At 2:30 am it finally hits me why my left thumb is so sore. Nine and a half hours earlier, I failed to revive a dog with emergency treatment and CPR. I also failed to save him with aggressive surgical, medical and supportive care during the preceeding several days. The chest compressions of my final attempt to save Dog must have hyperextended my thumb. My only two comforts are that Dog no longer hurts and my thumb does. I fall into a troubled sleep.
Very recently, I had given two talks, one to grade schoolers and one to middle schoolers about how great it is to be a vet. At the time, I had just started Dog’s treatment, his prognosis still had a sliver of hope in it, and if I had read about his case in a journal article, it really would have made a great story. I feel like a big liar, and to children no less. Right now, I hate my career.
I wake up wondering how Dog’s family is doing.
I stay awake a second night going over and over every detail of Dog’s case, deciding at every remembered step that I would not have made different decisions on Dog’s behalf. I would not have wanted the family to make different decisions. We needed to give Dog every possible chance. Every time my husband asks why I am crying/scowling/staring off (and at one point freaking out when I am in the sun, not the shade, at an outdoor concert), I say “I need to have been able to save him.” I am pretty sure that is not even a valid sentence structure.
Sometimes, being a vet sucks.
It is not as if I have a choice. I could have no easier chosen a different career than I could have chosen to be right handed. I mean, I could have forced myself, but I hear that messes people up pretty badly.
And really, even now, I do not want to be anywhere else than in the middle of grief for a dog I just met and who is technically a “patient” but is really a friend I fell for hard and fought for hard, and a family that is technically a “client” but really a team of fellow pet lovers who also loved Dog – but as a family member, and for years and years, not days. If this week is rough for me, it sucks many times over for them and will for a long time.
I don’t know why this has stuck with me for all this time, but another veterinarian once told me that unless I could rein in my “personality weakness” of letting sad cases hit me so hard,
“You will never be a successful veterinarian.”
It was a great little pep talk (ha!) but honestly, I believe the opposite is true. I can no more let go of my empathy than I could have chosen a different career. If I did not feel such rage and despair and hopelessness at not being able to save a Dog I really, really, really wanted to save, THEN I would concede his point, and truly, I would not be a successful veterinarian.
As it is, my career is a part of me I cannot separate from myself. Good or bad, I cannot care less than I do, or give myself a “healthy emotional distance,” even if I did want to, which I do not. This week sucks, and I do not know when I will be able to say I love being a vet again, but I will. And if I did not hate it now, that would be a serious red flag to me, and I would do everything I could to reconnect emotionally.
There are wonderful veterinarians who are much more emotionally even keeled than I. It is not a requirement of the profession to be a big cry baby sap. In fact, I do need to check myself when families need my support; they do not need me pushing them out of the way for the Kleenex box. It is just that empathy is such a big part of MY veterinary career, that if losing patients were to “get easier” as some older veterinarians promise, trying to be comforting, I would know that I had lost a part of myself, and would hang up my jacket and stethoscope.
I have normal range of motion in my thumb and just a small, persistent ache. I really hope next week is better than this week – how could it not be? I hope the hearts of Dog’s family members heal over time. I know that though it will be a long road, their hearts will heal, almost completely. I really hope that my thumb does not heal, but it is already feeling better. Dang it.