What is normal anyway?
It can be so hard to separate what is normal for us to feel and what is true compassion fatigue. To a certain extent, we need to compartmentalize our work and the trauma we see otherwise we could not do our job as healers. We also need to prioritize advocating for our patients which can mean having frank conversations with owners that are in denial or guiding them away from making choices that go against medical advice.
These tough conversations may seem heartless to the client, and personally, not much in my nature. It creates a little voice in the back of my mind asking if I have done my best for each patient and each client or if frustration and compassion fatigue have gotten the best of me.
Euthanasia… I try to look at each euthanasia I perform through the eyes of the family experiencing it. It helps me to think how I would feel if this were my own cat; the cat I freely admit I love more than my husband in some ways. But I will be honest, it only brings me back to earth sometimes.
What these families don’t know is that this once in a lifetime moment for them is also sometimes my fourth one of that day. Day, not week. I may have even just left the room next door where another family is grieving. I can catch myself thinking about the three other cases I am in the middle of just outside that door.
Lately, I am more often than not thinking, how fast can I get out of this room to limit my exposure to COVID since this person is crying and blowing their nose all over the place regardless of how many times I ask them to keep a mask on.
It’s a dirty feeling to react this way to human suffering and one we are all still navigating. It can also feel very backwards to be relieved euthanizing a patient when their family has clung to every hope. But the vast majority of the time it is medically the right decision, one that will end suffering and one I can feel confident in that it was right for my patient. There are normal feelings in all of this based on what I know as a doctor, and yet there are feelings stemming from the emotionally draining process of doing this over and over and over again.
EQ not IQ
Understanding and addressing compassion fatigue takes a certain level of emotional intelligence that addressing burnout may not. So how do we approach what seems like intimate and individual work on a clinic or even profession-wide scale? Cultivating a work environment that is open to discussing the hardships of our work in a supportive way is a major necessity. There is often no time in a day to do this. So, when do we process? When do we reflect and affirm our feelings that we are not alone in trying to find this balance between caregiving and emotional boundaries? And if there is no time for this, how can we decide how to be better the next day, or when it is time for a break? For the sake of all the giving and caring people in this profession, I hope we are close to some answers.
About the Author:
Dr. Andraya Cole is a wife, a cat owner, a soon-to-be mother, and a veterinarian who works in Pennsylvania as a mixed animal vet. She is a graduate of Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine and a candidate of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Follow along as she posts a series of blogs on the mental health issues veterinarians and veterinary staff face and some tools to recognize and combat them.