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Being sick as a dog

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OUR practice was recently hit by a bout of flu. It started with one or two staff members snuffling and speaking with a husky voice but, over the coming weeks, we all succumbed, hacking incessantly like greyhounds with kennel cough. Just as one of us recovered, another would come down with symptoms, establishing a vicious cycle of infection, recovery and reinfection, which continued for about two months.

We're told by public health officials that the right thing to do in such circumstances is to stay home from work – partly to rest and recover, but mostly to keep our infectious diseases to ourselves – and consult a doctor. But vets are notoriously bad at taking both of these pieces of advice.

Taking a sick day is difficult because of the nature of practice, the difficulty in sourcing a suitable locum at short notice, the feeling that we are burdening colleagues and the fact that sick days are still frowned upon. Veterinarians will boast about how few sick days they have taken, as if they were waving around a badge of honour.

Exhibit 1, a text message from an employer describing a busy Saturday at the practice, while her immune system struggled with virulent flu: ‘Today was insane: 30 consults, a hit by car, a poisoning … I kept walking out of consults and splashing my face, I felt so bad for the first couple of hours I don't remember them. Then I slipped into gear and didn't have time to feel sorry for myself.’

Of course it is exhilarating to battle through adversity, but I wonder about the wisdom of this philosophy when it comes to ignoring one's personal health, especially in a profession where occupational stress and burnout are rife. ‘Battling on’, in this case, represented a false economy; the vet in question was so unwell after that effort that she was bedridden for three days.

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The same employer chided me for wearing a surgical mask in consults in an attempt to contain my germs. ‘It's a bad look – people will think you're sick,’ she said, failing to appreciate the irony. I persisted and was thanked by several clients, including one who was pregnant.

If my doctor was coughing and spluttering on the job, I'd be appalled. I would expect her to take her own advice, go home, keep up her fluid intake and look after herself.

Veterinarians are incredibly resistant to visiting doctors. Sir William Osler once remarked that, ‘a physician who treats himself has a fool for a patient’.

Perhaps we don't really believe that? Over the years I've seen vets self-prescribe antibiotics, radiograph themselves, even stitch up a wound under local anaesthetic, rather than seek the opinion of someone with expertise in treating our species. I've been guilty of doctor-dodging on the grounds that ‘they'll only tell me to go home and rest’, even when that was precisely what I needed.

In their book, ‘First Do No Harm: Being a Resilient Doctor in the 21st Century’, Leanne Rowe and Michael Kidd suggest that medical practitioners are also bad at self-care. This was perhaps due to a fear of relinquishing control, worries about being judged as weak by colleagues, or an acceptance of reduced wellbeing, chronic stress and fatigue as normal states.

True healers, of any species, understand the importance of their own health and realise that taking sick days is critical to protecting our clients (and, potentially, patients), as well as sustaining a long and productive career.

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