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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Getting Used To Seeing Suffering

One of the things I've grown to love most about being a blogger is having developed an international readership.  It's very cool to be in contact with people from all over the world.  Here's a question from Ruaridh in Ireland.

The reason I'm emailing you today is I have a question or two that I feel, after reading your blog, you would be equipped to answer. I want to be a vet and if I was to gain entry I feel with much work I could be able to handle the academic side of the course. However the side I feel I may have some trouble adjusting to is the aspect of seeing animals in pain. I know how silly that sounds and the simple answer is of course not to be a vet, but for some reason I can't turn away from the idea. My question for you is this: As an animal lover how did you adjust to seeing animals in pain? I've always acknowledged the fact that to be a veterinarian you need more than that "love of animals" to make it but just how do you adjust to it? I took a year out last year to do some work experience and I must say I loved it I just feel that if I was to experience this day in day out  it would wear me down.

This is a great and insightful question, one that people in this profession regularly struggle with.  As a short answer I don't think you ever get "used" to it, but you usually do find ways to cope.

Most people go into the veterinary profession because they love animals and feel real compassion for them.  They dream of helping animals heal from illnesses and injuries and in all ways ease their suffering.  There are some people who are so sensitive and soft-hearted that they simply cannot handle seeing even minor pain or discomfort in our patients, and it breaks their hearts to be around such situations.  These people don't last long as vets or support staff, and I hold nothing against them for their tenderness.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are people who simply don't give a flip.  They're so focused purely on the acadmeic and intellectual aspect that they may forget about any suffering, or simply don't care.  It's a good thing that people like this are very rare in the profession.  Unfortunately I see too many of them as pet owners.

So what's the balance?  How do you deal with it?  I can only tell you my personal experience, realizing that everyone is different psychologically and have different coping mechanisms.

You are going to see animals in pain.  It's simply a fact of the job.  Sometimes you create the pain, such as through injections, surgeries, and so on.  It's a temporary pain for greater gain, and you can certainly come to terms with it this way.  You'll also see pets who have been injured or are sick and you have to handle them.  I remember years ago having a whippet come in screaming because both front legs were broken when the kids had been jumping on the bed and accidentally landed on the dog.  In any of these situations we have several kinds of pain medications, including morphine, which we can use to at least lessen the discomfort.  I am a firm believer in anlagesia, especially preemptively, and most vets I know share the same outlook.

What about the ones who are sick but not painful?  Such as a patient in kidney failure or severe anemia.  They too are "suffering", and you have to do the best you can to treat them.  In some cases you can't, and that's where euthanasia comes in.  I never like putting a pet to sleep, but I can do it easily in most situations because I know that very shortly they won't be suffering anymore.

The worst cases are the ones where the pet is sick or injured, and the client can't or won't do anything about it.  I've seen pets come in with broken bones and the owner can barely afford an office visit and pain medications, let alone proper care.  It's also happened in pets with skin infections, parvo, and other diseases where the client declines care.  There have been times where I've offered free euthanasia just to stop the pet's suffering, and still the client refuses, taking the painful or sick pet home to who knows what kind of fate.  These owners infuriate me, and there is really nothing at all I can do about it because legally that is their property and I can't make them do anything.  I also can't give away services regularly or we'd end up closing our doors.  I have been tempted to contact the police about animal cruelty cases, but for various reasons have never made that call (though I know vets who have).

Over time you develop a clinical detatchment that allows you to assess a case with little emotional invovlement.  At the same time you should never loose your caring or feeling because then their pain won't matter to you.  It's a constant balancing act.  Thankfully as a vet you have the training and tools to stop infection, help pain, and fix many of the problems.  It's that hope of a cure or resolution that allows us to look at the big picutre rather than the short term.  We know that given some time and proper treatment the pet will be better, happier, and free of suffering.  Sometimes looking at it that way is the only thing that keeps us from breaking down.

Ruaridh, I hope that helps you out!  I'm sure my colleagues that read this blog can chime in with their own hints and experiences.  Good luck pursuing your dream!