Remember that time that you needed me to help out you and your pet and I didn’t do it? I remember that too. I think about it from time to time, and not just when I see you on the street or I’m looking at reviews on Yelp.
I think about it whenever I feel that dark urge to find something to beat myself up about. I remember it when I’m tired and things aren’t going well and I decide to really punish myself by mentally reviewing all the times I just couldn’t pull out a win.
You were really upset. You said if I cared about pets, I’d keep the clinic open late and I wouldn’t charge so much money. I did everything I could to get the care your pet needed as affordably as possible, but I told you I couldn’t do what you were asking for this time. So you told me — and others, whoever would listen — that I’m greedy and that I hurt your faith in humanity.
You know, it hurts to see someone telling one side of an emotional story without being able to add the other side. Especially online, people can be quick to offer support to someone they perceive as a victim of injustice. They grab their pitchforks and head to their keyboards to exact revenge, oblivious to the full truth of the situation.
I’m not here to give you excuses for why I couldn’t do what you wanted, or to try to convince you to change your emotions. I’m genuinely sorry that you and your innocent pet were ever in a situation where you needed to ask for help. Please know I wouldn’t judge anyone in that position, and I understand how hard things can get. My heart breaks for the fear and stress you felt when I explained what I could and couldn’t do to help. It always breaks.
I could give you an endless list of all the times I’ve sacrificed my time, money, health and relationships with friends and family to go as far as I could to help all those I could. I could cry trying to explain how much I care about my patients and how painful it is not to have endless power and resources to fix all that’s wrong with them.
I could walk you through all the costs involved in keeping our clinic open and making payroll for the people who work here — arguably underpaid for what they do — giving it all they have. I can lament the fact that, unlike in hospitals for humans, there are no government programs to support medical care for pets when their families can’t pay the bill.
You might have heard that my profession has a serious problem with depression, compassion fatigue, and burnout. You might even know that veterinarians are more likely to commit suicide than almost any other group. I know that doesn’t change the frustration you feel, but maybe it helps make clear how hard these ethical decisions are for most of us, and how seriously we take what we do.
There’s a long list of reasons that I couldn’t do what you wanted me to do that time. The one that matters most is that I need to help as many families as I can, and that means sustaining myself and those who work with me.
You needed me one time. Just this once! It’s the only time in your life your pet has needed an expensive surgery or ongoing medication or intensive care. It was only one time, and I couldn’t make it happen.
The miserable truth is that it’s not one time for me or for the people I work with. It’s several times every day. Daily, we are begged to take exceptional measures for a pet in need. Daily, we have to make choices about how we can and can’t help the endless tide of animals who come in without the money or time needed to care for them. Daily, the animals come, and we do what we can for them and the people who bring them, whether they’re from the shelter, the farm, the college dorm or beside the highway.
But there is no magical, endless well from which veterinarians can draw. We can’t be a bottomless source of time and discounted or free care. No one can.
I don’t plan to stop trying to help people and pets. So if I’m going to keep this up, there will have to be times when I have to draw a line. I can’t help pets if my clinic goes out of business (and yes, we’d go out of business in a matter of days if we said yes to everyone’s “just this once”).
I can’t be compassionate when I’m depressed and my soul is threadbare. I can’t feed others when my cupboard is bare, and I can’t give them water when my own cup is empty.
I’m going to help as many as I can, as best I can. That means there will be some times when I have to step away so that I can keep moving forward. I’m sorry that I couldn’t help you the one time you needed me, but as I prepare to head back to a job that I still find reward in and have resolve to do, I can’t regret my decision.