No one ever asks “Why did you decide to become a vet?” It’s a fairly coveted job, up there with ballerinas and astronauts. I imagine “port-a-potty maintenance man” may have to field that question a little more often, but in my case, it’s assumed I was born with a Dr. Doolittle-esque Way With Creatures that dictated this was to be my fate. It is almost a rule.
I’m an exception to that rule. I’ve always liked dogs and cats, sure, but I didn’t know from the age of 5 that this is what I wanted to do with my life, unlike most of my classmates in vet school. These were people with laser sharp focus, toddlers with a stethoscope in one hand and a copy of “All Creatures Great and Small” in the other, driven from birth by a single minded desire that yes, one day, I too will be a Pet Doctor. I was not one of them. By some fortuitous alignment of fate and alphabetical order, I was assigned another loose cannon as a lab partner my freshman year. Together, Candie and I would stare over our dog dissection and wonder what the hell we had gotten ourselves into and why weren’t we drinking more. While our classmates happily buzzed over the brachial plexus, fulfilling a lifelong dream acted out on Barbies and unfortunate family pets for years on end, we mulled over the decisions that brought us to where we were and whether it was, after all, a mistake. In an alternate universe, I was enrolled in (human) medical school, and Candie was, depending on the day, a state Senator, a screenwriter, or a wildlife biologist.
Our classmates looked upon us distrustfully. How did we manage to con the admissions committee? I didn’t spend years and years accumulating thousands of hours in a veterinary clinic. I volunteered at one, for a semester. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even entertain the thought of applying to veterinary school until the summer before my senior year of college, when I was doing a biomedical engineering internship at a large university that housed a veterinary school. They were practicing a joint replacement technique on pigs, and I found myself more interested in the pig than I did in the joint. After the procedure, the vet students were allowed to suture the pigs, and I stayed behind to pepper them with questions. That fall, I applied to vet school. On a whim, if you must know, a combination of wariness at the state of human healthcare and interest in the myriad possibilities a veterinary degree afforded. I was working for a human urologist at the time and the idea of a career looking at people parts was becoming less enticing by the moment. (He specialized in male sexual dysfunction.)
I figured, well, I like dogs and cats well enough, so what the heck, it beats talking to old guys about their erectile dysfunction on a daily basis. Trust me, no one was more surprised than I was when the acceptance letter arrived, on April Fools Day no less. I showed up and they let me in, so I assume it wasn’t a joke, but some little part of me still waits for the call from the dean saying, “Remember that day 11 years ago? Haha! You’ve been Punk’d!”
I was very fortunate to have an understanding ear in Candie, because otherwise I think I would have drowned in the sea of facts and parts and drugs and theories we needed to absorb. It is hard to swim day after day when you are ambivalent about why you want to get to shore in the first place. I made it through by envisioning a distinguished career in research. Candie planned her screenplay. Along the way, kindred spirits we didn’t know we had drifted off, dropping out to pursue other ideals- one to be a mother, another to be a singer. Our more focused classmates tsk-tsk’d these poor unfocused fools, then went back to their pharmacology problems. Candie and I floated along, honing ourselves to scalpel blade sharpness out of a sense of guilt and obligation to those teeming masses whose spot in school we so selfishly took. They wouldn’t be dreaming of other careers. They wouldn’t be sick of poking at a cow split in half and dead for 6 months, and starting to smell just a bit. They would crawl 10 miles in the snow, eat bugs and bathe in formaldehyde for the opportunity we were squandering. So we soldiered on.
It wasn’t easy. It wouldn’t have been easy even had I known from the depth of my soul that this was what I was meant to do. My fiancee, later my husband, lived 500 miles away and I missed him terribly. I didn’t have the confidence in clinics that so many of my classmates had, so when I experienced the Worst Experience of My Career on my very first day in clinics (that’s another story, there) there wasn’t a whole lot to make me want to brush off my coat and go back in, other than a stubborn determination to finish the program I had by this time invested 3 years into. Just plug on through, I kept telling myself. Your career in research awaits.
Then I got to senior year, when we branch out of the classroom and spend the year in clinics, with clients. It’s nuts, they whispered. You get 2 hours of sleep a week. The clients are lunatics. The residents are fire breathing maniacs who eat fourth years for breakfast, spit you out, then eat you again for lunch. Then they stomp on your bones and throw them into the pasture, where you have to reassemble yourself and lurch back in time for evening rounds. My palms were sweaty. My mouth was dry. I had no idea what to expect. Candie looked at the yawning expanse of the teaching hospital’s doors, turned around, and decided to go back to the state capitol after all. I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and presented myself to be devoured.
A funny thing happened that year.
I liked it.
The one thing I thought I would hate about veterinary medicine was dealing with the owners. Give me a medical puzzle, a limp we need to fix, a tooth that needs pulling, and I’m there. But trying to explain that to the person attached to the other end of the leash seemed a daunting prospect, a formality one needed to overcome in order to really get to the good stuff- practicing medicine. If it weren’t for those pesky owners, I figured, I might actually give this whole vet thing a go. But strangely enough, that turned out to be the part I liked the best- my role as facilitator, helping a client to understand what we were dealing with, and guiding them to the right decisions for them and their pet. I actually felt myself starting to fit in. When I was on a rotation with the head of the teaching hospital, he pulled me aside to offer me, unsolicited, a letter of recommendation for pursuing an internship. I stood there with my mouth open, the sum of the last 3 1/2 years swirling around my head. “I’m not doing an internship,” I told him. “Oh, that’s a shame,” he replied. “Let me know if you change your mind.” What an actor I had become, to fool this guy into thinking I had potential. Ha! I showed him!
After graduation, I still hoped to launch my illustrious career in research, but when I realized if I was serious I’d have to stay in school another 4 years get a PhD, I decided to get a job as a small animal veterinarian, just for a little while. Just to start paying down those student loans, mind you. Just while I decided what to do.
That was in 2002, and I am still here, and finding myself more enamored of my job every day. I have a really, really cool job. Where else do you get to be a pediatrician, an OB, a surgeon, a radiologist, a pharmacist, an internist, and a counselor every day? And then get puppy kisses on top of it all? Maybe my classmates just figured it out a lot sooner than I did, but there is nothing else at this point that I can imagine myself doing, anal gland abscesses notwithstanding.
As an aside, I should mention that the large gravitational pull exerted by this career did in fact pull Candie back in as well. After some time off chasing down a few other careers, she ended up returning to school and finishing her degree, and is now a talented and well respected emergency veterinarian, with a fondness for local politics. Who would have guessed?