Dr. Katherine Sanui is a successful Emergency Veterinarian in the San Diego, California, area. As an animal physician in the ER, Dr. Sanui’s challenges are great. On most days she and the rest of her hospital are the first and last hope of pet owners who have brought to the pet hospital their beloved animals in some degree of distress, illness or injury. Such a task breeds immeasurable responsibility and emotional investment; it is never easy to see an animal in pain.
One of the reasons Dr. Sanui gets to be in the minority of professionals that truly enjoys their job is that she took a childhood dream and put it to the test. Before enrolling in veterinary school she worked at a veterinary hospital as a veterinary technician. She tested her stamina, emotional tolerance and proclivities for the job. She advises others to do the same. From the experience she garnered in the field, she was well-aware that being a veterinarian, especially one in the ER meant living a career-based lifestyle versus simply following a work schedule. Her story is one of a dream come true, but it didn’t just happen to her. With great thought and a lot of hard work, she earned the honor of being a veterinarian.
What were some of the questions you had before enrolling in college to become a veterinarian?
I had questions regarding the requirements, for example educational and any requirements outside of education (like clinical experience). What type of pay could I expect? How available were the jobs going to be? What if I end up going through the training and then realize I really I don’t enjoy being a veterinarian as much as I thought I would?
Any advice for individuals wondering some of those same things?
I think it would help if you worked in a clinical setting for a while before going into it. I know that a lot of my classmates didn’t have enough clinical training to know what they were getting into. Or, they might have had small animal experience and they wanted to do a zoo track, which is totally different. Try a few different tracks to see which one suits your personality and life style goals best – I did some work with equine, laboratory animals, avian, food animal, and small animal emergency before deciding. Regarding requirements for schools and job expectations in the future, do your research. Every school and state are different.
When did you first decide that this was something you wanted to do?
I was actually really young. I don’t know exactly how I got it stuck in my head that this was what I wanted to do, but for as long as I can remember this is what I’ve wanted to do. I knew kids who wanted to be a firefighter or actress but those were never for me. My grandpa wanted to be a veterinarian, but because of the war he wasn’t able to finish following that path. So for as long as I can think back, I’ve wanted to be a veterinarian and that has never wavered. Then, after having worked at a practice, I wanted to do it even more.
So you had actually had experience in the work environment before going to school?
Yes, I worked as a veterinary technician before going to veterinary school. I knew I liked the lifestyle, I liked the hours, I liked the fast pace and spontaneity of the job, and I loved the animals–that’s why I wanted to do emergency.
Is it hard to get into veterinary school?
Yes, it can be hard to get in. I believe there are 28 veterinary schools in the US and their average class size is about 100-150. There are pretty high standards for the minimum GPA, clinical experience, etc. for applicants before even being invited to interview.
Please will you detail your educational background?
Yes, I went to UC Davis for my undergraduate degree (4 years) and veterinary school (4 years); I did my internship (1 year) at a private practice in San Diego.
Does the job of an emergency veterinarian differ greatly from other types of practice?
Yes, just like human doctors you have general practitioners (GP) who do vaccines, annual exams, etc. and then there are specialty doctors who focus on specific aspects such as surgery, oncology, nutrition, neurology, emergency and critical care medicine, etc. Again, I think it’s very important that whatever you think you want to do, to get a job in that setting beforehand to get an idea of the lifestyle. The first emergency doctors I worked with worked 3 days a week, but they worked 2 day shifts and then a 24 hour overnight shift. It sounds brutal, but then they had 4 days off a week which they really seemed to value.
How much time are you able to spend time with family and friends?
A fair amount. Part of the reason it works out so well for me though, is because my husband has a home-based career. If he didn’t and instead worked an 8-5 job, my overnight shifts would make spending time together harder. However, some of my co-workers’ significant others do have that schedule and they make it work. We generally work 12-14 shifts per month, so for the most part, I can schedule anything I want to with my husband, friends, and family as long as I have some notice ahead of time.
Is there a scheduling downside?
Well, there is one drawback with my job. We are emergency room doctors. That means we tend to be the busiest nights, weekends and holidays. So I don’t get to see my family as much as I’d like during the holidays, but my family understands and we work around it when we can. And my hospital is pretty good about giving us time off. For example you have a choice to have the week of Christmas off, or the week of New Year’s off, whichever is more important to you.
Do you have time for recreation and hobbies?
Yes, my husband and I are going on an 8-day white water rafting trip next week. And for my honeymoon I got 2.5 weeks off. What I do is schedule things at the end of one month and the beginning of the next. That way I usually don’t have to take any vacation days to go on trips. I also work mostly overnights so I have my days to do things. I go to the gym every day and recently took up cycling and rock climbing.
What characteristics in a person help them to succeed as an Emergency Veterinarian?
I think the characteristics any doctor should have are to be confident, decisive and humble in their actions. They also need to be thoughtful, caring and compassionate. You constantly have to balance what an owner’s pet needs medically with what they can afford. A lot of people can’t afford surgeries or hospitalization that cost thousands of dollars. My job is to provide them with the facts and alternative treatment options so they can make informed decisions that they feel comfortable with. There is definitely a lot of empathy that goes into what we do.
