they were a kid. They loved animals so much. It must be so satisfying to be able to help them.
They thought you were a little bit special because not only do you love animals but you were dedicating yourself to their health and welfare. It felt noble.
The hours at uni were brutal. The stress was immense. Everything not vet fell away. But the benefits seemed obvious. When I graduated I felt certain that my life was on track and my blazing future in the world of small animal veterinary medicine would be just as fun, and stimulating and exciting as my five years of tertiary education had been. I left uni passionate about my career.
Cue “ba-bow” sound effect.
My first job (after many months of searching for a practice that wasn’t over an hours drive away) was in an extremely busy small animal practice. My boss’s wife informed me early in the piece that I was a girl, and girl’s didn’t survive there. What bullshit, I thought. She doesn’t know me. Didn’t she know that nearly all vets were girls now? (90% or so of graduates). Anyway, I’d survived five years of gruelling study. I could do tough conditions with my eyes open (because new graduate vets don’t sleep). I was terrified of course, but the feminist in me, the arrogant achiever in me, brushed off these remarks and willed myself to do it anyway.
If I thought the hours and load and uni were brutal, I was wrong. My new shiny life as veterinary surgeon meant bigger, longer hours and the responsibility of being in charge. I worked three nights a week on call—and you always got called. At 12-15 hours a day—before you were called back for the emergency caesarian, gastric dilation, poisoning, car accident or my favourite, the midnight emergency toe-nail clip—it was tough.
Then there was the youth bias. I get it, we all have our favourite doctor, and no one wants their precious pet to be treated by the new kid. I almost understood that. I didn’t understand the gender bias. The ‘she isn’t allowed to touch my animal’ (often more sweary than that)—not even to take out some stitches. This was persistent, pernicious and degrading. Between the lack of sleep, the fatigue of the physically and emotionally demanding nature of the job and then the sense that some people were offended by your very presence was exhausting. I cried almost everyday (more even than when I was first at home with kids—I know right?).
On top of this my boss, whether through insensitivity, or his own struggle for survival, was not supportive. It was most definitely a sink or swim scenario. What got me through the day was my amazing colleagues, the nurses and vets who just like my awesome friends at uni, were funny and clever and made going to work possible. One in particular became a mentor and a support structure and without him, I would not have made it out of that place alive. My boss’s wife was right, I couldn’t cut it. It has taken me fifteen years to accept that.
I had other jobs too, after this one. But it was almost as if I’d given my veterinary career everything I had in those first two years and I couldn’t seem to find a way to recharge. Compassion or empathy fatigue is a phrase used a lot to describe the veterinary profession (an industry with one of the highest suicide rates of any profession), because not only do we look after animals, who we can’t help but form an emotional attachment to, but we also look after their owners, guiding them through the often difficult decisions that have to be made during their animal’s lives.
Euthanising animals for me didn’t get easier with experience. Rather, the emotional drain grew, as though cumulative. Successes on the other hand, were accompanied by second guessing and self-doubt. I found I couldn’t sleep if I had a critical patient in hospital, worrying whether I should be doing more. I found justifying the expense of medical treatment on a daily basis impossible. I couldn’t reconcile my ethical objections to hunting and animal cruelty with having to treat wounded dogs who had been gored, dehydrated or otherwise injured on a hunting trip knowing that they would be back after the next one. Then there were the rescues. Every vet practice (not just shelters, though they have it worse) has more “clinic cats” and three-legged adopted pets than they can handle because we just can’t put down another healthy animal. (The feature image of this post is my cat Tuna, who was found dumped on the side of the road when she was ten-days-old.)
When I fell pregnant with my first child after eight years in to veterinary practice I couldn’t wait to quit. That was it. I was out. I could stay at home and look after my baby and I’d never have to kill anything ever again. It was good. People would look at me shocked when I said I didn’t want to go back. “But all that training!” Yeah. Right. They could keep it. I did a few bits and pieces here and there but when my second baby came I knew it was over for real, and I was relieved.
Relived until it was really over. Until I’d let myself get so far out of my profession that I couldn’t go back (not easily anyway). Suddenly, I could no longer say to people “Oh, I’m a vet, I’m just not working at the moment”. I was studying for my PhD, but no one is as remotely interested in feminist fiction as they are about talking to you about their pets. I found my social traction slipping. I wasn’t as interesting to other people anymore. I was a mum (blah!) and a student (double blah!!). Then I felt a tug that maybe I had made a mistake. That maybe I shouldn’t have let my career slide into near oblivion.
Cue identity crisis.
Then I think back to that first job and I’m filled with dread.
It’s not completely impossible to return to vet, I could study more, find some kind-hearted practice to let me ease my way back—it’s all still there, just a bit rusty. But if I’m honest, the fear of the emotional burden of this job is enormous, like a big black cloud. If I went back in again I’m not sure I’d emerge out the other side. And the pay is terrible, so don’t tell your vet you ‘should have shares in this place’ or that they can ‘buy another Mercedes’ with the cost of your pet’s treatment. Chances are, your local vet earns a lot less than you do.
To my friends who are still in the thick of it. You guys are amazing, strong and important.