Abby Whiting, DVM: VLE Epsilon class
I imagine when you’re asked what the best piece of advice you have ever received is…the answer is strikingly different for each of us. For me it instantly transports me back in time to my VLE experience.
The advice I will never forget, that which has changed my life, my outlook, my mission….came from Dr. Rick DeBowes of Washington State university. Dr. DeBowes is a self proclaimed “equine plumber” (aka a brilliant surgeon) but he is also a philosopher, a teacher, a mentor, a coach, and a servant leader.
I was a second year veterinary student, and a second career student at that. To say that I didn’t exactly fit into the class would be an understatement. I was older, I had previously had a career, and I was as far on the introverted scale as the Meyers Briggs is capable of. But: I loved vet medicine and I had a burning in my soul for a greater purpose. At the time I had no idea what Servant Leadership was, or that it would completely re architect my journey.
I was one of 2 vet students at MU chosen to attend VLE Epsilon class. It was held in Idaho at a gorgeous retreat. Like I said before...I was an outcast…a stage 5 introvert who did not belong with the others in the VLE class. I travelled to Idaho with a serious case of the “what am I doing here?” in my head. Upon arrival I hid in my room as most truly gifted introverts do. The next Am I would have to face them: the brilliant, young, social, got their lives figured out superstars I was to be in retreat with…sigh…
I forced a smile and walked myself into the breakfast area, tried to say hello and polished my strongest mask of “I belong here”…but I was terrified. We loaded onto buses for the journey to camp…and I was glad to sit quietly and watch the gorgeous scenery pass. The buss came to a stop and folks disembarked…and then it happened.
I stepped off the bus and ran nearly straight into Dr. Rick DeBowes: Picture it if you will: He was standing in 35’F in a t shirt and shorts with the greatest, warmest smile on his face and he bellowed to me “Choose happy!”. In that moment time stopped…it felt like I was slapped in the face by a 2 x 4. It was a watershed moment…something Oprah fans call the “Ah Ha!”. That moment changed me forever. It wrote on the slate of my soul. I am not exactly proud to tell you that at 37 I had not yet realized or even considered that some aspects of happy are a choice, until that moment. I had never comprehended: that baring a mental or emotional illness that prevents us from engaging in joy…happy is overall partially our choice and therefore under our control.
That one statement changed the course of my journey. I am beyond grateful for his message and for the opportunity to be at VLE and begin my journey into servant leadership. I was meant to be there and meant for my heart to be open to the message.
Now I consider my many blessings each day and I practice joy. Collecting joyful moments and learning to be present in them waters down the hardship and strife. It trains our brains to make more positive neuronal connections and to see more joy…it helps us practice HAPPY. Anyone who reads my stuff knows I am a huge believer in the 10,000 hour rule: ie practice makes perfect. And as far as I can see, practicing joy and happy, makes me more happy.
This transition didn’t happen overnight. Certainly not. I spent a long time as a disengaged, angry, and bitter, down trodden introvert. Only after applying self-discipline, practicing my gratitude exercises and slowing down; to be present in the moment, did I start to feel happy. My burn out and Compassion fatigue went into remission.
Even now when I feel myself slipping into compassion or decision fatigue…and trust me it happens. I go back to basics. I stop and name out loud and in writing 3 things I am grateful for. I look around and name 3 things that are beautiful in that moment and I write a thank you / send a care package to a dear friend who I cherish.
Today I am grateful for : 1). This Community of veterinarians who together are stronger than we are alone. 2). I have the goofiest dog in the world. 3). I just got the best gift, a heated winter coat!
In this moment : 1). The crisp cool fall air. 2). The owl screeching outside my window. 3). The service dog napping at my feet are truly beautiful and fill me with little bits of joy.
I challenge all of us to “Choose Happy” a little each day.
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I am a hard working veterinarian who sometimes gets lost in my debt load, my clients’ emotions, and my own sense of self-doubt. Needless to say, sometimes I struggle. I am grateful to the community of veterinarians called Not One More Vet, as we together pledge to support each other and bring the risk of suicide down across the profession. I was introduced to this group more than 2 years ago…not knowing at the time I was being directed or guided for a bigger reason than managing my own worries and insecurities. I joined, and I loved it…I got true value out of my interactions here, and I saw true hidden suffering amongst my colleagues. Because of NOMV I got QPR certified (Question, Persuade, and Refer): training to help guide someone who is, or may be suicidal, to the support and resources they need to survive.
During the training I learned what to say, when to say it, when to intervene, when to trust that nagging little voice in my head that someone isn’t ok despite their claims of being ‘fine”. I was empowered to start a conversation I had for so long been afraid to broach. It made me feel like I could actually help maybe. …and then the real reason I was drawn to get trained presented itself a few months later.
I am notoriously a quiet person; I prefer to email or text over phone chat or face time. When I am occupied with work or at home projects it’s a general rule I don’t answer the phone…I will return the call…but I never drop what I am doing to talk on the phone. It was a glorious summer day and I was painting my deck, a project I had ignored for far too long. Dressed in my messiest paint clothes, hands covered in wet paint, I heard from the house the sound of the phone ring. My first instinct is, yeah like I’m going to answer now with paint everywhere. But then something I honestly cannot describe happened. I felt a huge urge, a pull from within my belly to grab the phone. It was magnetic and I couldn’t resist. I opened the kitchen door, got paint on the door frame, the table and the phone and picked it up to say hello. On the other end there was a pause and then a quiet sob…it was a colleague and they were in trouble. Instantly my training kicked my brain into question mode: “are you thinking of hurting yourself” I pleaded. “I already did”, came from the phone.
