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Vet med has suffered because of us?

Vet med has suffered because of us?

Editor’s note: The following Viewpoint is a response to the commentary of Dr. Richard Lanier [“Industry Should Start a Veterinary School,” August/September 2019].

Dr. Lanier,

Since you decided to insult the females of the veterinary profession, I thought I’d return the favor, as you thoroughly deserve it.

You had the audacity to blame the influx of women into the veterinary profession for costs rising and less dedication to caring for patients. You didn’t insinuate but almost flat-out accused women of the ruin of vet med.

I’ve worked for old-school BS vets like you; in fact, I had to report one of you good ol’ boys for all the damage he did in order to stop him. Everyone loved him, though, despite his lousy medicine and surgery. I never met another vet who caused more pain, misery and death than him. Yet all the while, the community believed he was a saint. He died a hero to them, none of them knowing the incredible harm he did to their pets. Did he know it? Well, if he did, he certainly didn’t let it hurt his ego.

I know other senior vets who are fabulous, and I would never, ever throw senior clinicians all collectively under the same broken-down bus the way you did new grads and women. One of my mentors is now in his 80s and still practicing exemplary medicine. He is the most amazing human being I have met and the one who got me on my way to vet school.

So, you think vet med has suffered because of us — new grads and women? Just how much damage have “we” caused? What was it you claimed, 50%? This without actual evidence or qualification or said damage.

You claim new grads and women vets have significantly harmed the vet profession, this despite the advanced diagnostics, skills, medicine and countless hours I and almost every colleague I know (male or female) have spent — often unpaid, often on days off, often in our own homes with patients, often on the phone and in emails, for statistically much less remuneration than perhaps you received.

Thank you for so easily blaming the female gender and new grads — you, armed with next to no facts — for the decline of vet med. Certainly, it cannot be the skyrocketing costs of education and medicine in general, right? It could not be Dr. Google, social media, the rise of lawsuits and the ever-elevating standard of care (a GOOD thing) that requires us GPs to be specialists in every field so as not to lose our licenses and livelihoods. Oh, yeah, and our will to live.

BTW, let me tell you about one person you insulted quite well: me. (I ain’t no snowflake and I’m really hard to offend, so you must have some special talent after all.) Let me tell you about one Type A, seriously driven veterinarian among countless others in this field.

I was a shelter worker by 16, shoveling crap and then euthanizing far too many sick, injured and unwanted animals by 18. I was a kennel manager, veterinary receptionist, vet/ER tech for 15 years, always working two or more jobs. I was the only person in my family to graduate high school, much less go to college. Took me until 29 years old, working holidays, weekends, 15-plus-hour overnight shifts and going to school during the day (which I paid for on my own). I was accepted to vet school in 2001, for which, yep, I had to take the loan while my husband worked to support us. I graduated in 2005, went right out to work and within a short time became a top-producing associate while also working for local shelters and rescues, including my own.

I worked myself silly, multiple jobs at a time, too busy to remember more than a handful of lunch breaks. I worked shifts of 12 hours or more as well as nights, weekends and holidays. I came in hours early, left hours late, saw drop-offs, emergencies, fit-ins and an always very full book of appointments.

I did all this through a decade of living with a severe, undiagnosed autoimmune disease. I even went in the morning I broke my ribs, coughing because of my illness and doing 30-plus sterile surgeries.

I ran circles around many colleagues despite my health struggles. A lot of colleagues ran circles around me. Most of us pitched in to support each other when needed.

In 30 years of vet med, I can think of a handful of doctors not cut out for the job, who were unable or unwilling to keep up with the pace required. Funny how it had nothing to do with their age, gender, ethnicity or years in the field.

I spent 30 years, since my first job at a shelter, doing rescue for senior, surgical, medical and special-needs animals — literally hundreds of them — on my own time and dime. I donated large amounts of time to shelters and Sunday spay days (for free) and to volunteer vaccine clinics on top of ER shifts and relief shifts for which I was in major demand. I was often offered regular jobs, that is until my airways collapsed in August 2017 and my husband and I lost everything.

