After suffering through an immense tragedy and ill health, Dr Stephanie Wright reveals the various ways she found to navigate them. Her experience may inspire veterinarians who may be going through difficult times. By Kerryn Ramsey
When Murwillumbah Vet Clinic won the AVA/Hills award for mixed practice of excellence in 2015, co-owner Dr Joan Gibbons gave an acceptance speech that covered the journey from a run-down clinic into a vibrant practice in northern New South Wales. Her business partner Dr Stephanie Wright, however, was undertaking a different journey at that time—a 500km solo walk in Italy.
“The alternative could have easily been me in a psych ward and our practice in disarray,” explains Dr Wright, who has had to deal with tragedy, serious illnesses and resultant depression for many years.
After opening the Murwillumbah practice with Dr Gibbons in 2003, Dr Wright experienced years of highs and lows—and now is happy to share her story. Her goal is to give hope to other veterinarians who are dealing with mental and physical health issues.
“Mental health issues are now becoming acknowledged as critical in our profession,” says
Dr Wright. “It’s important to have mental health out in the open—talking about it, recognising the signs in other people, and giving them time off or introducing other strategies.”
A study in the Australian Veterinary Journal showed that a veterinarian is four times more likely to take his or her life compared to the general adult population.
Dr Wright admits that she could have been one of these statistics. When the two veterinarians bought Murwillumbah Vet Clinic, Dr Wright had a nine-year-old son, Sean, by her first marriage. “The first year at the clinic was a struggle but things were starting to take shape,” she recalls. The Edinburgh-born vet who moved to Australia in 1992 had also embarked on trying for a child with her current husband, Tony.
“Then my world fell apart. During a cyclone, Tony, Sean and I were swept off a bridge on our property over what’s normally a shallow creek. Tony was swept away; Sean and I got stuck in a fence. I struggled and struggled but I couldn’t get him out. I watched my son drown and die.”
Instead of taking time off to grieve privately, Dr Wright returned to the practice after a few weeks, working half days until she returned to manage the practice fulltime. “The business was new and needed constant steering. I was the majority wage earner in our marriage so stopping work would only have added money worries to the burden of grief.”
During this time, Dr Wright was seeing a counsellor who recognised she had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and recommended cognitive therapy. Despite her pain, a strong desire to have a second child had remained.
By 2007, other staff members had fallen pregnant but Dr Wright, who had “embarked on the IVF roller-coaster”, lost embryo after embryo. “This culminated one terrible day when I had another negative pregnancy test, and a young vet told me she was pregnant. Joan and I had words about me losing the plot too often at work and my husband and I argued,” she recalls. “Life no longer felt worth living.”
Looking back, Dr Wright says that her depression was overwhelming. She took time off to recover, and decided to try IVF one more time. “I resolved to remain aware of my mental health and monitor it so that in future, I would know when things are heading south and would seek help.”
It was just after her 40th birthday when the veterinarian fell pregnant. After a problematic pregnancy which required hospitalisation, Gabriella (who’s now nine years old) was born four weeks premature by caesarean. Dr Wright only took 16 weeks off as the practice was busy. Unfortunately, a chronic back injury reoccurred, and was so severe, it was hard for her to dress without pain.
“After much deliberation and several opinions, I resorted to surgery,” says Dr Wright, who had the operation in 2011. “This was successful but the post-surgical pain was unbelievable due to my poor tolerance of analgesics. It was mind-altering in some ways. I began to feel really shaken by my own physical vulnerability.”
Another soft tissue surgery followed six months later which went disastrously wrong, leaving painful scars. “By this stage I wasn’t enjoying work,” she recalls. “To be honest, I was completely exhausted by everything life was throwing at me.”
As Dr Wright started talking to Dr Gibbons about taking six months off to recover, another catastrophe hit—the occurrence that all vets dread. The death of an animal under anaesthetic wasn’t Dr Wright’s fault, but the owners were looking for someone to blame. “They threatened to sue, they left vile voice messages and emails which mentioned my daughter,” she says.