Now I am not a crisis counselor, I have no real training or knowledge of managing situations like this…but here I stood. The universe was using me as a tool to send a rope, a lifeline, to a fellow vet. Because of my QPR training I hopped into action…and only now in writing this do I realize how many tiny messages were left for me by something greater to use to help.
Step one was to keep them talking and try to determine what exactly has occurred…ingestion of something perhaps? Then I had to get them professional help, and I was a thousand miles away. In my desperation I grabbed the work phone and dialed 911. I explained to my local operator that a friend was in trouble and needed ER services now…but they were 1000 miles away…I asked could they connect us to a local 911 operator? Well no…crap… Meanwhile I remembered a card I had gotten years ago from the family of my friend…and on it was a phone number. Why did I save this card…a simple thank you card? I honestly didn’t know until I sat to write this blog. I grabbed the other phone and dialed the number…a family member locally …voicemail…crap! I left a message and then it hit me again…the magnetic pull of what to do next. I continued to try to talk to my friend on one phone...I jumped onto the computer and searched for the highway patrol direct line in their community. Got it! Dialed it and told the operator my situation …she immediately called an officer to race to the address with an ambulance. The officer took my number and said he would call upon arrival. Then my friend told me goodbye and hung up the phone despite my protests and pleads.
The other line then rang: the family member had gotten the message and had called a nearby neighbor to run to the house right away. Time seemed to tick on forever. It was like in a science fiction movie where everything slowed down and it took eons for a second to pass. Then my line rang again: the officer: no answer on the door bell he was breaking in and he would call again once he had information. Crap, more waiting. I could hear my heart beating and see my pulse in my retinas.
He called again, friend was alive but in trouble. The ambulance was there and they were headed to the hospital. Now you’d think relief would have washed over me…but somehow I was calm through the thick of it, and now I was shaking uncontrollably, and couldn’t settle down.
The family called me a few hours later, friend was alive…and at that moment angry…with me. I was at first sad as I thought the friendship was now surely over. Overwhelmed with emotions I turned to my friends at NOMV. One of the admins was another angel delivering yet another message to me from a bigger place: She said “Better alive and mad as hell, then dead”. She was right on, and I needed to hear that.
Since that time I am filled with joy to see my friend thriving. We are closer than ever. The moral of my story here is 2 fold: 1). Get QPR training: its free for AVMA members and it really empowers you to help. 2). you never know when a small reach out, or simple text message check in may be the spark of light that guides someone else out of the darkness. We need to ask each other how we are, and be honest about it. We need to remember even amongst our busiest days to check in on coworkers, friends, and family. We are far stronger together.
By Dr. Ivy Barnhart
I was washing the dishes today and I took a moment to appreciate a message on one of my coffee cups.
“Rush not. Be still. It takes the time that it takes.”
A client gave me this cup, with a box of chamomile tea. She had brought her dog in for his annual exam a few days prior, and she asked me how I was doing. We had somewhat of a relationship outside of work in that I had taken a summer season of piano lessons from her a couple year prior. Of course, the typical response to the question, “How are you doing?” is something with a positive tone and then the question reciprocated, and as I smiled and took a breath to answer, that’s almost what came out. But I really hadn’t been doing all that well recently, and something about her tone and eye contact suggested to me that maybe I could answer honestly. I told her that, actually, I wasn’t doing great. I had been struggling recently with the loss of a patient, and subsequent fallout on social media, where the owner placed the blame on me for the patient’s death. It was a small town, and word traveled fast. I asked if she’d seen any posts about it and she said she hadn't. Of course, I didn’t offer any details, and she didn’t ask. She told me that she thought I was a wonderful vet, and that she was going to miss me because she was planning on moving away from the area. She told me that everything would be OK, that I was going to be OK, and that people who know me, know that I’m a good person and a caring and conscientious veterinarian. A few days later, she dropped off a gift bag with the cup, and the tea, and a really lovely card.
At the time, I was struggling with intrusive thoughts of self-harm and suicide. These thoughts were frightening and made me feel anxious and sad. Fortunately, I was able to talk about them with a wise friend who helped me see that I wasn’t having these thoughts because I wanted to die, but because I was extremely stressed and dealing with intense emotions surrounding a situation that was truly horrific. Maybe these intrusive thoughts were my way of escaping the situation, my subconscious mind saying, “This is really really hard and I want it to stop.” The intrusive thoughts were an escape mechanism, a short-circuit that actually accomplished the goal of changing the conversation in my head.
Eventually, things got better. The owner of the pet that died (new client, new patient, of course; someone who just dropped off her healthy dog for an elective surgery and had to come a few hours later to collect a dead dog) came to the clinic a few days later and we had a long conversation about what happened (closed pop-off valve during surgery prep, inexperienced anesthesia technician). The owner’s pain was raw and intense, and at first, she really wanted to see me as a negligent and uncaring. Fortunately, I was able to be completely honest and vulnerable with her without becoming defensive. I showed her the anesthesia machine, told her about the new safety valves that we’d ordered to prevent this from ever happening again, and expressed my heartfelt condolences. After we spoke, she actually gave me a hug and assured me that we were both going to get through this.
Things got better, and that was probably (hopefully) the worst thing that I’ll ever have to deal with professionally. There have been ups and downs, other social media storms that I have tended to emotionally overreact to because if this experience. A year ago, I moved away from that small town, where I started my career and raised my daughter. Moving away and leaving my home and family and community has been really hard. Additionally, my daughter moved out of our home and is starting her own life in another state. These transitions are difficult. Dealing with change is hard. But things do get better, and it takes the time that it takes.
The Admin Team of NOMV is a group of veterinarians dedicated to improving veterinary mental health.