There, I said it. I’ve actually been thinking it for a long time. I don’t want to hear client stories unrelated to their pet’s visits. I have no desire to understand their family’s tangled web of conflict. Much less take on the task of caring enough to serve as the peacemaker. I’m your veterinarian, I’m not your therapist. Boy, does it feel good to have this off my chest.

The Back Story

Whether you realize it or not, just about every day in the clinic is story time for clients. I dare say about half of that time is wasted on useless information. Stories that in no way, shape or form are contributing to their pet’s visit. It may come directly from the client’s mouth, or via the staff member taking the call, but there never fails to be an endless supply of meaningless verbiage that precedes the actual question or concern. And in actuality, if those words were never spoken, my efficiency would increase astronomically. There’s a lady on the phone whose car is in the shop. She’s not sure when she’ll get it back because her check engine light came on. She hasn’t heard from the mechanic yet about what the problem is. Her daughter is in rehab, so she can use her car. She can book an appointment anytime this week for her pet’s annual exam.

I have a morning ritual of feeding the deer sunflower seeds and whole ears of corn. I toss it into the yard and I’ve actually been able to get close enough for one to feed from my hand. While I’m out there I photograph all the birds in the trees and the squirrels frolicking in the yard. When I came back inside the other morning after feeding the wildlife I found Fluffy had peed in the kitchen.

Emotional Strain

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. I can at least chuckle over those as I look back on them. What I no longer have a tolerance for, and have established emotional boundaries in response to, is being dragged into guilt trips over sad circumstances. I can’t allow myself to carry the unnecessary burdens that some clients try to place on others (unintentionally, sometimes). It’s bad enough being the bearer of bad news on a fairly regular basis. I won’t be made to feel worse if it puts them in a financial and/or emotional predicament in which they are ultimately responsible for.

My brother is the one who said dogs don’t need vaccines. I’m so mad that I listened to him. He always thinks he knows best when he clearly doesn’t. I need you to call and tell him he was wrong. Can you also be the one to tell him he needs to pay for my sick puppy?

I lost my mom five years ago and she left me her dog. We never had a great relationship but I’ve discovered since having this pet what love can look like. This dog is all that I have left of my mother and you’re telling me that he needs a surgery I can’t afford? How can you put me in this position?

Harden Your Heart

I have a tremendous amount of compassion and empathy. But these days, it’s reserved only for the pets I’m responsible for. I will gladly take on the burden of tough decisions for the sake of my patient’s best interest. That’s part of the job and part of the oath that I took as a veterinarian.

However, there has to be a limit. I won’t be responsible for, or take on the weight of, inner conflicts and guilt that many clients struggle with behind closed doors. That’s not in my job description, and I’m not willing to serve that role in the non-existent spare time I have during my day. And I won’t even consider carrying that burden home with me once the working day ends anymore. I’ve hardened my heart for the sake of my mental and emotional health.

James Herriot Lies

I can hear it now, “But what sets veterinarians apart from human doctors is their willingness to lend an ear.” People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, right? Clearly the perfect veterinarian is one just as passionate about people as they are their pets. I call B.S. on it all. Since when did caring take the form of putting out small fires throughout the day related to client lives? Why can’t I show how much I care through the work I do to uncover a pet’s disease or alleviate a pet’s pain, rather than knowing every family member’s name. In fact, if I have to wind up knowing every family member’s name during the work up of a case, I’m actually more likely to not care. Just being honest.

Bedside Manner

Bedside manner is absolutely how one establishes trust with a client. I get it. It can and does set veterinarians apart from other health professionals. Returning phone calls, same-day lab work, the ability to work within a budget and across specialities also sets us apart. More importantly, the ability to relate to a client as it pertains to their pet creates the bedside manner that should bring people back to you.

Being supportive as clients face difficult decisions for their pets, while portraying empathy and offering guidance during that decision making process are not things that I take lightly. These acts are ultimately the ones that demonstrate the compassion that veterinarians are known for, and always will be. The fact that one chooses to not get anymore involved in client dynamics should not, and does not, fault that veterinarian.

Setting Boundaries

Deep down I really do care about people. I’m human. But I can’t allow myself to become consumed in the emotional rollercoasters of people’s lives anymore. Otherwise I wouldn’t have the compassion left to give to their pets, or the strength to show up every day. It’s a large task caring for pets, that for the most part are considered family members. It’s an even larger task sometimes to handle the human emotions that come along with having a pet. There’s no course in veterinary school for that.

I have to harden my heart to the rest. I can’t lose sight of my ultimate goal, and the reason I show up every day to work – the animals that rely on me to make the appropriate recommendations for their care without any outside influences. This boundary has to be set to create a healthy distance, inside and outside of work.

At least for me, it’s one I wish I set sooner. I know not everyone needs this or feels the same. But some of us do, and if so that’s okay. Besides, why would any client want me as their therapist when I’m in desperate need of my own?

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