Veterinary technician learns to cope with trauma of job

Heidi Snutch on the job as a veterinary technician.

As a professional, Heidi Snutch had seen it all. After years of working in her field, almost nothing surprised her. Then, on a day like any other, a man rushed in with his dog. He had been doing some yard work at his home, he explained, when one of the branches he was cutting fell on one of his two cocker spaniels.

“The dog had severe head trauma and was given a very poor prognosis by our critical-care specialist,” Snutch recalled.

The man, who had lost his wife to cancer that same year, begged Snutch to save his beloved pet. With little hope for recovery and lack of financial means, the man brought his other dog in, so they could say goodbye together.

“I tried to hold back my emotions but failed miserably. I was emotionally drained for the rest of my shift,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep at night because I kept replaying this instance over and over in my head.”

Heidi Snutch has practised as a veterinary technician for 14 years. She has worked in clinics, zoos and hospitals in various roles. Working at Toronto Veterinary Emergency Hospital, she knows first-hand how difficult the profession can be, and how people struggle with the day-to-day strains.

Julie Squires piloted a program to assist animal-care workers suffering from compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue has become an issue among those working in caregiving fields. Julie Squires, a compassion fatigue specialist, believes that repetitive exposure to suffering, strenuous work and long hours all contribute to the growing epidemic.

“The term compassion fatigue is fairly new,” Squires said.

Squires, who spent 25 years in the field, started “Rekindle,” an organization offering support to companies with employees suffering from compassion fatigue. She explained the pitfalls of the growing epidemic of mental and physical strain that animal care workers experience.

“The work is emotionally challenging, stressful and, at times, can be extremely traumatic,” she said. “We get traumatized by witnessing others who are in pain or suffering.  Whether that be the patients…or the clients,” Squires said.

Julie Squires feels that many people don’t realize the struggle many animal-care workers face.

“The general public thinks that veterinary medicine is (just) working with animals… (but) every single one of those animals is attached to a person,” Squires said. “(People think) working with animals is working with puppies and kittens, and playing all day long.”

The unseen struggle facing many animal care workers can result in harmful behaviours and coping techniques.

“How do we deal with all (of) this emotional residue? Society doesn’t teach us how to deal with it,” Squires said. “It teaches us to drink, to overeat, to numb out, to distract (and) to push away from all of this.”

Heidi Snutch has witnessed this strain among her working colleagues over the years.

“People seem burnt out. They have less patience. They call in sick. They are generally not as efficient, (and) they lose their temper on their co-workers,” Snutch said. “All this significantly decreases patient care and can make it difficult to earn clients’ trust.”

Squire’s calls these examples of compassion fatigue, the costs of caring.

“We don’t get compassion fatigue because there is anything wrong with us,” she said. “We get compassion fatigue because we care deeply.”

Dog handler Shannon Murphy notes that losing the family pet takes a toll on both owner and caregiver.

Watching the human/animal bond broken day after day can be emotionally draining, Squires said. Shannon Murphy, an experienced dog handler who has worked in both kennels and rescue organizations, understands the nature of that bond.

“People consider their pets a valued member of their family,” Murphy said.  “The bond between people and their pets in the 21st century is comparable to the love people have for their family.”

When it comes time to make the decision to euthanize, the emotions can be overwhelming.

“It’s so difficult because they have to part with a member of their family and a piece of their heart,” Murphy said.

Furthermore, the pain of losing a companion becomes even more upsetting to owners and staff when money becomes a key factor in the decision to euthanize.

“It costs money to take care of animals, and because of that sometimes euthanasia has become quote-unquote treatment,” Squires said. “That’s a huge stressor.”

For Heidi Snutch, a man having to euthanize his dog because of financial constraints makes her profession all the more challenging.

“It’s times like this that reminds me that we can’t save them all,” she said.

For Snutch, programs, like the one offered through Rekindle, would be helpful to those working in the veterinary field.

“I think it is beneficial,” she said. “Rather than keep all their emotions bottled up, (people) get to talk about their experiences with others who may have experienced the same thing and come up with a way to better cope the next time such a thing happens.”