In this VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog, Dr. Justine Lee, DACVECC, DABT  reviews survival in veterinary medicine.

I’m not sure how you feel, but I just survived one of the hardest years of my life… with 2010 as another top contender (That’s another story!). Between the stress of COVID-19, having to pull my toddler out of daycare for 12+ weeks, having to quarantine twice due to close COVID exposure, dealing with anxiety, fighting over shared parenting responsibilities, moving to curbside with an insane ER caseload, gaining my COVID-“15,” having my gym closed down, having really bad mental health, to being burnout and fried, I’m ready for some serious calm in 2021.

Don’t get me wrong – there were definitely some amazing things to come out of COVID-19. I wrote about this here in the “Top 10 things to come out of COVID-19.” But that said, I think we all were stressed and suffered a bit this past year.

I’m no master at survival. But here, my top tips that helped me survive in 2020 and I’m hoping will improve your QOL (quality of life) and survive veterinary medicine moving forward in 2021!

1. Get better sleep.
Having worked one year of overnights at PennVet, I’ll admit – I need pitch black and quiet to sleep. I need 7-8 hours of sleep a night. It sounds like a lot, but chronically, I’m a better person with more sleep. There are plenty of studies out there showing that people need a minimum of 8-9 hours of sleep a night, and I can guarantee the majority of people don’t get that much. When in doubt, count backwards 9 hours and try to figure out when your ideal bedtime is for you to maximize this amount of sleep. I go to bed at 10pm and wake up at 6am. I also recommend setting a gentle, soothing notification alert to trigger you to get ready for bed – I set this for 9:30pm. This way it reminds me to turn off the iPad and TV, get ready for bed, and start a wind down process. When I’m in bed, I set the house temperature to 65F (and I’m in Minnesota, where it’s winter 6 months out of the year!), as cooler temperatures are better for restful sleep. Personally, I need an eye mask to sleep. My favorite one is the DreamTime lavender eye mask – it’s slightly weighted and heavy, and really soothing to my face. Now, I’m a really light sleeper, and often wake up in the middle of the night searching for my eye mask (I don’t like using ones with elastic bands). So, life hack – last week, I order several more eye masks (I’m secretly hoarding a few in case they stopped making these particular ones). In bed, I actually have 2 eye masks in my bed; this increases my odds of being able to find one in the middle of the night.

2. Exercise
When my gym closed down due to COVID-19, it made me realize how much I need fitness and movement in my life for mental health. Even if it’s just 20 minutes a day. You guys all heard the stories of how Peloton was backordered for months and had gangbuster sales during COVID. Well, when it comes to your mental health, you are worth it and deserve some  good exercise equipment. Splurge on a good pair of running shoes (My fav are ASICS running shoes, and I buy 2 pair at a time), a favorite outfit to work out in, and start by just taking a 10-minute walk. Splurge on a FitBit to motivate you to get 10,000 steps a day. If you’re not really into exercise, find a buddy or neighbor that you might be able to walk with. Don’t set lofty goals like “exercising for 30 minutes a day, 7 days a week.” It’s not going to happen. Instead, set SMART goals that are easier to accomplish. Like “I’m going to walk for 10 minutes a day outside with my dog.” That’s it. Boom. #ad

3. Ease up on the caffeine.
Yes, I advocated for giving caffeine as gift cards and holiday gifts to your staff. And I will say that I went through two periods in my life where I quit caffeine: 1) to help me sleep better during my year of overnights and 2) while battling infertility. Well, since COVID-19, now I’m drinking about 2-3 cups in the morning, which is atypical from what I used to do (1 cup). Well, I’m not quitting caffeine anytime soon – I don’t have any major vices in life, so I’ll take caffeine as one. In general, the experts don’t advise drinking caffeine after 2:00 p.m. as it can dramatically affect your sleep cycle. So do what you need to do, but ideally try to minimize the amount of caffeine that you take in at least 8 hours before you plan on going to sleep.

4. Cut yourself some slack.
Anyone who’s ever worked with Garret and myself know that we both trained at Penn Vet and are pretty anal-retentive criticalist. Our Myers-Briggs and DISC analysis are pretty similar. We’re both very list-oriented and action item oriented. Get ‘er done! But what I realized during COVID-19 is that life is short. It made me realize that a lot of what I work on isn’t as important as spending time with those I love, taking time for myself, and enjoying the air we breathe. While I used to aim to have 10 to 12 things to cross off my “to do list,” I now know that it isn’t realistic or appropriate for mental health. So since then, my goal is to have a shorter to-do-list. Of course, I used to be one of those lists types that needed to add things just so I could cross them off. Brush my teeth. Check. Take out trash. Check. Now, I write 2-3 things that are my big stones that I need to tackle for the day and give up on the rest. Because life is too short.

Let’s hope for a better 2021. Because we WILL survive. We’ve got this.

What tips do you have? Share some ideas below! I’ll take all the life hacks I can get!



  1. I have been working on letting go of things that are out of my control. If it is something I can put my time and effort into, of course I’m going to be all about it. However, I am learning to not let things bother me like they used to when there isn’t much to do about it. Life is too short, so instead of bringing it home everyday, I’m working myself down to bringing it home every other day! Baby steps

  2. It’s the response from clients that’s been hitting me harder. Before COVID I could handle it but now it’s worse and coming from even the ones that used to be so sweet.

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