Have you ever wondered whether your chosen profession has met your needs in offering a meaningful line of work? Is veterinary medicine sufficiently fulfilling? Do you feel your work is important? Does it make you feel challenged, successful, effective, and satisfied your daily labors truly mean something to you and to others?
I ask these questions because your answers are important, serious, and potentially life-changing. After all, who among us would work as hard as we do to improve the human and animal condition if it did not prove fundamentally satisfying?
I grew up in a home with parents who had become disillusioned with their profession. They had both become architects in an era where architecture was less the vocational, pro-development, engineer-adjacent profession it is today. My father had come at it from a purely artistic, aesthetic angle, while my mother had informed her view of architecture through the lens of sociology, anthropology, and social responsibility.
By the mid-’80s, when I was applying to colleges, it was obvious my parents had come to detest the direction their profession was headed. By contrast, I had felt secure in the knowledge veterinary medicine would always offer meaningful work.
My parents’ experience was foundational to the choices I would make throughout my education. I never wavered in my belief that the vet profession could and would provide an evergreen solution to the questions of social responsibility and personal fulfillment. I vowed to never end up like my parents.
Almost 28 years on, I’ve yet to feel persistently disenchanted. At times I may feel jaded, let down, and discouraged, but the 35,000-foot view is still pretty heartwarming. Despite all those jagged lines in the graph depicting job satisfaction over time, my perception of the job has remained reliably, remarkably steady throughout. For me, at least, this profession has proven itself a consistent purveyor of meaningful work.
Consider the daily warm fuzzies you get from all those warm-from-the-oven babies, the adorability of a grizzled, white-faced mug, the satisfaction of seeing ear, heart, and bladder cases thrive, and the elation you get after a successful C-section, splenectomy or cystotomy.
Then there’s the human factor.
How many times have you been thanked, received gifts, and simply felt appreciated for your role in helping a patient? While we are literally just doing our jobs, it is clear we make a difference as much to our patients as we do to their people. It is the built-in job satisfaction generator we are so fortunate to enjoy.
This is not to say there are not days I left the clinic detesting what I do. Some days are just no fun; you feel you have helped no one, derived no satisfaction, and maybe even hurt those around you.
While I will admit these less-than-zero days have spiked more frequently since March of 2020 (go figure), their persistent influence on my psyche is currently on the wane. Some years will be harder than others for all kinds of reasons (having a baby, getting divorced, losing a loved one, moving to a new city, etc.). That is just life.
A fold in the fur of life
There are bigger issues to tackle, too. High-level questions addressing the overall worthiness of what we do is inevitable in any profession. I recently had cause to entertain such left-brained philosophical musings after reading an essay in the New York Times on the intrinsic value of keeping pets. Here are some of the many questions it raised:
- When there is so much human suffering in the world, why do we devote so much time, energy, income, and love to our household pets?
- Why did we collectively donate more to Hurricane Katrina’s animal survivors than we did to its human victims?
- Is veterinary medicine as it is practiced today a wasteful, bourgeois, self-indulgent habit?
How does the juxtaposition between how we often treat animals over humans affect how meaningful (or meaningless) our profession has become in recent years? After all, there is only so much love to go around, right? Should we be expending our emotional and financial resources when so many children go hungry in this very country?
It is not a zero-sum game
Newsflash: Love is not a finite concept. Indeed, the paradox is the more love you have in your life, the more you will have a tendency to distribute it. It is the exact opposite of a zero-sum game. In fact, it takes a cynical, one-dimensional line of thinking to pit humans against pets in this way. More so when it comes to loving your own pets. I mean, does it make you love anyone else in your life any less?
It is apples to oranges, anyway. Comparing humans and animals is a false comparison—a cold, specious, and strict utilitarian one at that. It helps no one raise this contrast as an issue against household animals. It will not make you donate any more of your dollars to a human-dedicated endeavor—and it is unnecessarily negative, to boot.
Why it matters
When clients complain about our prices and claim what they spend on themselves is less than what they are spending on their pets, I no longer explain why the third-party payment system limits their understanding of the true cost of healthcare. I simply ask, “It’s either this or the luxury package on your next vehicle. Who deserves it more?” It is cheeky … but effective. After all, it is love that really matters—not your backside as it hits the heated leather seats.
The truth is, it matters a great deal whether we are considered worthy by our wider culture. Not only does it affect how much our clients are willing to pay and (in the long run) how successfully our industry will continue to innovate and grow. It also affects us on a personal level, when we consider how meaningful our lives are (or have been, if you have retired). Being respected for your education, your selflessness, and your love of animals matters immeasurably to how you manage all those down days.
Labors of love
Keeping pets is one of the purest examples of a labor of love. For me, it is more comparable to how we handle the arts. For example, my fiancée makes his living as an artist. He has heard the very same arguments made against funding for musicians like himself. Superfluous, they say. Yet, few things make us feel more human than being with a beloved pet or experiencing art. What we offer is no more a luxury than listening to your favorite music or finishing a knitting project. Just consider: what would your life be like without art, creative endeavors, or pets? It is too inhuman to ponder!
Make no mistake, finding meaning in your profession is a personal imperative that affects everything you do and how well you do it. With all the down days we suffer through, it is crucial to consider what you do makes a real difference in the world. Do not let anyone convince you otherwise.
Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, owns a small animal practice in Miami and is available at drpattykhuly.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.