The challenges that Covid has brought were not something anyone saw coming. There was a hope that a turning of the calendar may bring relief, and instead the gauntlet of pet care needs has persisted. Our workload and exhaustion are palpable, and we are not a group of people well-known for being the best at self-care.
We push through.
We put our heads down and keep going.
We do not take time for ourselves, and we suffer for it.
I spent nearly five years working overnights for a pair of 24-hour, non-specialty emergency clinics before I became a full-time relief veterinarian. In the beginning it was invigorating, and I was naturally a night person. I adapted quickly to the vampiric lifestyle. I had come from a very busy multi-doctor general practice with less support staff. It was actually easier working ER.
No scheduled appointment times and only 14 shifts a month. A pay raise and a more technically adept support staff. Boom! I felt like I had the perfect job. Why hadn’t I done emergency work before now? In hindsight, I’m not sure I would have the same opinion if I started an ER job now, but this was 2013 PC (pre-covid).
As with most new jobs, the honeymoon period did eventually end. It wasn’t that I disliked the job, but the 12 hour shifts turning into 14-15 hour shifts started to take their toll. Working nights was great until the realization that having a normal daytime life on your off days was more difficult than expected. The mental stain from the regular death and destruction also started to affect me. I found myself saying, “I’d just like to vaccinate a puppy tonight.”
Then the exhaustion hit.
The early morning hours of the third shift in a row were always the roughest. Your brain has become something akin to overly ripe fruit. You are trying to catch up on records, your eyes are itchy from staring at the screen, and you slowly start to dip in and out of consciousness.
I am the type of person that can fall asleep in an instant, like mid-sentence. I have passed out at a keyboard more than once. I fell asleep on a microscope once during a histology lecture – surprising how comfortable the eye pieces can be. There are copious pages of vet school notes where my handwriting becomes so illegible that the ink just becomes squiggly lines indicating I was no longer consciously present for that lecture.
On one particularly long night, I found myself at the precipice of exhaustion. I had already ingested enough caffeine for several grown men, but the world was getting blurry, and the head bob started. While at my workstation, hastily typing away, I passed out. My fingers continued however, and my subconscious brain took the wheel. I awoke, startled by the sound of an IV pump going off, and read what is still the most ridiculous thing I have ever typed in a medical record. I began to laugh hysterically, which in turn caused my slap-happy tech to lose her composure. Under the patient summary while making notes about the treatment plan, I typed, “Patient was prescribed fresh flowers and no idiots.”
I do not know what deep recess of my subconscious this came from. Sadly, I did not have the foresight to take a screenshot of this for posterity. My overnight tech made me a t-shirt with the outline of a tulip on the front and “Fresh Flowers and No Idiots” on the back. I still wear this proudly.
As relief vets we have more control over our schedules. We can build in time for self-care and take breaks where some of our associate colleagues cannot. This is a fundamental aspect of what we do.
We are here so that our colleagues can get the breaks they need. We are a safety net for burnout. We are there when compassion fatigue becomes unbearable.
Remember to take care of yourself first so that we can help take care of our colleagues, and never underestimate the power of fresh flowers and no idiots.