Mommy needs to save lives

December 13, 2018
Erin E. Rand, contributing writer

Missing family milestones because of work can be heartbreaking for kids and parents. How can veterinary professionals help their families understand their jobs?

That's how Andy Rollo, DVM, describes his life balancing veterinary medicine with being a parent to young children.

Parents in all areas of veterinary practice can strain themselves with long hours of often incredibly stressful work, then return home and feel the pressure to be “on” as a mom or dad. We spoke to veterinary professionals with kids to find out how they maintain this delicate equilibrium of taking care of animals while also taking care of children.

Naomi Strollo, RVT, has worked as a vet tech for her daughter's entire life. When she asked her 16-year-old about what it was like growing up with a mom who had long work hours and a hectic schedule, she replied, “No child wants their parent to work all the time. I remember you picking me up from grandma and grandpa's house in the middle of the night and taking me home, then waking me up for school a few hours later.” Still, despite this, she said, “I knew you were off saving someone's pet or doing surgery or something serious. It's not like you stayed at work any longer than you had to.”

Helping your child understand exactly what you do can be key to maintaining harmony at home-this is the approach Katie Adams, CVPM, took when her job required her to work late nights and weekends. “We are an animal-loving family so it was easy for them to imagine one of our own animals who might not be well and who might require someone's mom or dad to take care of them,” she says. “It wasn't always easy, especially when a weekend or special event like a birthday was interrupted by a ring of the cell phone or a scheduled kennel shift, but at least my kids knew I was leaving to take care of an animal that needed me.”

As a single mother to 6-year-old twins, Kristen Cooley, BA, CVT, VTS (anesthesia), limits the number of hours she works, but still ends up coming in on weekends and answering calls and texts from students who have patients in the hospital on her personal time. She also travels to teach and volunteer. Demonstrating her passion to her children is important, and she says, “They sometimes get angry when I leave to lecture or travel to Ecuador to volunteer, but I feel that it is important for them to see that I am a dedicated professional who is independent and driven by my passion to help others. I've already seen it rub off on them!”

Oriana D. Scislowicz, BS, LVT, aPHR, tries to limit interruptions when she's off work and spending time with her son, but sometimes emergencies happen. “I try to make sure I do not let any irritation show through to my son,” she explains. “When I have been a bit flustered, I've just been honest with him. I explain, ‘I'm dealing with this kinda messy situation at work-it's stressful, but we're going to have a fun day today!' That way he knows if I seem a little preoccupied for a moment, it's not him.”

Many of the professionals we spoke with emphasized that being clear about what their job is helps their kids understand why they have to be away, but it can also stir up some tough emotions.

“We always say, ‘Mommy is helping a dog or cat,' when it comes to a euthanasia,” says Dani McVety, DVM. Another thing she tells her kids to get them through tougher times is, “Mommy's job in this world is to take care of you, and also to take care of animals. Not everyone went to school to do this job, so it's important that I help make them feel better.”

Strollo's advice to parents with younger children is to be frank about their work. “Tell them the happy stories and the heartbreaking stories. Be sure to include how you were there to make the pet better, or how you tried to.”

A common theme is veterinary professionals who take their children into the office so they can see firsthand the work their parents do. In addition to talking to her twins about her work, Cooley says, “I will bring them to work to check on a patient,” to keep them engaged.

Dr. McVety emphasizes that this in-office time is important for children because it helps them understand how the world outside of home and school works. “When they spend an hour at the office or the clinic after school, do their homework in the empty exam rooms and play around in the cages until mom or dad is ready to go home, it provides them with a model of hard work,” she says. “My parents were entrepreneurs and business owners; I spent hours in the evenings and weekends playing at the office. It's just what we did as a family, and I learned what it takes to be the ‘boss,' a role that every doctor plays whether they own the practice or not.”

Since in a child's imagination, being a veterinarian might seem like fun and games, Strollo says, “My daughter came to my job many times to see that we didn't just play with puppies and kittens all day. She knew Mommy needs to save lives.”

Though spending time in the office together can help foster a bond between parent and child, time spent together outside of the office is even more precious. “If I'm not working, I think they get that any free time I have, I try to spend with them,” Dr. Rollo says of his kids. He and his wife divide parenting duties so that she deals with school and he handles sports. To have more control over the scheduling, he is involved in boards and coaching, so he is able to plan months in advance. He explains, “When they don't have a game, I can work late; when they do, I schedule myself off earlier. The catch-22 is coaching and volunteering takes more time as well.”

Even though she has no children of her own, Danielle Russ, BS, BA, AS, LVT, says, “As a hospital manager, I respect and am keenly aware of the delicate balance that many working parents seek to meet on a daily basis.”

Russ would like to see team members, hospital administrators and owners come together to reduce the expectation of long, inflexible hours so that parents don't have to explain their absence from their children's lives. “Veterinary medicine is a unique mixture of service and healthcare. Both of these at any given time require extended hours, though this should be the exception versus the rule,” she says. 

When the cell phone interrupts a school play or soccer game, there may be tears, but with careful planning, support from managers and clear communication, veterinary professionals can build strong bonds with their kids at home while they take care of creatures at work.