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COVID-19 and 'All Creatures Great and Small'

For most circumstances in life, if we can anticipate an element of closure, of closing the chapter, connecting the dots and moving on, we can somehow marshal that inner strength, that inner karma to go the distance.

No one knows this better than our veterinarians. Let me explain.

Having finished 14 marathons, I know the importance of mapping out the course for key milestones indicating how much longer to the finish line. Milestones might be a bridge, a statue, a building. As I run, I tell myself I’ve gone this far, hit that milestone, I can grind it out to the end.

And then we all became ensnared in a COVID world.

Our milestones passed us by. Easter was supposed to be the end. Then summer. Labor Day surely we’d be back to normal. Christmas came and went. We entered a new year with safe vaccines and hope.

Through all this, our first responders and front-line workers plodded on. We reluctantly followed. We had to.

Our pets became our lives. We were home. They were home. And without our customary human connections, the animal/human bond was further cemented. Our pets provide us meaning and purpose in life and not just now.

Consider this: During the nightmare of hurricane Katrina several years ago, more than 50% of pet owners would not leave their pets in harm’s way. This led to federal agencies establishing emergency veterinary support systems in times of crisis and natural disasters. Floods, storms, natural disasters—we protect ourselves and our pets.

The beloved family veterinarian is implanted into the soul of many families and is a trusted adviser much like the traditional human healthcare provider. But vets, too, are under the economic and COVID-related fog of uncertainty.

This suffering among our veterinarian colleagues was recently highlighted at an international virtual veterinary medicine symposium I addressed about burnout and stress.

I, a medical doctor, was privy to the virtual chats among the veterinary community, and this is what I heard about the challenges facing their industry:

  • The anguish of euthanizing the beloved family pet took place while we waited in the parking lot, not being allowed to hold our cat as the professional tenderly escorted her across the Rainbow Bridge. No longer were we able to stroke her and hold her as she took her last breath.

We as a society do not abandon our family members. But with COVID, there are strict regulations about contact with family in the ICU, and just as we grieve apart from our loved ones, we grieve while sitting in the parking lot at the veterinary office. This emotional landscape is as devastating to the vet as it is to the family.

  • A gloved and masked associate whisks the new puppy inside for a checkup and routine shots. No telemedicine as we have become used to. A hurried parking lot exchange of puppy and heartworm meds, a credit card, and that’s that. These encounters have become agonizing for our family vet who want to provide answers to behavior questions and consultation on surgeries.

  • In the human medicine world, suicide has reached epidemic proportions, and there is at least a death a day among healthcare professionals. Veterinarians also fall into the dark night of the soul. Understand their predicament.

One family practitioner in the vet world shared with me that a close colleague died by suicide, so he and five other colleagues made a firm commitment to each other to reach out if the darkness descends.

  • A recurring theme I heard during this conference was the loss of that patient-physician relationship, which has been diluted by COVID. One individual shared a powerful story. He was a veterinarian who was retiring after four decades of practice. A divorced couple shared the custody of the family dog, he recalled. When it came time for the dog to be put down, the divorced couple were able to put their differences aside and rally around the beloved pet during her final moments. But today, this would not have been possible because of the risk of COVID contagion. Another loss.

Until we walk in someone’s shoes, until we have some insight into their world, we need to recognize and understand that each of us is on a journey. The burden may be unbearable. Be kind, always.

Dr. Ed and Bridger (family photo).

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