It wasn’t the start of my week’s holiday in Pembrokeshire that I was expecting or wanting, I must say. I received a text from a former student informing me that one of her fellow alumni had just taken his own life. For the next few days, a stream of texts and e-mails flooded in from ex-students, staff and clients, all aghast and so, so deeply sorry. All were remembering how kind and caring, how intelligent and thoughtful Jamie was. Maybe it was that tension which was the problem. The tension of a young man working hard as a considerate veterinary surgeon doing his utmost yet unable to cure so many cases. A perennial student who, had he gone into academic science, could, for all we know, have won a Nobel prize.
I smile ruefully as I remember our supervisions in the second year – small group teaching in pathology with Jamie, Francesca and Becky. Supervisions where I would gladly have given the first 15 minutes to Jamie so he could tell us what fascinating article he had read that week in Nature or Science or whichever other journal he had been perusing. This was valuable to Francesca, Becky and me as we would learn something brand new: something we would never have discovered otherwise. Francesca put it this way: “Sitting next to [Jamie] in supervisions was like sitting next to an energetic, curious and overflowing textbook.”
‘Sitting next to [Jamie] in supervisions was like sitting next to an energetic, curious and overflowing textbook.’
It was worthwhile for him too, to develop a teaching style that would continue as he later worked as an intern at the vet school and then with junior colleagues in practice and with students seeing EMS with him. He was always so keen to help anyone and everyone around him. As Francesca told me over the weekend: “There will never be anyone like Jamie. The most extraordinary person – sensitive, loving, resolutely committed to all he held dear and never afraid of enormous effort to achieve his goals and help others.
“Jamie was such a talented academic mind. He delighted in lots of the quirks of Cambridge, but felt the pressures of the environment too. When Jamie laughed, he really laughed, full of booming delight and I remember him catching my eye and raising a knowing eyebrow at a good joke or pun. He will have impacted every single person he met without fail and has left his mark on the world in indelible ink. We must respect his choice for his short life and know that he is at peace, but the remarkable nature of his soul makes that very hard indeed.”
I couldn’t put it better, Francesca.
[Jamie] will have impacted every single person he met without fail and has left his mark on the world in indelible ink
Nowadays, we know quite how common suicide is in our veterinary colleagues. I remember Richard Mellanby’s paper “Incidence of suicide in the veterinary profession in England and Wales” in the Veterinary Record back in 2005, when he was still a medical resident at Cambridge. He looked at deaths in vets, medics and dentists from suicide and other reasons. The proportion of deaths from suicide was substantially greater than that within the general population, and more than twice of that seen in doctors and dentists.
Mellanby’s work has been replicated and extended many times over the past 15 years or so. Further work has looked not only at burnout and occupational stresses, but also at trauma and relationship bonds in the profession. Hanrahan et al., in a 2017 paper in the journal Traumatology on secondary traumatic stress among vets, note that “… the sheer number of animals and suffering that animal care workers encounter on a daily basis is much higher than in the human health care fields… [they are] performing and/or witnessing euthanasia, treating animal cruelty cases, [dealing with] limited financial resources of animal owners, the volume of distressed clients and animals, [and] the constant stream of unwanted and sick animals.”
I’m sure we all know some, or all, of these issues and how they can be debilitating to veterinary professionals, especially when working alone. But this also has to be seen as a mental health issue.
Just reading through the plethora of tributes to Jamie on the Facebook page of the veterinary practice where he worked shows how many people loved and respected him; how many saw him as the superb vet and wonderful person we all knew him to be. How could he not know that too? I know that his colleagues in practice as well as his friends from veterinary school offered as much support as they could, but I know from friends of mine who have taken their own lives that there seemed to be nothing more that their friends and colleagues could have done.
I can’t do better than end with Francesca’s words: “We must respect Jamie’s choice for his short life and know that he is at peace, but the remarkable nature of his soul makes that very hard indeed.” My thoughts and prayers are with Jamie and his family and friends.