Teaching Our Feet to Walk Away

There have been a few tough cases lately. Horses that have complicated problems and day-to-day updates can be a roller coaster. They have me checking my phone at night and on my weekends off. They have me stopping in at the barn when I drive by just to quickly see for myself how the horse is doing. They have me laying awake at night wondering what else I could be doing for them.

In this occupation we are constantly learning. Every day brings a new challenge, a new disease, a new medication or therapy to learn about. In the first few years of practice it feels like there is a mountain of learning to climb. The part that most people don’t think about is the emotional education that we go through as well. At school we are in the hospital wards constantly, and then we enter our internship where most of us eat, sleep, and breathe veterinary medicine for a year. We never leave the hospital, our patients are always just a few steps away and they are constantly monitored by either us or one of our trusted team members. Even in that time though, we have to start learning to walk away. We have such a passion for what we do and we care so much for our patients that we literally need to learn how to take care of ourselves as well as them. A frequent command heard during my internship was “Marisa, go home!”  I would skip meals and skip sleep in order to stand at my patient’s stall, hoping that the power of my gaze would fix them.

Now that I find myself working as an ambulatory equine vet, I have even more learning to do, and I’m not the only one. There are always tough cases that make it hard to go home, shower, eat a meal with loved ones, and go to bed, but we have to. These tend to be certain situations that pull at our hearts and souls more than others: laminitis, colic, colitis, pneumonia, severe lameness. The things that we can’t fix instantly and that we lose sleep over.

We have to take care of ourselves or we won’t be able to properly care for the next horse that needs us, we aren’t machines, even though we wish we were sometimes. Just recently one of my colleagues told me a story. We had a painful pony that we were helping through an episode of laminitis with multiple pain medications. This colleague stopped in late on a Saturday to administer more injectable pain medication and the pony was having a bad night. She was alone in the barn. She did an assessment, administered the medication and sat with the pony for a moment. She stood up to walk away, got half way to the door and turned around, went back and stared at him. I know exactly what she was feeling; that strong desire for the power of your stare to fix something, to take away the hurt. She stood there staring at him and then had to say to herself “turn around and walk to the truck, either to get something else to help him, or to drive away because there is nothing more that you can do while you wait for the drugs to kick in”. I’ve seen other colleagues do this as well – simply stare at the horse for a few extra seconds. I do it frequently, anyone who has ever seen me finishing up a colic exam has probably heard me say “OK, I’m just going to stare at him for a few more minutes and then I’m going to leave”. I need to see them stand there comfortably for at least a few minutes or I can’t force myself to walk away.

This is what we slowly teach ourselves. We have to learn to walk away or this career will eat us alive. We all want to curl up on the hay bale and keep an eye on the colicky horse all night, and in some situations we all have. We all want to follow the horse into the hospital to make sure that they get there okay, and that the treatment is what we wanted for them. What we learn over time is to trust our colleagues, trust our referral centres, and trust the owners that take over the horse’s care when we walk out the door. We learn that when we walk away with our feet it doesn’t mean that we are walking away with our heart or our mind. We go home, we shower, we eat, and we research every new finding about the problem in question. We fight the urge to ignore all of our other patients for that one that is having the most trouble. Sometimes what they need is time and we can’t speed up time with the power of our gaze, no matter how much we want to.

So, try to remember this the next time your vet is standing there staring at your horse – they are struggling with an internal battle, and just because their feet walk away doesn’t mean their mind does. They want those updates, those pictures, and best of all, that text that says “She is so much better!”

Dr. Marisa Markey

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