When Caring Too Much Makes the Caregiver Sick
There is a quote from a prominent veterinary oncology text taped above the computer monitor in my office stating: "True oncological emergencies are rare. Emergencies of emotion, however, are quite common."
I realize this expression may not resonate well with an owner of a pet with cancer and could even be misconstrued in an offensive manner. Yet, I personally do not see vindictiveness in the words, and I certainly do not display them with any malicious intent. For me, they serve as a reminder of how important it is to "Keep calm and carry on," as they say.
Truth is, I find it far too easy to become caught up with the circulating emotions of my day and allow them to influence my life at, and outside of, work, and to lose sight of how my chosen profession represents only one aspect of the person I am. Those two sentences help ground me when I otherwise feel helpless to the turmoil of the day.
Compassion fatigue is defined as a deep physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion accompanied by acute emotional pain. It can also be described as an extreme state of tension experienced by individuals who help people in distress, including preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it is traumatizing for the helper.
Typically, compassion fatigue is thought of as a condition pertaining to people working in the human medical field, but is now becoming more recognized in veterinary medicine. I often wonder, how can one discern when the line is crossed between caring enough and caring too much?
Veterinary medicine, as a whole, is a profession not built on gratitude. Veterinarians do not garner the same respect and admiration as our human MD counterparts, yet our degree requires similar undergraduate and graduate school degrees. Veterinary specialists complete internships and residency programs of similar caliber to human doctors while competing for far fewer positions in each category overall, and once completing those programs, compete for far fewer jobs.
I also find that some owners are quick to find fault with veterinarians for a misdiagnosis or for what they perceive as a poor recommendation or communication, or, worse yet, claim vets are more interested in generating revenue than maintaining the best interests of their pet. Although there are probably some truly dishonorable veterinarians out there practicing medicine, having worked in several hospitals over the past few years, I can’t say I’ve met one myself.
Veterinary oncology is not a glamorous specialty by any means. In fact, on the worst of days, it can be downright draining. Obviously the good far outweighs the bad, or else none of us could continue on this path for our livelihood. But there are many times when an owner’s feelings trump rational thinking, and in an instant, I am forced to step out of my role as medical advisor and transform into a psychologist or grief counselor.
From experience, I can say this is not something taught from a book or a lecture in vet school; it’s learned experience combined with basic emotional capabilities as well as a little bit of luck at times. We may be able to give ourselves to our owners and our patients, but I have to question, to what expense are we doing so?
Dr. Joanne Intile
Today's column wasoriginally published in December 2012.
Image: Tony Alter / Flickr