SOUTHERN COLORADO — A long day is a simple way to say it.
Veterinary clinics across the country are short-staffed and scheduling clients out months in advance. Many colleagues left the field when the pandemic hit, and have not returned. Sometimes veterinary staff must handle volatile emotional reactions from clients, who blame the people trying to save their pet for their death.
The career can be described as "emotional whiplash."
Like so many other fields, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the stress felt by those working in veterinary medicine. But one group focused on the wellbeing of veterinary professionals says they have been examining the mental health relationship between the people and the career long before the pandemic.
Not One More Vet (NOMV) was started in 2014 by a group of veterinarians in the wake of a prominent colleague's suicide. Now, NOMV supports over 35,000 veterinary professionals throughout the world.
Dr. Carrie Jurney is a veterinarian neurologist, who doubles as the president of NOMV. She said she is tremendously fulfilled by her career, but wants others to be aware of the level of stress it bears. "From people getting really nice, to people getting really mean, my life gets threatened about once a year. You know, it's something where it's an important skill to know how to help diffuse situations and deal with stressed-out people," said Dr. Jurney.
Dr. Jurney said in many instances, veterinary professionals are perfectionists who are terrified to make a mistake. "We have data reaching back all the way to the 1960s saying that there's an elevated rate of suicidal ideation in veterinarians. Something that we're learning about more recently though, is that it's not just restricted to the veterinarians, the doctors in our field, but also the staff... This isn't just a veterinarian problem, it's a veterinary medicine problem. And so, we're trying to address it very holistically," explained Dr. Jurney.
We are a very small field, actually. And so, I think when we're talking about it, it's important to remember the context. And so, the data that we have right now shows that veterinary professionals have between about double to as much as five times the risk of the general public of dying by suicide... I usually know a person who knows a person. So, every single one of these losses hits our community very hard.
Currently, Dr. Jurney said NOMV is working to publish research on the "profound" impact of the pandemic on veterinary medicine. "I've worked in veterinary medicine for 20 years, and the last two years have been the hardest that I've ever seen," she told News5.
Dr. Jurney said many people working in veterinary medicine left the field for reasons related to the pandemic, but the trend has continued. She hopes they will eventually return. "We were never well-staffed, and then the pandemic hit, and people lost child care. People had to take care of at-risk family members... And let me tell you, no one goes into veterinary medicine to make money. So, we literally do everything we can to make it as cheap as possible, and that includes underpaying ourselves and our staff," said Dr. Jurney.
NOMV helps veterinarians and their staff in a number of ways, including peer-to-peer support, an educational program, and direct resource assistance, like a grant program. In 2021, they have given out over $130,000 in direct financial assistance to veterinary professionals.
Liz Hughston is the president of the National Veterinary Professionals Union (NVPU). She said the union represents members of veterinary support teams, not the doctors or management.
Hughston said corporations are "aggressively" buying small veterinarian practices. "Veterinary students are coming out of school with huge amounts of debt. We're talking $200,000, $400,000, $600,000 in student debt. They're not in a position to purchase a practice. That was kind of how it happened before, right? So, the next best option for a lot of these veterinary owners is to sell the practice so that they get a return on the investment that they have made, and that the continuity of care is there, so the practice stays open to continue to provide those services for the pets and pet's family," explained Hughston.
However, Hughston said the culture of corporate entities makes it very difficult for the concerns of veterinarian support staff to be heard. "That wave of corporatization has just increased over that time. Now, it's more like a tsunami. And I think that COVID has really helped to accelerate the pace because so many practitioners are just overwhelmed... Really considering us cogs in a machine, instead of treating us like people who are motivated by a passion for caring for pets and for the people who love those pets."
Neil Ericson's story & his sister's mission
"He would take in all the animals, all the time."
Jessica Ericson and her younger brother Neil were born and raised in Pueblo. "14 months younger than me, but probably a foot taller than me," said Jessica with a laugh.
She described growing up with Neil as "a blast," and said the two remained close as adults.
A lot of emotional buildup. He was definitely burned out. He had so much stress on him from societal pressures, which everybody was telling him, you don't really need to worry about that, you need to take care of you.
Near the end of 2018, their grandfather passed away and it really affected Neil, according to Jessica. Around the same time, he had been studying to take the national exam to become a veterinarian, which was the career he had dreamed of his entire life. "At the very end of 2018, he got his test results back. And the test results, like, you need a 425 to pass, he got a 424... Mesa Veterinary Clinic was so awesome, and they were like you can work with us, and we'll work with you to wait until you pass, and then you can work with us. But, the test results really hit home," Jessica remembered.
