Everybody’s heard of muscle fatigue or mental fatigue, but compassion fatigue isn’t a term you hear very often. It is a term though that is very applicable in veterinary medicine because as veterinarians (or veterinary students), our jobs and the emotions that come with them take a toll on us after a while.
Most veterinarians and veterinary students are fairly type A. We want to save the world, be the best we can be, have the right answer, solve the problem, etc. Unfortunately, that isn’t always possible in our career. Whether it is because an animal is too sick, existing financial limitations of treatment, or the animal doesn’t have an owner, there are many times we can’t save the day. And as those situations stack up, it hurts.
I remember the first time I encountered this. I was still an undergraduate student and completing a summer externship at an equine hospital. The day started at 2 am with a colic call on a 28-year-old horse that had surgery several weeks before to remove a bone chip from its knee. The owner had loved this horse its whole life and had finally completed her dream of building her own barn and arena to bring her horse home to. We did our work up, made the mare comfortable, and then left since the owner had opted for the wait-and-see approach. At 6:00 am, the call came that the mare was once again painful and distressed. We returned and determined the only options were sending the mare for surgery or euthanasia. Given the mare’s age and the toll surgery would have taken, she was euthanized.
We were just pulling pack into the clinic when the phone rang with another colic. We didn’t even get out of the truck. We just turned around and headed back on the road. The patient was a 14-year-old white pony owned by a woman for her grandkids. He was rolling and thrashing all over the ground, and we could barely keep him on his feet for an exam (a bad sign for those without horse experience). We worked with him for several hours, but ultimately it was the same deal as the first one. Euthanasia or surgery, and the owner opted for euthanasia.
We drove back to the clinic hot and sweaty and yet another colic call came in. It was again the same as the first. Surgery wasn’t an option, and the horse was in pain not controlled by medication even for short periods of time, so it was euthanized.
That night I felt compassion fatigue for the first time. Three horses, three fights to help them, one day, and they all died. I was physically tired, but even more emotionally tired and depressed. It’s a feeling that is all too common with veterinarians and veterinary technicians, especially those who work in shelters, and it is a battle that is starting to be addressed.