What Causes My Compassion Fatigue?

Posted: Apr 16, 2013
Views: 6290 - Comments: 5

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After being a veterinary technician for over 10 years, I’ve discovered there are many more ways to become compassion fatigued in the field than I ever thought. I’m sure many people may think, as I previously did, that the main cause would come from seeing animals in pain and dealing with the death of pets on a daily basis. However, aspects that I never before considered about the field actually cause me the most compassion fatigue.

Emotionally I can handle the sadness involved with euthanizing pets. This is because I am so thankful that we have the ability in animal medicine to end an animal’s pain. This is not to say I don’t cry or feel grief in these situations. I do. I just know that it is better than the alternative of continued suffering, and that’s what matters to me.

Pet owners are my number one cause of fatigue. I know this sounds mean, but let me explain. I got into veterinary medicine because of my ridiculous love of animals. That extreme where when going on a walk in my neighborhood, I stop and insist on making friends with every cat I see.

[Editor’s note: Here’s a good example of this. Megan Brashear, walking down a sidewalk to an off-site team meeting, must stop to pet cat. Candid moment.]

Megan Brashear with cat on the sidewalk

I didn’t stop to think very much about the level of interaction I would have with the people who brought these animals to us to care for. And then I did something that would make the interaction I would have with these people even more difficult. I chose emergency animal medicine. That factor of being in an emergent situation is what makes the biggest difference, in my opinion. Emergencies can cause stress, panic, and fear in people. And when these pet owners find out the cost to treat their particular emergency, that stress, panic, and fear can easily turn to anger. This can lead to clients lashing out at us. They are overwhelmed and have no control of their situation. Sometimes they want someone to blame. Sometimes they ask us how we can claim to love animals and then only care about getting money from them before treating. In rare cases they have even made threats against us.

Now, I myself have been one of those pet owners in an emergency situation, more than a few times. I understand; it sucks. But to be the person on the receiving end of this behavior begins to wear on me. I want to stop and explain our point of view to them and make them understand. I want to say, “We can’t fix every animal for free because we would not be able to keep our doors open to help ANY pets if we did.” Or, “It is not our fault your animal is so sick.” And, “Why do you want to yell and threaten us when we are trying to help your pet?” I can get frustrated and fatigued at spending so much of my time and energy dealing with a client’s often misdirected emotions. It can drain me to where I feel that I don’t have enough left to give to my patients. After particularly draining weeks, I just really remind myself why I do this. I do this for the animals. I know how cliché that sounds, but that’s what it comes down to.

I have to collect myself and remember that they are usually running on emotions and are not necessarily thinking logically. I must remind myself that I can’t make everyone understand our point of view (even though my rational side DESPERATELY wants to). On days when I recognize the compassion fatigue in myself, 20 minutes on my elliptical while singing along (badly) to pop songs, a margarita (or two), and snuggling with my own (really awesome) kitties after work usually makes things better.



Morgan VanFleet's picture

"I got into veterinary medicine because of my ridiculous love of animals...I didn't stop to think very much about the level of interaction I would have with the people who brought these animals to us to care for." THIS. This is so important-I think a lot of people that get in to vet (or human) med do so because they are adept at saving lives, not necessarily because they're good at interpersonal communication. Recognizing that potential weakness, like Rachel does here, is critical to becoming a better part of the medical team-a team that should include the family.

Alisa Portales's picture

Wow! I am so glad you wrote this and that I took the time to read it. I have been working in emergency medicine for 10 years and feel the strain from time to time, some days more than others. It's hard for me to not get caught up in playing the blame game with clients, as so many of them do take their frustrations out on the staff, and there have been numerous times I have wanted to tell people that owning an animal is a privilege and as the owner they are solely responsible for the animal's care. But saying this will only add fuel to their fire, and ultimately what is most important is the animal. It's hard enough euthanizing an animal who is old, sick and in pain, but what hurts more is euthanizing an animal because their owner cannot afford to pay for treatment, and all resources have been exhausted.

Rachel Kinney's picture

Thanks for the comments guys! I figured I wasn't the only one that experiences this. Also the gracious owners do actually outnumber the angry ones. Try not to let those angry ones make you forget about those!

Terri Massa's picture

I have noticed that the vast majority of the clients who are short with me or yell or make nasty comments apologize profusely after the crisis with their animal is over. I try to remember this while I'm dealing with a fractious client.

Cheryl Kirk's picture

I know where my compassion fatigue comes from. It always comes from caring so much and keeping the sadness and anger inside because we know what's going to happen to that pyo or the parvo puppy or the cat with bladder issues. If they don't get veterinary help they will die a slow and painful death. And that just rips into me every time. But I know that I am one of the thousands of techs out there that can make a difference. So I stay in the field, knowing that I will, soon, be able to help one.