From the time Jeff Sutarik could crawl, his parents say they knew their son wanted to be a veterinarian.
“He would have these little doctor bags and be taking heartbeats and temperatures of animals,” said his mother, Pat Sutarik. “When other kids were playing games and sports, he was working with horses.”
Jeff’s career trajectory soared towards his love of animals.
A straight-A-student, he completed his veterinarian studies at Purdue University in 2005. Shortly after, he fell in love, got married and became a veterinarian in west suburban Lombard.
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“Jeff was like the Michael Jordan of the veterinary medicine,” said Dr. Georgianne Ludwig of Lombard Veterinary Hospital. A longtime friend and colleague, Ludwig described Jeff as among the best animal vets she’s ever seen.
“He had a lot of empathy for the client as well as the pet and wanted to be a healer and do whatever he could to help both the animal and client,” added Ludwig. “We tend to be empaths, meaning we take on the pain and suffering not only of the pets, but also the clients.”
Jeff’s mother agreed saying of her son, “He mourned the loss of dogs he had to put down.”
“If he could save them all, he would,” added his father, Ed Sutarik.
Both parents said Jeff started to suffer from severe headaches in July 2019 and was worried that they would affect his work. The family said he was diagnosed with stress-induced anxiety. Jeff took time off from work, was getting counseling and taking medication.
But his family never imagined what happened next.
“Was the worse day of my life, “ said Pat. “I wouldn’t wish that on Satan.”
The family said on October 26, 2019, Jeff left a note on his computer, went to a park near his home in Lombard and ended his life at the age of 41. His wife, Haley, said that it was too painful for her to talk, but supported her in-laws speaking out to help other families.
Jeff’s death left his family in disbelief, but said they were stunned to see that their son was not alone.
A 2019 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the death records of 11,620 veterinarians found males veterinarians were more than twice as likely to die by suicide than others in the general population. Female veterinarians were three and a half times more likely to commit suicide, and the study came out before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pet Population Explodes During COVID Lockdown
As people started adopting or acquiring pets during the pandemic, veterinarians found themselves scrambling to keep up with the influx of animals and with COVID restrictions.
“The pandemic took an industry that was already faced with a lot of emotional highs and lows, a lot of really busy work, a lot of understaffing and a lot of financial strain, and it turned the dial up,” said Dr. Carrie Jurney, a veterinary neurologist and president of the group Not One More Vet. “I’ve worked in emergency veterinary medicine for over 20 years, and I have never, ever experienced anything like we experienced last year. We had a kind of perfect storm of difficult things. “
NOMV was created in 2014 to improve the mental wellbeing of veterinary professionals across the globe. With over 30,000 members worldwide, NOMV is one of the largest veterinary peer-to-peer support groups.
In addition, the organization provides educational programs and supports research to advance the wellness, mental health and the reduction of suicide in veterinary professionals.
Jurney said many animal vets suffer from the stress of student debt, emotional fatigue and the inability of many clients to afford the treatment their pets need to survive.
“It leads to tremendous stress for the veterinarian. It leads to tremendous stress for the pet owner and sometimes those pet owners are grieving or upset, and they lash out," Jurney said, adding that it’s not uncommon for veterinarians to be cyberbullied or left hostile reviews on their websites.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) released a statement, writing, “The veterinary profession is a relatively small group, and any loss of life in our community is deeply felt. The AVMA stands united in our grief, concern, and efforts to offer hope and help save lives. We want to do everything possible to support the well being of our members…providing evidence-based resources on well being, prevention training, and other outreach support to those who are struggling.”
A charitable fund called Make A Wag has been set up in Jeff’s name to help elderly people pay for their pets medical care.
“He would be so sad when old people would come in who couldn’t afford medicine for their dogs,” Pat, his mother, said. “It was so important to him to make sure that older people had companion animals.”
Jeff's alma mater Purdue University is offering counseling and guidance to students enrolled in the veterinarian school.
The Sutariks hope sharing Jeff’s story will spare another family from the pain they feel every day. “They need to get good help…and they need to get help from people that show them not to be hopeless," Pat said.
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. Suicidal thoughts and behaviors can be reduced with the proper mental health support and treatment, and are not weaknesses or flaws, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.