Life of a veterinarian: Superhero moments and panic attacks


A fear of failure, a lack of support and their brand beat up on TV and social mediaveterinarians deserve better, says Dr. Alane Cahalane during Fetch dvm360.

Alane Cahalane, DVM, MA, DACVS, delivering the keynote address, sponsored by Boehringer Ingelheim, at Fetch dvm360 conference in Baltimore. (Photo: Adrienne Wagner)After helping another veterinarian in Hong Kong train to become a boarded surgeon, performing lifesaving surgery on a rescued moon bear and co-founding the first veterinary specialty hospital in the area, Alane Cahalane, BSc, DVM, MA, DACVS, found herself invited to take part in an International Women's Day luncheon in Hong Kong.

“So, in this picture,” Dr. Cahalane told Fetch dvm360 conference attendees in Baltimore last week, showing a photograph featuring a dozen or so movers and shakers, “are lawyers and CEO whisperers, consultants and fashion designers. For weeks I prepared my outfit and planned how I was going to network with people. I thought, ‘This is it. I'm ready to become a career woman in Hong Kong. I'm an intelligent woman. I'm in business.'”

Finally, at the event, how did her conversations go? “‘Awww, you're a vet! How cute! I have a gerbil. Sometimes it's itchy.'”

Dr. Cahalane, whose keynote address was sponsored by Boehringer Ingelheim, said the reponse made her feel unimportant, like it “trivialized veterinarians' contribution to the world.” When someone makes this kind of comment, they're just trying to make conversation, she supposes, but it can feel like a patronizing pat on the head to perfectionistic, highy driven, multispecies-medical-expert veterinarians.

The heart of the problem, though, is not the world's perception of veterinarians-it's their own inferiority complex, Dr. Cahalane says. And it's time to stop. To make that happen, she shared three suggestions for ways veterinary professionals can change their perspective, appreciate their teams (or find better ones) and press the industry to help.

Step 1. Don't live in fear

When Dr. Cahalane got the call from Animals Asia that one of its injured moon bears needed a complex surgery to repair its humerus, she jumped at the chance to fly out to the facility to address Claudia's orthopedic issues.

“For me to be anywhere near a threatened species was really exciting,” she says. But as she was driving to the airport, her heart began to race and she started sweating profusely. She pulled over and called a friend in a panic, afraid she was dying. Her friend was calm: “'Alane, you're having an anxiety attack.”

“This was the most important thing I'd ever done,” Dr. Cahalane says-and she was spectacularly afraid of failing. The experience reminded her then, and reminds her now, of all the times she's been motivated not by a desire to do the best she can, but by an intense fear she'll do something wrong and hurt an animal and upset clients.

'I thought, "I'm screwed. I'm so screwed.'"

It's an unhealthy motivation, she says. She recalls another high-stakes case involving a dog owned by a local Hong Kong celebrity. Unfortunately, the patient died suddenly and unexpectedly.

“I thought, ‘I'm screwed. I'm so screwed,'” she said. She'd made a difficult judgment call, and the outcome had not been good. The thought of the media firestorm that could erupt was terrifying.

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“I was a little kid who wanted to save animals,” Dr. Cahalane said. “When I don't save one, I'm sad. But this time I wasn't just sad-I was terrified. Here's a famous person whose dog just died on my watch. He could go on the media that morning. We're terrified of that stuff.”

These kinds of experiences crush the souls of veterinarians, she said. It's not perfectionism doing the crushing-it's fear. “Am I the superhero surgeon going off to fix moon bears,” asked Dr. Cahalane, “or a head case having anxiety attacks and living in fear of being destroyed by a famous person?”

She's both. Most veterinarians are both, she says. But they can't let those superhero moments be overtaken, overwhelmed and drowned out by fear.

“We have to focus on our superhero moments,” she says. “We need to focus on them as a profession.”


Step 2. Don't go it alone

Do you have trouble getting past your fear and experiencing joy in practice because of it? It will take personal growth work to address those issues, but also the psychological safety of friends and family who understand what you do. Colleagues in and outside the clinic can also support you when medicine goes right and, more often than we would like, goes wrong.

An NFL fan, Dr. Cahalane showed a few seconds of footage of a playoff game in which a receiver missed a pass, leading to a game-ending interception by the opposing team. As the other team celebrated, the receiver lay on the ground facedown for a solid minute.

'They're telling him, ‘Man, that's OK. It happens.' When you drop that pedicle or the dog dies, who says that to you?'

“He's paid a lot of money to make that catch,” she said as she paused the footage. “But you can't make every catch … you just can't. Each of us has been that guy, lying on the field saying, ‘I can't believe that just happened.' Self-doubt, fear, all of those things rise up in your gut.”

Dr. Cahalane continued the clip, which next showed the head coach and the quarterback consoling the abject player who'd missed the pass. “They're telling him, ‘Man, that's OK. It happens.' When you drop that pedicle or the dog dies, who says that to you? Your spouse. Yourself. Your nurses. Who says that to us as a profession? We're not perfect. This is medicine.”

Step 3. It's time the world knows

So you get it. Your boyfriend gets it, your wife gets it, your mom and dad get it, your support staff and colleagues get it. It's time for the rest of the world to get it too-to understand what veterinarians do, how amazing they and their teams are, and why veterinary medicine is so hard and so incredible.

“Our pet owners need veterinary care, but we don't have a brand or PR around our profession about how we're great and we're a comfort,” Dr. Cahalane said. “What if we did?”

The Starbucks logo instantly conveys warmth and comfort-even joy-to millions of coffee drinkers around the world, Dr. Cahalane continued. It's time for the veterinary profession to generate a similar brand awareness that conveys the warmth, joy and comfort of animal health to the world of pet owners.

'We need a brand overhaul.'

Dr. Cahalane asked for a show of hands of those who worked for veterinary corporations. A number of hands went up throughout the room. “You guys go to work every day and you do your thing, but the organization doesn't know how you feel unless you tell them,” she said.

It's time to lobby the companies and associations spending money in the market to talk to pet owners that you're not satisfied with how you're portrayed.

“We need a brand overhaul, and it has to start somewhere,” she says. “We have to tell our story on social media, our everyday story on the important impact we're making on this world.”

You. Can. Do. This!

At Fetch dvm360 conference, we're the support system you need. With every conference this year, we intend to nurture your mind (meaning quality CE for days) while also encouraging you to take stock of your physical and emotional health. Register now.

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