Why vulnerability is vital in veterinary medicine

August 30, 2020
Erica Tricarico, Senior Editor
Erica Tricarico, Senior Editor

Fetch dvm360 virtual conference keynote speaker Dr. Betsy Charles shares how she rose from the ashes during one of the darkest times in her life.

Editor's note: This article includes discussion of suicide, depression and mental health issues. If you're experiencing feelings of depression or suicidal ideation, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK; 800-273-8255; suicidepreventionlifeline.org). It's available 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.

Feelings of crushing anxiety, depression, and overwhelmedness are pervasive in the veterinary profession. But instead of alerting family, friends, and colleagues, many veterinary professionals mask their emotions and vulnerability while they suffocate inside.

According to Betsey Charles, DVM, MA, one of the biggest myths in veterinary medicine is that vulnerability is a sign of weakness. “We are not good at asking for help. We are afraid we’ll look like we’re not enough, Dr. Charles said during her keynote address at the Fetch dvm360 virtual conference yesterday. “These are all lies.”

Dr. Charles admitted she, too, used to internalize all of her feelings until the tragic loss of her husband unlocked the beauty of vulnerability. She shared with attendees what her experience has taught her about being more resilient.

Going through the valley of the shadow of death

It’s been nearly 4 years since Dr. Charles’ husband of over 25 years was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Every part of his body shut down, yet he never had an angry moment, she said. She recalled the countless sleepless nights and unbearable anxiety.

When her husband, best friend, and love of her life passed away in 2019, she wasn’t sure how she would go on, but with the help of her therapist and social worker and the support of her CrossFit instructor, she discovered 3 key ways to rise from ashes: movement, “feeling the feels,” and community.

Here’s how these key factors played a crucial role in Dr. Charles’ healing process.

Movement

Two months after her husband passed, Dr. Charles returned to the CrossFit class the couple used to take together. That day, she recalled feeling out of shape both physically and emotionally, and with every burpee she felt her body screaming at her.

When the class moved outside to push a sled across the parking lot, she felt tired and unmotivated. She got behind the sled and started to lean her weight against it, but it wouldn’t budge. That’s when she fell to the pavement and started to weep. Her instructor, who knew her husband, kneeled next to her with tears in her eyes and told her, “We can do this.” They stood up together and pushed the sled all the way across the parking lot. “Moving my body is a critical piece of my healing process,” she said.

“Feeling the feels”

Dr. Charles said she was liberated when she let herself go emotionally in that parking lot, adding that wished she had a video to document the moment because, like many of her colleagues, she used to internalize her emotions. She encourages everyone to give themselves permission to feel whatever pain it is they are going through.

“You need to get comfortable being uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable for us to feel the feels, to be vulnerable, and to ask for help. But when we do, that’s what will help our profession thrive,” she said.

Once you give yourself time to express your pain, think about what you need to move forward. Don’t stay in that place, she said.

Community

Community plays a key role in resiliency, but veterinary professionals are known for being fiercely independent, said Dr. Charles. “We are terrified of being seen as weak or not enough. But the more we hide our shame, hurt, or pain, the more difficult it will be for us to rise from the ashes.”

When her CrossFit instructor got on the pavement beside her that day, she felt the support she needed to keep going. And when she explained to her class why she was so emotional, they told her they had her back. “Let’s be that type of community for each other,” she said.

Key takeaways

Dr. Charles highlighted the significance of engaging mental health professionals and opening up to your team members and even your clients when you’re hurting. She also said that the veterinary profession needs to rethink its practice models and create quiet spaces for people to recharge every day.

“I’m hoping our time together has reshaped your lens at the way you look at resilience. May each of you sing in a way that makes our profession thrive,” Dr. Charles concluded.