Got Grit?: Redefining success in veterinary medicine.

I recently listened to an interesting TED talk, “The happy secret to better work” by Shawn Anchor and it got me thinking about the challenges facing our profession. Challenges that include burnout, compassion fatigue and a high rate of suicide. Shawn has hit on some key ideas worth examining. Ideas that may provide some insight into how to “reprogram” our profession and find the joy again in what we do as veterinarians.

The path to success in veterinary medicine is clearly laid out; work hard and study relentlessly. Strive for top grades, get experience in the profession and don’t give up even if it takes several years to get that acceptance letter. Veterinarians are not lacking in determination, focus and work ethic and it is that stubborn determination combined with hard work and a pinch of luck, that got most of us into veterinary school. We learned the importance of setting goals and pushing ourselves to the limit, in order to reach those goals. Once achieved, we set new, loftier goals and drive ourselves towards these new benchmarks. Always, in the back of our minds is a voice telling us to keep working, just a little more, just a little longer because when you reach that goal you will be happy.  Life will be good.

Scan_Pic0024.jpeg
Leaving for university. Who packed that truck? I am amazed my boxes didn’t fly out the back. 

I was one of those people who decided to become a veterinarian at a young age. Growing up on a family farm, my exposure to the profession was through our family’s veterinary practice; a group of mixed animal practitioners, who worked on all species but whose primary focus was large animals. I watched them treat bloat, perform cesareans on cows and save my horse from grass founder.  It fascinated me and I immediately decided that THIS is what I was going to not just DO, but BE.  I was determined to become a vet and as a teenager, I volunteered, worked hard and hung around our family’s practice long enough that they eventually gave in and offered me a summer job.  As I worked towards my goal, I was not dissuaded by people, including a high school guidance counselor and my own dad, who told me either I was not smart enough or resilient enough to become a vet. I stubbornly refused to give up and in the end, this tenacity and work ethic resulted in acceptance to the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Following graduation, it was a given that I would return to my roots, mixed animal practice in rural Alberta. The overriding goal was to settle into a rural community, buy into a practice and build a life as a small town veterinarian. At the time it was not only all I knew, but it was also what was expected of me. This was the picture of my future I had visualized for most of my childhood and university years.

50th069.jpeg
My families prairie farm

 

Those early years had their challenges but they also set the stage for a newly married couple to learn how to support each other and work together as veterinarians. In a busy rural practice, you spend the months of January to March either pulling something out of a cow or pushing something back in!  It was a steep learning curve and as a recent graduate, I vividly recall being called out for one of the most difficult calvings of my career. I arrived at the farm to discover a small heifer presenting with the calves entire head protruding from the birth canal. Both front legs were back against the calves body and, while the calf was still alive, its head was terribly swollen. I needed to push the head back through pelvis in order to bring the front legs forward and pull the calf through the birth canal. After trying every trick I could think of, that swollen head would not budge. In desperation, I decided to perform a cesarean. Maybe, I reasoned, once I had the uterus open, I could pull on the calves hindlegs while the farmer pushed on the head and we could free it from the birth canal. It seemed like a good plan but after pulling and pushing, grunting and swearing I found myself no further ahead. Now I had a heifer that was down, with an open uterus and a live calf still stuck in the pelvis. My boss was unreachable, Rob was out on another farm call and I was out of ideas and starting to panic. Just as I started to melt down, I felt an arm go around my back and a calm voice said: “Don’t worry doc, we’re in this together and we will get that fella out”. I will never forget the acceptance and kindness shown to a very green veterinarian in that first year in practice.

