Learning to balance career with lifestyle


He has practiced veterinary medicine 38 years, much of that time as a surgeon, but should someone at a party ask him what he does for a living, Dr. Derrel Elkins, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, is about as likely to answer "sheep farmer" as "veterinarian."

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Ongoing process: Make a veterinary career more fulfilling by trying to learn something new every day, from every case, says one expert.

INDIANAPOLIS—He has practiced veterinary medicine 38 years, much of that time as a surgeon, but should someone at a party ask him what he does for a living, Dr.Derrell Elkins, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, is about as likely to answer “sheep farmer” as “veterinarian.”

That’s not only because sheep farming “is probably what I’m most proud of,” but also because Elkins practices what he preaches — that one’s career choice should not define the person, and that it’s possible for a veterinarian to have a robust and fulfilling life beyond the daily grind at the clinic or hospital.

He’d like veterinary students to know that, before they get started down their chosen career path.

As if to prove the point, Elkins,who divides his time between two veterinary surgery clinics — Veterinary Specialty Center LLC in Indianapolis and another practice nearby Murray, Ky. — also can lay claim to being a lecturer/ consultant, author and assistant bed-and-breakfast operator. The weekend B&B is his wife Jan’s business, at their home in Benton, Ky. They also have a home in Indianapolis and spend about half their time at each.

DVM Newsmagazine asked Elkins to offer veterinary students 10 tips for how to enjoy life beyond the confines of work.

Here’s his list. He adds that the points aren’t numbered in order of importance, but have equal value:

#1: Set boundaries for yourself.

“In years past, 60-hour and 70-hour weeks seemed like the norm for many of us, but that’s not realistic anymore,” Elkins says. “Decide in advance how much time you’re willing to devote to practice — whether it’s 35 or 40 hours a week, four days a week,maybe you want weekends off,have a flex-time plan,whatever it may be — and stick to it.Your career is a marathon, so don’t start running a sprint early on or you’ll burn out.”

#2: Learn to say ‘No.’

“While it may be harder for young people who are just getting started and trying to build a certain image to step up and say, ‘No, I can’t do this today,’ they must make ‘No’ a part of their vocabulary from the start and not feel guilty about it. They must know where the limits are in their personal and professional lives. Otherwise they can’t set boundaries, and some may take advantage of them.”

#3: Set aside time each day for yourself.

“As caregivers,we give much of ourselves to others, so we need time to replenish. Give yourself an hour or so each day for a physical and/or mental break. Take a walk. Close your door and listen to music or read a book. It’s necessary to decompress and unwind between your office and home life.”

#4: Realize each day that you make the choice to be happy.

“No one can make us feel sad or depressed. We must take ownership of what happens to us, whether it’s a good day, bad day or so-called normal day and deal with it,” Elkins says. “It’s possible to turn a normal day into an extraordinary one just by the way we respond to things, including adversity.”

#5: Money does not equate with happiness.

“Most of us don’t enter this profession for the money. Today (student) debt load is a big factor, so we may have to accept the fact that we probably won’t get rich. But even lottery winners often aren’t happy one year later. Our happiness lies in focusing on the reasons we became veterinarians.”

#6: Never stop learning.

“Today there’s such a rapid turnover of information that your education can almost become antiquated in a year. Learn something new every day, from every case. Regularly read professional journals and articles, take continuing-education courses, anything you can to stay mentally alert. Otherwise you may find the world is passing you by.”

#7: Select an area of interest and expand your knowledge, allowing you to accept referrals.

“Not everyone can be a specialist, but if you choose one particular area of interest to you and spend only an hour each day on that subject for a year, concentrating on it, reading and taking some CE courses, you can become a quasi-expert. Then, even inside a large practice, you’ll be the go-to person and can tell people, ‘I’m not a specialist, but I’ve handled a lot of cases like this, and I have the equipment.’You’ve then built yourself a nice professional niche.”

#8: Realize that being a veterinarian is what you do for a living.

That’s it. “Keep telling yourself that this is simply your means of livelihood, that you’re a person with interests and roles outside the profession — whether it be parent, teacher, hobbyist, sportsman, whatever — and you’ll be that same person long afterward. Those who let the profession define who they are often have a hard time adjusting to life after retirement.”

#9: Daily physical exercise is paramount to stress relief.

“It’s often been shown that exercise is one of the best outlets for stress.We’re of less benefit to our family and colleagues if we neglect it.Make some form of daily exercise — whether the competitive kind like playing tennis, or solo activity like jogging or swimming — part of your daily regimen.”

#10: Keep your sense of humor.

“I mention this last, but it’s probably one of the most important,” Elkins says. “Be serious about things, but also try to step back from every situation and keep it light. Enjoy people. Look for the humor, learn to laugh at yourself, your mistakes. That kind of spirit will spread throughout the whole office team, and a happier team is a more efficient one.”

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