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.