Death is Part of the Job for Veterinarians, But It’s Not The Job
When someone I’ve met for the first time discovers I’m a veterinarian, reactions vary from detached amusement to wild-eyed enthusiasm. The latter is far more common as there appears to be unexplainable mystique and awe surrounding veterinary medicine as a career choice.
About one in five people I meet will exclaim, upon hearing what I do for a living, “I wanted to be a vet myself!” while simultaneously flashing the broadest, most pride-filled, fervent smile possible. It’s easy to share in their instant passion for my work, and I’ll often respond with a resounding, “That’s amazing!” or “What a coincidence!”
However, our connection is typically sustained for only a few fleeting seconds. Almost as rapidly as the explosion of cheer erupts from their mouth, a peculiar gravity overtakes their expression, and a cloud envelops our joy, masking it with sadness.
Invariably, my new VTBBFF (veterinarian-to-be-best-friend-forever) will solemnly whisper something along the lines of, “But I could never deal with putting animals to sleep.”
I’m never certain how to proceed from that moment. If their concern for becoming a veterinarian had to do with the expectations associated with the many rigorous years of study, or passing board exams, or even anxiety at the sight of blood or an animal in pain, I would feel better equipped to respond. When the principal association of my chosen career path is causing the death of my patients, I’m at a loss.
Euthanasia is an integral part of my job. Though certainly not a top activity to participate in, I respect the tremendous privilege associated with my ability to relieve suffering and allow animals to die with dignity. The word euthanasia translates to “good death,” and this is the most fitting description of the service I provide.
But euthanasia represents only a small fraction of the many complex aspects of veterinary medicine. And it’s certainly not the primary attraction of the profession for those of us who choose this path. Our training, motivation, and desire lie in curing disease and healing sick pets. We are scientists who look to use our intelligence and compassion to help animals feel better. Death is a part of our position, but it is not something that sustains our motivation.
Mentioning euthanasia as a reason to never pursue a career as a vet is akin to deciding against becoming a singer because of a fear of being rejected by a record producer. Or not wanting to pursue teaching because you’re afraid of the challenging students you might face. It’s focusing on the damage rather than celebrating the positive.
There are burdensome aspects to every profession, but they should not outweigh the remarkable potential of the more rewarding qualities of the job. Singers, teachers, and veterinarians toil diligently at their respective crafts because they truly believe in their endeavors. The negative aspects are neither pervading nor permanent, and in the right environment can be capitalized to increase satisfaction and to strive to be better at what you do.
I understand some individuals view the inability to euthanize animals as a deal breaker for choosing veterinary medicine as a career path. I wholeheartedly agree, if your primary association of veterinary medicine were with euthanasia, you would be unable to sustain yourself in this emotionally complicated profession.
But if the association is centered on euthanasia, and this occurs at the expense of considering the many other wonderful and rewarding aspects of the profession, I would urge you to consider spending some time working in a clinic alongside the doctors entrusted with this precious gift.
Allow yourself the chance to better understand the breadth of responsibilities veterinarians hold. Even better, allow yourself the opportunity to explore your own capability to endure something you’re convinced would prevent you from pursuing your ideal career path.
And if your principal association to hearing me say I’m a veterinarian is immediately thinking about how difficult it is to put an animal to sleep, please take a second to pause and consider the impact those sentiments could have on someone who is dedicated to preserving the health and wellness of their patients.
Their death isn’t my primary focus.
And I don’t want it to be yours either.