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How I deal with the daily impact of compassion fatigue

INSTAGRAM @anna.proano   
Ana Proaño is originally from Sonora, Mexico. She studied abroad in the state of New Mexico, where she received her bachelor’s degree in Animal Science. Ana graduated from vet school in June, 2019. During school she worked as an assistant to a doctor in the Genetics Laboratory for around three years. Since, she has worked on several projects with sheep related to genetics. She has gained extensive experience with horses and sheep, but still loves working with small animals, especially dogs. Ana loves sharing her journey on social media.

Veterinary medicine can be hard, but while we prepare for this profession our teachers don’t often tells us about how much harder it is to deal with our emotions.

This field is known for having people who demonstrate a high level of compassion, empathy, and a drive to care for others. As veterinarians or even students, we tend to feel a joy or sense of achievement in helping and caring for others. However, this sometimes can put us in uncomfortable situations and expose us to traumatic events, such as abuse, illness, and euthanasia. All of these factors can lead to compassion fatigue, which is when, through a unique and empathetic relationship with a (often ill or dying) patient; a medical caregiver takes on someone else’s burden.

During my last year of vet school, I witnessed animal abuse from one of my classmates. This person kept hitting an innocent sheep and calling it names. Of course I got upset and talked to them about how what they were doing was cruel. He then stopped, but after that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Animals are really strong and they’re good at hiding their pain but anyone could tell the sheep was really uncomfortable while being handled by that person. I remember the same day, I was lying in my bed, trying to process the whole situation and I got really sad. After a few minutes, I started crying because I felt such strong compassion for the animal. I can honestly say my whole day was ruined because of this incident. After this happened, my perspective changed and now I try to only work with people who support the idea of a good animal welfare and animal rights. I also learnt you always have to speak up when you know something isn’t right.

Have you ever felt like that? Do you feel emotionally numb or drained at the end of the day? Do you feel sad because of something you saw happened in school or work? If so, that often can be compassion fatigue and if that’s the case, let me tell you that you’re not alone.

I just graduated from vet school and as a new veterinarian; I have already felt it multiple times. For example, I used to work at this veterinary clinic in my hometown and after a couple of weeks I had to quit my job because I saw a lot of dog abuse. I just couldn’t handle it. I always came home feeling drained and empty. I felt like I wasn’t doing my job right because all I wanted was to help all the animals but the people at the clinic didn’t love and care enough to treat these innocent dogs the right way, the way they deserve. The turning point that made me leave the job was when I realized everything these people at the clinic were doing was against all my beliefs and I needed to do more for these animals.

Later on I got a new job as a small animal veterinarian at a really good clinic. I was in charge of Internal Medicine, which means I had to take care of all the animals who arrived with an illness and had to prescribed them, medicated them, and of course take care of all the animals who were hospitalized. Even though I had a lot of successful cases, where most dogs and cats were cured, there were times where some animals had a really bad viral diseases such as distemper or cancer. There’s only so much a veterinarian can do and so often these cases end in a way we don’t want them to. My advice for vets is we often forget greatness is the fruit of sacrifice and bad moments; we need to remember that we are strong and have courage to continue for our future patients.

There comes a time in our career where we have to perform euthanasia. Unfortunately, there I had a day where I had to perform many. How do you handle that emotionally? Most of the time I had to do them alone because the owners were too sad to be there and just didn’t want to see the whole thing. When that is the case, I always give myself a couple of minutes with the dog or cat and talk to them for a little bit. I tell them how loved they are and let them know it was an honor to have them as my patients. Then the sad part has to happen. After the animal has passed I always cry for a little, but never have enough time to let all my feelings out because another patient is already waiting for me outside the door. At least I had a moment. This has shaped me to become a better version of myself and doctor for my patients. It’s important to let your emotions out at some point because that way you can fill all those empty spaces with joy and have more room to fill it with love for your patients.

After really hard days like this one, I would come home feeling emotionally exhausted and of course, sad. I’m not going to lie, it has been really hard dealing with moments where you feel like you can’t do anything but try to be strong.

As my journey as a vet continues, I’m learning how to handle all of this in the best way possible. When it comes to animal abuse, we always have to speak up, which I always did. There was never an animal I didn’t defend and protect. With euthanasia, we have to be strong for the pet owners, for our patients, and because it’s our profession. We have to remember the bad times always go away eventually and the good moments resurface. No matter what, there are always more animals waiting for us, needing our help, and sometimes we are their only hope. There are always more lives out there to save.

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