Surprise! How to deal with stress in your veterinary practice


As a veterinary team member, you expect the unexpected. Here's how to stay calm when dealing with stress.

My morning routine is pretty simple. I wake up at 5 a.m., run three miles, then shower while looking forward to my cup of coffee. I make the kids' lunches for school, then drop them off at the bus stop. Finally, I head to work.

Kristine Suszczynski

I've gotten into a groove at work, too. I say hello to everyone, check in at the front desk, then head to my desk. I turn on my computer, check out the day's appointment lineup, edit the doctors' referral reports, open mail, and so on. Our team members go about their regular routines as well.

And then, BAM! A hit-by-car patient is rushed through the front door. The client who verbally agreed to all procedures is loudly refusing to pay at the front desk. The digital radiography machine goes down in the middle of an important set of X-rays. A team member accidentally breaks a vial containing the blood sample it took five sticks to obtain from a fractious cat.

When one of these things happens, you're usually surprised—and not in a good way. Negative surprises often produce stress, fear, anger, and sometimes even laughter. Stress can lead to adrenaline production, muscle tension, increased heart rate, irritability, and anxiety. These emotional responses are autonomic, a function of your nervous system. You can't choose or control your initial response to surprises.

You can, however, rethink and change your thought process in these situations. You can be aware of your actions and possibly guide them to a better outcome.

A soggy surprise

I'm reminded of a story from my younger days. I was getting ready to leave my house one day and I heard a "boom" from the laundry room. Holding my infant son in my arms, I ran to investigate the loud noise. The water hose from my washing machine had burst and water was shooting straight up, hitting the bottom of a cabinet and spraying everywhere. I quickly put my son in his infant car seat and set him in a safe spot.

I ran back to the laundry room to turn off the water valve, but it spun freely in my hand instead of stopping the flow. I ran to get a bucket from the garage, but it was useless—I was completely soaked. Standing in inches of water, I found that I could stop the flow by bending the hose and holding it tightly. This gave me time to think. After releasing the hose to again spray water everywhere, I ran and got a wrench and clamped the bent hose, stopping the water.

I turned around to check on my son just in time to see my husband walk in the door. I was still ankle-deep in water, dripping wet, and laughing out loud. In this case, I could have let anger and stress rule me. But even during the chaos, I was able to calm myself and solve the problem.

Take a deep breath

Unexpected events will occur every day, and your normal routine will be disturbed. You can learn from your reaction to these surprises and guide your life away from stress.

You can remain calm and take that hit-by-car dog into the treatment room to start emergency procedures. You can calmly ask the complaining client to continue the conversation in an exam room. You can call the digital radiography company to see if repairs can be completed over the phone. You can set procedures to try to ensure blood vials aren't broken in the future.

No matter what, you will still get surprised. While your initial, split-second responses aren't within your control, you can adapt your subsequent thought processes to create less stress and better outcomes. Doing so is all part of your quest to be the best veterinary team member you can be.

Kristine Suszczynski is the hospital manager at Portland Veterinary Specialists in Portland, Maine. Please send comments to

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