As veterinarians, we spend our days servicing both healthy animals and sick animals. Many of those animals come with clients that truly care and want the best for them. Part of this care is setting mutual goals with clients and pursuing them in the best interest of the animal. This is one of my favorite parts of veterinary medicine, and it is one of the aspects of our profession that makes it truly unique. We get to function on a three-way street that consists of us, the owner and their animal. However, sometimes we meet resistance from the client’s role in this relationship. It can be for a variety of reasons such as frustration, sadness, unwillingness to accept reality, or even helplessness in a situation. Our role as the veterinarian in the situation gives us a lot of ability to help the animals, and we always have to counsel owners during the decision making process.
That being said, we are frequently met with frustration or resistance from clients when they perceive that we are not on their side or not presenting them with the outcome they want. I have experienced this with owners that are frustrated with the course of a disease, or when the quality of life questions arise for terminal patients. While these situations are difficult, I find that the hardest cases for me to deal with are the ones when clients are totally unwilling to accept reality and it results in the continued pain and suffering of a patient. This is not an easy topic to discuss, but it is extremely important. One of my main goals in patient care is preventing pain and suffering, and it makes me feel helpless when clients get in the way of that goal by refusing to accept when it is time to let a patient pass from this life.
The conversation is unsettling, and it is one of the top reasons that many veterinarians end up taking the emotion of their work home with them and let it eat away at their soul. That may sound extreme, but it is a reality for many of us. Having the ability to relieve pain and suffering via euthanasia and not being able to carry out the act when it is needed most is one of the hardest things for me to deal with in my job. Have you ever felt intense, 9/10 pain in your body for an extended period of time (meaning weeks to months)? I have. It was physically torturous, mentally debilitating, and emotionally draining. While they can’t say it and let us know, I have to think that our pets deal with chronic pain in similar ways.
What is the answer to this dilemma? I don’t think there is one fix-all, but it sure does make me think about all of the cynical and jaded veterinarians that I used to wonder about. Why were they so sour about some aspects of the profession? The more I lean into this idea, the more I see that this topic is one of the main reasons so many others in our profession feel hurt. They feel unable to help when it is needed most. They feel disappointed. They feel angry, and maybe even confused. Perhaps some of these feelings are similar to how our animals feel when they experience chronic suffering. So I have to ask: what do veterinarians do with the hurt they feel? And more so, what do our animals do with the hurt they feel when we can’t help them move on and away from pain?