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So Many Other Things: The Reality of Veterinary Practice Part 13 - Veterinarian, Heal Thyself

Posted in So Many Other Things... @ Jul 4th 2019 - By Michael Weinhardt, Michael Weinhardt Photography
So Many Other Things Part 13 Veterinarian Heal Thyself

Holding a mirror to the veterinary industry to show the realities you work with every day.

A photographic documentary that relates what working in a busy veterinary practice looks like - the highs, lows, challenges, day-to-day, unusual and extraordinary.

“If only vetting just consisted of treating sick animals. But it didn’t. There were so many other things.”

- James Herriot, If Only They Could Talk

Head Nurse Stephanie Robertson mixes IV fluids with a combination of Morphine, Lignocaine and Ketamine (aka "MLK"). It's for a dog needing invasive orthopaedic surgery later in the day. 16 March 2018

Part 13 - Veterinarian, Heal Thyself

Given the range of experience levels and years in the industry present at Brudine, from new graduates to lifers, a lot of wisdom around personal care was offered.

Dr Fiona Starr says what most staff seemed to think was essential: “the ability to compartmentalise or have coping mechanisms to deal with what we do day-in, day-out.”

Talking is one such mechanism that is actively encouraged at Brudine. Nurse Kelsey Savage stresses, “Talk to people. You’ve got all these amazing nurses by your side working with you every day that are going through the same thing, so talk. I go home and talk to Mum about stuff. Talk to people, don’t bottle it up because it won’t end well.”

Savage adds, “I’m glad I’ve learnt that early, to talk about my day and then I’m able to hit ‘Reset’ and go in the next day with it all off my shoulders.”

New graduates, Dr Grace Butler and Dr Jessica Winsall, make a night of it when Butler stays at Winsall’s house once a week. Winsall says, “It’s perfect. We just debrief.”

Staying with Winsall means Butler also avoids the 360-kilometre round-trip between the practice and rural New South Wales where she lives with her farmer partner. Though Butler utilises her four hours of driving to prepare, relax and debrief, talking with friends and colleagues.

Butler says, “If I have a bit of a shit afternoon where I’ve got hard cases or hard clients, you get in the car and you’ve got time to refresh on the way home. So, when I get home, I’m in a better mood and I’m not walking through the door greeting Hughy [partner] with, ‘My day was shit.’”

Dr Grace Butler (right) stays with Dr Jessica Winsall and her dog, Narla, once a week.; it saves Butler a 200km communte from her rural-NSW home, and it gives them both a chance to talk about work. To debrief. 21 February 2018

Work/Life balance is another way to stay in check. At Brudine, a few staff mentioned that having children helps to helps to maintain a healthy balance. Dr Louise Grey says, “I had a cat, Gretal, that I loved too much. Children put things into perspective.”

“Raising kids is definitely the most challenging thing I’ve done. It has changed the way I think about my job. To an extent, it was just a job before, it was a job I was passionate about, but I would like to think that if something happened and I could no longer work as a vet, then I’d still find meaning and value in the act of doing some other career.”

Dr Arianne Lowe seeks balance by working for several organisations, including at the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve’s veterinary centre. Once a week, Lowe provides typical veterinary clinical care but less typical care like diet management and population control. She says, “It’s real soul food for me. The work is very different, it’s at a different pace because you’re looking at larger scale. I find the contrast refreshing.”

If long days are overwhelming, there are ways to manage them too. As Lowe says, “When I was a new graduate twenty years ago, I got flogged. Absolutely flogged. I almost stopped being a vet. Then I discovered a way I could control my hours a bit better by locuming.”

Dr Gwen Shirlow’s mixture of locuming and permanent employment over a decade has given her plenty of positive experiences, but also, and probably unsurprisingly, sexism and bullying. Still, perseverance seems natural to Shirlow, as does an ability to step back and consider the larger perspective.

She says, “I have a better grasp these days that there are things that I can do. I will do them if I can but sometimes, even with all the best efforts in the world, things are beyond my control. And I think I have a better acceptance of that and a better understanding of where those lines are.”

Emotional attachment is another challenge for individuals. It’s inevitable and human, and many Brudine staff acknowledged that they do develop emotional relationships with some pets and their owners, particularly when they have known both for long periods of time. Imagining a caring profession without emotional interrelationships is difficult but, equally, staff cautioned against developing too many or deep emotional relationships with pets.

Dr Grace Butler (left) is consoled by Nurse Skye Longley after euthanising a dog whose owner was deeply upset and had little time to both process the upsetting news and agree to euthanasia. 6 July 2018

Veterinary Nurse and Groomer, Maree Watt, with over twenty-five years of experience as a vet nurse, describes how she manages the emotional aspects of the job: “People say to me, ‘You must really love animals.’ How do I explain it without them thinking I am harsh? It’s not that I don’t love animals, but I don’t love all animals.”

Head Nurse Stephanie Robertson adds, “I think that too much love of animals would be too hard, because if you do the job only because you love animals that makes it more difficult to deal with the death side of things. I think there’s got to be some sort of acceptance that as much as we want to save them all, we can’t. And that if you dwell on those things then you are going to ruin yourself.”

At Brundine, veterinary nurses like Kelsey Savage are involved in a wide range of the clinical aspects of service delivery. How much nurses can particiapte differs from practice to practice. 27 March 2018

Even if a career in the clinical realm of veterinary services becomes untenable, it’s not the end. It might be the start. There are plenty of other options beyond practice that can be undertaken, notably in research and government. They can give people different channels and different scales for expressing animal care. For example, government work can provide roles that allow veterinarians to participate in the development of animal welfare legislation at the national level.

It would be easy to say pick the right place to start work and pick the right job to start working in. Circumstances don’t always allow for new graduates to find the best options, and likewise for more experienced practitioners.

But it is critical to know that there are choices. If a practice isn’t right, a clear choice is to move. If practice isn’t right, a clear choice is to find another type of job in the animal care industry.

No matter what, know what the support options are, personally, organisationally and industrially. There are many.

Click here to visit the 'So Many Other Things..' Blog Category to read more in the series

About Michael - in his words...


I make long-form photographic essays that are faithful to my subjects and their stories.

I have spent a decade in the USA, Peru, Cuba, and Australia, covering stories about people whose lives I can't not be interested in.

Most recently, I completed a photographic documentary about the reality of veterinary practice, called SO MANY OTHER THINGS. It was shot over a year and released on September 24, 2018.

Previously, I spent from 2012 to 2015 documenting music and friendship in an Australian metal band, FRANKENBOK. 

Other stories I've photographed over the last 10 years can be found in my Archive.

Contact Michael via: Website -  So Many Other Things


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