In 2015 I was asked to contribute a short personal anecdote to a sweet little book compiled for Doctors of Veterinary Medicine graduating from vet school programs all over the country. It was driven by something called the VetTeamCoach project, a non-profit, which the president of the World Veterinary Association called, “An inspiring initiative where young members of the veterinary staff learn and receive advice from experienced colleagues that goes beyond the traditional veterinary curriculum.”
For some reason the story I wrote for it has been on my mind lately as I work with so many people– veterinarians and otherwise– who are struggling to maintain their own heart connection through the work they do. I also feel like I’m undergoing, finally, a complete healing from the twenty years I gave to the field of veterinary medicine. I left it eight years ago, never intending to look back. But now, I find myself peeking over my shoulder at bit, allowing myself to bask in the positive memories those twenty years gifted me, rather than hone in on all the stress.
My healing resolution came through a series of fortuitous events. First, I started working with two veterinarians as clients. I loved working with them immensely and I so looked forward to the conversations around veterinary medicine. It all felt really good, like home.
Second, all three of my cats decided to completely crash in the month of March. One developed diabetes. One needed knee surgery. And one required major oral surgery. For an entire month I was constantly in and out of the vet hospital, and I finally found a vet team I was over the moon for. It was total immersion therapy and I learned something incredibly valuable through it: This veterinary hospital also felt like home.
I then had a third epiphany. I was sorting through a big box of loose photos documenting the last few decades, searching for a baby picture of my niece. Through the sorting I found four photos of me working in vet med, the only photographic evidence that exists, as far as I know. Twenty years…four photos. But in each of them I noticed something that kind of stunned me. I look so happy. I mean pure love, can’t-hide-the-joy kind of happy. I absolutely loved my work, until I spiraled into severe burnout…
It all worked out as it was supposed to. I wouldn’t change a thing.
I don’t know where all of this is taking me, except that I strongly feel an integration of my past with my present, as if there is so much contentment in this current life the Light can’t help but leak into my past. I feel an illuminating truth, which is– I had a lot of really good times and learned so much through those twenty years. I don’t need the dramatized version of my years in vet med any longer, the story I told myself about how miserable I was. Because the truth is, I wasn’t.
I just had to burn out, because Life was asking me to take on a new role I was born for.
So now I feel like sharing my story that was published in “Vet Team Coach: Career reflections of veterinary teams”, because I feel its message is ultimately the heart of my work, which is really pretty simple: lose the armor, keep your heart.
I hope whether or not you resonate with the details of my life in veterinary medicine, you can translate the energy of my words to whatever it is you do in this one precious life of yours.
There were two questions I was asked to answer with this short piece. The first was, “What do you wish somebody would have told you at the start of your career?” And the second was, “If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?”
Thanks for reading, and I hope the behind-the-scenes honesty doesn’t upset my sensitive readers.
As a 20-year-old Registered Veterinary Technician, I was eager and excited to begin my career in veterinary medicine after having completed a two-year program in veterinary technology, while I also worked to earn my Bachelor’s in Psychology. I remember those early days. I was wide eyed and a little unsure of myself. The veteran technicians seemed so confident and capable; it was very clear I was to stay out of their way. I followed their lead with every detail. Even the new DVMs who began with us seemed a little afraid of these no-nonsense nurses who seemed to own the hospital.
I was one of those who entered the field because I loved the animals. Pure and simple. Every euthanasia made me cry, every smashed up hit-by-car made me sick with empathy. At first, I felt no need to hide my emotions. When I felt like crying, I cried. Just a silent tear or two, nothing distracting. My honest expression was unique enough back then that the veterinarians I worked with began to request me for every euthanasia. They liked it that I cried in the exam rooms; it was comforting to the clients to know that we truly cared.
As my career progressed and my confidence increased, I began searching for greater challenges, to specifically work through my fear. I took a job in a busy emergency hospital in urban Minneapolis, and I eventually relocated to New England, where I worked for board-certified surgeons and internists. As the challenges became greater, and the years went on, I learned to get a little “harder”. In the high-volume specialty hospitals, I learned to keep up, not cry. There was no time for emotions and if the senior technicians saw me wiping a tear, they’d label me “soft”. Bad things happened to soft technicians in teaching hospitals.
By now, as a 30-year-old woman, I was managing the surgery department in a referral hospital, training young technicians who still cried. One incredibly busy day, one dog with a broken femur sat in a kennel waiting for his pain meds and another item on my to-do list read, “euthanize Buddy”. The veterinarians were as busy as I was, everybody running to keep up with several simultaneous emergencies, but there sat those two dogs…just items on a technician’s to-do list. I froze when this realization hit me. How much pain must the Labrador be feeling, with a femur broken in two places? What about the ancient cock-a-poo waiting for his euthanasia, his family too distraught to stay and wait with him? What must he be feeling?
When this realization hit, it was like somebody punched me in the stomach. Who was I becoming?
Something clicked in me then. I realized I had lost my perspective, slowly, over the years. I gave in to the pressures of a school of thought which believes that to be efficient, to be sharp, you need to be callous. This school of thought believes there’s no time to “feel” and that there’s nothing worse than a soft technician. I took back my identity that day, and became a more authentic expression of myself. I worked another ten years in the field and never again did I allow a euthanasia to become just another item on my to-do list. Never again was I too proud to cry.
There is a place for our hearts, our feelings, our empathy in even the most challenging of environments. No matter how busy we get, each patient in front of us, each family entrusting us with their loved-one, deserves our entire presence, not just our analytical capacity. I wish someone would have reminded me of this from the very beginning. If I had to do it all over again, I would have declared my heart my guiding North Star, every day.
Shari Vaccaro says
This is beautiful, Kristy. The happy days working together in the early 90s are my favorite memories working in the field. What a time we had! ?
Kristy Sweetland says
I loved those days too, Shari! My work family carried me through some really dark times. I loved going to work everyday. And you are the greatest gift!
Really was beautiful, so happy you found your heart, and both your callings in life, as well as kept it in tact doing what I could not-care for every, single, one. Great job!
Kristy Sweetland says
Thank you, Jennifer! Are you in the vet field? ❤️ You’re so right to break it down into two paths, because that’s exactly how it’s felt up to now. As if I had one life, then another, and the two had no union. Suddenly I’m being asked to see it as one path, one calling…and that’s exciting & a little scary. Because my burnout was EPIC…! ?☺️ Thank you for being so kind, and for weighing in here. I’d love to hear more of your story.
Tom Glaser says
Kristy! Selfishly I’m so glad you burned out–otherwise our paths might never have crossed! Keep on following your heart. xoxo, Tom
Kristy Sweetland says
Me too, Tom! Me too! 🙂 xoxo