Excerpts from a conversation I had with a brilliant new friend:
“I used to get anxious a lot about patients dying and not knowing what to do in any given situation. but actually, it’s rare to be someone that knows everything, and it’s comforting to know even your seniors can be fallible too. Nihilism/ fatalism to some degree helps as well; though you never want bad things to happen to your patients.
Some say our own worst enemy is ourselves; but that demon is fuelled moreso by external commentary. Still, external commentary can only ever affect you by proxy, since ultimately it’s only ourselves that determine the gravity of our own psychology.”
I often say “I should have gone to med school instead”, but last weekend for the first time in my life I meant it. I’ve wanted to be a vet since I was 9 years old, and I gave up everything to chase that dream. It was the only thing I have ever wanted to do, despite the low wage, lack of recognition and high suicide rates. But final year has broken me.
I am absolutely drained, not simply of energy but also of passion and conviction. Hard as I try I cannot will myself to pick up my books and study for yet another exam. I’ve recently been contemplating the idea that it simply isn’t worth it. All that effort put in and abuse taken, and almost half a million dollars in university fees, for a lifetime of shitty pay and a lack of recognition. To get told you aren’t a real doctor; that you don’t save real lives. No one becomes a vet for the money. But given the work and effort we put into it all, the massive discrepancies with regards to income and social recongition for the human and veterinary medical profession does get to me.
I’ve calculated that I have been made to work 130 hours over the past 2 weeks on my equine rotation. I know that to register as a vet you need to know about all the different species, regardless of whether you intend to ever work with them in the future. But it is an unrealistic expectation for students to remember every bit of information they had learnt over the past 6 years – especially when they are worked to the bone during the day and have little time outside of work to revise the material. I struggle with equine medicine, having never grown up around horses and having little interest in the subject area, and I got put down everyday for it: told I wasn’t good enough; and that I would make a shitty doctor. On a rainy saturday night I was involved in a minor car accident. I was ok, but my tyre had blown out. I hadn’t a tyre iron with me, and after getting some help from a friend, realised that my spare wheel was flat too. I emailed my supervisors saying that I wasn’t able to make it in time for morning treatments on sunday due to my circumstances, and was met with the cold reply that I should have ubered into work regardless. I think that was the breaking point for me. I called my mom sobbing and spent the next week endlessly worrying that I would be failed because of circumstances that were beyond my control.
I promised myself that regardless of my position in the future – if I ever make it as a specialist surgeon – that I would remember what is was like to be me right at this moment, that I would always treat my peers with respect and compassion. That I wouldn’t allow the stress and pressure get to me in such a way that I became destructive to the dreams of others.
When people meet me they say “Wow you must really love animals to choose veterinary medicine”. But in truth it is because I don’t like people. A dog bites because it is fearful and a lion kills because it is hungry. But we have an ability to be unkind despite intelligent reasoning. It is unkindness without a cause.
Come to think of it, the things that have been getting to me lately have been due to the words and actions of people, rather than my work with the animals. My faith in people (and myself) is broken, but my yearning to help animals remains unchanged. So maybe I don’t actually mean it when I say I should have gone to med school instead. And maybe this isn’t a dream I should give up on just yet.
I’ve spent the past couple of weeks working at a wildlife hospital. It was a fairly long drive to make, but everyday I would park my car amongst the trees and step out to the faint smell of bushfire in the air, and that made it all worthwhile. This was a not-for-profit wildlife rehabilitation center that was run entirely by volunteers. I would admit any injured wildlife that was brought in, assess them and treat them to the best of my abilities, and refer to a private veterinary hospital if it was a case I could not handle, or if the patient required further diagnostic work-up (radiographs etc), or surgery. As there was no on-site vet, the onus of making decisions regarding treatment plans and euthanasia considerations often fell on me. This was both good and bad because it forced me to be more decisive and to have more confidence in the clinical decisions I made, but also meant a lot of sleepless nights worrying about possible misdiagnoses, and that I wasn’t really learning as much as I could have because there would be no senior vet there to correct me if I were wrong. I spent some days in the lab looking at faecal samples with a microbiologist, and others rushing around the hospital administering treatments and euthanising patients with very poor prognoses. All in all I think I learnt a fair bit, and feel like I have made a minor but practical contribution towards wildlife and conservation. It was also really good for me mentally, I think, to take a step back from my usual high-stress environment and re-connect with the side of medicine that I love.
I’ve been spending all my free time (and also time I probably could not afford) hiking, camping, star gazing and climbing over the past few weeks. I have learnt to not let a lack of company stop me from doing the things I love, and to care less about what people might think of me – because chances are they probably don’t think of me at all. I’ve been taking myself out for hikes and stopping my car to watch beautiful sunsets. I’ve been pushing my comfort zones and forcing myself into situations that require me to socialise with new people. And I think I am getting better at it – or getting better at not hating it. It is back to the daily grind of rotations and exams and I am as behind on sleep as I am with my studies. My muscles are sore, my finger tips are bleeding, my shoes are caked with dirt but my heart is a bit more full than it was before.
I actually have the most wonderful friends, but this is just such a beautiful song.
And I am no stranger to feeling alone, even when you are surrounded by the people you love. These past few weeks have been tiring and stressful and whilst I have been coping well, I have seen far too many of my classmates succumb to the pressure; I recently wrote this message to a friend who was was on the verge of giving up, but I felt that maybe there were more people out there who needed to hear this- so this is for you, if you feel burnt-out and alone:
~~ I know that vet school is tough and you feel like you are running in quicksand. But Remember to take a breather and realise how far you’ve come. You end every year with just so much more knowledge, and it makes you that much closer to becoming a Dr/ surgeon. 5 years ago we had no idea how to even catch a horse or properly auscultate a cat. And now you’ve performed surgeries, monitored anaesthesia, calculated drug doses and don’t even think twice about loading cows into crushes or interacting with clients. I know it gets harder every year, and that the work never seems to end. But you are so close, and you are not alone- neither in the physical struggle with the sheer amount of study content or the mental isolation. You’ve come a very very long way, so don’t ever discount that fact or devalue your sacrifices and efforts by not also realising that what you’ve achieved so far is incredible as it is. I think you are pretty great- even if you don’t think so. ~~
If we are friends but just don’t really hang out, or if we are strangers but you just really need someone to talk to right now, send me a text or a Facebook message. I will buy you a coffee, we can hang out. 🙂
Remember that you have made it through every worst day of your life so far.
And that people care- even the ones you least expect to.
Remember that you are not alone. Ever.
You are here but never present;
A negative balance of free time.
Practical to a fault-
You are the cold empty bed I climb into every night.
In the wee hours of the morning,
My phone buzzes:
“Full CPR. Patient just died.”
Instead of sweet whispers and lullabies.
And I am reminded
Of the fragility of mere mortality-
And how you are there fighting
To preserve the lives of strangers
Whilst in the fray, forgoing your own
And I am in awe.