TRIGGR WARNING – ATTEMPTED SUICIDE
This is the real Helen’s brain.
Her name and some identifying details have been changed.
I’d always been the crazy horsey girl at school, and had it confirmed at university that I wanted to be an equine vet. So when I received a job offer for an equine position in a beautiful part of the world, I cried with excitement.
I started in the August and was in love with my job: spending my days treating horses and chatting with clients, learning new things and giving anything and everything a try. The job had its ups and downs. It was a two-vet practice so I spent a lot of time on my own and without the mentorship I had hoped for. We were also permanently understaffed. But all in all, I loved it.
In May 2017 my boss had booked a week off to go to Spain, leaving me in sole charge. It was no big deal as I had been in sole charge for various periods of time before. Fellow vet and friend Danny was only a phone call away if I ran into difficulties.
I won’t say that I could sense something about to happen (I’m a sceptic when it comes to that sort of thing), but something about my being on my own made me feel uneasy.
The day before my boss was due to fly out, I had a head-on crash in a country lane. Nothing major and everyone involved was fine but it left me with minor whiplash and an even more knackered-looking car.
The next day, shit hit the proverbial fan. Calls were coming in left, right and centre, all at opposite ends of the client-base to one another. Colic, followed by lymphangitis, followed by colic etc. I was fire-fighting all day and maybe I should have asked for help at that point, but I was determined to prove that I could manage all on my own.
The second to last call of the day involved myself and our vet nurse being trapped in the corner of a stable with a seizuring horse that had had a penicillin reaction. The horse emptied its water-bucket over me. Not only did it look like I’d recently wet myself, but I felt like I had done, too. Whilst leaving, slightly shaken, I had a phone call about a horse with choke at a yard down the road.
I was on the phone to Danny and he was giving me advice on the horse I’d just seen. I remember saying that I just had one more call and then could head home for the first cup of tea of the day.
I pulled up onto the yard and was met by the owner of the horse with choke to be told that she had tried all the usual advice and it had had choke now for 5 hours. Choke is a relatively routine call so I wasn’t phased, and set about drawing up some drugs and getting out my stomach tube.
I didn’t think twice when the owner didn’t come into the stable with me to inject the horse. People are generally quite laid back in that part of the world. If they know that their horse is good to inject, they will just let you get on with it.
It was only when two front feet came flying past my head, that I guessed that maybe this horse wasn’t going to be the easiest to deal with. Needle-shy didn’t even cover it. Not only could I not raise a vein; I couldn’t even approach the horse from the left-hand side. Apparently, he is also similarly-behaved to worm, so some oral sedation to get us into the groove didn’t feel like an option.
With the benefit of hindsight, I should have called it a day or asked for some help. But the stubborn part of me was not going to be defeated by a 16.3 hand warmblood with an attitude problem.
I opted for IM sedation: this means you don’t have to worry about getting it into a vein and can just aim for a muscle-mass. In a rather speedy (and I must add, heroic) manoeuvre, I just about avoided being double-barrelled.
I chatted to the owner about her precious darling whilst the sedation took effect. Turns out he had reacted this way to previous vets which is why she hadn’t come into the stable. It was also why her normal vets wouldn’t come out to treat him any more.
He looked suitably sleepy over the stable door and didn’t react to me going in. I thought this was my time to get some of the good stuff into him, and make him super sleepy before I stomach tubed him.
I don’t remember much after that. Apparently, the people who arrived first thought that I was dead. I just remember my first thought when I woke up being that I needed someone to look after my dog who was chilling in the car. Turns out the horse wasn’t as sleepy as I had thought and as I’d gone to inject him, he’d reared up and kicked me twice in the head and thrown me head-first into a wall. I was collar and boarded and rushed to A&E and I remember trying to chat up one of the paramedics and telling him that he looked quite attractive upside-down.
Blah blah blah various scans and assessments later and I’m diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and told I can go home but not to be left alone for the next twenty-four hours.
In actual fact I couldn’t be left alone for a week. For the first day after the accident, I couldn’t even get myself to the toilet I was so confused. On one occasion I got lost in a B&M. I couldn’t stay awake for more than a few hours at a time and I had a constant mind-bending headache.
But three weeks later I decided I was well enough to go back to work so off I went.
What doctors don’t always tell you about concussion is that whilst the symptoms are usually short lived, a small percentage of people end up with ‘Post Concussive Syndrome’. It’s characterised by a triad of symptoms; headaches, memory problems and depression.
Boy, did it hit me hard. I went from loving my life, to crying when I got home every day. I didn’t want to do anything, just lie in bed. I was irritable, bad tempered and generally a bit of a nightmare to be around. I had a constant headache, which on one occasion had me admitted to hospital, and the short term memory loss and confusion meant that I would regularly find myself driving along familiar roads, but having no clue where I was and having to call the office for help (which makes vetting very difficult).
I was also under investigation for a calcification in my brain which had been identified on the A&E CT scan. It now transpires that this was from a silent stroke that I must have had as a teenager.
I was generally finding life harder and harder. Work was getting busier and busier and the days getting longer and longer. Meanwhile, my memory loss and headaches were only getting worse. I had become suicidal so I went to the doctors. They agreed to give me antidepressants as long as I agreed to some form of counselling.
No one at work knew what I was going through in terms of my mental health. I nearly told my boss one night on a call-out that I felt suicidal, but then I bottled it. Luckily that evening, my pager went off and by the time I had seen to that call, I was so knackered that I just collapsed into bed.
Whilst I was seriously struggling, everyone around me was expecting me to get on with my job and I think they were getting frustrated that I wasn’t the person I used to be. I eventually left the area to move back home and be closer to family. I got a new job and I was far happier being closer to family and friends, until 6 weeks in, I suddenly fell ill with severe pneumonia. Work were less than pleased that I was taking time off so soon after starting.
After that my mental health started to decline rapidly. I was seriously depressed, anxious all the time and struggling to get by day to day. My bosses were less than helpful. Looking back on it, there was definitely a bullying culture at that practice of which I became a victim. You don’t see it when you’re in the middle of it.
I was told one afternoon that no one there liked me, that no one wanted to work with me, that I would never make a good vet and that they were disappointed they had even bothered to hire me. I left the clinic to go to an afternoon call and never arrived. I took an overdose in a lay-by on the way because I just couldn’t handle life any more.
Luckily, one member of the practice was always supportive and he found me and called an ambulance. But if it wasn’t for him then I definitely wouldn’t be here.
I have taken time off work since then. I have focussed on my mental health and am pleased to say that I am a lot happier. My doctors have finally found the right medication for me and I am back to enjoying life.
I guess I decided to take part in this blog to make people aware that I am one of the lucky ones. I had a brain injury which could nearly have killed me, but I got to walk (well, technically, I was wheeled) away. I have had mental health problems which a lot of people go through but I have an amazing mother and boyfriend who are always there for me.
I suppose in an ideal world, I’d love to go back into equine practice as that’s what I always imagined myself doing. But this time off has given me time to think and there’s so many parts of the job which I hated. I’m starting to look at some jobs in industry as it combines the human aspect and using my veterinary degree in a different way.
Meanwhile, I would really like to say to any vets reading this, is that we all need to be kinder to each other. Your words and actions can have a massive impact on someone who is struggling. Please don’t be responsible for the critical and hurtful words that someone replays to themselves as they take their own life.
Instead, be responsible for the words that give them strength to keep fighting for one more day. In equine in particular, there are a lot of people who believe in a stiff upper lip and keep your problems to yourself. We should make a point to talk about our problems, struggles and mistakes.
Most of all, try very hard not to get kicked in the head.