I love my job. I love my job a LOT. So when I tell people that there was a point in my career when I thought I no longer wanted to be a veterinarian, it comes as a surprise. I am fortunate enough to have found my way back from a deep and dark place. But not everyone is – the suicide rate in the veterinary profession is alarmingly high, higher than any other medical profession. In light of this, I want to share my story in hopes that it will encourage others to seek help and to make decisions rooted in self love. I hope that it will allow those who are struggling to see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
When I graduated from veterinary school, I came charging out of the gates eager to put the last 8 years of school into practice. My first year out of school was everything I dreamed it would be. Of course the hours were long, and at times it was mentally and emotionally taxing, but I would do it again in a heartbeat. Many interns are essentially used as slave labor and don’t receive a real education or enough mentorship, but that was never the case for me. My struggle with mental health didn’t really start to manifest until after my first year out of school.
When I first started my internship, I thought I wanted to pursue a residency in ophthalmology. I interviewed for several positions, but midway through the residency application process I had a change of heart. My critical care rotation changed everything. It just felt natural to me. I love everything about it – the wide variety of cases, the challenge of the diagnostic workup, making a long problem list with differential diagnoses and figuring out a treatment plan, re-evaluating those plans depending on the patient’s response to treatment, and more than anything, I loved helping the most critical pets and providing comfort to their owners. Even when the end result is euthanasia or the patient passing away on their own, you still get to be the person who alleviates suffering for animals, and the person who provides comfort to the animal’s family when they need it the most. The feeling of being a hero is pretty hard to beat.
So at the very last minute, I made the decision to apply for critical care residencies. I was able to visit a few hospitals, but not a lot. I only ended up ranking 3 hospitals. When match day came around, I was shocked to find out that I didn’t match. One of the hospitals I had applied to in Los Angeles had ranked me first and yet somehow the computer system didn’t match me to them. They offered to create a second residency position. In retrospect, if I had made the best decision for my career, I should have taken that residency. However, at the time I was in a relationship with someone who was planning to move to DC. So I took a position in New York City, which was the closest I could get to him.
I never visited the hospital before I took this position. I never spoke to any of their previous residents. It was a decision made in haste and panic, a decision that I made after working an overnight shift and not really in a clear mind, and a decision driven by wanting to follow the man I was in love with instead of going to the hospital that I had visited, absolutely loved, and knew would be a better fit.
I moved out to NYC excited to start my path toward becoming a criticalist. The first few weeks were exciting – the caseload was high, the mentors were brilliant and really encouraged me to think critically, and I loved the other residents, interns, staff doctors and technicians. But day by day, little by little, I found myself losing enthusiasm. And then it turned from just a loss of enthusiasm to a rapid downward spiral into a deep depression and a life dominated by burnout and compassion fatigue.
People have asked me what exactly it was about this program and this hospital that caused me to feel this way. And it’s tough to pinpoint one thing in particular. It wasn’t the people – I worked with a great team and had excellent teachers. But we were on-call pretty much 24/7. Any time there was a change in our patients’ parameters, such as blood pressure or heart rate, we would be called in the middle of the night. At most hospitals, there is a doctor physically in the hospital taking care of these patients and making the call about how to handle these changes.
However, our mentors did not want the overnight ER doctors to be managing our cases. So I would regularly get calls every 1-2 hours from the ICU nurses throughout the night. And because I lived in an apartment with a funky layout, I had no signal in my tiny, windowless bedroom on the mezzanine floor. So I would have to get out of bed, walk down the spiral stairs and call the nurses back. I very rarely slept through the night, and because of this I stopped running in the mornings as much as I used to. Lack of sleep and lack of exercise set the stage for being in a bad mood, and I never had enough time off to really let my body recover.
Being tired and overworked is manageable to some extent if you still feel fulfilled in your job and appreciated for what you do. But I didn’t feel like that at all. I felt like the freaking angel of death. It felt like we had more losses than wins. I think a lot of this might be because people in Manhattan have a lot of money, so they would continue treating conditions that had a terrible prognosis despite me trying to tell them that I thought their animal was suffering and would likely pass away. Then inevitably they would die, and the owners would take out their anger on me.
I would internalize every negative emotion, take their hateful words personally, and felt like everything was my fault. I would replay every tragic moment from the day – watching patients code, starting CPR, hearing owners scream as they found out that their best friend died. It felt like all I did was watch animals die or put them to sleep. I didn’t know it at the time, but each traumatic event compounded on top of the next, and ultimately set me up for symptoms of PTSD (more on the topic of PTSD in the medical field in future blog post).
Again, it’s really difficult for me to pinpoint an exact reason as to why this program felt so unsustainable. Before I started, there were 2 previous residents who had left this program prior to finishing it. To date, there have been 5 people who have left midway through the program, and only about 9 have started the program. So I’m clearly not the only one who found it difficult to keep going. I wish I had a better way to describe it, a more concrete and tangible explanation, but I don’t. All I know is that I started to resent my job instead of enjoy it. And then it turned into something way scarier.
