Lauren McMillen, an 8 year old in Denver, wrote to me recently asking what it is like to be a veterinarian because she thinks it would be a fun job to have. Well, I happen to agree, so here are some things to think about for those of you out there that are considering this fine profession for yourself.
The first thing you need to like as a veterinarian is school, because there is an awful lot of it standing between you and your DVM degree. After graduating from high school there were four years of college, and after being accepted to vet school there were four more years of what was essentially college on steroids. After a lifetime total of 20 years of formal education I was pronounced fit to practice medicine and surgery on all species of animals, although heaven help the llama or koi that would be looking to me for treatment.
Most veterinarians choose a discipline in the profession that suits them and there are vets out there that would know exactly what to do with a sick llama, or koi but would quake at the prospect of treating a dog or a cat. Large animal practitioners deal mostly with livestock, and many tend to specialize in one species, like cows or horses. There are turkey vets, research veterinarians, and advanced specialists who do only the most difficult surgery, ophthalmology, dentistry, or internal medicine to name just a few different ways to be a veterinarian.
As a general practitioner in a small animal hospital, my job is what most people think of when they think of veterinarians. My day consists of seeing people with their companion animals for whatever mundane to wildly unusual reason they may walk in the door. The challenge and the variety are some of the aspects of my job that I like the most. First of all I have to figure out what is going on with a patient who is not only refusing to talk to me, but often doing his best not to cooperate with getting the diagnosis at all. Just once I would love it if the vomiting dog would tell me: “Yeah, when everyone else went to sleep last night I was nosing around the living room, where I found this really ripe pair of socks halfway under the couch. It took me the better part of an hour to get them completely chewed up and choked down my gullet, but it was worth it. Anyway, for some strange reason I’m not feeling very good this morning. What do you think is going on Doc?”
Secondly I like the fact that I have the training and the tools to solve most of the problems I encounter myself. I am the radiologist, the internist, the ophthalmologist, the oncologist, the surgeon, and sometimes the kennel cleaner. If I figure out that my patient needs surgery immediately I don’t have to call all over the place to find a surgeon. I am the surgeon, and I take pride in the fact that my patients can often go from coming in the door with a serious problem to completely fixed in an afternoon because of that.
One would think that in the face of such awe inspiring medical prowess everyone would hop to when I yell “STAT!” or “CODE BLUE!”, but for some unfathomable reason I am usually just met with blank stares from the staff. Maybe its for the best since I am not entirely sure exactly what code blue means anyway. Even though my life may not be picked up as a prime time medical show any time soon, every day still holds a little of the life and death drama and a little bit of the utterly ordinary. It is always hard work physically, mentally, and emotionally, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Dealing with people who love their pets is a very rewarding part of the job. That doesn’t mean that every interaction is positive, or sometimes even rational, but even the painful or bizarre situations become a story. Although the first thing they like to say to you in vet school is that veterinary practice is nothing like James Herriot’s “All Creatures Great and Small” I find that statement to be not entirely accurate. The veterinary profession has certainly come a long way from the almost medieval combination of toxic potions and general guesswork that characterized Herriot’s day, and I am forever thankful for the enormous amount of scientific research that informs my diagnoses, and the incredible pharmacy full of safe and effective drugs that instantly fix things that I would have been helpless to treat eighty years ago. The cast of characters I meet every day, however, and the relationships I form with them are very much the same. My day boils down to a collection of good stories from start to finish. Not always happy, but never boring.