At one point in her life, Kimberly Pope-Robinson, DVM, CCFP was at a crossroads. Suffering from mental anguish and emotional exhaustion, Dr. Pope-Robinson faced questions that plague all too many veterinary professionals and began to examine her desire for life to go on.
In the thralls of despair with pills in hand, Dr. Pope-Robinson thought of her horse Toby, her husband, and their family. And as the family cat padded into the room, she stepped out of the darkness and embarked on a path toward connection.
Recognize your passion. Embrace imperfection. Stay connected. All ideas that resonate throughout Dr. Pope-Robinson’s book “The Unspoken Life.” The book explores the darkness veterinary and medical professionals alike can experience as a result of burn out, compassion fatigue, and ethical/decision fatigue in daily practice. The book is a resource for veterinary professionals with principles Pope-Robinson has used on her journey to a connected life. Through personal insights and stories of clinical practice, Pope-Robinson teaches us that it’s not about feeding the blame and judge serpents when the sinkers drag us into that place of shame where we feel unworthy of acceptance and belonging. It’s about sharing our balloons, which lift us up out of that ocean of shame and help us to embrace challenges, consider new ideas, and create new ways to stay connected with our passions and ourselves.
What inspired you to become a veterinarian? What triggered your interest?
I wasn’t the little girl who wanted to be a vet. I have always loved animals, but when I was in college, I was actually a business major. I was acing my business classes, but I wasn’t stimulated by what I was learning. I enrolled in a couple of science classes and loved them! At the time I knew I didn’t want to become a human physician because I didn’t want to deal with human poop! So, I checked out some veterinary clinics and I absolutely fell in love with veterinary medicine.
Tell us about the foundation of the 1 Life Connected movement and your mission.
The movement is all about creating the space that allows us each permission to find our individualized path to sustainability within the profession. With 1 Life Connected, I wanted to help all medical professionals understand that the reality of daily practice doesn’t fit into a picture frame. It’s my goal to provide visibility, awareness, and a greater understanding of the issues, like suicide and burn out, that are so common for veterinary professionals. And, to help those who are suffering from those challenges navigate toward personal and professional wellbeing as well as career contentment.
I don’t give people specific answers on how to navigate their journey. I don’t know their individual sinkers and balloons—so who am I to tell them what they need. In the end, they have to find it on their own. I provide a framework from which to start from. When I’ve spoken at conferences or events about my own experiences, it’s been incredible to have people approach me afterward and say “I feel like you were talking directly to me. I feel normal. I’m not crazy or alone. I feel like I have permission to start moving forward.”
The movement isn’t about me. That’s one thing I love the most. I love hearing how people have allowed the 1 Life Connected message into their lives and how it’s impacted them. I’m only a conduit to share the message. Everyone finds their own path and we have to be allowed to follow that path to find a safe space to engage with and discover our personal journey.
What inspired you to write your book “The Unspoken Life”?
I was speaking at lectures and other events about the framework used to connect to your work and life’s passion. I realized that sharing my vulnerability was helping people. I wanted to create a resource for all medical professionals that would help amplify this message of connection. Writing the book was also therapeutic—recounting my experiences not only helped others, but the act of collection my own sinkers and balloons, helped me embrace them in a whole new way! One of my goals is to create a sense of community and connectedness that will live on. The book and its messages are a center foundation of that community. We’re not broken. We’re not alone.
In your book you mention your mantra, life is beautiful. How did that come to fruition?
I’ve been diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos, a disorder that impacts my connective tissue and it doesn’t just affect my joints; it affects many things. I have significant joint issues. I have eye issues. In fact I’m currently dealing with flashes on my retina because of a change in my vitreous within my eyes. So, hypothetically I could get a retinal tear and go blind tomorrow. I never know where this condition will land me and what new hurdle I will have to overcome. I’m trying to learn how to manage it all. The condition has also impacted my ability to practice.
And it’s a mental thing. I have to recognize that the current state I’m in doesn’t define my connection to life. My life is defined by how I see the beauty in where I am. Now, it’s not just about putting the rosy glasses on and seeing all the positive. It’s about making sure I connect with my balloons and my sinkers in my path as a veterinarian. And when it comes to hurtles on the path of life, I can walk around them or climb over them. It’s about being able to see beauty and pain together—that’s where the real connection to life is.