So does the job have some counseling aspects to it?
You definitely have to listen to people’s wants and needs and their stresses. Most people consider their pets family members which often makes their visits to a me very emotional. My goal is to patiently assist them in making the best decision possible taking into consideration the urgency of their pet’s illness, their finances, and their overall goals for the visit.
Does veterinary school teach you how to do this or do you just have to learn it on your own?
The vet schools are getting better at training, at least Davis was for sure. Some of the schools are doing what they call “Doctoring” classes. They try to teach you how to talk to people; body language, open-ended questions, reflective listening, and that type of thing. But honestly, nothing prepares you for it until you’re out there doing it. Every owner is different so there is not cookie cutter protocol that’s going to fit everyone.
Do vets need to be more intuitive since their patients can’t verbalize what is wrong?
Yes and I think that’s what makes a good veterinarian. A good veterinarian is a doctor that can assess their patient as a whole in terms of a thorough physical exam, history, and clinical findings and then put it all together. I think that is another thing that people don’t realize when they say they want to become a veterinarian. A lot of people say they want to become a veterinarian because they don’t like working with people or the public. Well, that’s all you really do. If you’re providing care for someone’s pet, you’re talking to them often and listening a lot. I think that is something very important for potential veterinary students to know.
Is branding important to your practice?
Definitely, the veterinary medicine community is a small community. My hospital works with a lot of the GP veterinary hospitals in the San Diego area. We try to get to know our colleagues so we can establish lines of trust with them and their clients for when they need emergency care. Unlike in human medicine, veterinary hospitals are businesses. So branding and PR are important to attract clientele however the level of medical care and client satisfaction you provide is what should gain their trust to keep them as clients long term. My hospital values both.
On a scale of 1-10, how hard was it for you to get where you are today?
It’s hard to say. I would say, all things considered, in terms of difficulty it was about an 8. You’re not sleeping much, there are a ton of classes and tests, and some personal disappointment you have to except because it can be hard to balance family, friends, work, and school.
What about the financial aspect?
While I was in veterinary school I worked ~20-30 hour a week. I didn’t come out with much student debt, but many of my classmates ended up with around $200,000-$250,000 in student debt (including undergraduate). Some of them are paying around $2000/month for student loans. I’m not the norm though; I worked a lot more than most of my classmates. I had very flexible jobs and could run on very little sleep (like 5 hours a day and often less). Looking back, I don’t know if I could do it again at this age.
That ability to work so much must make emergency medicine easier for you.
Exactly, and I think that is why it fits me so well. I don’t have a set schedule in terms of sleep; I don’t really have an internal clock so I am used to falling asleep and waking up at any time.
What would you say are the most exciting breakthroughs in emergency medicine in the last few years?
It’s hard to say because I wouldn’t really consider them “breakthroughs.” But I would say that veterinary medicine is gaining the ability to perform the same or similar diagnostics, treatments, and procedures as humane medicine. Digital x-rays, in-house lab work, ventilators, endoscopy, MRIs, etc. are all becoming more commonplace and therefore financially more feasible options for many of our clients.
What is one thing would you have future students of veterinary medicine know?
I think one big thing that veterinary students or anyone interested in veterinary medicine should know is that this profession has a relatively high suicide rate. We have a lot of compassion fatigue. There have been a lot of publications on this lately. Emotionally, owners project their frustrations and distress on us especially when dealing with terminal illnesses and finances. They can label you as heartless and unethical because they feel you cannot or will not fix their pet. Unfortunately most hospitals are small businesses and there are limitations to what we can do without the appropriate finances. No matter how much you reason with yourself, it will get to you. It makes you doubt yourself as a person and a doctor. You can feel like a terrible doctor, even though you’re doing everything that you can. I think that highlights an important characteristic of a veterinarian. You have to be able to balance caring (a lot), and being able to let defeats go. You can’t carry all those things with you or you’ll lose yourself in it. There have been many colleagues we have lost this battle to unfortunately.
I don’t think most people realize that it’s not like a human hospital. There are laws that dictate what happens with human patients with regards to care and finances, but not with pets–-there’s no welfare. It has got to be really hard to have to help people make decisions based on finances.
That’s right and we try to do our best to make sure that no pet suffers. Our job as veterinarians is to give people as much information as possible to make an informed decision that is in the best interest of their pet.
Is pet insurance helping in that area?
Yes, it is helping. There are a lot of companies out there so I tell my clients to do their research regarding the kind of coverage they want. Many people opt to get coverage that focus on emergency situations as this tends to be what they haven’t planned for in their owner finances. It definitely has saved lives at my hospital. One things owners should keep in mind is that most companies don’t pay us directly, so the owner would have to pay our hospital and then the company pays them back.
What is one thing you’d like to see changed in your field?
I’d like to see pet insurance become more common. Unfortunately medical care is expensive – we use a lot of the same supplies and equipment as humane hospitals. Some people assume that we (veterinarians) are raking in the money and trying to take advantage of them. But most of the high costs are covering the overhead of running a hospital. While I can’t speak for all veterinarians, veterinarians are veterinarians because we love animals and we love what we do. Having more options financially by having pet insurance coverage would take lot of the stress off of my clients to pursue the care they want for their pet.