“We’re swamped this morning,” the receptionist said apologetically. I heard the edge in her voice, muffled by the chaos of background noise. The clock read a few minutes after 8 a.m., but phone lines rang in a constant stream, testament to other pet parents clamoring for the clinic’s attention first thing on a Saturday. “We have your cat’s lab results, and the doctor will call you Monday to review them.”
I glanced across the room at my husband, Tim. Dark shadows covered his eyes. He’d finally drifted to sleep around 1 a.m., an obscenely late hour for him. His hands stroked the back of Firefly’s, our skinny tabby perched on his chest. A soft purr faded in and out between gulps of nausea. The sight snapped something inside, bringing a protective instinct out in me, and my fingers tightened around my phone. “No, this can’t wait that long. I’m worried Firefly has pancreatitis, and I need to know those results NOW. Get the doctor on the phone.”
The silence on the other end of the line was deafening.
Everyone knew Firefly and adored him; he was one of the most well-behaved cats they cared for. And they recognized my name whenever I called. I was one of the “good” clients they looked forward to working with. Any time I needed an appointment, my schedule remained open and flexible, even if it meant waiting weeks down the road. My demeanor was unfailingly polite, regardless of delays or extended hold times. They counted on me to bring a book and sit patiently in my car. I never raised my voice or used unkind language.
The receptionist’s voice turned soft. “Can you hold for a moment, Ms. Kennedy?”
As the familiar hold muzak came on the line, I felt an immediate rush of guilt. I was two years out of the veterinary field, and I’d broken a self-imposed rule. My fear, exhaustion and frustration had turned me into someone I didn’t recognize. I wanted to get her back on the line and apologize for my brash words and angry tone. I wanted to attempt to explain the emotions swirling through my head. I needed her to understand the agony Tim and I had endured all night.
Firefly had refused to eat, crawling behind the headboard where we couldn’t reach him. He’d declined even simple affection. We’d shared an hour of tearful fears that we were watching him fade away before my veterinary knowledge kicked in and prompted me to check his blood glucose, which I found to be absurdly high for a regulated diabetic. I spent hours hand-feeding him tuna, syringing him water, and monitoring those numbers after administering a dose of insulin and slowly coaxing him out of hiding.
But despite my guilt, I knew the receptionist didn’t need to hear my justifications. The clinic was in a weekend uproar — something acutely familiar — and I’d added to that stress instead of extending empathy. And I, of all people, knew better.
I worked in the veterinary field for 10 years ― first as a Certified Veterinary Technician in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and then as a Licensed Veterinary Technician in Virginia (fancy titles for the same position). For 10 years my reality consisted of regular overtime, working weekends and (paid but hardly fun) holiday shifts. I also experienced a culture of abuse from clients that ranged from insulting names to derogatory remarks and even threats of physical violence. People thought nothing of throwing papers, pens, pill bottles or even shoes in my face, and accusing me of “murdering” their pets despite the heroic treatments our medical team performed. Every consultation required me to brace myself for the worst, expecting someone to accuse me of only “wanting their money” and “caring nothing” about their pet.
Veterinary medicine was supposed to function on miraculous altruism.
Most days, I came home and collapsed in tears. My love of animals meant my heart broke over and over. For every cat or dog we managed to heal and cure, there was another that slipped through our fingers. I saw the strain manifest in unhealthy addictions among my co-workers: cigarettes, alcohol, fad diets and other coping mechanisms. And whenever a new suicide hit the industry, it caused a ripple of silence to flow through the treatment area. The pressure of perfection combined with unrealistic expectations by the general public created an environment ripe for poor mental health. We were a field struggling to do what we loved — and reviled for even our best.
In October 2014 (three years into my career), Not One More Vet (NOMV), a secret Facebook group was created by Dr. Nicole McArthur following the suicide of world-renowned veterinarian Dr. Sophia Yin. The space offered a chance for veterinary professionals to discuss what was going right ― and wrong ― with the industry. The group quickly advanced into a nonprofit organization advocating the need for better mental health services for vet staff. I spent hours reading hopeless messages at the NOMV booth at conferences and saw a bleak outlook for veterinary medicine. Meanwhile, strings of hateful online reviews for our clinic undid every positive feeling I managed to scrape together from grateful hugs and cards.
Like so many others, I burned out. The lack of understanding in clients’ eyes overwhelmed the occasional thanks. Too many furious phone calls weighed on my emotions, and I dreaded the drive to work. I’d learned so much, soaking up emergency medicine and cardiology advances throughout my career. Every experience made me a better pet parent to my cats and greyhound. But there was too much despair.
I resigned in December 2019.
But I swore to remember my experiences ― how it felt to stand on that side of the treatment table. I would retain my knowledge and present myself as a model pet parent, demonstrating exemplary client behavior. It was the least I could do for everyone remaining in the field.
As COVID broke and the pandemic dealt a cruel blow to the veterinary industry, my vow became even more crucial. Labeled essential businesses, clinics stayed open during lockdown. They found themselves inundated with requests for appointments as people spent more time at home, paying attention to idiosyncrasies with their pets (or choosing to adopt a new pet for company). But safety protocols took time. And staff with high-risk family members or a lack of child care made decisions to retire. Attempting to meet the sudden increased demand became nearly impossible, and there were no fresh-faced graduates eager to replace the exodus.