Mesa Veterinary Clinic has served Southern Colorado for over 40 years. The family owned and operated practice allows more flexibility for their staff and clients, and focuses less on numbers or protocols. Still, one of their co-owners says the job can be physically, emotionally, and mentally challenging. "Long hours on your feet. A lot of critical thinking constantly. A lot of questions. A lot of decisions. Trying to make the best possible outcome for these families... We forget to take care of ourselves," said Dr. Tiffany Barr-Ashby, a veterinarian at the clinic.
She said the clinic lost employees as a result of the pandemic, and the demand for appointments continued to grow as they had to reduce services for a COVID-19 outbreak. "It's hard to miss any time if you're scheduled, because you're letting down 20 people that have appointments that they've waited a month for, so if you're sick, if your kids are sick, if you're on maternity leave, it's always been kind of a general rule that in veterinary medicine you just keep working," said Dr. Barr-Ashby.
Dr. Barr-Ashby said Neil was set to start working with them in the spring of 2019. "Neil was a close friend of ours. He is a Pueblo native, and through high school and undergrad, he would shadow here, volunteer here, get hours. His big dream was to become a veterinarian," she said.
Neil never officially joined the team. He died in February of 2019. "We knew this young man, who came to the clinic, and we had just interviewed him a week before. He was set to start a job with us... I can still see him waving to me as he went out the door, and you're just all excited to have another associate veterinarian join the practice," recalled Dr. Matt Braunschmidt, an associate veterinarian at the clinic.
Dr. Braunschmidt said Neil was an exceptional young man, who is kept close to his heart. "It's hard. It still gets me. But, Neil took his life. And, he just had a lot of pressures. And here in this career, we definitely get a lot of pressures, and in veterinary medicine the suicide rate just keeps going and going and going... and you know, it's even hard to talk about because I feel like I mentored him so much, and I pushed him toward this career of veterinary medicine," said Dr. Braunschmidt, overcome with emotion.
It's all not just puppies and kittens and fluff. There's a whole other side that a lot of times, people don't normally see.
Neil's sister, Jessica, described grief as a "wild beast" popping up in the most random of circumstances. "I have never had a panic attack or been in shock like that. It was, my entire body went numb in the moments finding out. I couldn't breath. It was a very physical explosion of emotions... I got ahold of a counselor, I got a coach, I journaled, I meditated, I beat up pillows, I screamed in my car. I did absolutely everything and anything that I could think of that that was going to help... I know now to just let the emotions out, because the more that you hold them back, the harder it's going to be. So once they come, I just let them come."
Jessica does not assign blame to anything specifically for Neil's death. She believes it was a combination of factors, but says veterinary medicine may have played a role. "When he passed he had just shy of $300,000 of student loan debts. So like, he had that big shadow over him. He had mentioned to our family once or twice, like oh if I wasn't around, we wouldn't have to worry about this," said Jessica.
She said the stress on Neil seemed to really start when he was a teenager. "You have to apply to a bunch of different vet schools, and it's just a continual process of 'you've got to be the best.' There's so much pressure. And so, if you're not the best, then you're not going to get into a good vet school. And if you don't go to a good vet school, you might not get a good job," Jessica explained.
Dr. Barr-Ashby graduated from Colorado State University (CSU) and remembers the questions that filled her head at the time. "You're excited because you've put so much time and effort and work into graduating and finally realizing your dreams, but then you're so overwhelmed that are you going to be good enough? Are you going to remember all of it? Do you have the skills? Are you going to disappoint anybody? Because, you've thought about this your whole life," said Dr. Barr-Ashby.
Dr. Barr-Ashby said she wishes Neil was practicing alongside her team, but knows he continues to shine for people in several different ways. One way has a lasting impact on Mesa Veterinary Clinic. "We had each other as a support group, but we talked a lot about mental health. We started looking at our scheduling. We were looking at services that we were outstretching ourselves to do, and realized we needed to look at the bigger picture. That although we all cared, and although we wanted to be everything for everyone, that we really needed to start talking to each other," said Dr. Barr-Ashby.
Neil's legacy also lives on at CSU in Fort Collins, where he passed away. His sister, Jessica, has started a scholarship in his name designed for students in the latter half of veterinary school at CSU. Her goal is to raise $50,000 by 2023, and she said hundreds of students could be eligible for the funds if enough money is raised.
Jessica is actively collecting donations for the scholarship, and said there are two ways people can contribute. The tax deductible way is to send a check to CSU, with "Neil B. Ericson Scholarship" written in the subject line.
