Grit + Love: A veterinary wellness journey during lockdown

(Charles Hurty, DVM - in blue scrubs - and the staff of Grove Animal Clinic. Photo courtesy of Charles Hurty)

“It looked like the sky was falling,” says Charles Hurty, DVM.

He was talking about the skies over Newport, Oregon in September of 2020, when out-of-control wildfires ravaged the surrounding old growth forests and rained ash and grit over much of the Pacific Northwest. But Hurty could have been talking about COVID-19, which was ravaging the world at the same time, and the devastating toll it was taking on the veterinary profession.

No matter how you looked at it, September 2020 was a bad time for almost everyone. But veterinary teams were particularly hard hit—like all healing professions, the practice of veterinary medicine requires not just physical stamina but an extraordinary degree of emotional resilience. This is no secret to stressed-out hospital staff, and statistics reveal the impact. A staggering 40-45% of DVMs contemplate leaving the profession every year. And that was before the pandemic, which brought confusing new policies, the uncertainty of exposure, and the juggling act that was curbside care.

Hurty, owner and Medical Director of AAHA-accredited Grove Veterinary Clinic in Newport, was almost one of those statistics. “The confusion and emotions of the pandemic started to burden me,” he says. “How can we possibly endure this for much longer? I’m asking myself to do this insane work; how can I ask others to do it, too?”

Hurty told NEWStat that the pandemic exposed what he considers the profession’s most serious weakness: an inability to recognize and cope with stress, anxiety, and depression. “Our profession’s failure to establish healthy boundaries and wellness practices put the profession in a tailspin,” he says. “Huge, gaping wounds resulted, and a void was just waiting to be filled with chaos, drama, and anxiety.” Hurty knew that something needed to change on a fundamental level.

Looking for a way to alleviate the pressure put on his CSRs and techs, the front-line staff who were bearing the brunt of the interactions with sad or angry clients and payment collection, it occurred to Hurty that what he and his staff were experiencing was what many would define as trauma, and that perhaps what they most needed was therapy.

He reached out to a local mental healthcare practitioner, Helen Beaman, LCSW, a social worker specializing in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). He explained to her that what everyone in our field already knew: even before COVID, our profession was more at risk for anxiety, depression, burn-out, and suicide than the general population. Add COVID to the already toxic mix, and suddenly vet staff were considered essential workers, subject to all the additional stress that status conveyed—and then were criticized for their inability to gracefully navigate care in an impossible environment.

Beaman was appalled—like most of the general public, she’d had no clue—and immediately agreed to help.

“She had an instant and easy connection to our team members,” Hurty says. And it was clear that he and his staff needed this. Beaman came up with actions, ideas, and techniques for the staff to try on, practice, and then keep or discard, depending on what worked for them.

“We not only went through development of coping techniques,” Hurty says, “but we also built an infrastructure for understanding the language and vocabulary of self-care. We established access to mental wellness resources for our team.”

Then came time to put their program into practice in the hospital.

At its heart was a series of mental wellness modules made up of four 2-hour programs, presented to the team at a local bakery along with dinner and dessert. Hurty says there was surprisingly little skepticism from staff. “I reassured them we wouldn’t be getting together to have a group hug and sing ‘Kumbaya’.” he laughs. “I told them we were going to learn.”

Instead of pushback, which Hurty admits he was expecting, he got 100% buy-in from his people; it was if they knew that, between COVID and the wildfires, they needed outside help.

The first module focused on basic concepts: defining anxiety, depression, stress, and burnout, and then helping staff learn to recognize if they were suffering from them. Hurty decided to make the program voluntary—and had 100% turnout from his 5 veterinarians and 22 support staff.

“It was a ‘holy moly’ moment for me,” he says. “This was not only useful–this could be a life-changing program. We learned that we are not alone in this situation; we were able to embrace each other’s humanity and see things with a bit more clarity. It was obvious that this was the first step on a path towards a new way of doing things.”

Other modules followed, one month apart.

Module 2 focused on basic CBT techniques, including breathing strategies, meditation, visualization, grounding techniques, and body awareness, as well as dietary and exercise recommendations and considerations. It was fun, Hurty says, to explore new stuff and to help his team develop their own self-care practices.

Module 3 taught additional techniques of understanding stress and anxiety and how to handle the difficult thoughts and feelings that arise. Team members also learned how simply switching the language they use can effectively change our mindset and approach to problems in a meaningful way. For example, instead of talking about “bad” and “impossible” situations, discuss “new challenges” and “learning experiences.” A difficult client service moment might be “not ideal.”

Hurty says this idea of reframing a situation to provide a different perspective has caught on at Grove. “We even laugh about it at times,” Hurty says, and that’s exactly the point. “Laugh a little—lighten it up—figure it out and move on!”

Module 4 focused on boundary setting—something Hurty says is profoundly lacking in the profession.

“Empathy without boundaries is truly self-destructive,” he says. “You may be able to exist with ‘leaky’ boundaries for a time, but it will inevitably catch up to you.” He ticks off examples: To whom did you promise what? Do you really have time to answer all of that client’s questions afterhours? Is carrying a clinic on-call phone all the time truly beneficial to you and your practice? Can you actually deliver on the promises that you’re making? “Understanding the importance of boundaries and how to set them is a critically important lesson to learn.”

CBT was so successful for Grove that Hurty offered all team members a Wellness CE credit for the training. “Mental wellness and mental health are concepts that need to be practiced and worked on,” he says. “We need to be reminded of its importance. We need to put self-care and brain/mind health in the equation and promote it just like any other life skill.”

Hurty now considers Helen Beaman, their CBT social worker, part of the practice family. She receives what he calls “modest compensation” for her work, but she chooses to pay it forward. “Helen donates any earnings from this relationship to Dachshund Rescue,” he says. “What a full circle of empathy, caring, and grit.”

But what about that oddly compelling name, Grit + Love? Where did that come from?

Hurty thinks back to his nightmare memories of September, 2020: "The wildfires are everywhere. Our skies turned bright orange. We were doing the COVID thing, curbside. We were wearing our KN95 masks. The soot was falling, you could hardly breathe, but we still rallied, stayed open, got food donated for people who needed it,” Hurty recalls. “I remember pulling everybody into the treatment area for a debriefing, something we did regularly during COVID because everything was just so messed up. And I looked at this group and I said, ‘You guys are the grittiest people I’ve ever met.'”

The phrase resonated, “and it sort of took off from there.’”

Hurty had some clinic swag made up—t-shirts, hats—with the phrase “Grit + Love.” Staff loved it. It even caught on locally. “And it came full circle when we developed the wellbeing program,” Hurty says. “We named it Grit + Love. Because that says it all.”

The phrase became the hospital’s rallying point. “We wear our gear; we have our hats. [The phrase] grounds you in the moment as to what you’re doing.”

He thinks it applies equally well to the profession: “That’s kind of what we’re all about: You’ve got to develop grit, but you also have to have that love. That love can be your own empathy, your compassion, your self-care. Your grit is your resilience; it’s why you keep coming back to the ball game." 

So why does Hurty keep coming back? “I love science, I love medicine,” he says. “I am an extrovert, so I enjoy my clients. But being with my team is critical to me and my passion is supporting that team and having the right people around me.”

“I can do the VetMed stuff,” he adds, “but it’s the connections—and the way we get the work done—that’s most important.”

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