We took a moment to talk to Dr. Ashley Hill, general practitioner at City Park Animal Clinic in Fort Collins, Colorado, to discuss her inspiration behind “The Starving Veterinarian”—a poem that captures the struggles many veterinary professionals face every day.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. Why did you choose the veterinary industry?
I have always wanted to be a veterinarian. I love animals, but I also care a lot about people. I really love to put my whole self in everything I do. When you call our after-hours number, I will be the one you speak with. When you have a question or something you would prefer an email about, I will be the one getting back to you immediately with a response. And when you check in on our website to see what’s new, I’m the one who has updated it. I am passionate about client education and my goal is to become a board-certified radiologist.
What are some of the most rewarding aspects of working in the veterinary industry?
There are a lot of rewarding factors. I hate to give anybody the wrong idea of what I do all day, but I do enjoy seeing puppies and kittens! It’s not all of what I do, but it’s great.
The challenge is both exciting and rewarding – solving complicated cases and having (most of the time) positive results is really what fulfills me.
I also love the diversity. I am a general practice associate along with practice manager at my primary clinic and I also do relief work at both an urgent care facility as well as at a major referral hospital. I am on call for my primary clinic all the time.
And although some days I dread it, I am thankful to be able to communicate with our clients about their pets. I think I would sum up the vet industry and the hold it has on me in one simple phrase: Every day is different, even when it’s the same.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your career?
Money is always a big concern. It makes it challenging when people want us to do everything but don’t have the money for even the initial exam. That’s why I always recommend medical insurance for pets. My own cat has it. Why? Because I can’t control the cost of medications – insulin costs $380 per bottle without markup—I can’t afford that. It gives me peace of mind knowing that whatever she needs I will not have to say no because of cost.
Also I think attitudes are shifting. We live in the mis-information age. More and more people come in demanding treatment without diagnostics because they feel they know what is going on with their pet. If I could have saved myself a half million dollar debt and 8 years of schooling by being a proficient google searcher our industry would really be in trouble.
And of course there’s the other stuff – cases that just don’t go right, the self-doubt, and while euthanasia is truly a beautiful gift, it will always be sad. Although the vast majority of my colleagues have difficulty with work-life balance I find more peace at work than away, though I know it’s likely not healthy to be working 60+ hours a week.
What compelled you to write “The Starving Veterinarian”?
The very first lines of this poem were formed exactly how they happened. I got a call on our after-hours line at about 7:30 am. A woman called in a panic saying her dog had just fallen down the stairs and she was worried he had broken both his legs. I told her to get him in and I would be there straight away. I live about 2 miles down the road. So I got up, washed my face, got dressed, grabbed a banana and jetted out the door. Forgot my lunch, didn’t grab coffee.
I am almost there when the tech calls and says that the woman is irate. She says I should be there and she didn’t know who I was—I was a newer grad and she was a regular client for my boss—and refused to drop her dog off. She was screaming in our lobby saying she was just going to go straight to the specialty hospital. But she was still there and somewhat amenable when I arrived 4 minutes later.
She still wanted to see my boss and I told her that just wasn’t possible immediately, but he would be in later. I did my exam, explained everything, let her know that we should start the diagnostics so when my boss arrived everything would be ready for him, which she allowed. He did arrive and I explained the case. I had already talked to her, made my diagnosis, and typed up discharges. I happened to hear her on the phone saying she’d be looking for second opinions—which ultimately confirmed my initial diagnosis.
But what upset me, and continues to upset me, was how ungrateful she was. How ungrateful a lot of people are. It was a bad week leading up to that moment. When I stepped on the scale that week, I had lost 6 lbs in a week. At that point I just shrugged and said “I was too busy to eat.”
Compassion fatigue is a well-known challenge among the veterinary industry. What do you wish the everyday pet owner knew about the challenges veterinarians and hospital staff face every day?
There’s a lot I wish pet owners knew.
The biggest part is probably that the money they spend for our services isn’t going to us. It’s not buying me fancy cars, or good clothes, or anything “extra” – the money is going to the supplies and medications which have sky-rocketed in price and continue to do so, and that is absolutely out of our control. People are always comparing us to human medicine “I got my teeth cleaned and it was only $80! I should take my dog to my own dentist!” That’s not true by a long shot. If you look at what you were billed vs what you paid you can see it. I once looked at an itemized invoice for my one-night hospital stay which totaled $35,000—even a single bag of IV fluids was $800. I know the cost of those supplies, so it upsets me to think about how we’re the ones accused of being in it only for the money.
Also it’s not just compassion fatigue – it’s general fatigue. Long hours, difficult cases, paperwork, it all contributes. We serve almost every function – general practitioner, surgeon, radiologist, pathologist, pharmacist, therapist, anesthesiologist, dentist, and more. We are all of these things in a 30-60 minute time period, on multiple species to boot!
The other thing I want not only pet owners but everyone to know is to be mindful of what you say – words can be, and often are, forgiven, but they are not so easily forgotten.
What could a pet owner or someone outside of the veterinary industry do to support veterinarians and hospital staff?
The biggest thing people can do to support us is just be kind. It sounds super cliché, but a little gratitude goes a long way. And for the love of everything, get insurance! Make the little investment and make it a better quality for the pet, pet owner, and physician.
Kathryn works at Trupanion alongside her little sidekick, a rescued Papillion mix named Modie. She loves all animals big and small but is a dog enthusiast at heart. By the third grade, she had memorized every dog breed and their characteristics and dreamed of being an agility dog trainer or the next Steve Irwin. When not at Trupanion, Kathryn spends her time playing soccer, baking cookies, and exploring the Pacific Northwest with her little sidekick.