In this blog, Lucy shares her experiences with both mental and physical health conditions, including how she now promotes accessibility within the veterinary profession and wider society.

*Trigger Warning – Mental Health, Disability, Depression, Anxiety, Neurodiversity, Workplace Bullying, Functional Neurological Disorder, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and Wheelchair User.

“Hi, I’m Lucy, a Registered Veterinary Nurse who has experienced both physical and mental health problems and here is my story.

I’ll start by asking you a question. Are you struggling with your mental health? If the answer is yes, then you are certainly not alone!

From a young age, I knew that I wanted to be a veterinary nurse and my journey into the industry started as soon as I left school. I went to college to complete a diploma in animal management. As part of that course, I had to complete work experience, which I did at a local veterinary practice. It was this practice that offered me a role as kennel assistant.

I started suffering from symptoms of depression and anxiety in my teenage years. I always felt inadequate, low in confidence and particularly struggled with talking to people. Because of this, my career didn’t get off to a great start. Due to staff shortages, I was thrown into the deep end to face my biggest fear: Reception! My anxiety led to me making mistakes and struggling to cope with the demanding role of working on reception alone. My probation kept getting extended and every time my head nurse said to me “can we have a chat upstairs?”, a feeling of dread would make me feel sick and thoughts would race through my head like “what have I done wrong now?!”

Somehow, I got through the rocky start and three years into my role as kennel assistant, I was given the opportunity to start training as a veterinary nurse through an apprenticeship. My dream was finally coming true and on my first day at college, I actually cried! However, the happiness didn’t last long as Covid was on the horizon. All of the nursing team were furloughed for the first few months of the outbreak and for me it was a much-needed break. But on returning; staff shortages, increasing demands and added pressures, all whilst completing my training, meant that every day I dreaded coming into work. I would sit in my car having to psych myself up to go in because I knew what chaos was waiting for me behind those doors.

My mental health was on a downward spiral, having dark thoughts, not wanting to be here anymore and even hearing voices. In 2021, it all got too much and after several incidents bringing me to A&E, I was admitted to a mental health hospital. This was obviously a very difficult time for me and my family. I felt like I didn’t belong there, I mean I wasn’t crazy, was I? When in fact no-one on a mental health ward is crazy, they are just struggling. I have no doubt that my stay on the ward saved my life. I was finally listened to and was given a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD) and the correct treatment plan.

My manager at the time was very understanding and supportive and after a few months off, I made a gradual return to work. Although it was tough going back to work, I was doing well settling back in. However, not long after me returning, my manager retired and a new manager was brought into the practice. This was when things started to go wrong. I cannot go into details, but the short story is that I was treated badly for having mental health problems.

During all of this, I was still completing my training. Luckily at this point, I just had my OSCEs to complete. So I decided to hold off on finding a job and concentrate on passing my OSCEs, so that I could go straight into a role as an RVN once qualified. In February 2022, my registration came through and I started a job at a new practice a month later. I was upfront about my mental health conditions with my new employer, and they were amazingly supportive about it. I wanted to share my story to demonstrate that no two practices are the same, when it comes to supporting employees with their mental health. Some are great, and others not so much!

I was finally happy and thriving in my new practice as a qualified RVN, but this was when my body had other ideas! Mentally, I had never been better but physically, I was getting extremely bad lower back pain, to the point where my colleagues noticed how much pain I was in. On 20th June 2022, I got into bed after a normal day, but the pain was getting worse and was shooting down my legs. My legs started going numb and then suddenly, I lost all feeling and movement below my waist. My family didn’t believe me at first but after my sister stabbed my foot with something sharp, they soon realised it was no laughing matter. They called an ambulance, and I was taken to hospital.

I spent a month in hospital, but MRIs showed no compromise in my spinal cord. I was then diagnosed with Functional Neurological Disorder (FND); a problem with how the brain sends and receives signals to the body. The analogy given to this disorder is that of a computer; the hardware is fine, but the software is broken. This was likely triggered by the pain I was having. I basically became paraplegic overnight and had to learn how to adapt to being a full-time wheelchair user. Since then, I have been diagnosed with other conditions including Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS – a connective tissue disorder) and suffer daily from pain and fatigue. I am also awaiting several other referrals, including one to finally investigate my back pain.

Again, my employer has been fantastic and supportive throughout these couple of years. They found me a role completing insurance claims for the practice from home. I am very grateful to have been able to continue working for the practice but in practice is where my heart is. I have been trying to get back into practice but this has not been possible due to accessibility issues. I am a very capable wheelchair user and have an active wheelchair, which I purchased myself to enable me to get back to work.

My whole life has changed in the last two years, but things are finally falling into place for me. I now have a WAV (wheelchair accessible vehicle) which I drive from my electric wheelchair, I live independently on my own and even have two rescue rabbits called Pip and Honey. Before I became disabled, I didn’t even realise the struggles wheelchair users go through everyday particularly with accessibility issues. That’s why I created my TikTok account to spread awareness for disabilities and share my experiences to help other people who may be going through what I have. This is also why I want to help make positive changes in the veterinary industry to accept people with disabilities.

Why should a disability stop you from being an RVN? Yes, it’s a physical job but veterinary nursing is so much more than physical strength. As people with disabilities, only we know what we are capable of and with the right support we should be given the opportunity to demonstrate that. One barrier for disabled nurses is accessibility and I can’t change buildings but the barrier that I have the power to change; is how the veterinary world views disabilities and that includes mental health.

So, the message I want to leave you with is that you are not alone. Anyone can struggle with disabilities and/or mental health and it is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s tough to get the help and support that you need and a lot of the time you have to fight hard to get it! My hope is that the veterinary world can change to being a more inclusive and accepting industry.”

If you are struggling with anything mentioned in this story and need to seek help, please look at our Mental Health Toolkit, and/or the following signposts;