2017 literally turned my world upside down. On 6th September, my beautiful home in the British Virgin Islands felt the full impact of category 5 Hurricane Irma, and everything I’ve known and loved for the past 2 years degenerated faster than Donald Trump’s Tweets at 1am.
Although I never anticipated living through a natural disaster, it turns out that hurricanes and veterinary medicine have more in common than I could have realised…and not just the many moments where you regret not having worn gloves.
Luckily on holiday in Europe when the hurricane struck, and unable to return home since, the past few months have been spent raising media awareness and spearheading a campaign for animal aid in the region. To help us continue our efforts for the animals of the BVI please donate at Go Fund Me BVI animals of Hurricane Irma
1. Days can go from 0-185mph in minutes.
Just like sitting in the eye of the storm waiting for the wall to hit, a quiet shift in the clinic can spiral out of control quicker than you can say ‘who wants go home early?’.
For scientists, we can be a superstitious bunch and there is nothing more unsettling than a day with no walk-ins; slow shifts usually seem to precipitate a chaotic whirlwind of emergency road traffic accidents, poisonings and ruptured spleens 5 minutes before closing.
Rule no.1 of the quiet shift: You do not talk about the quiet shift (you know the rest…)
2. No man is an island (even if you live on one).
Surviving a hurricane involves cooperation, sharing resources and leaning on one another when you need it. To survive Hurricane Irma people grouped together to pool supplies and gain safety in numbers. We frantically used social media to connect people with the help they needed and account for missing persons. We organised everything from aid shipments to evacuation and more. Without teamwork a whole lot more people would have died during and after these hurricanes, and three months on it’s still as important as ever. PTSD is common in survivors of natural disasters and speaking for myself and a whole range of others affected by the hurricanes, sharing your problems and worries seems to be pretty key to getting through it all.
Surviving a career in veterinary medicine is no different. Talk to each other, support each other, and you’ll find it a whole lot easier.
…And if that doesn’t work, lock the doors, hide under the exam table and eat marshmallows together till it’s all blown over.
3. The real struggle starts when the storm ends.
Seeing your home, friends’ homes, workplace, favourite restaurants and bars, all wiped off the face of the earth in a matter of hours is terrifying and humbling. Just like vet school, everyone knows that it’s hard and will want to ask you about it. Don’t even try and pretend you never imagined yourself in that scene from 28 Days Later as you emerge, blinking into the daylight seeing the outside of the hospital for the first time since you started surgical rotation a week ago.
You’ll experience the highest highs and lowest lows huddled with colleagues going through the same challenges. And hey, there’s nothing like a busy week on Internal Medicine or sheltering in a post-apocalyptic wasteland to help you lose that last few pounds is there? #refugeegoals
But when the winds stop, you graduate and step out of your bunker into the world, that’s when you discover who you really are. When the media leave, aid dwindles and public focus moves on, you find yourself on your own, carving out a new life in a wholly unrecognisable world. There’s no manual for what happens next – you’ll be scared, unsure of yourself. You’ll question every decision. How do you know what it’s acceptable to put up with and what’s not? How do you provide others support without being taken advantage of yourself? How do you know you can get through it with your sanity intact?
Surviving hurricanes and vet school and finding happiness in the aftermath requires flexibility, strength of character, constant self-assessment and personal reflection. You’ll put up with a lot of crap (literally and figuratively) in the hopes it gets easier with time, but with no guarantee that it will. You’ll learn new things about yourself, ways of coping, what makes you happy and what doesn’t, and you’ll probably learn who is truly there for you when the publicity stops and you still need help. But possibly most importantly – you learn that nothing’s perfect and that you can’t expect others to understand what you’re going through unless you speak up and ask.
4. A tidy house is a wonderful memory.
Just like the winds and daily flash floods, a career in veterinary medicine is destined to leave your house strewn with objects of unknown origin.
No matter how thoroughly you thought you’d checked your scrub pockets before you left work, those pesky drip bungs and syringes still inexplicably appear in your washing machine… and those are these least unfortunate of the potential treats awaiting anyone brave enough to delve into a vet’s pockets.
Once beautifully organised bookshelves inevitably budge with tattered journal articles. The dining table makes a great impromptu prep room for late night emergencies. Spare rooms soon become makeshift kennels for the latest foster. Fosters soon become less and less temporary… and I may have more dog bowls in my kitchen cupboard than crockery.
5. Learn when to keep your mouth closed
6. The basics will always have your back.
In a world where technology and advanced diagnostics are increasingly accessible it can be easy to get caught up in relying on the latest tech and external labs to get your diagnosis. And sure, many times that’s the most reliable and effective way of reaching a solid treatment plan. But what about your clients that don’t have insurance? Could you solve those bank holiday emergencies faster if you were more practiced at in-house smears? Could you have reached the same solution more cost effectively by going back to basics?
When there’s no power, limited phone reception, your colleagues are trapped in the rubble of their former houses and you’re on a patchy phone line trying to talk your already exhausted vet nurse through managing collapsed cats and dogs with lacterated arteries, it’s just you and your instincts.
Just like those who have spent the past 3 months surviving on a diet of cold tinned goods and sleeping under tarpaulins, these post-hurricane veterinary challenges have given me a huge respect and gratitude for the value of in-house options. Take time to practice your techniques, keep an extra smear to review once you get those results back, call the lab to chat through your latest histology report. Alright, so hopefully very few of you will find yourself working up acute anaemias in a power outage (FYI, iPhone torches make handy light sources for microscopes!)… but your clients will think you’re a rock star for reaching the same conclusion for half the cost.