17630125_1166112560166405_5579145633890020446_n.jpg
Graduation from Western College of Veterinary Medicine

We survived, and in that year and gained more experience than we ever imagined possible. Despite a welcoming community, we realized we needed to find a practice with more support and mentorship. We left that first job and joined a multi-doctor practice with hopes of settling into a new community and finding that elusive happiness. Fast forward four years. We are now partners in that multi-doctor practice and the life plan, as I envisioned it all those years ago, appears to be right on track. Get into vet school, check. Become a mixed animal practitioner in Alberta, check. Become a practice owner, check.  Start a family…wait a minute, you want to have kids? As a female large animal vet? What are your plans for the calving season?  Will you still be able to cover call?  How dare you become pregnant and start a family without discussing this with your partners? No congratulations were forthcoming and our excitement about starting a family was temporarily put on hold as we dealt with the many issues that had been simmering under the surface of this so-called partnership. Looking back, my pregnancy was simply the final straw in a partnership that was doomed from the beginning. There was never any intention to mentor and support the new owners with the goal of transitioning the practice to a younger generation. One dominant, narcissist partner called the shots and during a downturn in business, rather than look for solutions it was easier to find a scapegoat and place blame.

Making the decision to dissolve the partnership and leave Alberta was one of the hardest decisions of my career. Not only did we stand to lose a large amount of money, we also stood to lose our identity as veterinarians. The meticulous picture of my life plan, painted in my mind over the last 14 years, was being redrawn. Who was I if not a rural, mixed animal veterinarian? I felt like a failure. I was mentally defeated and for the first time since deciding to become a vet and I seriously questioned whether I had made the right career choice. I had worked hard, followed the path that was supposed to lead to success and therefore happiness. So why was I so unhappy?  Was I a failure if I walked away from this partnership?

Our culture has programmed us to follow a specific formula for success and happiness which goes something like this: If I work hard enough, I will be successful. If I am successful, I will be happy. This constant push to reach new goals and link the achievement of these goats to your happiness is a dangerous path. While strong work ethic, stubborn determination, and focus (or what is commonly called grit) are needed for success in veterinary medicine, I sometimes wonder if our profession has taken it too far.  If happiness is only achieved by becoming successful perhaps it is time to rewrite our definition of success. Through my failed partnership, I learned that grit will take you far but it is equally important to know when to walk away. All the grit and determination in the world cannot change a bad situation into a good one. Quitting doesn’t always equal failure, instead, it can be a new beginning, a chance to change your narrative and create your own definition of success. When struggling with the decision to leave our partnership, I recall a colleague saying to me “You can’t row a boat that isn’t moving”.  When you are stuck, you may need to get out of the boat and push it into the current. It takes courage, but trust me, the momentum will take you where you need to go.

Haters gonna Hate: Are we really supposed to just sit back and take it?

Surfing the web today I came across an online review directed at a veterinary hospital and a specific veterinarian in a small community. Reading it made me angry but then I realized that I don’t have to remain silent. This review was not about me or about my practice but it quite easily could have been. In fact, it has been about me in the past and like many veterinarians, I too have been victim to negative reviews, online slander and even bullying in my small community. For twenty-seven years, as a vet, I chose to “take the high road” and remained silent. Refusing to respond to the negative and slanderous online trolls, I tried to grow a thick skin and focus on staying positive. Only those closest to me know how much it hurt and how I struggled to not let those comments eat away at my confidence.

In the early years of my career, I struggled with being a professional in a small, close-knit community. As a vet, everyone had an opinion. They loved you or hated you. You were either a hero or a money-grubbing capitalist. Sometimes  the same client that praised you last week was the one calling you a heartless villain this week. While it has gotten easier to accept the nasty comments and behind your back whispers that occur in a small community, I have to admit, sometimes it still feels personal. How can it not? For many of us, our career as veterinarians is a calling, not just a job.