Know what I gave up to keep going in vet med as I got sicker? Family, friends and loved ones. Thank goodness for all my vet friends and family who keep me afloat today given my condition and prognosis. People I’ve never met — veterinarians! — love me and stand by me. Talk about the most dedicated and caring group of people ever: young and old and of any gender, sexuality, race, religion and background. They are so dedicated to one colleague who got knocked down, yet they have their own struggles and are fighting hard for their patients and clients. You should be proud of our colleagues. You should be especially proud of the ones who are smart enough to not give up their non-work life as I did.

You know zero about me, new grads and women, but you sure assume an awful lot. Have you thought that perhaps fewer men are in the vet field now because they might be more concerned about the money — the money that does not exist in this field anymore when compared with the costs? Or that the business itself no longer focuses on large animals and production medicine, but on small animals and ever more complicated care for our companion animals?

Have you kept pace with the new discoveries in vet med and the complexities in many of our patients that often take more time to adequately address? Could it be that veterinarians today need more time to responsibly and thoroughly diagnose and treat these patients? Trying to explain more complicated or complex issues to pet owners takes an enormous amount of time and energy, especially in a world where you can be contacted 24/7 by phone, email and social media. Could that be part of the issue?

Have you considered that you might have spent more time in vet med because perhaps you had a partner at home doing the rest of the work? Maybe you could be a 24/7 veterinarian, bathing in the glory of such dedicated distinction despite the fact that to do so, such lucky folks almost assuredly had someone else to pick up the slack. If that has been you, I’m happy for you. What a fortunate situation you’ve enjoyed! And you got to be the good guy to your clients.

I ask, what have you sacrificed for veterinary medicine? How wise was it, now that you reflect upon a lifetime? If the answer is “Not so much,” then you don’t have to wonder who it’s really all about.

Back to the complexity of our current difficulties in veterinary medicine. Have you noticed that the cost of medicine, in general, has skyrocketed, that younger vets don’t make near the salary needed to buy all the goodies they need these days to equip a practice properly, much less start or purchase one? Who among us nowadays can purchase (or rent) a building, an ultrasound, a digital radiology set-up, in-house lab equipment? Have you seen the price tags on those things? Do you think it might be more expensive to start a hospital today that is equipped well enough to do the job and not get sued compared with, say, 50 or 60 years ago? Why do you think they’re all being bought by a candy bar company, anyway?

How dare you pretend to know the reality of veterinarians and what we are about today (especially women) and then so outspokenly contribute to the poorly formed opinion and image that the Dr. Google world has of us. They already think we should do it for free, for the love of animals, much like “Old Doc So-and-So” did. We hear this all the time. I wonder where they get that idea.

Every single vet, regardless of age, ethnicity or gender, has a story. Like you, we have goals and ambitions, struggles and challenges. Each of us has a life you apparently can’t relate to in a time when things could not be more different than when you were a new grad. I can’t prejudge you and your skills and dedication any more than you could predict mine or that of my colleagues.

There are no Type B veterinarians. Do you have any clue what is required today for admission to vet school? Very few making it that far are anything but lifelong, perfectionist, dedicated, hard-working, extremely driven overachievers.

Supposing I decided to generalize what I know about working with some vets of your generation. Perhaps I’d write a warped article that describes “Ol’ Doc” and how his wife better have his dinner on the table when he gets home; about how he acts like a saint and allows people to pay on credit yet he passes on the losses to his staff, who don’t have medical benefits or get raises, though he is a multimillionaire thanks to his practices. Perhaps I’d write about the major damage, pain, malpractice, abuse, suffering and death caused by the egotistical senior vet who is not up to the standard of care, unable to improvise wisely, unwilling to address pain, unwilling to refer, peeing in his or her pants into his/her final years while everyone tries to hide it and protect that “holier than thou,” “wonderful,” “in it for the love of animals, not for the money” image. I wonder how well off you are financially. I’m sure you are far better off than I am. I wonder how that happened.

Truth is, though, I don’t know you. How ridiculous would it be for me to assume that today’s medicine isn’t as advanced as it could be because of senior vets and their limitations?

All I want is to get back to my life, my job, my OR (in which I did all kinds of non-routine surgeries), my ERs (in which I worked every Christmas as a tech or vet or on call), my shelters, my rescue — everything I lost due to an illness that has decided to kill me in misery. You have the audacity to write your ignorant piece slamming women and new grads and offer not a shred of the real reason for the difficulties we face in vet med. Have you no clue?

YOU are one of them!

Dr. Heather Westfall lives in Reading, Pennsylvania.