What It's Really Like To Have One Of The U.S.'s Most Stressful Jobs

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Verna Serra, DVM, has been working in emergency veterinarian medicine for several years now, and she specifically covers the overnight shift — you know, when emergencies tend to happen. She seems like the last person whose job has any room for laughs, right? We're well aware that working with animals can be deeply affecting, which is why Dr. Serra's advice to us is so refreshing: "Maintaining a good sense of humor is probably the number-one thing that keeps you from dying, in life and at work." Those words to live by could have come from a substitute teacher, a bus driver, or, though we don't know any personally, an astronaut. But the fact that they're coming from a veterinarian, a profession that ranks among the most depressing and stressful jobs in the U.S., speaks volumes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 36% of female veterinarians in the U.S. have experienced episodes of depression, while only 22% of women who are not vets were recorded as dealing with the same. Beyond that, 19% of female vets have reportedly had suicidal thoughts and about 1% have attempted to kill themselves, compared with about 7% and 3%, respectively, of female non-vets. This boils down, roughly, to one in six veterinarians, of any gender, having suicidal thoughts since graduating from vet school.

Interested in the root of these startling discrepancies, especially as the number of women in veterinary medicine continues to rise, we spoke with Dr. Serra about what it's really like to be a vet — her day-to-day routine, the most difficult aspects of her job, and, most importantly, how she tackles those challenges. Check out our interview with Dr. Serra below: We speak with her about growing up with the all-too-common dream of being a vet, what made her stick with it, and why her animal patients may be easier to work with than their owners.

How long have you been a veterinarian?
"A little over six years."
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
What got you into this line of work, and were you aware that you were entering into a historically stressful field?
"I was one of those kids who always wanted to be a veterinarian. But I worked in various capacities in the veterinary field for many years before I went to vet school, so in some ways I knew what I was getting into, and that it wasn’t going to be unicorns and rainbows and petting puppies and kittens all day."

So if you aren’t petting baby animals all day long, what does happen on a normal day at work?
"The thing about emergency medicine is that there is no ‘normal day,’ but I work overnights only, and I’ve done so for several years. I work 13- or 14-hour shifts, usually 6 or 7 p.m. until 8 or 9 a.m., and my night consists of usually three to five really critical emergencies, like actively dying patients, with their owners associated with them and their own different financial, emotional, [and] mental capacities. And then, I also take care of the patients who are hospitalized for other services — surgical patients, neurology patients, critical-care patients who are spending the night in the hospital and their primary doctors are not available — I...oversee and take care of them overnight."

Is there an aspect of your job that you find the most satisfying?
"This is going to sound cliché, but my favorite part of my job is making animals feel better, however I can do that; that’s what I want to do."

What is one of the most difficult or stressful nights you have had to work?
"Well, last night my hospital flooded and I had to keep working. [During] Hurricane Sandy, all the power went out, and we...still had to keep working by flashlight. [But] most of the time, the most stress is brought on by a difficult client and not a challenging case. If clients are giving you a really hard time and not allowing you to do what you need to do for whatever reason, be it financial or emotional...calling you names, threatening your life, telling you they wish you would die and your pets would die...that kind of stuff is the most stressful. Trying to do the best you can for someone whose pet is really sick but they don’t have a lot of money — trying to just eke out what you can to do the best you can — that is always stressful.

"When you have a night when you have all of those cases and they’re all really sick, and you realize, It’s 2 a.m. and I haven’t peed yet, and my stomach is growling, and my list of things to do is still endless — that’s what a stressful night is."
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
It sounds like emotions can run pretty high in this kind of setting. Do you find, if you do have an especially trying night, that you have a hard time recuperating when you get home?
"You’re not completely impenetrable to it, but I have a wind-down period of time when, for a few hours after I’ve worked a stressful night, I’m kind of edgy and don’t want to deal with anything other than sitting in my apartment and petting my own cat. You just need to decompress. But most of the time, I don’t take my work home with me. I don’t take it personally. I know it’s not about me at all, really: I’m just someone to let out [stress and frustration] on."

Besides hanging out with your cat, do you have any hobbies or anything that you do outside of work to take care of yourself?
"I go to plays, and parks, and [I go] fishing and hiking and camping; [I like] being outside and getting away from the city. [I] hang out with my friends and go get dinner, go to a movie, go to a play, go to a comedy club, that kind of stuff."

At any point during your career so far, have you thought about quitting?
"No. (laughs)."

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