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Veterinary Compassion Fatigue – Part I

Guest Blogger: Andraya Cole, DVM

If you’ve read my last post, you know my journey with burnout. We tend to lump burnout and compassion fatigue together and while they certainly can go hand in hand, they can also be independent of one another. Within the last two years of practice, I have experienced both burnout and compassion fatigue in different measures and at different times. It is sometimes hard for me to untangle which came first or to place a finger on which aspect is even at play. Compassion fatigue is a concept researchers have known to affect the medical and social work communities for a long time, and it is important to differentiate it from burnout since it can stem from different places.

Define It

So, what is compassion fatigue? It is the indifference to charitable appeals on behalf of those who are suffering, experienced as a result of the frequency or number of such appeals. AKA secondary traumatic stress.

Similar to burnout, it’s the result of prolonged exposure and exhaustion but unlike burnout, is emotionally based at its core.

Some may find they look forward to going to work, feel energized by their leadership role, and are still eager to learn and try new things. This person is not experiencing burnout. The same person, however, may feel inconvenienced by a call from a client with an animal in distress, unphased by the crying family in the euthanasia room, or be too quick to jump to sedating a scared patient in order to hurry along their day. I would argue that this person is experiencing compassion fatigue.

Reading these scenarios on paper you may have the impression that if you experience compassion fatigue it means you are heartless. In my opinion, it is quite the opposite! Those of us in the veterinary field are often so caring and so full of heart that we overextend ourselves. Our capacity to behave in this nature at all times and for every client and every patient is just not sustainable.

Reality Bites…

Our reality is repeatedly seeing cases of trauma, abuse, and death. We soon start to accept this as another part of our day and a normal part of life.  Especially in the ER, we find ourselves having to turn people away or skip important diagnostics/treatments for those who cannot afford it, growing callous to pleas from those in financial need.

While these moments can give us pause, at some point we have to roll our sleeves up and get the work done. This can mean looking past the emotional aspects of a situation in order to practice clear headed medicine. This mindset repeated time and time again may make for efficient practices but detracts from our passions and connections as caregivers & humans.

As the data piles up, we see what a toll compassion fatigue can have. It can drive some to leave the profession altogether (we have an astounding 30-50% turnover rate) or even contribute to colleagues taking their own lives (a suicide rate of 3.5 times the general population). Ouch.

Time to Reflect

What I have noticed in myself and colleagues is that compassion fatigue in our profession tends to center on clients – that human aspect. Rarely can we hold back a squeal of excitement when a new puppy comes in, and it’s so difficult to see or discuss how hard it is to watch a critical patient decline.

Instead, it’s the desensitization to things like clients telling us we are money-hungry or unfeeling that silently chips away at us as we continue working hard for their animals. This is a unique aspect of veterinary medicine. The majority of us didn’t go into this work to deal with people, and in truth, we get very little to no training in how to do so in school. Because of this, we can feel lost. There are days when I feel I am asked to play marriage counselor, grief counselor, lifestyle coach, financial advisor…oh, and a veterinarian. Not only am I unqualified for all of this, but I also don’t want to be! And some days those extra, and often unnecessary demands have my compassion running on fumes…

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 veterinarians and veterinary staff’s mental health issues and some tools to recognize and combat them.

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