Resilience and Compassion Fatigue
Our emotions are powerful assistants, but dangerous masters.
Compassion fatigue occurs when we become too involved in our cases that our emotions are affected beyond the consult room to the point where our own reserves are eaten away. The result is either switching off (becoming unemotional and disengaging), or emotional breakdown (where it all becomes too much), both of which are very damaging to ourselves, our relationships and our careers.
As a vet student, I was lucky enough to be taught by Peter Jackson, legend in the fields of reproduction and large animal medicine. I am now privileged to work alongside him at Wood Green the Animals Charity, where he is one of the veterinary trustees. His compassion towards patients always struck a cord amongst myself and fellow students. His subtle tones whispering “Cush, cush chicken”, to a stressed-out cow never failed to settle them… and the students observing him. I asked him to write a blog on how he maintained such gentle compassion after a lengthy career. The answer… professional resolve and peppermints!:
AVOIDING COMPASSION FATIGUE
“As a teenager I remember very clearly visiting the local doctor about a painful elbow. In those days doctors had open house surgery with no appointments. The doctor didn’t look at me as I went in but said ‘Sit down. Tell me your name, address and age. Now, as quickly as possible, tell me what’s wrong with you!’
Perhaps my doctor had compassion fatigue. It’s easy to develop it as you fight against the clock in a ten – minute consultation with a complicated case history. Your conscience reminds now or later that you have rushed your clinical examination and have been a bit impatient with your client.
If you feel compassion fatigue coming on think about why you became a vet. Most of us decided to be a vet whilst at primary school. We wanted to help sick animals and perhaps to be like that clever young vet on TV. We struggled to get a place at vet school, sat countless exams and eventually graduated. On admission to membership of the RCVS we said “I PROMISE AND SOLEMNLY DECLARE that I will pursue the work of my profession with integrity and accept my responsibilities to the public, my clients, and the RCVS, and that, ABOVE ALL, my constant endeavour will be to ensure the health and welfare of animals committed to my care.’
We became members of the veterinary profession and as such we must behave at all times, whatever the pressure, in a professional manner. Our clients expect it and our patients deserve it. A quiet few words as you handle and examine your patient and a friendly word with the owner set the tone for a good consultation.
I worked for many years in general practice where pigs formed a high proportion of our farm livestock. Often arriving at a farm or smallholding there would be a note on the piggery door. “Peter – third sow on right, off her food and piglets hungry please leave note – please write clearly.’ You quickly learned to be stealthy with pigs doing as much as possible without disturbing them. Stroking the sow’s udder and speaking quietly to her you can perform your clinical examination including looking at the feet whilst the sow lies happily there. Far better than shouting ‘Come on get up let’s have a good look at you.’ Have a look at the piglets in their creep. Pick one up by a hind leg to reduce the chance of it squealing. The sow has diamond – shaped elevated lesions on her back and a very high temperature. You quietly give her a s/c penicillin injection as you rub her udder again and tell her she’s a good girl. She doesn’t notice the injection.
As you go out you write a little note ‘Bill, Sow has erysipelas, have injected her and will call again tomorrow. Can we discus vaccination? Peter.’ You write carefully as you remember Bill saying ‘You vets don’t half write badly Peter. I don’t expect to be able to read it ‘cos you vets and doctors always write in Latin don’t you?
You suddenly see another note on the inside of the door. ‘Peter while you’re here can you have a look at the old cat – it’s in the kitchen. She’s got a bad eye. Oh and we found a couple of dead chickens this morning can you do a PM please.’ Your planned timetable of visits is compromised but you dutifully look at the cat and the deceased chickens You radio the office asking them to tell your remaining calls you are going to be at least 30 minutes late. You have a peppermint, take a deep breath and remember to be professional.”
May you be happy as a pig in muck throughout you career!