“Ms. Kennedy? The doctor wants to see Firefly. Can you be here in 30 minutes?” the receptionist asked. I heard her brace for another outburst.
“I’m on my way. Thank you so much,” I said.
“He’s going to be a work-in, so there’ll be a wait,” she warned me.
“I understand, and I appreciate it.” Did she hear the extra affection I pushed into my voice? Could she understand I was trying to make up for my poor behavior? Or was it too late? I settled Firefly into his carrier, grabbed a book, and vowed to be as gracious, sweet and understanding as possible, regardless of what the doctor said.
People didn’t appreciate curbside veterinary care. No one wanted to sit in their cars for two, three or even six hours to await medical care ― assuming they could track down an available emergency clinic in the first place, something continuing to grow challenging. Tempers frayed, and I watched my veterinary friends flood their social media feeds with pleas for patience and good behavior. Receptionists, assistants, technicians, doctors — no one was immune to the stress. There was no limit to the depravities people concocted.
Angered by wait times and increased care costs, people chose to intensify the level of abuse inflicted on veterinary staff. If verbal assaults didn’t achieve the desired results (plenty of individuals assuming their care should be discounted or even free), some people elected to escalate their actions.
“We received an emailed patient form that said, ‘The bomb will go off in 30 minutes,’” Bella, a client service representative at an emergency and specialty clinic in Virginia who asked for her real name to be withheld, told me. “We had to evacuate the building, leaving a pet under anesthesia with the doctor, assistant and technician.” They suspected the perpetrator was a disgruntled client unhappy with an estimate for their pet’s care.
Fed by clickbait stories and social media frenzies, hospitals became objects of infamy. I watched my friends’ hearts break. “Clients are becoming increasingly aggressive and are not always fired [termination of the practice-client relationship] for their threatening behavior to the ER staff. It has left me dreading going into work when I actually love what I do,” Kelly Powers, an emergency and critical care coordinator at a specialty clinic in Illinois admitted. Voices begged for reason, for common sense, for human decency. My hands shook in disbelief.
I felt divided: Part of me breathed a sigh of relief to be free of the disaster, but I also squirmed in guilt to feel such liberation, knowing my friends were suffering. I wanted to rage against the ignorance of individuals who understood nothing of the professionals they were harming, but I was also embarrassed to reflect on moments when I lost my patience with staff for forgetting I was sitting in my car two hours past my appointment time.
What was human nature, and what was the fault of stressful situations? Did one justify the other or was there always a need to balance emotion with empathy?
I was afraid I didn’t have an answer.
“Firefly’s SNAP cPL is high, so he has pancreatitis,” the doctor told me. He adjusted his mask as he leaned against the car. “I’m going to send you home with an appetite stimulant and Cerenia to help with nausea. If he doesn’t start eating, I want you to have a copy of his radiographs and lab work.” He took out his phone. “What’s your number?”
I lifted an eyebrow. “I’ll have your cell number if you send me the images.”
He smiled. “Your baby’s sick, and that’s what matters. I don’t want to get to tomorrow, and you can’t reach us.” He shrugged. “Besides, you were a technician. I trust your discretion.”
I showed Tim the number when I got home. Then I collapsed on the couch. “I feel terrible for being so pushy this morning.” I covered my face with my hands. “Do you think I should send an apology card?”
“I think they understand,” Tim said.
“There’s a difference, though,” I protested. “Just because they understand my worry doesn’t make it acceptable for me to be a pain in the ass. I know better than to behave like that. I’ve been one of them ― I’ve worked an insane Saturday shift where everyone wants everything Right. This. Minute. It’s on me to be a model client.”
He hugged me. “Or maybe, this time, it’s on you to be a worried pet parent.”
“Can’t I be both?”
We both froze as we heard the telltale sound of a cat at the kibble bowls. Tiptoeing to the kitchen, we peered around the door jamb. Firefly was carefully taking bites. Tears blurred my vision as we gripped each other’s hands.
“This time, I think the situation needed a pet parent,” he admitted. “You can go back to being a model client tomorrow.”
I still struggle when emotions — especially fear — take over my brain when dealing with the healthcare of my pets. Because I need to demonstrate empathy to veterinary staff. It isn’t easy to decide which side “weighs” more.
But I know with absolute certainty that if everyone caring for my pets experiences the same level of burnout that I did, there won’t be anyone like my vet and his staff left. Doctors, technicians, assistants and receptionists who love animals and want nothing more than to heal them.
And that isn’t a world I want to contemplate.
Andria Kennedy is a freelance content writer working to keep her four cats and greyhound in the lifestyle they feel they’re due. Her essays have appeared in Open Minds Quarterly, Electric Lit and The Doe. She’s an advocate of invisible illness, having battled fibromyalgia since her early 20s, and she publishes weekly hermit crab essays on her Substack, Invisible Inks. She has a mostly-ignored Twitter (@antiherokreativ) and an active Instagram (@andriamkennedy).