The other method is through an online account.
To the future recipients of this scholarship, I want you to know that this scholarship is designed with a community of love behind it. Neil touched hundreds of lives, whether that was through some of his veterinarian clients, his fellow students, friends, or family. Everyone is giving to this scholarship to celebrate Neil’s life and bring some of that love to yours. I miss my brother every single day but knowing that you get this scholarship brings so much joy to our family. Now you get the chance to touch just as many, if not more, lives than Neil did.
Veterinary Students & the future
Many children say they want to become a veterinarian as an adult.
The realities of veterinary school are something our childhood selves likely never realized. "It's the most difficult thing I've ever done in my entire life," said Alex Schaff, a veterinary student at CSU in Fort Collins.
Schaff decided to pursue this career when he was 21 years old. "I wanted to be a doctor actually, or that's what everyone told me I should be. And, I was realizing I couldn't justify being a human doctor when there were so many animals that I couldn't take care of," he explained.
He said as a profession, and as a student body, those in veterinary medicine struggle with mental health issues. "It's important for us to realize the level of sacrifice it takes to be here. You know, you might not be hanging out with your friends on Friday nights, or the weekends. And you may have cases to do in the evenings... We all have a hard time with it, balancing our mental health and the sacrifices that we need to make for our profession. And when you sign on to be in vet school, you sign on for the rest of your life," said Schaff.
Those with CSU provided News5 with this list of mental health resources for veterinary students.
Despite the challenges of the field, the 2020 enrollment numbers in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences were the highest they had ever been. "Our 2021 enrollment numbers are even higher than that, north of 4,000 students," said the Assistant Dean of Teaching and Learning, Dr. Andrew West.
Dr. West said they have reached a point where students really need to understand the career they are choosing. "Pet adoption has increased over the pandemic. Something about the pandemic seems to have shaped the way people pay attention to their animals, and so they are noticing more things... So, we have an increased caseload, an increased number of people taking their animals to the vet, and then we have staffing shortages which has made things hard," Dr. West explained.
The circumstances created by the pandemic are a perfect storm in clinics. "From the veterinarian's perspective, you have this massive client list, and people wanting in, and yet you're already putting in longer than normal hours. So, that results in potential burnout from long days, not having enough breaks, feeling like there's too much to do and not enough people to do it," said Dr. West.
Dr. Amanda Cavanagh is an assistant professor of small animal emergency and critical care at CSU. "For us here in the emergency service, what happened is that those simple emergencies that their family vet used to handle, now come to the emergency room because they're so profoundly busy," said Dr. Cavanagh.
Dr. Cavanagh said the biggest thing clients can do is show compassion for the people working in veterinary medicine. She also said the pandemic "has really opened everybody's eyes. We have to treat our employees quite well if we're competing for really quality veterinarians who want to stay with the company long-term."
The COVID-19 pandemic also forced students out of the classroom, and into an online setting. "We took about 200 students, undergraduate and graduate students, as well as our veterinary students who were doing large animal anatomy in the spring, and moved them from cadaver based, dissection, prosection based labs, into 100% online," said Dr. Christianne Magee, an associate professor in the department of biomedical sciences.
Dr. Magee said typically, becoming a veterinarian takes around eight years of higher education. "But it's not a straight shot. There are more applicants than there are seats for veterinarian schools right now. And so, there's a fair bit of competition to get into veterinary school," said Dr. Magee.
Even though instructors are not usually working in veterinarian clinics, Dr. Magee said she has seen the strain on her students. "We're seeing our students being asked to work longer hours... The strain on everyone's mental health has been significant. And I would say that, our students are concerned about, well, is my education different because I'm learning during a pandemic? And is my experience different in terms of what I'm going to be able to do and what the profession's going to look like once we get out of wherever we are right now?"
She said it's critical to remind students in veterinary school why they chose this field in the first place. "Veterinarians are instrumental, not only as general practitioners, you know, your small animal veterinarian. But, they're instrumental in our food chain. Taking care of livestock. Instrumental for wildlife populations. And so, we need to continue to develop the next generation of folks who are going to solve global pandemics, understand how diseases are spread, understand how food chains can be preserved, as well as, help people take care of their four-legged family members... We need the next generation of scientists and professionals," said Dr. Magee.
That's where students like Schaff come into play. "The role of veterinarians is only increasing. So, I don't really worry about going into the real world."
If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. In addition, remember these words from Neil's sister, Jessica: "Know that you're loved more than you could ever fathom."