“I’ll often play a song for these guys just to help them relax,” Dr. Noah Arnold, owner of Dr. Noah’s Ark Veterinary Clinic in Shorewood, said in a 2018 TV report. He speaks via video of him smiling, singing and strumming a guitar for his animal clients.
This is the vision of what we hope for in a veterinarian – someone who cares deeply about animals, the loving hands our pets will be placed in. But beneath the surface, something dark was brewing at Arnold – something all too common in the veterinary field. On April 27, a sign was posted on the door of Dr. Noah’s Ark clinic stating that the business was closed. Arnold, 40, had committed suicide the previous night.
Studies conducted by the CDC show that veterinarians are between 2.1 times (for men) and 3.5 times (for women) more likely than the general public to end their lives; one in six veterinarians admit to having suicidal thoughts. Veterinarians say the job carries a particular mix of stresses not far removed from human medical fields.
MEET THIS YEAR’S FACES OF MILWAUKEE
Milwaukee Magazine connects you with the most trusted and sustainable local businesses. Here we introduce you to the people whose hard work makes these companies successful.
An open letter Arnold emailed to his clients in August 2021 retrospectively reads like a plea for help. For about three pages, in a section titled “The Problem,” Arnold mentions student loan debt, angry and disgruntled customers, burnout, overworked support staff, pandemic stress, and how he often missed dinner and bedtime with her three children.
“Many days after work, you go into the laundry room in the basement and sit on the concrete floor with your head in your hands, and no thoughts come, just the radiating trauma of the day, the fall in your chest you can’t put your finger on, with 11 years behind you and 10,000 more miles to go,” Arnold wrote.
The letter details plans to create a flat annual fee for customers to get unlimited services at a place he called the “Sanctuary.” Her childhood home, a former farm on two acres in Glendale, would be “redeveloped into a place of calm and healing for pets and humans alike”.
At this point, Arnold, according to a pair of lawsuits filed by three of his former receptionists, appeared to be on a downward spiral of drug addiction. The complaints paint a picture away from the sweet, singsong guardian of Arnold’s public persona. They allege sexual harassment and a hostile work environment, including “conversations regarding explicit and graphic depictions of sexual intercourse, drug use and marital affairs in which Noah Arnold was involved,” according to a complaint. Another alleges a receptionist was asked to help hide Arnold’s belongings and drive Arnold on house calls where he “often rode shirtless and did drugs.”
After an investigation by the DEA, Arnold gave up his DEA registration number in February, limiting his ability to prescribe, administer or dispense drugs. The complaints of the first two receptionists, filed in 2020, were settled out of court. The third was filed on April 18, 2022.
Just over a week later, Arnold died by suicide at the family home in Glendale which he hoped would be his “sanctuary”.
Arnold’s case is far from typical, but it does relate to a widespread problem: stress, mental health issues and suicide are far too common in the veterinary field. According to the Veterinarian Wellbeing Study published in January by Merck Animal Health, some 59.1% of veterinarians and 75.9% of support staff felt “moderate to high burnout”. The percentage of psychological distress in the field is also on the rise.
Three Milwaukee-area vets who spoke with Milwaukee Magazine on their practices agreed on the most rewarding factor of work – helping families and their pets – as well as the three main stressors: financial problems, work-life balance and strong emotions related to contact with animals and their owners.
“You have tough discussions that are about keeping the animal alive and the cost that might be involved,” says Dr. Peter Gaveras, who has been a veterinarian for 35 years and currently works at the Silver Spring Animal Wellness Center. This leads to “a complex dynamic that we work through. Everything does not go as we would like because each circumstance is a unique situation. The end point in many situations is euthanasia, which I think is a challenge for all of us.
“It’s hard when you don’t win,” admits Dr. Shana Loomis-Bulgar. Loomis-Bulgar opened her practice, the Milwaukee Veterinary Clinic at Walker’s Point, with her husband in 2019. Finances are another stressor, as vets are often overworked, underpaid, and run up a lot of debt. “Many vets have hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to school with little chance of paying it back even in retirement these days, which puts people in bad work situations – clinging to a work because it pays well”, Loomis- said Bulgarian.
Dr. Elizabeth Ferguson left private practice to work for a service called Lap of Love, which does house calls for the euthanasia of pets. “I was so exhausted that I didn’t even recognize myself anymore,” she says. “I felt like a shell walking through life. I was very angry and frustrated. Ferguson says she was about to walk off the court when she found Lap of Love. She says that although there are still pressures at work, his “work-life balance and stress load are exponentially less”.
An important new factor is the unexpected level of stress created by the pandemic. Vets scrambled to find safe ways to care for their clients as backlogs and wait times grew.
The three Milwaukee veterans emphasized the importance of having a strong social structure to deal with the toll the job can take.
And that’s the goal of the Veterinary Hope Foundation, a national organization focused on mental health and suicide among vets that formed last year after three vets and a vet tech were found dead by suicide. within a single week. The foundation offers six-week support groups that pair a cohort of veterinarians with mental health professionals for open discussions on topics such as boundary setting, conflict resolution and self-care.
“They’re encouraged to stay in touch with each other beyond that — colleagues they can talk to after a bad day,” says Dr. Elizabeth Chosa, the foundation’s vice president and co-founder and veterinarian who has his. practice in Florida. “That’s the power of a real human connection. It is a powerful force in healing, understanding and resilience – just knowing that someone else is around you.
Veterinarians turning to other ways to manage stress, such as substance abuse, is not uncommon. “It’s easy to want to suppress or numb yourself to these emotions, and one of the ways people do that is with drugs and alcohol. And vets have access to controlled substances,” says Chosa.
Chosa says that while financial donations to the Veterinary Hope Foundation are always appreciated, there’s something more important people can do to support their local vet: show them kindness.
“I just want to be on the same team,” Chosa says, noting that many people walk into a veterinary clinic with an already conflicting attitude about the cost and time it will take, “instead of realizing that if you have to wait, it could be because we’re saving a life in the back or we’re sitting there holding hands with an old lady who loses her only friend.