Thursday, May 5, 2016

So You Want To Be A Veterinarian

Veterinarians love animals. This is a fundamental axiomatic truth, much like pilots loving airplanes, chefs loving food and librarians loving books. Given that the love of animals is widespread, the ambition to become a veterinarian is widespread as well. This spawns tremendous competition for the few spots in the veterinary schools, meaning that very high marks are required to get in. Consequently, and quite logically, it is animal lovers with excellent grades who populate the ranks of future veterinarians. But sometimes a third essential ingredient is missing. In fact, this ingredient is rarely even discussed, but it is the one element that more than any other determines whether these keen and idealistic students ultimately become happy veterinarians who maintain some of that keenness and idealism or whether they become disillusioned veterinarians who burn out and succumb to cynicism and regret.

That third essential ingredient is a love of people. The same high marks would easily get any prospective veterinary student into human medical school, but for many this is ruled out not just by the pull of their love for animals but, unfortunately, by the push of their, shall we say, discomfort around people. This is a problem. I tell every prospective veterinary student that comes through our clinic that veterinary medicine is not an animal business that happens to involve people, but a people business that happens to involve animals. I tell them that the sooner they understand this and accept this and embrace this, the sooner they will come to love their profession.

And why is that? The answer should be obvious. Until the dogs and cats and guinea pigs and rabbits and all others come marching in on their own replete with the ability to talk (and pay) we will have to work through their owners and keepers and guardians. You can only help animals by communicating clearly and empathetically with people. Moreover, even when this miraculous Dr. Dolittle day arrives we will still have staff to deal with. And staff are most assuredly people.

I have been chair of our professional disciplinary body for a number of years and can attest without a flicker of hesitation that far far more veterinarians come to grief through an inability to connect with people than through any failings in their surgical skills or medical knowledge.

And once you "get it" you see how fabulously interesting people are in all their freakish variety. And you see that we are a privileged profession as we are permitted to help people who are ironically often at their most human around animals. I remember with startling clarity the specific moment when this dawned on me. I was just about to enter the clinic through the back door. It was a sunny summer morning and as I opened the door I realized for the first time that I was looking forward to seeing the clients who were starting to become my regulars as much as I was looking forward to seeing their pets. It was at this moment that I decided to stay in practice and not go back to school to pursue research, which had been my original plan.

But all that said, the love of animals is still at the heart of things. I often think of a card we got many years ago from a young child who boldly wrote "I want to be a vat!" Yes, I too once aspired to be a large container, but I became an animal doctor instead and I have never regretted that decision.

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