Being a vet has likely been one of my most rewarding lifetime achievements. Fixing problems, making animals healthy again, igniting the human animal bond, are a few of my favourite things to do. Conversely, when things don’t go as planned, I find myself in an area of despair – I question if I should be doing this, if the problem occurred because of neglect. This is why the condition of compassion fatigue is becoming more and more common in the area of human psychology As a young person, I thought this was an exaggeration, as a middle aged person, I find that I am more understanding of how this can happen.
With the advent of specialists in the field of veterinary medicine, more and more young vets don’t have the courage to “do” certain cases. If it is a neurological problem, then you refer to a neurologist, if it is cancer, you refer to an oncologist, if it is an eye problem, an ophthalmologist. The list goes on and on. There is nothing wrong with this, however we are heading towards the same situation faced by our human counterparts- not enough specialists. Add this on to the added costs of a specialist, it is forcing clients to make difficult decisions- if they don’t have the money to do the procedure, then the animal is simply euthanized. As a result we are making it that only the rich can afford specialized animal care, unless they took insurance.
When I first graduated, specialists were hard to find. As a result many of my generation would develop an interest in areas now reserved for specialists. You would take extra courses in ophthalmology to learn about eyes, or extra courses on how to do ultrasounds. My area of interest was always surgery- orthopaedics especially. I took many courses on pinning, plating, doing ACL surgeries, and hip surgeries. As I matured as a vet, I realized my limitations- I did not do enough plates for fracture repair to become an expert, but I became comfortable with basic fracture repair and other routine limb surgeries.
Fast forward 30 years, even though owners are explained as to our limitations, when things go wrong, which with animals they are apt to, we find ourselves apologizing for complications and owners feeling we were neglectful. It doesn’t matter that 49 of the 50 procedures did well – you remember that one procedure that did not.
I have always prided myself on being honest to clients, and attempt to fix the problem without too many recriminations. Usually I succeed. It has never been my intent to worsen a problem that I tried to fix. In the same way an animal undergoes surgery, and dies during the anaesthetic procedure – there is no going back. You have to live with this. You replay the procedure over and over in your mind, trying to learn from it, and to prevent it from happening again. Similarly, when what you assume is a routine orthopedic leg procedure goes awry, you try to fix it. Unfortunately it doesn’t always work, and the animals leg is ruined. I have seen things go terribly wrong with the specialists as well- fractures that don’t heal, ACL’s that result in complications. The difference is, they are the specialist. There is no one better. When it goes wrong under the generalists knife- this is a whole different story.
Which then brings us back to why more and more vets who are not specialized refuse to do anything out of the ordinary. Which then means more cost for owners, and often an increase in euthanasia or animals living in pain.
So having recently gone through a situation which resulted in huge emotional upset, pain and cost to both myself, the owner and the pet, I have to re-evaluate my future in doing “specialized” procedures. Let’s face it- if we mess up a skin case, the animal is just itchy, red or uncomfortable. If there is a complication with a leg procedure- the animal loses a limb, or no longer walks. I have to decide if I can live with this despite the fact the majority fly through without any complications….. I have to find happiness…