Podcast #22

“We are products of our past, but we don't have to be prisoners of it.” ― Rick Warren
Cowboy falling off a horse.
Making a mistake can rattle us, shake us to our core. It is important to get back up, brush yourself off, and get back on that horse!
Being a vet involves immense responsibility, and your patients’ lives are in your hands. This is a huge stress, a huge challenge, and a privilege.

With this responsibility comes the inevitable possibility of failure, otherwise the job would be easy. We will all make mistakes at one point in our careers. Some of these mistakes will be small, but some will result in the loss of a life. The loss of someones’ beloved pet and family member. The loss of your beloved patient.

You will hurt, you will cry, you will feel the weight of the world on your shoulders. You will want to quit, hide, and curl up and die.

How do you go on after this? How do you face yourself in the mirror and say, “It is ok for me to work again, to once again take that responsibility in my hands when I failed before.”

It isn’t easy, it takes time, it takes grieving, and it takes patience. It also takes a support network, a sense of growing and learning, and an ability to forgive yourself.
Let's Get Personal
How do I know so intimately how someone might be feeling? I have lived it.

3 months out of school I lost a patient during a ‘routine spay’. There were many pieces to that puzzle, but at the end of the day, she died.

That precious, adorable, 6 month old puppy, died under my care.

To this day she is the reason that my most stressful surgery is a spay, over a GDV, over a festering pyometra, over anything. When we take healthy, normal animals into our care, and they die due to our intervention, it is one of the most terrible, heart-breaking and difficult professional situations you will come across.

But… you can go on. You can recover, you can learn and grow, and you can continue to save, treat, love and care for patients for years to come.
This blog focuses on how to recover yourself after the loss of a patient:
tear coming from elephant eye
Take time to grieve, but set limits so it doesn’t consume you.
Grieving is important. You will grieve, you will need to grieve. It will be hard, and intense. You will go through the stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). This is important, and it is important to allow yourself this process.

What is unhelpful is allowing this process to go on and on, or completely shutting down in the mean-time. Set yourself a limit for how long you will allow yourself to grieve. (Ex. 1-4 weeks. Remember, grieving is not the same as forgetting!)

Also, GET BACK TO WORK- RIGHT AWAY! Maybe take the day off, but the next day, get back into it! It is important to get back on the horse and keep going, so that you can be reminded how great you are at your job day-to-day! The longer you wait to get back to work, the more the fear will grow in your mind, and the harder it will be to go back.

Have a trusted colleague support you when you are tackling again the situation that resulted in the mistake. Ex. If you lost a patient in surgery, give yourself a time-frame such as a week or two, when you have another vet scrub into your surgeries with you.
Discussing the case with both medically inclined colleagues as well as those in your personal life is important. You will need your mentors (all 4 of them…) to discuss your various aspects and feelings.

M&M Rounds are a very important, cathartic, and productive way to address the case! For yourself and for your whole team. Trust me, your nurses will be just as devastated as you are!

dog studying with glasses
Learning and teaching, as much as possible about the cause of the mistake, is the most EMPOWERING and CATHARTIC thing you can do after making a mistake.
Learning as much as you can about the ‘mistake’ is one of the most cathartic and productive ways you can help yourself move on. Become as much of an expert as you can. This will not only help you prevent the mistake in the future, but will give both you, and the experience, a PURPOSE. Learning to prevent the mistake in the future is the most EMPOWERING thing you can do for yourself!
Just as learning for yourself to prevent the mistake in the future will help you feel empowered, sharing and teaching others so that they can learn from your mistake as well will enhance this feeling of empowerment. M&M Rounds are a great way to help/teach those in your clinic, however also sharing your experience with your friends and colleagues will help them prevent your mistake as well. Once again, giving the whole experience a sense of purpose, and a sense of taking CONTROL of the experience.
‘To Err Is Human’. We will all make mistakes. By sharing your experience with others you will not only help others, but you will learn that other colleagues that you respect, admire, trust and feel ‘worthy of practicing’ have made mistakes. You are not alone!

Also, by acknowledging that we will make mistakes, we can actively try to prevent these mistakes by approaching each case critically, and not becoming complacent.

By accepting that we are all human, we can also begin to support one another, and create a system in which we ROUTINELY and SYSTEMATICALLY learn from our mistakes. This TED TALK by Brian Goldman neatly sums up WHY it is important to discuss our mistakes with others, and how important it is to share, and to accept that we error!
Having a set of standards for yourself, and holding to those standards religiously, will help you process when mistakes are made as you will know you did not make that mistake due to complacency or negligence. You will be able to better learn and grow from mistakes without feelings of guilt.
Once you have grieved, have processed, have grown as a vet and learned from your mistakes, and set processes in place to not make that mistake again, you will be able to FORGIVE YOURSELF.

You may go through your whole career never forgetting that mistake. Over time however the memory of that animal, that pet, that family member, will morph into a comforting reminder that you grew and improved as a vet in their memory. By remembering, you will KNOW, without a doubt, that you are constantly doing your best.

That precious animal you lost will become the invisible badge you wear on your heart, telling you ‘YES’, ‘You care’, ‘You loved me’, ‘You will save so many animals’ and ‘You DESERVE to be here, you DESERVE to practice, and you are a KICK ASS VET’.
Have you had an experience that you are still processing? Do you need help to move on? KICK ASS Consulting can help you get through these difficult times.
Written by Dr. Ann Herbst BSc, DVM

Published Dec 16, 2019

Advocate for yourself, you are the only one that will!

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