June 28th was a sad day for the Fountain Valley community, and it was especially tough for the Associates at VCA West Coast Specialty & Emergency Animal Hospital.

During a routine training exercise, K-9 Officer Cannon of the Fountain Valley Police Department was severely wounded. Cannon was a five-year-old Belgian Malinois who had served the K-9 Unit for three years. The dog was seen at his usual veterinarian, who exhausted all the available care and treatment options, before referring him to the emergency room at VCA West Coast. When he arrived at the hospital later that day, the team knew the situation was especially dire. Cannon was in life-threatening condition with severe respiratory and neurological issues. For the next three to four hours, VCA West Coast gave Cannon everything they had to try to keep Cannon alive.

The team at VCA West Coast had not seen Cannon before but worked with efficiency and expertise to do their best. “Everyone was on top of their game,” said Cannon’s handler, “and everyone was giving the best quality care to Cannon.”

But sometimes, no amount of care will ever be enough. K-9 Cannon lost his battle later that night.

“I was humbled by the entire team’s devotion to K-9 Cannon,” said Medical Director J. Michael Walters, DVM. “Everyone demonstrated the passion, commitment and compassion that are hallmarks of VCA West Coast.”

The next morning, Fountain Valley Police welcomed K-9, police, and fire officers from neighboring cities to a memorial in Cannon’s honor. As an honor guard led the procession through VCA West Coast, Associates lined the interior of the hospital to pay their respects.

After the ceremony, Associates returned to their other patients and assignments. And some admitted feeling emotionally challenged by their feelings of grief and loss. Others just felt “off” – not feeling bad, but not feeling good, either.

Fortunately, a source of support was onsite, available, and accessible for all.

Meet Our Social Workers

Andrea Lindquist is part of the team bringing to life VCA’s ongoing investments in supporting Associate mental health & well-being.  As a 25-year veteran of the human health, mental health, and geriatric care industries, Andrea joined VCA West Coast in November as the company’s third social worker and the first on the West Coast.

“I am highly passionate about the care of older adults,” said Andrea, “and I became very specialized in dementia care. It’s an unexpected parallel to veterinary care, because throughout dementia, the patient loses their ability to communicate verbally – much like the animals who present in our hospitals. We must work even harder because our patients can’t verbalize what they’re feeling.”

As a social worker, Andrea manages critical conversations with clients, which in turn, lifts some emotional burdens from hospital Associates.

“Social work is becoming part of the patient experience at VCA. While the medical staff is here for the patients, I’m here for the humans who come with those patients. I help people cope with their emotional response to whatever is happening with their pet. I check up on them on an ongoing basis. I provide crisis support for emergency situations and can provide additional touch points as needed, especially for clients who are managing more extended illnesses with their pets.

We form a relationship over the weeks and months of their situation. They know someone will hold their hand as they navigate the unknown. They already trust VCA, but our relationship extends the care.”

“These connections are heavily based in grief and loss,” said Andrea. “So, it’s always important to validate feelings and support them throughout the process.”

But Andrea stresses, she isn’t just here for the clients – she is also here for the team.

“We need to recognize the reality of what we’re experiencing,” said Andrea. “We need to understand how something is affecting us. It’s okay not to be okay.”

Following the loss of K-9 Cannon, some Associates were emotionally distraught. “There was this feeling of devastation,” said Andrea, “but there was also this contradictory feeling of needing to move on.”

“While I did provide emotional support to K-9 Cannon’s handler and family, their needs were already being met within the police department. So, the team really became my focus. They put so much into treating Cannon. Losing an officer who was so beloved and so esteemed was very painful. It was incredibly sad to lose a K-9 officer in our own community.”

“Many of our Associates have learned to compartmentalize their feelings because they have a job to do and there is another patient waiting for top notch care. Their job doesn’t end with a single loss. They often shove their emotions aside just to keep moving. But those emotions are like a boomerang – they always come back.”

“We need to recognize the reality of what we’re experiencing,” said Andrea. “We need to understand how something is affecting us. It’s okay not to be okay. So that’s where we started: recognizing that things were not okay.”

Let the Healing Begin

Andrea’s approach to the situation was two-tier: first, she hosted individual meetings to check in with Associates, and later, she hosted group debriefings.

“The group provides a place for people to assess their feelings,” said Andrea, “and allows the team to process what exactly happened. The group setting really invited healthy processing. If one person was having a tough time, it opens the door for others to acknowledge and recognize they were struggling too. There is a sense of shared community and universal support.”

“Suffering independently and in your own silo is so unnecessary,” said Andrea. “Being isolated only makes things worse. It’s important to know that you’re not alone and that others are struggling too. It allows people to realize what’s still sitting with them and what feelings they must cope with. Soon, the floodgates of emotion open, and we’re in a much better position to move forward.”

Through this process, Andrea gives the Associates a space to process grief, confront loss, and accept a tragic outcome.

“During this type of loss, the team doesn’t always realize how much it affects them. The reaction – or lack of a reaction – becomes a chain reaction that completely catches people off-guard,” said Andrea. “The common response is, ‘I’m fine,’ and we shift our attention to the next distraction. Meanwhile, our minds and bodies are trying to process what has transpired.”

“Ongoing care is so important. We routinely encourage Associates to take breaks from the floor, step back for the moment, and allow the team to fill in, even if it is just for 15 minutes. Associates need to take care of themselves, not just the patient. Self-care outside of work is also important.”

Brighter Tomorrows

While they may never forget K-9 Office Cannon, the Hospital Associates have said their healthy goodbyes.

“Our Associates are incredibly resilient,” said Andrea, “and it was remarkable to see how everyone supported each other.”

“With the involvement of social workers, Associates are better able to resolve feelings, so the ongoing sense of burden doesn’t build so much over time. And I do feel we are seeing an improvement in how people are coping with day-to-day stressors.”

“It’s been incredibly eye-opening for me, even as a mental health professional, to see the impact of our work together,” said Andrea. “Veterinary caregivers have such tremendous compassion, empathy, and heart, and they are constantly giving more and more to their patients. They’re also living in a pressure cooker of unprecedented proportions -- a historic demand for services, a global pandemic, a national talent shortage – and that has taken a real toll on the profession. Our teams have been managing these pressures remarkably well, but over time, we start to see the cracks in their foundation.”

“While these universal issues are affecting all veterinary workers, VCA has been unique in addressing them. We have elevated care for our Associates. We offer a comprehensive well-being program that continues to grow and evolve. Caring for our people infuses our care for patients and clients. Caring for our people is just another way we care for the future of veterinary medicine.

“Working as a social worker in veterinary medicine would be very different without my team,” said Andrea. “We are a small group of clinical professionals, but we bring tremendous skill and experience to VCA. We support each other and work collaboratively to grow our team of social workers. We already cover the major regions of the United States, and now we are working on expanding our support throughout the company. We are very intentional and thoughtful in how we are rolling out these services, so we can each provide the best support possible to Associates and hospitals. It is truly a ‘dream team.’”

“We pride ourselves on providing a gold standard to everyone who walks through the door. That always starts with caring for our own people.”

We hope that the combination of resources available to our Associates, such as free mental health counseling, training, and stress reduction tools, along with our support for one another, can have a positive impact on the health and well-being of our VCA family.