Believe it or not, I still have the pill vial from the day I contemplated taking my life. Many people ask me why I don’t get rid of it because to them it represents so much pain. But it also represents a different journey—my journey. During that time, I didn’t have the ability to see the framework of how to recognize the pain, embrace it, and look forward. Back then it was all name the problem, place blame somewhere, and judge whenever possible. The path I saw was not serving me. You have to know sadness in order to know joy. You have to know both feelings in order to connect to both of them and find ways to stay connected all aspects of life.
Can you share more with us about the resources 1 Life Connected offers for veterinary professionals?
At 1Lifecc.com we offer videos, worksheets, and even a soon-to-be coloring book that is a companion piece to “The Unspoken Life.” There’s also a Facebook group, 1 Life Connected Veterinary Professionals that has been created specifically for members of the veterinary care team who believe in the commitment to 1 Life Connected’s mission. It’s a place that is not about feeding the serpents or negativity, it’s not about one-upping one another. It’s about sharing our balloons—the ideas that we’ve found helpful and creating connections for all of us as professionals.
The commitment the group created is really something meaningful that’s come from this journey that I’ve come to love. We all honor the veterinary oath in a unique way. We are practicing veterinarians, technicians, nurses, assistants, students, receptionists, practice managers, specialists, pharmacists, surgeons, practice owners, and the list goes on. The 1 Life Connected commitment to living a connected life is a North Star that we follow in managing our paths within veterinary medicine. It’s about being connected to yourself, to each other, to humanity, to all living beings. It’s connecting to your joy, to your pain, and everything else in between. That’s where I believe sustainability in this industry will come from.
What do you think makes a healthy veterinarian?
This prompted me to think of a quote from the book “A Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who lost his family, friends, and community. He said, “That which is to give light, must endure burning.” I view the light as the human animal bond and as members of the veterinary care team, we have to be willing to take the burn (the challenges we face in this industry). It’s healthy for all of us to allow ourselves the space to burn. It’s important to move away from what I call name, blame, and judge when the burn shows up—where you judge everything, hate everyone, even yourself. If we allow ourselves the space to burn, we can recognize it’s painful and embrace it, knowing that it has greater meaning so we can move forward.
Any advice for veterinary professionals on embracing or challenging common misconceptions about veterinary medicine?
I had a vision of what my role as a veterinarian was going to be. Society has a distinct vision of veterinary professionals. We are placed on a pedestal—always having the answer, always available, it’s an unrealistic, unsustainable status. There are specific expectations, almost like a marital status. I call it the beast of burden. Society believes in us. It’s that belief that allows us to practice. If they didn’t, then they probably wouldn’t value the animals we want to help. This is why they place us on that pedestal, because they value the human animal bond and what our profession represents. We don’t have to agree to be up on the pedestal, but we do need to forgive ourselves and understand that we can’t live up to all that pedestal represents.
There’s a greeting card I found recently that pretty much sums it up. It was a card for two people in a relationship that may have had a quarrel. The card had a crab on one side and a squirrel on the other. The crab was telling the squirrel, “Sometimes you make me crabby” and the squirrel was saying, “Sometimes you drive me nuts.” It was a silly card, but it really put into perspective the misconceptions about veterinary practice. Society is the crab and veterinary professionals are the squirrels. The inscription on the inside of the card read, “But we still belong together, no ifs, ands, or buts.” So even though embracing those misconceptions can be a challenge, we still need each other. It can’t become us against them. In fact my life depended on following that path away from the name, blame judge and looking for the new one toward recognize, embrace, and connect.
Knowing what you know now, what’s one piece of advice for future veterinarians?
You really don’t know where your path’s going to go. I was going to finish undergrad, get into vet school, graduate, get a job, learn what I needed to, find my dream job, and maybe find someone to share my life with. That just didn’t happen.
It’s not about sacrificing your goals, obstacles, or challenges to find your happiness. What I realized is you don’t “find” happiness at the end of some accomplishment, you make it along the way. It’s about looking for happiness wherever you are, however that looks. Give yourself up to the idea that you don’t need to have it all figured out. It’s good to have goals and ideas of where you want to go, but don’t forget to find happiness in the journey—every step of the way.
Want to learn more about Dr. Kimberly Pope-Robinson? Join us and the Southeastern Michigan Veterinary Medical Association for the 2019 Practice Management & Health Seminar on Wednesday, May 1, as Dr. Pope discusses finding personal sustainability in veterinary medicine! Register now through April 25!