From “Holy Shit” to “Goodbye”

From “Holy Shit” to “Goodbye”


There seems to be a pattern in a veterinarian’s development. First is the wide eyed “Holy shit! It’s just me here, taking care of this” phase, when the older veterinarians are the lifeline of the newbie day and night. This phase is generally pretty short. Then a more comfortable, “I’ve got this!” phase sets in, when the phone calls are fewer, and the confidence rises. Still the first time the young veterinarian sees some particular awful thing, like a prolapsed uterus, or has an adverse event, like a horse they are tubing flipping over, hitting their head and falling over unconscious for a few minutes, they are humbled and amazingly glad to have somebody calm and more experienced to call.

IMG_3146The next phase is trickier. The veterinarian, now with five years’ experience or so, becomes comfortable in his or her abilities, so comfortable he or she begins to become judgmental of other veterinarians. It is almost certainly an unconscious ego building activity; after all, to think you can play God with your patient’s lives is a big responsibility and requires a very strong ego. There is a dark side to the ego; being humble fades away and a swagger may develop. There is self-satisfaction, and it is sometimes hard to figure out if it is appropriate pride or more like the Emperor’s clothes. Eventually something bad happens, even though sometimes it takes many years. Sometimes only the veterinarian knows they made a mistake or an omission, or sometimes it is a big stinking steaming pile of a mistake for all to see.  These ego corrections are inevitable, and they help to forge compassion and understanding of the human condition.

As veterinarians mature over decades, they often become self-effacing, humble and quick to give help when asked by their colleagues. Tempered by the fire of experience, they know there are many ways to treat and heal. They have seen their share of wrecks and their share of glorious triumphs against all odds. As the years go by, some become irascible, and resist all new methods and techniques. They are often referred to as “dinosaurs” by their younger colleagues. Others embark on lifetime learning, and become incredibly skilled practitioners with an amazing depth of knowledge. They become revered in the veterinary community when they share their experience by mentoring others.

When a veterinarian’s career is coming to a close, it is important to spend several years transferring client allegiance to younger doctors to make sure clients will be satisfied and patients well cared for.  This requires the difficult recognition that others can fill your shoes and provide excellent outcomes; that you are, in fact, replaceable. Worse, you actively need to facilitate your replacement. This is not to say that people won’t miss you, but the world will not stop turning if you are no longer practicing. It can be a hard reality to face.

The flip side is that often the intense life of a veterinarian has prevented the development of other passions like travelling, writing poetry or playing in a rock band. Veterinary medicine has a way of absorbing all of a doctor’s time, energy and passion. So when you retire, let it rip, and have a great time!

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