Burnout: Part 1
I think I’ve mentioned before how much I loved reading the James Herriot books as a child (OK, I admit it, I’ve picked them up a few times as an adult, too). I’m no James Alfred Wight (the author and veterinarian’s real name), but over the next few days I’d like to share a fictional story I’ve written that combines two important aspects of my life — being a veterinarian and a love for horses.
I couldn’t have been asleep for more than an hour when the phone rang — again.
The conversation ended quickly. "Ok, I’ll meet you at the clinic as soon as I can," I said.
"You have got to be kidding," I thought as I rolled out of bed, displacing a small dog who raised an eyelid but was back to sleep before my feet had touched the carpet. I yanked on a wrinkled t-shirt and a pair of jeans, splashed some water on my face, and pulled my hair back into a ponytail. That was as good as it was going to get at 4 o’clock in the morning. Grabbing my keys and wallet from the nightstand, I hurried to the truck. Its engine was still warm.
The twenty-minute drive passed quickly as I planned my approach to this new case. I pulled into the parking lot, my headlights illuminating a figure who was carrying a bundled blanket and peering through the darkened windows of the reception area.
"Morning," I said, stepping out of the truck. "Just let me get the door unlocked."
I asked a few questions as we made our way into the clinic. "When did you first notice that your cat was having trouble breathing?"
"Oh, a couple of days ago, I suppose," the man replied.
I stopped in the dimly lit hall and stared at him. I took a deep breath and reached for the cat. "Can I have him, please?" I asked.
I walked towards the treatment table with my patient cradled in my arms and could feel how hard he was working to breathe. Harsh wheezes were audible with every breath, even without a stethoscope. I finished a quick physical exam, took him over to a cage with a glass front and gently placed him on a towel inside. After hooking up the lines and confirming that oxygen was flowing rapidly into the cage, I turned to the cat’s owner.
"It looks like Rupert may have developed asthma. I can’t be sure until I take some X-rays and run some other tests, but I need to keep him in the oxygen cage for awhile before it is safe to stress him with all that."
I continued to explain my plan for the morning and was a little surprised when the cat’s owner readily agreed.
The sky was brightening as I left the clinic. I had promised to check on my first emergency of the night, a colicky horse, before morning appointments and just had time to get home, feed the dogs and cats, and grab a cup of coffee before heading back out.
I drove up to the barn to see Joanne, the filly’s owner, leaving a stall with a smile on her face.
"Piper’s doing well?" I called.
"Yup, other than looking a little tired, she seems fine. I just gave her a half flake of hay and she dove right in. Lots of poop in the stall, too."
I grabbed my stethoscope and listened to the filly’s abdomen: loud rumblings in all four quadrants. Patting her on the neck I said, "She sounds really good, just keep an eye on her and call me if anything looks funny to you."
"You know I will Karen. Umm, I hate to bring it up, but you look awful. Did you get any sleep last night?" Joanne was a good friend as well as a client, so I wasn’t too surprised at her frank assessment.
"Only a couple of hours. I had two more emergencies after I left your place," I said.
"Ouch." Joanne frowned. "That’s been happening a lot lately, hasn’t it?"
"Yeah, and I hate to say it, but it’s really starting to get to me. I’m beginning to dread having to face anything more rigorous than pulling a Coggins or giving vaccines."
"Sounds like a classic case of burnout. You need to take more time away from work, you know," Joanne commented as I climbed back into the truck.
"I hope you’re not charging me for this session," I replied and pulled away.
With the help of regular doses of caffeine, I made it through the rest of day and was starting to think that I might get home on time when the clinic’s receptionist called over the intercom, “Dr. Karen, Joanne Haire is on line two and says she needs to talk to you.”
"Oh no," I groaned, picking up the phone. "What’s wrong Joanne?"
"I think you need to come back out here after you’re done at the clinic."
"Is it Piper? Is she starting to colic again?" I asked.
"No," she replied. "I’d rather not go into it on the phone. Just get out here when you’ve got a moment, OK?"
"Cut the crap, Joanne, what’s going on?" I said.
She laughed. "Gee, I hope you don’t talk to all your clients like that," and hung up.
For the third time in less than 24 hours, I parked in front of Joanne’s barn and saw her leading a big chestnut gelding towards me.
"All right, I’m here," I complained. "What seems to be the problem?"
"He’s the problem." Joanne gestured to the horse standing placidly at the end of his lead rope. "This is Togwotee. He’s a Thoroughbred, one of my brother’s claimers that he’ll sometimes hand off to me after retirement. I really didn’t know what to do with him until our conversation this morning. I spoke to my brother, and as soon as the paperwork goes through he’s yours.”
Scowling I asked, "Are you out of your mind? I don’t need a horse."
"Settle down," said Joanne, handing me the lead rope. "He can stay here. I’ll keep feeding and cleaning up after him. You just come out and have some fun. I have a feeling that the two of you could be good for each other."
"You really are crazy," I snapped, flinging the lead rope back at her and heading for my truck. "What am I supposed to do with some washed-up old claimer?" Togwotee pinned his ears.
Joanne yelled "He’ll be waiting for you" as I sped down the driveway.
Dr. Jennifer Coates