Dr Julie Stafford was the recipient of the 2016 WSAVA-Hill’s Next Generation Award
She was presented with the Award during World Congress in Cartagena and gave a lecture addressing depression, burnout and suicide in the veterinary profession
As a student, Dr. Stafford worked in a pro bono clinic in Nicaragua and was heavily involved in the Student American Veterinary Association (SAVMA) and the International Veterinary Students’ Association (IVSA). Since graduating in 2013, she has participated in leadership programs with the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA) and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). She spent a year working with the AVMA, promoting wellness within the veterinary profession and is a strong proponent of mental wellness and self-care of veterinarians. She is currently living in Alaska, where she works with Iditarod sled dogs and aims to develop a more active veterinary community.
Your lecture was very well received. Do you feel encouraged by the response?
I was both gladdened and saddened by how well received my lecture was. I was glad that so many people were interested in the topic but sad that mental health and wellness is something that affects SO many veterinarians all around the world. Truthfully, I wasn't sure how relevant it would be to many different countries; many of the studies on wellness in our profession are out of Australia, United Kingdom, Canada, or the USA – but it was very obvious that this is a problem in most, if not all, countries in which veterinarians practice. What was truly uplifting was how engaged, open, and hopeful people are about creating change. I had honest, heartfelt questions from all generations of vets asked during my lecture and afterwards, many approached me wanting to know what more they could do for themselves and others. With this sort of momentum, I have no doubt that we can make real change to help our profession become happier and healthier.
Why do you have such a strong interest in veterinary wellness?
It came about when I was selected by the AVMA to participate in the AVMA Future Leaders’ Program (FLP). My group was tasked with producing something tangible and useful to the AVMA membership as a whole. At the time, I was working as a rural mixed animal practitioner and feeling the stressors of working as one of two vets in the entire county. I was experiencing compassion fatigue, lack of work life balance, isolation and many of the other stressors that veterinarians face.
It turned out I was not the only one concerned with veterinary wellness. Our FLP group was given the topic of ‘wellness’ and by the end of our first meeting we had decided it had to be veterinary mental wellness. With help from the AVMA we produced online resources at www.avma.org/wellness, we organized a wellness symposium at the 2015 AVMA conference in Boston and had lectures on ‘Stomping Out Compassion Fatigue’, ‘Defeating the Difficult Conversation’, and ‘Mastering Work-Life Balance.’ We also published a commentary in JAVMA titled ‘Taking stock and making strides towards wellness in the veterinary workplace.’
As a relatively recent graduate what has surprised you most about the profession?
Its willingness to change. This isn’t always seen at an individual level but, as a whole, we are embracing of change. I think it goes along with our love of learning. We desire to improve medicine and stay up to date with new clinical techniques. Similarly, we are comfortable with updating the applications of our profession. As a millennial, I have been surprised at how often my opinion or viewpoint is requested and thoughtfully considered.
On a less positive note – the lack of peer support in clinical practice. Often, it is entirely unintentional. We are all so busy that peer mentorship falls by the wayside. But, sometimes, it feels more intentional. I used to work at the only clinic in the county. I never considered or heard of bad mouthing other vets. Working in a more metropolitan area I have been disheartened by the petty competition that can occur between veterinary clinics. I think we need to be more intentional about setting business competition aside and supporting one another as veterinarians.
If you could say one thing to our colleagues trying to manage work life balance, school debt loads, compassion fatigue, etc. what would it be?
Find what works for you, stick to it and don’t beat yourself up over it! We aren’t all built the same way and that’s ok. Even if your boss, and her boss, and his boss have always done something some way and it doesn’t work for you, just tell them. I was so nervous to tell one of my bosses I HAD to start my job two weeks late so I could float the Grand Canyon but guess what he said? “Have fun!”
Some vets may be able to work a 14 hour, six- day week and only need six hours’ sleep a night to stay lucid but that doesn’t work for me. I need eight hours! Any less and I get crotchety, don’t think fast or straight, and am not operating at my peak. It doesn’t matter to me that people see me as young and able to work tirelessly. I need my sleep and I need time off to be a better, more productive vet.
If shutting off your work phone at seven is what keeps you sane, do it! Don’t feel bad about setting boundaries. Make rules that are clear and concise and only break them when YOU want to, not for anyone else.
Tell us a little about your work in Alaska and the Iditarod sled dogs.
I work at Wasilla Veterinary Clinic in Wasilla, Alaska - the town where the renowned Iditarod Sled Race starts and where its headquarters is based. We see a number of sled dogs at our clinic, both dogs intended for racing in the Iditarod and other races, as well as recreational sled dogs.
The most important thing that I want everyone to know is that these dogs love what they do and their mushers and handlers love their dogs. The dogs are treated better than many everyday pets and they are required to undergo yearly physical examinations, bloodwork and ECG screening tests prior to running in the Iditarod race. As one may expect, they tend to be very healthy, fit animals but can experience some diseases, such as calcaneal tendon rupture, paw pad injuries, and even frostbite, a little more commonly than our day to day patients.
While I have treated sled dogs when diseased, much of my work with them is more regulatory. Many mushers from around the world fly into and out of Alaska with their dog teams to compete and they all need examinations for health certificates or passport documents. It's great work that normally gets you outside working with friendly people and dogs. I love it.