“It’s important to have mental health out in the open—talking about it, recognising the signs in other people, and giving them time off or introducing other strategies.”
Apart from managing this sensitive issue, Dr Wright also had to deal with a severe flood early that year, which culminated in having PTSD again. On 3 March 2015—the day after the practice was informed they had won the excellence award—Dr Wright stopped working.
For many veterinarians, it would be a chance to kick back and slowly recover. That wasn’t the case for Dr Wright. Her plan of attack, encouraged by her psychologist, was to undertake a three-month odyssey in Italy. This included a four-week solitary trek from Lucca in Tuscany to the Vatican in Rome, taking some of Sean’s ashes with her. She also rediscovered her family roots near Cassino. This was followed by time with her husband and daughter.
“Although I’m not religious, I undertook some sort of spiritual pilgrimage. The journey put me on a very good path and enabled me to cope with what had been thrown at me in the past decade.”
Dr Wright returned home from her journey two years ago. Shortly after this, another health issue struck. She discovered that she had psoriatic arthritis, an autoimmune disease. The veterinarian had restricted movement and severe swelling in all her tendons that affected her veterinary skills.
After spending two years struggling through this, Dr Wright recently decided to say farewell to her much-loved practice. “I don’t feel confident doing surgery—I just can’t properly do it. I can’t grip needles or syringes. I can’t even hold a cat.”
Despite her physical and mental health issues, she’s determined that she’s “not at the point of no return” when it comes to her career. “If my latest drug works, I might be able to go back working part time,” says the practitioner, who completed her veterinary degree at University of Glasgow in 1990.
“When it comes to mental health, so many colleagues leave it too late and lose their practices, their marriages, their physical health and worse. Joan and I have always talked about mental health—together and with our team. It’s integral to our practice culture, so there is no stigma involved for me or any other practice member who’s struggling. We ask each other how we’re doing. That’s part of our normal routine. There is a lot of support all round, particularly on the bad days,” says Dr Wright.
“There’s no stigma or shame about seeing a psychologist. If a staff member is going through a difficult period, we offer longer holidays for example. It’s never a secret if someone’s struggling. It wasn’t a secret that I was having panic attacks before I went away on my holiday. If somebody else is having an anxiety issue, it’s quickly recognised, discussed, and steps are taken. The main thing is that it’s as easily talked about as if someone’s hurt their leg.”
Healthy food and exercise also come into play when it comes to the practice’s wellbeing. Dr Gibbons encourages the staff to exercise, making sure the roster is flexible so there is a good work-life balance.
Since staff members may not have time to have a proper breakfast—as they’re doing school drop-offs and other necessities—the clinic provides a platter of cheeses, crackers, dips, fruit, cucumber and tomato for morning tea every morning.
The study in the Australian Veterinary Journal noted that common causes of stress for vets include working long hours and dealing with difficult clients. Dr Wright also notes another common issue that causes stress for many vets and nurses. “I think one thing that really stresses vets is trying to get customers to part with their money for the good of their animal. There’s also an increasing expectation among people that you have to do everything right and if not, they’re going to sue you or complain,” says the veterinarian, who notes that the practice is a member of the Veterinary Defence Association.
Dr Wright suggests that veterinary schools at universities should give undergraduates more guidance on the various stresses they will have to deal with in this profession. “If you’ve not got a robust personality to start with, it’s very hard to cope with this job. I think mental health needs to be talked about especially at an undergraduate level.
“So, my question is—should all undergraduates join this profession? They may be capable on the technical side but can they cope with the various complex issues we face? In the future, we need to develop strategies for graduates and vets that will help them cope with the stresses and strains of veterinary medicine. After all, who knows what else life might throw into the mix?”
While Dr Wright’s health issues have meant that she’s now in the process of ending her clinic ownership, she’s hoping if she is well enough to return next year as an employee. As she says, “Hope is always the most important thing.”
Support is available to anyone who might be distressed by phoning Lifeline
13 11 14 or Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36. If you’re an AVA member, you can call its Telephone Counselling Service at any time on 1800 337 068.