Why can't we just be kind?

October 31, 2019
Cynthia Cohen, DVM

Dr. Cynthia Cohen works as an associate veterinarian in Massachusetts. She is also a Nationally Certified Sign Language Interpreter.

Vetted, Vetted October 2020, Volume 115, Issue 10

Everyones telling us about veterinary professionals mental health problems. But its not just clients and tough cases and money problems. Its us hurting each other too.

Editor's note: This article starts with a discussion of suicide. If you're experiencing feelings of depression or suicidal ideation, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK; 800-273-8255; suicidepreventionlifeline.org). It's 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No matter what problems you are dealing with, people on the other end of the line will help you find a reason to keep living.

Almost daily, I open up a veterinary journal, Facebook page or blog and read about the ever-increasing suicide rate among veterinarians. It hasn't always been like this. Ours used to be a profession likened to that of a pediatrician, and most were happy in our chosen profession.

I don't need to tell you about the profession's high suicide rate-you read about it, too. You've seen it. Perhaps you've lost a coworker or friend. We all knew, in some way, Dr. Sophia Yin-a successful, well-loved, well-respected veterinarian who gave so much of herself to her patients, clients, colleagues and the profession-at-large. She died by suicide.

The pressures we face are real: Unreasonable expectations and demands made by clients. Mounting student loans (I graduated 17 years ago and am still paying off my 30-year loan). Comments from clients that we're “only in it for the money.” Our own perfectionism. The daily pull of balancing home and work life.

However, I chose to write this article to shine a light on how we treat each other. Veterinary medicine has become a sad documentary version of the comedy Mean Girls, which shows the nastiness of high school society. Turns out, it looks a lot like our workplace sometimes. Match this up with our own internal “imposter syndrome”-where we never feel good enough as graduates and, years later, maybe never feel fully confident in our role of veterinarian-and it's no wonder we're suffering silently.

Are we being kind to one another, vet to vet? Are we being kind to others at work: technicians, receptionists, other team members? My answer is, we're not. In the midst of our profession's mental health crisis, we're making it worse by being unkind to one another.

‘I told him under no circumstances was he ever to throw me under the bus again … '

Here's an example. For the better part of a year, I'd been silently experiencing a colleague passively putting down me and my practice of veterinary medicine. During team meetings, he would counter my suggestions or opinions, not with alternative suggestions, but in ways that covertly conveyed that he thought I was wrong and my thinking was wrong. Weekly, he would say something to me that made me feel that he questioned my abilities as a veterinarian. I have a large following of clients who request me, and I love the clients and patients I work with. If clients give me positive feedback, why is it that I would allow this colleague to get under my skin and make me feel like a lousy practitioner? Probably because almost 20 years later, I still feel like an imposter.

One day, another veterinarian asked this colleague and me for our opinions on a radiograph of her patient. This veterinarian and I stood looking at the radiographs as the female veterinarian shared details about her case. He and I gave suggestions about our thoughts and the possibilities of what could be wrong with the patient. After my suggestion to look for “X,” the male colleague turned to me and said, “There's no way it could be that!” That angered me. I quietly left the room to comport myself and think about how I needed to handle this. I decided I needed to use my anger to fuel a long overdue conversation.

Quietly, I called him into an exam room and closed the door. I told him under no circumstances was he ever to throw me under the bus again or to treat me that way-as if my way of thinking, my judgment, my decisions were less than his. I let him know I was tired of him treating me like an idiot and suggesting I don't know what I'm doing. (Just so you know, this is not typical behavior for me. I'd never done anything like this before, but having experienced such negativity and judgment from him for so long, I felt compelled to call him on it.)

He was shocked that I'd exploded at him and was quiet and apologetic. Not once did he deny or ask what I was talking about. He just stood there, eyes locked with mine, and apologized over and over. This man is not a bully. He's actually got a good heart and a funny personality. People often say that no one can make you feel a particular way, no one can make you feel angry or sad or mad, that you make a decision to feel a certain way. I'm not sure I believe that anymore. I think the way people say things, the context in which they're said, the tone of voice and intention behind a comment go a long way to how the receiver receives it.

My bottom line here is that our profession is getting a lot of press on the pressures we face. Some of these pressures are intrinsic to the nature of our profession, and some are extrinsic. Being nice to one another, being supportive, listening and caring are supposed to be what we're here to do with our patients and clients. Why can't we do that with each other?

It's not just me

Recently, I had dinner with a former mentee in her third year of vet school. She had completed an externship and was telling me about her most recent experience with a particular practice owner. One of her biggest frustrations from that externship was witnessing how poorly that veterinarian talked about his associates. He was nasty in his judgment of their practice of medicine and of them as people. I was horrified to hear of her experience.

A veterinary receptionist shared with me the reason she left her former hospital was that the majority of the staff were backstabbing and two-faced. She worked there for four years and was treated terribly. She'd go to her manager, who did nothing. Where she worked, the doctors thought they were better than the technicians, who thought they were better than the receptionists. I'm astounded she stayed as long as she did.

Here's my advice

A friend of mine told me recently that in her day-to-day interactions with people-family, friends, coworkers-she asks herself, “Is what I'm going to say necessary, loving, kind and productive?” Is there a way I can say something constructive without being hurtful? Yes, I realize that right there, I've lost some of you. I'm not stupid enough to think that some of you aren't reading this, saying to yourselves, “Come on, sometimes people need to hear the cold, hard, honest truth in a blunt way.” I get that. My reason for writing this article is to ask a hard question: Are we being mean, nasty, cruel, judgmental or impatient with our fellow coworkers?  If you can answer yes, I applaud you for your honesty. If you answered no, I suggest you get a little more honest with yourself.

I would ask, no, beg of you to do something different. Challenge yourself to stop being so mean, negative and competitive with your colleagues. Start showing you care about the people you work with. Be kind to them. We're all facing the same frustrations with this profession-don't add to someone else's pain. Just don't.

Dr. Cohen works as an associate veterinarian in Massachusetts. She is also a Nationally Certified Sign Language Interpreter.

download issueDownload Issue : Vetted October 2020