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Finding a New Path as a Veterinarian With Chronic Illness

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I am a veterinarian. Was a veterinarian?

No, I suppose I still am. I still have my degree, still went to college for an absurdly long time, and still practiced for 16 years. Hearing about complicated or interesting medical cases still gets me excited, and comforting those that need it still brings me a sense of worth. And of course, puppies and kittens.

I never suspected, or if I did I hid it from myself, that when I walked out of work at noon on a Wednesday that I had a serious, life-changing illness. I didn’t know the term cervical myelopathy, which means spinal cord compression. All I knew at the time was that it was my colleague’s day off. I had a small chihuahua mix dog that had been bitten on the head by a bigger dog and needed monitoring. My doctor called the day after my MRI and told me to leave and head straight to the ER for evaluation and surgery ASAP. Never could I have imagined walking out work and leaving no vet on staff.

But I did. And then while planning surgery and recovery, I almost fell over, hearing I’d need six weeks off work. Six weeks? What does one do off work for six weeks? That six weeks turned into eight because I wasn’t bouncing back. Little did I know that I had POTS (postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome) contributing to my exhaustion.

I finally did make it back to work, with the plan of getting back to full time in about six weeks. Well, that didn’t happen either. I couldn’t make it past three short days a week, so five full days would be impossible.

Then four months after returning to work, I gave my notice after discussing it with my surgeon. He said to take off three to six months, which was rapidly changed to 12 months. The fateful phone call and surgery happened six years ago, and I’m still not back.

And what a roller coaster it’s been. My goal remained to return to work. Being a vet is my life, my validation, my joy, and the reward for all my hard work. I had to get back. What else would I do? The years after my diagnosis were always about “what will get me back to work?” Even part-time. Even 10 hours/week. Two hours a day, can I handle that? Considering I can’t even restrain my own cat for 30 seconds, it seemed unlikely. But I was going to figure out a way.

I started my leave with physical therapy. Because maybe, with physical therapy, I can get back to work. But it didn’t help. I failed PT the first time. I didn’t know it was possible to fail physical therapy, but she wouldn’t let me on the treadmill.

“How about another surgery? Maybe then I can get back to work?” No, the second surgery didn’t help. Instead, it gave me significant complications and permanent changes.

“Maybe an implanted medicine pump will help?” With that, I can walk better, and my muscles will do better, and maybe? Maybe that will work. Some even run with the pump, wouldn’t that be fantastic?

No, that backfired. It caused another surgery and, again, chronic complications.

So maybe if I get that fixed, and the pump hooked back up again, I can go back to work?


And then suddenly, finally, one day in October, nearly five years out from my first surgery, I realized that everything revolved around trying to “fix” me so I could work again. All my energy was tied up in what seems to be an unattainable goal.

It was time to admit that I wasn’t getting fixed. There was no magic reward waiting after the next procedure or the next therapy.

I wasn’t going to run again, ever.

I wasn’t going to perform any more c-sections, pulling precious puppies out of a distressed mom and hearing their first cries.

There would be no more hugging a client saying their last good-bye to their faithful friend, no more hugs of joy on the first visit of their roly-poly new puppy with that famous puppy breath and joyful tail. No more late nights away from my family, sleepless nights wondering if a patient is OK or if I made a mistake, no more working weekends or not going on a trip with the family because I had to work.

Five years after my rapid decline from “normal” to near-wheelchair, I admitted to myself that I wasn’t going back to my old self. I was not going to work as a veterinarian again. Even two hours a day would be exhausting and would leave me utterly incapable of doing other menial house chores. I would have nothing left for my children, my husband, my pets, myself.

You would think this would be my saddest day, ever.

Surprisingly, it was the most freeing day I’ve had since my diagnosis, and possibly in my life. Once I could let go of what I thought my future should hold, I was free to explore what it did hold.

No longer am I always trying to figure out how I can be “normal” again. No longer am I looking at surgical, medical or other options. That spinal cord is a fickle thing, and it just doesn’t like to bounce back. And I finally let myself accept that. Pursuing options had made me worse, not better, and it was time to stop.

Now, instead of concentrating on what I can’t do and goals that I am unable to obtain, I am looking and finding all the things I can do.

I am remotely grading a college class for a colleague that needed help, so it utilizes my knowledge and gives me routine and motivation.

I am camping. Can I go on hikes like I used to? No, but I can sit at the campsite and soak in nature while my family enjoys themselves, doing whatever they want.

I’m trying to learn photography a little bit, bird species and calls. I watch the deer hawks, and groundhogs out behind our house. I take short walks at the local boardwalk. I spend time learning easy recipes that are healthy that my teens might actually eat. We foster kittens, which bring constant joy.

Moving on like this is life-changing. No longer am I concentrating on getting back to what I can’t do, but what I can. Life is not what it was before, but I can’t linger on what was and have a fulfilling life. I find gratitude in the small things, look for happiness where I used to see the routine and see joy where I thought there was none.

I am still a veterinarian. I may not be practicing, but it is part of who I am and made me the person I am today. It was OK to let go of clinical work so I can move on to my next stage of life.

Life is different, but life is still beautiful.

Getty image by Manuel Tauber-Romieri.

Originally published: October 13, 2020
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