Featured guest author Dr. Leslie Ortlieb, DVM.
I think most veterinarians knew what their profession would be before they left elementary school. Family photo albums were filled with the various pictures of animals that followed us home or always seemed to find us. I had many trips to the vet on my bike holding a shoe box with a bird or a baby rabbit I found. In realizing how many animals I took care of as a kid, I realize my parents were (and still are) saints. Making a purée of duck feed, worms, and fruit in the blender does not go over well with Mom by the way.
School was incredibly important to me. I graduated top of my class in high school and breezed my way through undergrad. Vet school was a different story. Two and a half years of class work followed by a year and a half of clinical work. You build a bond with your classmates through those years and you also realize how warped your sense of humor is. One piece of the puzzle I was not fully aware of is the human component. You have to learn how to deal with people in moments of tremendous sadness, despair, anger, or frustration. Every veterinarian has been accused of being cruel or inhumane for charging clients for a service or treatment. It happens. A lot. A lot of veterinarians would do this for free if they could. I’ve taken home my fair share of animals that clients left or didn’t want to deal with. Many of my colleagues have done the same.
I have had the opportunity to do some pretty cool stuff. Vaccinating a very cranky lion was terrifying and awesome at the same time. Having an animal that big roaring in your face makes your internal organs rattle. I helped TB test mandrills (monkeys with big ass teeth) which is quite terrifying as they are sedated but not fully asleep. You inject the tuberculin in the upper eyelid as they stare right back at you. I’ve done anesthesia for a polar bear and had the opportunity to handle big raptors including bald eagles. I’ve treated animals from Chinese hamsters to snakes to very angry 25 pound cats. I’ve been bitten a few times, always my fault (and never by a pitbull or bully breed). I’ve heard some truly unique questions including if a rat can “catch” crabs from a person to my belief concerning aliens talking to dogs through garden gnomes. It’s been a trip.
Many people are surprised that the veterinary profession has such a high suicide rate. Veterinarians make a lot less money than you think. We have to deal with aggressive animals (and owners), patients that can’t talk and SO many bodily fluids we end up wearing for the rest of the day. We leave school with tremendous debt. We have to help people say goodbye to a friend they’ve cherished for many years. For some, it is their only friend. When you walk into a room and see a sweet old man in his 80s holding his best friend, your gut drops. You know his wife died last year. His dog is his life. But his friend isn’t eating, doesn’t want to go on walks, and diagnostic tests show advanced lymphoma metastasized everywhere. The decision is made and you explain the process.
As you push the euthanasia solution in, you hear him tell his friend how much he loves him. Supposedly that process is supposed to get easier. It never did for me. I euthanized a big Rottie many years ago. The dog had significant damage to its spinal cord and couldn’t walk. The owner was a Marine who just got out the year before. This dog protected his daughter while he was gone. The dog was still incredibly protective of her and even though the back half of the dog was not functioning, the front half was.
This very large dog did not want me near her family and she made every effort to show me she meant it. The euthanasia was incredibly difficult for all. After I finished with them I paid for their bill myself as I heard the owner discussing returning Christmas gifts to pay it. Not on my watch. I remember the daughter telling me she had never seen her dad cry before but she said it made her realize how much he loved this dog for keeping his daughter safe all those years. All of this occurred many years ago but the owner still hugs me to this day if I run into him.
When I first got sick myself several years ago, I thought my hiatus from practicing would be short. It has been far too long. I’ve lost most of the things I worked so hard for and in the end I lost myself. I shouldn’t be alive. I know that. But I am still here and I am a better person for it. One of my roommates in the hospital told me if I ever couldn’t fight for myself anymore, I needed to fight for others. And I did. I’ve given up on hope many times but then something incredible happened. I met several warriors who had it far worse than I ever did and they continued to fight without hesitation or fear. Injuries, loss, depression, end of marriages and yet these few tough motherfuckers that I consider my dearest friends never stopped.
They’ve stared the Devil in the eyes and flipped him off. At a time when I had given up on my life, my salvation came in the form of warriors. I grew weak and allowed myself to be broken. My life has been incredibly easy compared to many. But I can put the pieces together to build something stronger. So I begin to fight again. I will find who I am again as uncomfortable as that may be. Sometimes life can be brutal and horrifically unkind, but sometimes we receive the most cherished of gifts, the ones who shine the light and show us the way. When necessary those people push you and kick your ass for giving up.
For my heroes, and I have many, I will carry you in my heart for eternity. Eliminate toxic people from your life, stand up for those who need it, appreciate what you have, and find what lights the fire within. Your life is your life, make it what you want it to be. Never stop fighting for that. Animals are a part of my life and a part of my healing. That same ability they have to look into your soul is also part of why I think they are so important to healing for all. We are all here to help each other and all of us need to take the time to reach out.
Be kind to each other. There are so many who have lost more, endured more, suffered more and in the end those people often have the most to teach. Listen to them.
-Dr. Leslie Ortlieb, DVM.
East Lansing, Michigan, USA.