I began drinking just to be able to fall asleep. I would spend my nights binge eating two or three thousand calories in one sitting and mindlessly watching TV until I finally dozed into a coma, only to be woken up a few hours later with calls from the ICU. I stopped taking care of myself. And then came the thoughts that shook me to my core. Whenever I took the subway, I’d think “what if I just stepped in front of it? What if I just fell onto the tracks?” And when I walked the streets to get to work, I thought “what if I just stepped out into traffic and got hit by a car?” At the end of an 18 hour shift one day, while pulling up euthanasia solution, I remember thinking “wow, it would be really easy to just take this whole bottle home with me. I’m sure I could hit my own vein.”
These thoughts scared the shit out of me. I have always had my demons, always struggled with learning to love myself and certainly had other periods in my life where I experienced depression. But this was far more extreme than anything I had ever been through before. I didn’t actually want to end my life – I just wanted to cease to exist for a little while. I thought it would be nicer to get hit by a cab and lay in a hospital bed on a fentanyl CRI for a week than have to go back to work.
The only thing that saved me from harming myself more than I did was my dog. I took Maddie with me everywhere – she went to work with me every day,;we did groceries and laundry together; I would take her out while I got coffee or breakfast on my days off. Obviously if I jumped into traffic, that would mean putting her in a dangerous situation too. She is my true spirit animal and I would never do anything to harm her, nor would I ever want to disappear from her life and leave her without her mom. I am grateful for my little dingo every day, and in many ways she saved my sanity and my life.
I also am fortunate that I have always had an incredible support system. Even though my relationship at the time didn’t work out, my ex was an unbelievable source of comfort, in addition to my parents and friends. I would regularly find myself on the phone with them during the 30 minute walk home from the hospital, venting and crying about the day. I’m sure these conversations got old, but none of them ever stopped listening. I know that I have a lot of people who love me, and I could never bear to see them suffer. So even though I had suicidal thoughts, I knew that I would could never actually go through with this act because I could never put my loved ones through that.
As the days passed by, I knew that I couldn’t keep living like this. I realized that becoming a criticalist wasn’t really necessary for what I actually wanted to do with my career, and it certainly wasn’t worth this level of misery for another 3 years. I had plenty of experience to be a successful emergency doctor at that point, so that was what I sought out to do. I applied for jobs back home in Denver, got offered both jobs, and made the decision to leave the program in New York after less than 6 months.
This was not a decision that I made lightly. I hated myself for not being able to finish the program. I knew I was letting down my mentors, both at my current hospital and those from my internship and veterinary school. I was so ashamed of myself that I couldn’t even tell them the truth about why I was leaving. And it made me feel even more ashamed that I lied – I told them that I needed to be close to family due to a family member’s illness. Which was not entirely untrue; my grandfather had been diagnosed with leukemia and lymphoma around this time and I definitely wanted to be close to my family as he underwent treatment.
But there is a serious problem with the fact that I felt that I couldn’t share my mental illness. Maybe if I had told them exactly what I was going through, they would have given me a break to get treatment and allowed me to resume the program. But I knew that wouldn’t be enough anyway, and dealing with depression felt so heavily stigmatized that I thought I would be judged for my weakness. If someone had just recognized this, if my mentors had just seen how profoundly depressed I was and asked how I could be helped, maybe things would’ve been different. But I certainly don’t blame anyone for not recognizing my misery – I am a master of disguise. I have the ability to put on a smile, crack jokes, and uplift others, no matter how much I am drowning on the inside.
So instead of coming out about my declining mental health, I let everyone think that I was moving home solely for a family illness. I broke my contract. My mom flew out to the city, helped me pack up, and we drove back to Colorado with Maddie in two days. We got back home just before Christmas.
Several weeks later, I experienced the most devastating loss of my life. My childhood horse of nearly 16 years, Kramer, was put to sleep due to metastatic carcinoma. As impossible as it felt to let go of him, it was also a beautiful experience. He was surrounded by everyone who loved him – my family, my trainer, and the lovely women who leased him over the years. We fed him Pop Tarts and laid him to rest under a beautiful January night sky.
If I hadn’t listened to myself, if I hadn’t stood up for my own mental health and gotten out of New York, I wouldn’t have been there for his death. I am positive that my previous job wouldn’t have let me fly back home and miss days from work for my horse. And I never would’ve been able to live with myself if I hadn’t been there for Kramer at the very end. I have never felt so connected to my higher power – it was clear that I had been guided home exactly when I was supposed to be. It felt like Kramer waited for me, like he knew it was his time and he knew I was on my way home.
I cannot stress the importance of learning to pause and listen. Listen to God. Or the universe. Or your astrological reading. Or just your plain gut. And if you’re still uncertain about making a big decision, like a decision as big as leaving a job, then listen to your loved ones. Talk it through. Tell them how you feel. No matter how alone you might feel in your emotions, no matter how ashamed you might be, I guarantee that someone else has felt the same way – including myself. And even if I don’t feel exactly what you are feeling, I will listen. If you are struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, no matter your career path or your circumstances, please know that you’re not alone. We are all in this together. I am here for you. You can find your way through.