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’ve had a rough couple of weeks that brought bad news after bad news. I’ve been trying not to let it get to me by allowing myself breaks such as watching a movie or eating some chocolate after work. On particularly bad days, I’d call home: the sound of my mother’s voice never fails to make the world seem brighter.
I think I hadn’t fully comprehended the amount of work or the levels of stress and responsibility that we would suddenly have to shoulder this year. And I know that I can not afford to fall apart, especially now. I have been trying to look after my mental health by doing the things that bring me joy. I run 5km every evening, and try to spend all my time outside of the hospital at the beach or park. I believe that the flowers always bloom for those who chose to see them, so I have been concentrating on counting my blessings.
Every other weekend my friends and I would take a day trip down to Margaret River to do some bouldering – this is a 6 hour round trip by car. On our last trip there I decided that whilst I desperately wanted to go, I really needed to get some studying done. So I came up with the brilliant idea of popping a few travel-sickness pills in order to efficiently study for the duration of the car ride. Unfortunately I took too high a dose (which is worrying, given my medical background) and ended up very obtunded. I slept for most of the ride there and could barely walk in a straight line when we stopped to get lunch. When we got to Copper Rocks, I found a nice deep cave and promptly fell asleep for an hour. Upon waking up refreshed (but still a little out of sorts!) I decided to hop immediately onto a climb without first warming up – and took a bad fall, spraining my ankle. I spent the rest of the day nursing my injury and doing only a few climbs. Then we drove home. It was such a silly day, but it makes for a heck of a story that I will continue to tell for ages to come. 🙂
Picture credit: Oliver Chen
I am officially in the midst of my final year at vet school. We have done away with the daily monotony of hours upon hours of lectures and labs that made up the past 5 years and have graduated into the hospital as veterinarians in training (we even have badges that say so).
My rotations are on 2 week blocks that may be split up into individual specialities within it. For instance, my first rotation of the year is surgery, which is split up into a week of orthopaedics and a week of soft tissue. After this rotation I will have 2 weeks of anaesthesia followed by 2 weeks of emergency medicine etc.
I am so far greatly enjoying myself. There is always something new to learn everyday and we are starting to actually get a sense of what it means to be a vet. The learning curve is pretty steep and I am still trying to find my bearings around balancing full time work in the hospital and having to study for exams, write papers and prepare for presentations at night. Needless to say it is extremely exhausting. In my surgery rotation we are expected to independently perform consults before reporting our findings to the surgeons whereby we will perform a physical exam before returning to the owner to discuss the plan. We get to scrub into surgeries, but don’t get to do much whilst in surgery. Lastly we have to write up surgical reports, discharge instructions, drug order forms and clinical records. Thus I sometimes find myself working from 7.30am through to 7pm with scarcely a lunch break on busy days. When I get home I am expected to read papers and study for the rotation exams that we have on the friday at the end of every week or two. I am therefore struggling to find time to simply rest, given that we also get rostered on every other weekend and are on call throughout some nights.
On top of this I had signed up for an external dental course that runs for 10 weeks or, so I spend my remaining free time during the weekend studying for that.
It’s only been a week and already I am tired beyond measure.
I met up with a couple of classmates last friday after not seeing them for months; we all went over to a friend’s home and ate KFC and ice cream and talked about how sad and tired we all were. And thus is a summary of my first week back in vet school – so much has changed, but so little, too.
I spent the past week learning and working in an animal sanctuary in Malaysia. I stayed in a gorgeous house of bamboo walls and thatched roof filled with rescue cats, dogs, snakes and fish. I started work sometime between 12pm – 2pm and finished between 8pm – 12am. There was no electricity outside of these times, and no WiFi either. I spent all my free time reading when it was light enough and watching Harry Potter on my laptop when it got too dark. I made sure to pat every single dog and cat within my quarters before bed every night – even the little yappy ones I didn’t particularly like, lest they felt left out. It was a week of work experience that felt nothing short of a country vacation. It was a forced break from the busyness of my everyday life that I hadn’t known I needed.
The shelter housed about 700 dogs, 300 cats, half a dozen macaques, 1 gibbon, 12 horses and 2 snakes. I worked exclusively in the hospital, mostly performing castrations, abortions and ovariohysterectomies as part of a catch-neuter-release program for stray dogs and cats. This was the main purpose of my trip to Malaysia – to learn about shelter medicine, but mostly to gain the surgical experience I was so badly lacking. It was a bit intense because I would be showed how to perform a surgery once and then left to my own devices with an anaesthetised animal in front of me. It forced me to have more confidence in my skills and knowledge, and to make my own decisions involving my patients.
I think I have improved vastly in the short period of time I was there, but I know that I still have a long long way to go; there is always more knowledge to be acquired and practice to be had. In university I am taught only the gold-standard treatments and options. My main struggle at the shelter was therefore having to set that aside and adopt other methods that are both time and cost-saving but defied the teachings of my professors. But that is how the real world works: as a doctor I will not always have the time or resources to perform the gold standard tests and treatments. I will be limited by my clients finances, and my patients condition. It is a vital skill I need to learn, to be able to come up with treatment plans that cater to the needs of all these factors.
I am so thankful for the opportunity to have learnt as much as I have in the past week. And I am so excited for all that is to come – to learn and to better my skills and knowledge. I am beyond privileged and I am grateful.
On Friday I sat in my last official vet-school lecture, this was really exciting because it has been 5 years of countless lectures, and this marks our transition into our final year of rotations within the hospital. I am both equally stoked and terrified to actually leave the desk and start having to interact with clients/ do actual doctor things (because now I could really mess up in a tangible way- there are risks involved!). Whenever I look back at all my old notes, I always marvel at how much knowledge I have tried to cram into my brain- and subsequently failed to retain (what even is microbiology, immunology and pharmacology now?!). But mostly, I can’t believe how many hours upon hours I have invested in trying to memorise everything about everything. It’s all passed so quickly. I can still remember my first year in uni as a wide-eyed girl solemnly lamenting the fact that 6 years is a long time (like repeating primary school), and shaking my head in disbelief when the seniors told me that it’d fly be in a blink of an eye. Here I am posing with the lecture notes I have collected (and trees I have killed) over the years (sans textbooks because my pile would topple over my head and make me dumber than I already am).
It is a fairly large pile because we have on average about 15hours of lectures a week – and 5 years of so. Here is what my timetable for this semester mostly looks like.
My class celebrated with snacks and champagne at 9am in the morning, and the celebrations continued well into the night. I think many very close friendships are formed within vet school because it is such a specialised degree- you see the same few faces in all the same class, every day over very many years. You suffer together through the poop and the blood, and also the mental breakdowns and anxiety attacks. I really am thankful for all the friends I have made, I know that I wouldn’t have made it this far without their help and support.
Now I just have to sit my final exams before I can.. immediately commence 6 weeks of clinical placement (what even are holidays?? What is rest? What is sleep?) But I am looking forward to finishing the exams none-the-less. Here’s to hoping that I will stop being a complacent embarrassment to my family and actually study harder than I do right now. Here’s to hoping I will pass, so I don’t have to go through another last-lecture-ever.
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.