Hey, guys! I want to give a disclaimer on this post that it is going to contain a story from when I worked in veterinary medicine that will include animal suffering. I will give you a warning before I tell it so you can read up until that point if you would like. It will also be towards the end of this post. It won’t go into graphic detail, but it is sad.
I was a Veterinary Technician for 23 years. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a Veterinarian, except for that short stint in high school where I wanted to be a Marine Biologist because I wanted to play with dolphins, but I am terrified of the ocean SOOOO….. did not work out. I got a job at a veterinary hospital right out of high school and devoted my life to it. I was good at it. I had a talent for it. Mean cats like me. I’m a natural nurturer, so it appealed to me. Every Vet Tech always hears people constantly say, “Oh, I could never do your job. It would be so sad.” First of all, thanks for implying that we are non-feeling monsters. (Kidding….. kind of) Every Vet Tech will probably respond with, “It’s very rewarding when we help them get better or let them pass peacefully.” That’s also what we tell ourselves, and sometimes it is rewarding. Sometimes it’s a lie and we don’t even realize it, though. I realized something about a week ago that has really shaken me and that’s why I am writing this blog post that has nothing to do with full-time RV life.
About 13 years ago, I began to struggle with Compassion Fatigue. I should have gotten out then, but I did not and honestly, until last week I didn’t realize the degree of hurt it caused me. I did finally leave the field about a year ago when I began to understand and sympathize with all of the stories being made public of veterinary professionals who were taking their own lives. I began to understand why and I read another story one day and I thought that it must be so nice to just have the relief of death. And that is when I noped right out of there. Over the last year, I have noticed really weird ways in which it has affected me. Facebook posts involving animal rescue and such make my anxiety shoot through the roof. I have to avoid things and unfollow my friends who constantly post about animals in need. This is just a small example. Their are much weirder and difficult things that I don’t want to get into, but I do want to tell you about the thing I just realized.
OK… here we go… I am going to tell a very sad story about a kitten, so if you want to make like a baby and head on out of here, now is your chance.
Last week I was talking to a friend of mine (Hey, Jerri!) about some of the aspects of leaving the field, losing my dog, and some other things I had been dealing with over the last year. I told her it was a hard job, but sometimes it was rewarding even when all we could do was euthanize an animal to end it’s suffering. So, I told her this story that for at least 18 years has been a “feel good” story for me. This is where you find out just how screwed up this job made me. One night at the emergency clinic where I was working, we had a kitten come in that was about 6 months old. He had been hit by a car. He was in shock, but fully aware and terrified. While the Dr. spoke with the owners about options, I place and IV catheter in him, gave him some pain medication, and held him wrapped in a towel to try to keep him calm and soothe him. He was terrified and shaking. His eyes were wide and he was looking at me in fear and confusion. He was dying. He was in bad shape. We could have treated him, but it was going to take multiple surgeries and months of healing and rehab and he may not have survived all of it. The owners elected euthanasia because of financial constraints and also because they didn’t want him to suffer anymore. As we gave him the injection, I whispered to him that it was OK and he wasn’t going to hurt anymore and he looked at me, took a deep breathe, and looked so relieved. Then he slipped peacefully away.
This happened about 18 years ago and it is a vibrant memory in my mind. It is one of many. I can see him. I can feel him in my arms shaking and terrified. It is vivid. I have always thought of this kitten as one of the reasons why I did my job. I kept him as comfortable as I could and we gave him relief and dignity in death instead of suffering. I helped him pass peacefully and he suffered no more. People who work in this field are exposed to trauma most days. I know this. But, it wasn’t until I was telling this “feel good” story of how I helped this kitten that I realized that I didn’t just witness the trauma of it. That was traumatic FOR ME. I held a dying kitten in my arms terrified and confused. I was covered in his blood and held him while he died. I felt his fear. It was almost a revelation for me. I have never in all of these years realized that I wasn’t just witnessing trauma, but I was also being traumatized.
I thought about it for days. DAYS. I was really shaken by realizing how awful it really was for me. One morning I got out of the shower and wondered to myself how many traumatic experiences that was over 23 years. Most days involved death. Some days involved straddling giant dogs and doing CPR just willing them to come back while their families sobbed around us. Some days we had to say goodbye to animals we had watched grow up and loved like our own. Most days involved some kind of trauma. I did a rough estimate. 23 years times 300 days. I allowed 65 days a year for days off and days when nothing happened. Roughly, 6,900 give or take. Those weren’t just traumas we witnessed, but traumatic things that happened to us. I don’t remember every one. I do have very vivid stories and memories like the one above, though. I had just always thought of them as ways I helped instead of ways they harmed me without me realizing it at the time. A coping mechanism I guess. We have lots of those.
What is really interesting to me is that since I realized this, I feel a lot better. I have felt weird guilt about leaving the industry. One time one of my Vets told me that she truly believed I had a God given talent for caring for animals. I feel guilty that I am wasting it. Karl and I have struggled financially. I could make ridiculously more money than I am making now if I just went back to work in a clinic, but I know it will kill me. Literally. I feel guilty, though, because we wouldn’t have to struggle so much and we could get on the road faster if I could just “suck it up”. Realizing the trauma of it all has really taken a lot of those feelings of guilt away. Realizing it is healing me slowly. I hope.
Going back to a clinic if I really needed to has been holding me back from figuring out a new career that I can do remotely, I think. After my realization, compounded with the fact that dying sounded real cozy right before I left, I now know that I won’t ever go back. AND GUESS WHAT. Right after I put my foot down inside my own head that I will not go back, and making a decision about if I want to continue to try to survive off of my art (more on this later), a really cool freelance option came along. My chest is not as heavy and the weight on my shoulders is a little lighter. When I typed the story above about my kitten friend, I cried. I have cried more in the last year than I have in the last 15 because I literally could not because I was so numb. You ever really wanted to cry and couldn’t? 1 out of 5 stars. Do not recommend.
Anyway, I really needed to get that off of my chest. I know it has nothing to do with what this blog is all about, but it is a glimpse into me and it is a monumental thing that has happened to me. The next time you are at a vet clinic or anywhere dealing with people who work with animals, remember that they are dealing with more than you will see. If you love someone who is in this industry, check up on them. They need it. If you are in this industry, take a look at your experiences and consider all of the ways it may be affecting you that you may not even be aware of. Take care of yourselves.