As the saying goes, “we live where you vacation”, and Dr. Carlyn Zylstra would love to take you up on that offer!  This Washington based, Alaska licensed, inspiring veterinarian has both Nevada and Florida in her sights.  She has learned to reinvent her childhood dreams – to take hold of the anxiety and fear that often accompanies relief work.  Inspiration can be found anywhere – you just have to look for it.  As she says, “We’re the best resource we have, so don’t be afraid to reach out to your colleagues.”  Bring on the emergencies, outdoors and sunshine!


What inspired you to become a veterinarian?

I’m your classic “I’ve wanted to be a vet since I was five” stereotype. Seriously, when I graduated, my mom gave me a framed drawing she had been saving since I was in kindergarten saying as much. It was fate.


What states are you licensed in and/or states you are working to obtain licensure within?

I’m currently licensed in Washington and Alaska. I’m fixing to get my license in Nevada and potentially Florida as well. When thinking about a state I may want to be licensed in, I first consider whether or not they have state income tax, and then I look into the fun factor. I’m dreaming of spending a summer in Lake Tahoe or a winter enjoying the warm beaches in Florida while it rains back home in Seattle.


What roles have you had within the veterinary profession? How about outside of this industry?

Short of being a receptionist, I think I’ve done it all! I was a kennel assistant in high school, a treatment room assistant in college, and a research assistant during vet school. After graduating, I busted my rear as a sleep-deprived intern before going into ER practice. About a year later, the tables turned, and I was actually teaching interns as an associate ER doctor. Finally, I settled in as an associate in a busy general practice before making the jump to relief work. Outside of the industry, I’ve worked briefly as a bank teller and a telemarketer. I should remind myself of how bad those jobs were the next time I’m covered in poop, vomit, or anal glands.


What made you switch to relief practice?

I felt stuck! I had worked my whole life to become a veterinarian, and I found myself hating it. I was actually in the process of applying for graduate school to get my MBA when I found a life-changing book. After reading “Designing Your Life” by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, I realized that I needed to take a step back and really critically look at where I was. I forced myself to take stock of the things I loved about being a vet (practicing good medicine, educating clients, being part of a team, meeting new people) and the things I hated (workplace drama, clients with unreasonable expectations, lack of control over my schedule and time off). Next, I looked at which of these factors I could actually change and started looking at actionable steps to make myself happier. Voila! Next thing I know, I’m a relief vet with my own business, and I’ve never been happier to go to work.


What are your favorite things about being a relief vet?

How can I pick just one? I love being able to travel and meet new people. I love learning from colleagues in other practices and sharing my insights with them. I love being in charge of my own schedule and giving myself breaks throughout the year when I need them.


What are your least favorite things about being a relief vet?

The fear of scarcity. A few times a year, I become convinced that the jobs are about to dry up, and I’m two seconds away from the poor house! Of course, that’s never happened (I’ve had more work than I know what to do with since the pandemic started), but the anxiety is real. Of course, this fear is a small price to pay for the level of autonomy I have now.


How do you feel that relief practice supports the veterinary profession as a whole?

We are essential. For a profession that struggles with burnout among a rash of other mental health issues, having someone trusted you can call on when you need a reprieve is huge. There are SO many excuses for associates not to take time off. Worrying about the level of care their patients and clients receive when they are out of the office should not be one of them.


What supplies or equipment do you bring with you on the job?

I keep it simple. I bring a clean change of scrubs, a name tag, a sweater (I’m always cold), my stethoscope, and my licenses/insurance information.


What do you look for in a practice when deciding to cover shifts for them?

I might be a little Pollyanna-esque in this regard, but I don’t spend a lot of time looking into the practices I work for. We are blessed with some amazing clinics in the Seattle area, so I like to roll the dice and treat it a bit like a blind date. If I get too caught up in scoping out websites, Yelp reviews and social media, I might talk myself out of something that would have been a good fit. If I am working for a new practice, I will typically only book one or two dates initially. This allows me to feel things out and decide if I want to continue the working relationship. Sure, there have been some practices that I’ve wanted to run from screaming by lunchtime, but generally my experiences with this approach have been good.


Have you picked up any unique practice tips while being a relief vet? These could be related to medicine, workflow, practice organization, or anything really.

I don’t really have an answer for this one!


What is your most memorable relief job?

Hands down, my relief work in Alaska. It is wild to look up from writing charts and see a moose looking at you through the window.


What advice would you give new relief vets? (Alternatively, what advice would you give someone who is thinking about being a relief vet?)

Remember that while you’re working for yourself now, you’re not alone. Jumping from the security of being an associate to being a business owner was terrifying, and I couldn’t have done it without help from other relief vets who had already taken the plunge. We’re the best resource we have so don’t be afraid to reach out to your colleagues.


How has the global pandemic affected your relief practice?

My glasses fog up a lot more now. Ok but seriously, I’ve been busier than ever, and working has helped me keep a lot of things in perspective. I’m grateful to have an income, to be able to leave the house, to be able to socialize with new people at the clinics I go to. On the flipside, there is also more worry. Working at so many different practices, I worry about getting exposed or sick and passing something along to my family. I worry about money and what to do if cancelations start happening. The worry seems to know no bounds. Ultimately, I try to focus on controlling the factors that I can and staying positive.


What are your hobbies / passions outside of work?

I love being on the water. Swimming, kayaking, paddle-boarding and sailing (as a passenger, not an active participant) all make me a happy camper. A few summers ago, I took up surfing and fell in love. Don’t get me wrong – I’m terrible at it, but it sure is fun to bob around in the ocean. In general, I just love to be outside. I’m up for just about anything as long as it’s active and in the sunshine. I never like to feel as if I wasted a day because you never know how many you get.


To learn more or contact Dr. Zylstra click here.