7. Eating and washing are more difficult than they ought to be.
In the aftermath of a natural disaster, adrenaline keeps everyone functioning. The human body and mind is an incredible thing and it’s often not until much later that the true toll starts to show. Friends and colleagues surviving post-Irma BVI ran themselves ragged tending to injured people and animals, clearing roads and debris in the heat. One friend vomited from dehydration because she was so determined to salvage our patient records from the flooding. Even safely overseas, I worked for 20h a day for the first weeks arranging evacuations, aid shipments, charity help, pet travel waivers.
We’ve all been there at work too – staying late, working through lunch for the fifth day that week. You’ll go home then spend all night researching that tricky case. It seems necessary at the time, unavoidable even. But ‘work life balance’ is not a yoga pose – ultimately, burn-out helps no one. Take time for yourself. Look after your own health. Eat. Wash, regularly. You (and your clients and colleagues!) will thank you for it.
8. It’s different for everyone.
One of the most profound things i’ve learnt from speaking with friends since Hurricane Irma, is how different everyone’s experiences have been. For some, the sheer trauma of surviving the storm while their houses were ripped from around their ears was life changing. For others (especially those of us who were away) watching your entire life vanish before your eyes on the evening news leaves you with an unshakable feeling of impotence and powerlessness. Not knowing if any of my friends were alive for 48h is not an experience I wish to repeat. In the aftermath, some felt the need to retreat into themselves to process the change. For others, busying themselves has kept them going. Some got angry, some sad, most scared. It can be easy to form alliances with those feeling most similar to yourself, but its so important to remember that wherever we were and no matter how long we’d called the BVI home, we are all survivors.
Teams in veterinary clinics are the same. Us and our colleagues come from myriad backgrounds and experiences. We cope with the difficult cases, ungrateful owners, painful euthanasias, uncontrollable animals (and children) in different ways (I prefer inappropriate humour and cheese).
Some are vets, some nurses, some kennel techs, some probably have previous jobs you’ve no idea about! When times get tough at work, it can be too easy to divide your team into ‘us’ and ‘them’ – night shift vs. day, vets vs. nurses, women vs. men, practice manager vs. everyone else. Respect and celebrate your different strengths and you’ll all be more likely to survive intact.
9. A sense of humour is ESSENTIAL.
You’ll experience things so surreal that you wouldn’t believe them if they weren’t happening to you. If you can’t laugh when it’s 10pm on a Friday and you find out the name of the dog from whom you’ve just (successfully) removed a 3ft spear… is ‘Zulu’ then who even are you?!
Hurricanes are exempt from irony neither; In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma, a good friend lead the charge in connecting missing persons via Facebook, coordinating information and search parties to areas we’d heard little from – he grew particularly worried by a large stretch of coast on Tortola from which we’d heard next to nothing. After a frenetic 24h, he found out that this blackout had been caused because the whole road to the area had been blocked – by the remains of his living room.
We have also learnt that Caribbean hurricanes are strangely respectful of our need for alcohol, with a number of us (including myself) sharing similar stories of our homes completely gutted by tornados – heavy wooden furniture and large sofas spun 360°, doors off, walls gone, roofs missing… only to find full glasses of wine (abandoned during the terror of the eye wall) sitting waiting on the counter like nothing had happened. Indeed the only thing remaining intact in my living room is the liquor cabinet with the whisky glasses still poised neatly atop.
So laugh. When the dog poops in your pocket. When you go into a consult completely unaware that you’re wearing your previous patient’s bodily fluids. When the ’emergency’ appointment for a tumour turns out to be a nipple. When the foreign body looks suspiciously like Lucky tried out an entirely different type of ‘rabbit’ for dinner. When you accidentally squirt freshly aspirated ascites in your colleague’s face (sorry again!).
10. It’s ok to get out if it all gets too much.
Its amazing isn’t it? To think that anyone would feel guilty for evacuating to safety after a natural disaster like Hurricane Irma. But this is exactly how so many of my friends have felt, knowing that they would be leaving friends and colleagues behind. I confess, I have personally felt a huge amount of guilt for being away (even though my vacation was prearranged months prior!) and not being able to return while my remaining colleagues work themselves silly has been beyond frustrating.
If you’ve read my previous blog post, you’ll know that career expectation and mental welfare are big issues in the veterinary profession. Why should considering a break or change in career be any more a source of guilt than flying to safety after a hurricane? It’s easy to work yourself into feeling guilty for taking steps for your own happiness, whether its leaving your home or your career – but if you’re at the end of your rope, it’s ok to get out.
11. It’ll change your life forever.
It’s tough, it’s humbling, it’s scary. It’ll provide you with photos and stories that amaze and repulse your friends in equal measure. You’ll forge lifelong bonds. You’ll cry, then laugh, then cry some more. You’ll loose all concept of ‘polite conversation’. You’ll have days where you want to give up, and days when you’re on top of the world. You’ll become more used to finding insects in your hair than you’d like. You’ll never again take a good night’s sleep or a hot meal for granted. You’ll accomplish more than you ever thought possible. You’ll never find out exactly what that stain was. You’ll be proud of yourself for managing something a fraction of the world’s population can. It’ll change you, forever, but it needn’t become you. Remember that.