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Put vets before pets

An unwavering commitment to your job can leave little time to take stock of what's missing from your life.

Put vets before pets
Our default setting is generally to place the needs of others over our own, which breeds a backseat approach to our own health.

I ran this sentiment by several colleagues: “Vets before pets.” No surprise that each person’s first impression was less than favorable. It somehow sounded bad, uncomfortable, flat-out wrong. Perhaps it is. But nevertheless, allow me to explain.

Our profession is wonderful; the value we add to society is unmatched. We are truly a double-
bottom-line profession. We do well by doing good. We provide for healthy pets, which positively correlates with healthy people. (Check out www.HABRI.org.) I tell students there’s never been a better time to be a veterinarian. I believe that. Veterinarians in general are viewed favorably by 97 percent of pet owners, Gallup ranks us as the second most-admired profession. That said, we’re tired. Many among our ranks are burned out, compassion fatigue is becoming a pressing issue, and the suicide rate is tragic.

While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I do believe that one big contributor to the problem is that we place the needs of the pet over the needs of veterinarians themselves. This isn’t limited to vets; it extends to our teams as well. Across the board, we are hard-wired to put pets and their care above our own. A noble, admirable and self-destructive trait. What if we put vets before pets? It sounds wrong, but hear me out.

Do-Everything Attitude

Before we broach the topic, it’s important to explore its origins. Our modern-day profession derives from rural professionals steeped in the ethos of the rugged individualist, the John Wayne ideal. We come from an expectation to solve problems on our own, and thus, asking for help is a historical sign of weakness. Our veterinary forefathers — the current generation of foremothers, I predict, will do a much better job of building a path to a healthier future — would never seek out help, delegate or turn down work.

The foundation of our profession is built on the conviction that there’s no divide between a veterinarian and his or her work. This is a sad, unhealthy, unsustainable but true fact. Subsequent generations have a far healthier approach to the work-life balance. Additionally, today’s profession attracts intelligent, caring, empathetic, self-effacing, idealistic members to its ranks, which is, for all intents and purposes, a very good thing. But our default setting is generally to place the needs of others over our own, which breeds a backseat approach to our own health.

What if we put our own interests first? What if, instead of treating that 5:30 p.m. vomiting dog, we referred it and instead went to our kid’s soccer practice?

Unintended Consequences

To help better explain this phenomenon, I share with my students the John Wayne story. For those millennials who don’t know, John Wayne was an iconic Hollywood cowboy. His fame hinged on his rugged individualism, his steadfast refusal of help; he’s always been known as the lone wolf, the hero. When framed this way, it’s quite easy to see the parallel between John Wayne and the historical veterinarian.

Much has resulted from this John Wayne ethos among the veterinary profession as a whole. On the positive side, let’s talk about the great esteem in which society holds our profession. If you don’t believe in Gallup’s polling, simply introduce yourself as a veterinary professional at your next cocktail party or to your seatmate on your next flight. Then be prepared to spend the next hour hearing about Garfield’s litter box behavior.

Life insurance salesmen, dentists, pharmacists, even attorneys don’t get that kind of attention. There’s a reason a veterinary doctor is in the second most-
admired profession. There’s a reason we, across the board, have become so admired. We work to be heroes. Society places such a high premium on our profession because you and I, and those who came before us, have always put the welfare of the animals ahead of our own well-being. Somewhere in our DNA we are programmed to put pets before vets. We are John Wayne. But this phenomenon doesn’t come without a high premium.

In short: We can’t always be the hero. Somewhere along our noble pursuit, we burn out. We suddenly find ourselves in the throes of compassion fatigue, we discourage passionate kids from pursuing our profession — something that breaks my heart — and, at its absolute worst, this hero complex puts so much pressure on a person that it manifests in suicide.

Despite the pressing issues, I remain optimistic. There’s never been a better time to be a veterinarian. Our profession is booming. This growth phenomenon is largely attributed to two things:

  • The humanization of pets.
  • The high esteem in which veterinarians are held by society.

Life’s Too Short

We’re all familiar with the former. The humanization of pets — the ever-growing pet-family bond — is best summed up by my friend, Dr. Marty Becker. Marty talks about the way pets have moved from the barnyard to the backyard to the backroom to the living room to the bedroom to the bed, and now, under the covers. This is illustrative of the fuel that has driven our profession.

And when it comes to the latter, the high regard with which society holds our profession, it can be summarized succinctly: The admiration of society is worth the unintended consequences for some of us. For a growing number, it’s clearly not.

And thus, we loop back around to the vomiting-dog-at-5:30 p.m. scenario. What if we put our own interests first? What if we make it to our kid’s soccer practice? What if we fire a few grumpy clients, hire a relief vet to cover one day a week and cut back to a 40 hour per week (or less)?

Remember, this is a marathon not a sprint. You can enjoy a long and satisfying career. Pace yourself, say no, don’t try to be a hero, go to soccer practice. Life’s too short.

The great philosopher Dolly Parton is credited with saying, “Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.” From a veterinarian’s point of view, these are great words to live by. Take care of yourself, take care of those around you and then take care of your business.

Putting your own self-interest behind that of animals may be noble, but those of us old enough to remember John Wayne movies remember how they ended: The Duke (aka John Wayne) got shot in nearly every movie. He didn’t experience the satisfaction of working in a team, he could address only one issue per movie, he rode alone into the sunset. He never made it to soccer practice.

Creative Disruption columnist Dr. Bob Lester is chief medical officer of WellHaven PetHealth, a former practice owner and a founding member of Banfield Pet Hospital and the Lincoln Memorial University College of Veterinary Medicine. He serves on the North American Veterinary Community board of directors.