Sunday, December 19, 2010

T-minus eleven days.

Today has been an interesting Benny-Hillesque running gag of packing, unpacking, repacking and weighing my suitcases. I can't say enough about how useful those vacuum storage bags are for moving an entire closet of clothes, pillows, bed linens and towels across an ocean.

As I've been doing a lot lately, while packing I was reminiscing about everything that's brought me to this point, this time about all of my accumulated animal experience. I'd crack a smile or laugh out loud as I remembered a particular patient or foster. Everything from malnourished rats diving into their first, real meal in who knows how long to giving a very disgruntled two-toed sloth a bath.

Vet schools require a certain amount of animal-related experience from a potential applicant. Usually that means vet-related experience, working in a clinic environment or at the very least under a vet in some capacity. The reason for this is very simple and necessary; they want to make sure you've got the cajones to do the job. Education can only go so far. You could have the best book knowledge and technical skills in your class, but that doesn't mean you're not going to faint during your first major rodenticide bleed out, or hurl on your shoes when an overenthusiastic Parvo puppy slops mucusy, liquid diarrhea down the front of your shirt. It also doesn't train you to handle clients, easily the most challenging part of being a veterinarian. You wouldn't believe how many people claim to have gotten into vet med because they "hate people." Well then, darling, you're in the wrong profession. We not only have to deal with people, we get to see them at their very lowest. We see them irate and screaming in our face as they protest their latest bill. We also see them hunched over, racked with sobs as they mourn the loss of a constant companion over the last 13 years.

Demanding clinical experience in a vet student helps ensure that they can handle all of the above. As I mentioned in earlier entries, when I first started out I had no animal experience. None. And I was going up against freshman - kids! - with five years of vet assistant work under their belt. I had to catch up, and fast. I was fortunately blessed with a mixture of good luck and absolutely ruthless determination. Animal-related jobs are hard to come by in a college town with a vet school. Every position has dozens of eager, green applicants vying for the spot. Over a period of six years I overextended myself, working 1-2 jobs, going to school part time for 8-9 hours per semester (I quickly learned full time coursework was not possible, and dragged down my GPA), and maintaining 2-3 volunteer positions at the same time. In the end, though, it was worth it. My resume now is pretty damn impressive, and I've had more than one interview where my potential future employer's eyebrows shot up into their hairline. Not many vet students have accumulated the sheer amount and variety of animal experience that I have.

- Vet assistant in a four doctor, small animal clinical practice.
 * This is pretty typical for a vet school applicant, and usually the full extent of their animal related experience.

- Kennel assistant at a Humane Society animal shelter.
 * Primarily the person in charge of cat euthanasia and blood draws/vaccines. Yeah, that sucked. I still have the scars.

- Observer/assistant at a 24 hour emergency vet clinic.
 * The coolest thing I did here was stick my hand into a sheltie's vaginal canal and gently pull out a rottweiler puppy that was too large to pass naturally and had gotten stuck. Then I spent the next fifteen minutes resuscitating the little guy. Best feeling in the world when they draw that first breath and squall angrily at you.

- Volunteer at my local zoo for over three years.
 * Let's face it, there's no way this isn't awesome. I was one of the older, more experienced volunteers, so I was afforded a certain amount of leeway. They would assign me tasks, but more often than not I could also do my own thing and come and go as I pleased. I ended up reorganizing and training their volunteers in food prep, buying a food grater out of pocket when I noticed them chopping vegetables too large for some of the herps, and donating an old rat cage of mine that they still use to this day because I didn't approve of the 20 gallon aquarium that their four rats were overcrowded into and sweltering in the 90+ degree summer heat in an unairconditioned room.

- Exotic animal rescue volunteer and foster.
  * This was easily my most satisfying position. Exotic pets are booming, but unfortunately the amount and quality of care information available to the general public is lacking. As a result our rescue frequently took in animals that unintentionally or not were left in a very bad state. I fostered sick/malnourished/neglected animals and restored them to full health before seeing them off to great new homes. It was incredibly fulfilling work that I will miss very much while in vet school.

- Lab animal care technician.
* This job is really where the meat and potatoes of my animal care experience lies. I worked as a caretaker for Purdue's research animals for three years. The list of species I personally cared for while working there is pretty extensive: mice, rats, guinea pigs, rabbits, ferrets, dogs, cats, pigs, chickens, turkeys, sheep, horses and cows. Purdue granted me some much needed large and farm animal experience. It also helped me learn to value and appreciate animal research and researchers.

- Lab animal care technician group leader
 * This has been my only supervisory role to date, and even though the position only lasted two and a half months (resigned upon my leaving the U.S.) it has been invaluable in a number of ways. Most applicably, in how to handle a position of authority. In my position as group leader I was directly senior to 5 technicians who cared for animals in the two rooms to which I was assigned, and indirectly senior to close to two dozen techs who had their own group leaders but to whom I could assign responsibilities or take disciplinary action against. It taught me a lot about how people react to someone in a position of authority over them, regardless of how friendly and accommodating you try to be, and how to balance being pleasant and approachable but to still inspire respect as a supervisor.

So, that's the extent of my animal-related experience. There are few species you can name that I haven't worked with in some way. It's been a wild ride, but I'm grateful for the opportunities I've had and I think in the end having sampled a little from every plate of what vet med has to offer - small animal, large animal, exotic, zoo and research - I'll be a more well-rounded and confident practitioner.

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