I still recall the experience as a new practice owner, of a truly hateful and slanderous campaign aimed at harming our small business and turning our new community against us. I was invited by a friend to join an evening painting group. I love to draw and paint, but starting a family and buying a small business had left me little free time to pursue my hobbies. I decided it was time to do something for myself and agreed to join my friend. I introduced myself to the group as just “Elaine” and being new to the community, most of the members did not know I was “Dr. Elaine”, a veterinarian.  As people worked on their art and chatted with each other, I remained silent as the talk turned to pets and then a discussion of local veterinarians. Opinions about local veterinarians were bantered about and then my stomach knotted as things suddenly took a nasty turn. I listened in shock, as people discussed the smear campaign of posters that were being placed around the community “exposing” the terrible new veterinarians that had recently started a practice. This was the first I had heard about this slanderous campaign and I was afraid and hurt. With a tremor in my voice, I stood up and re-introduced myself as “Dr. Elaine Klemmensen”. I heard a collective gasp go through the room and sat back down to a room of stunned silence. I continued to paint while trying to figure out how I could get the hell out of there! Thankfully I was saved by my pager buzzing. One of the few times in my career I was happy to get called in for an after-hours emergency! Trolls did exist, back in the days before social media. Spreading their message was a little more difficult and their reach more limited but the effect on an individuals psyche equally devastating. The happy ending to that story was that it helped to build my resiliency and it taught me a valuable lesson about focusing on inner happiness and my own definition of success rather than external validation and popularity.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion and what I am talking about here is not respectful dialogue and open communication aimed at resolving a conflict or misunderstanding. I am talking about mean and spiteful online slander aimed at harming an individual and/or their business. There is a difference and for years I ignored those trolls and refused to respond for two reasons: first, it seemed unprofessional and petty to respond. Second, I did not want to get drawn into the negative drama and chose instead, to protect myself and stay positive. To focus my energies on the people and things that I cared about in life and let the haters hate. It is far too easy in veterinary medicine to dwell on the negative. The negative outcomes, the negative clients, and the negative reviews. To let that one mean, unhappy client or coworker, ruin your day while forgetting about the 20 amazing people that put a smile on your face.

What I realized today, while reading this nasty online review, is that I can finally speak up. I no longer own a veterinary practice, I no longer have anything to lose and maybe it is time for all of us in this profession to end the silence, to stop turning the other cheek and to tell the bullies what we really think.

So to all of you out there who have posted unfair, biased and downright mean reviews about your vet. Rants aimed to hurt or damage their reputation with no desire to understand or resolve your issue. Wake up and take responsibility for your choices. You adopted that pet, you took on the financial responsibility for that animal and it isn’t your vet’s responsibility to subsidize the cost of medical care for you. It isn’t your veterinarian or their team’s fault when it is injured or ill.  As hard as we try, as skilled as we may be, we cannot save every patient, we cannot foresee every complication and while we are doing our best, at the end of the day we are only human. Stop making your vet feel guilty if they want to earn a fair salary for the 60+ hours a week they work and for heaven’s sake stop telling them they’re “only in it for the money”. Frankly, this phrase is getting pretty old for all of us. Show a little creativity and come up with something new already. Recognize if you choose a lower priced veterinarian who does not offer 24 hour emergency care, you made this choice. When your pet is ill on Christmas Day and your regular vet won’t answer their phone, is it fair to expect the other veterinarian to miss Christmas morning with their kids? Oh, and one more thing, if you are going to slander us or our team online at least have the balls to sign your real name. To Professor Dante, DW,  Mountain Mitch and all the others hiding behind your slick pseudonyms, you’re not fooling anyone. We know who you are and all you have succeeded in doing is losing our respect. If you have a problem with our service or care, just talk to us. Face to face. Like a grownup. 

Sorry if that sounds unprofessional folks but maybe it is time to stand up for ourselves and tell it like it is. When my son was in grade 5, he was the target of some schoolyard bullying. We talked about it and encouraged him to not react, to pretend it didn’t bother him, essentially to turn the other cheek. True to his nature, he listened, digested this information and then decided to handle it his way. This involved tossing the said bully across the room and ending up in the principles office. We were called into the school to discuss our son’s “anger management issues” and true to our non-confrontational nature, we listened and did not say what was on our minds, something I have always regretted.  Where are the other kids’ parents? Is it okay to constantly taunt someone with mental abuse until they snap? Thankfully his teacher gave our son the support we did not when several weeks later, he asked him how things were going. Our lad replied that things were much better for him after he threw the kid across the room.  The teacher just looked at him meaningfully and said: “Sometimes you just gotta do, what you gotta do”. 

Maybe it is time to stand up and do what we gotta do. What do you think?