Mindfulness in practice

An interesting thing about a veterinarian’s day is how variable it can be. You might start with a vomiting dog followed by an abscessed cat followed by a limping puppy, then on to some preventive care appointments and plenty of variety in between.

An extreme contrast in a vet’s day is to go from a euthanasia appointment followed by a puppy appointment. The term “euthanasia” breaks down to “good death.” So, the idea is to provide for a pet’s peaceful departure from a family. A puppy appointment is quite the opposite. It’s the start of a pet’s life with us. We typically talk about all the things that need to be done to maximize her health and lifespan. A puppy visit is usually a joyous event. Most of the time, a euthanasia appointment is a very sad event. There are variations, but in general, there is extreme happiness contrasted with extreme sadness.

The problem for the vet is that the family that is introducing a new puppy into the household is coming from a very different mindset than the family that is saying a final goodbye to a family member. The contrast of what the vet feels and observes during the two types of appointments is pretty stark. Interactions with a family mourning are completely opposite from the interactions with the family full of joy. It can feel like you are slamming your foot down on the gas pedal when you get in that puppy visit, but you’re not really getting anywhere close to the speed you should be traveling at. You want to be at the happy puppy level, but you haven’t had a chance to recover from the sadness of the euthanasia. It can feel forced, or not authentic, when travelling through emotion ranges at such a rapid pace.

For me, it is pretty easy to share in the joy of welcoming a new puppy into the practice. How can you not love a puppy? It’s a lot of fun to talk to people about their new family member, to share stories, to help with the list of questions a client might have.

With euthanasia, my feelings are more complicated and nuanced, but there is an overall sense of loss and sadness that I cannot help but feel with the client. It takes an emotional toll on any veterinarian to some degree, and if it doesn’t, they may be temporarily “side-stepping” the emotions to make it through the day. These feelings will come out in some other way at some point in the vet’s life, which may be a factor with burnout. So how do you go from the empathetic feelings of mourning with the first client to sharing the joy of a new puppy with the next client?

One of the things that helps me deal with the contrast is to stop and take some mindful breaths between appointments. Just sitting upright, feet on the floor, and focusing on my breath can set up my mind for a reboot. Instead of letting my thoughts run on with the previous task and emotions while trying to move on to the next, I’m giving my brain a reminder to take in each appointment as it comes, and to give all of myself to that appointment. This technique is also a great way to help you transition from wearing your “at work” hat to your “at home” hat. After particularly stressful days, I have parked in a commuter lot on my way home from work, and just meditated in my car for a little bit before I continued the drive home. It helps to signal that the day is done, I’m putting it to rest, and I can enjoy the rest of my evening.

I think of it as a little gift I give myself that helps me appreciate each appointment for what it is, which makes me feel like I’m doing a better job throughout the day. I believe it can also help you appreciate all of your moments during the day more. Stopping and doing a mindfulness reboot multiple times a day can turn what would usually be a really crappy day into a tolerable day, or maybe even an amazing day, no matter what comes your way.

Let me know how you might be using mindfulness to transition during your day. Feel free to comment below.

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