It's hard to work where you’re lacking supplies, inadequately staffed, and making life-and-death decisions daily
Two stressed doctors
Photo courtesy of Depositphotos
There is no more room for new patients. But room has to be found; they don’t stop coming just because of a lack of space. Everyone from the doctors to the janitorial staff are working hard and are tired. There’s not enough equipment, not enough staff, and not enough time in the day. And yet the patients keep coming. The worst is having to decide who gets care and who doesn’t, because there’s not enough for everyone who needs it. Compassion fatigue and burnout seep in, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Moral distress — defined by Andrew Jameton, PhD, as “the experience of knowing the right thing to do while being in a situation in which it is nearly impossible to do it” — begins to take its own toll on the caregivers. It’s a scene that is playing out across the country. This could be any hospital fighting the pandemic.
It is also a typical scene at many open-admission animal shelters.
It was occurring long before the pandemic. And it is feared it will soon be happening again, if there was ever a reprieve. (Maybe there was a break during the heyday of spring and summer adoptions for newly minted remote workers. There were more adoptions and foster homes, but also fewer volunteers helping at shelters because of COVID-19 regulations, so it may have been a wash.)
If the eviction moratorium expires, there is inadequate further economic stimulus, or more people lose jobs due to extended stay-at-home orders, pet owners will have to make hard economic decisions. When people can’t afford a roof over their heads or food for themselves and their families, they can’t afford to keep their pets either.
I have a great deal of respect and sympathy for the human medical care providers ‘across the aisle’ from our veterinary and shelter personnel. It is incredibly hard to continue to work in an environment where you’re lacking supplies, inadequately staffed, and having to make difficult life-and-death decisions on a daily basis. That challenge is inflamed when it feels that your fellow human beings do not take the problem seriously, whether that is folks who won’t wear masks and practice social distancing, or for the veterinary community, folks who won’t spay and neuter their pets, won’t feed them adequately, or won’t provide basic care such as vaccinations. Uncared for, unwanted, and homeless pets end up in animal shelters where there may not be enough room. In the worst-case scenarios, one animal may be euthanized to make room for another. The toll this daily heartache takes on shelter workers is palpable, adding to the suicide rate in the veterinary profession.
The havoc COVID-19 has inflicted on this world is not exactly the same as what is seen on the veterinary side -- with any luck, within the year everyone in the world will be vaccinated, and we can all breathe easier, literally. But this pandemic certainly reminds me of those days when all I wanted to do was throw in the towel or run screaming from the shelter into the hills. Maybe when it is over and our lives return to something resembling normal, maybe we’ll remember how to be kinder to all sentient beings in our lives, human and animal, so that no medical provider ever has to feel moral distress again. Because physicians, nurses, veterinarians, and animal shelter staff alike all know what it means to be overworked and underappreciated. And there’s no vaccine for that.
January 30, 2021
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.