One of my high school classmates became a veterinarian as a second career. When she (and I) went to college the first time, women were not exactly being encouraged to apply to veterinary school (the dark ages — sometime between the Norman Conquest in 1066 and 1980). She became a teacher, despite really always wanting to be a veterinarian. She went back to school, got some science courses as pre-requisites, and graduated from veterinary school at the tender age of 48. Six years later, she confided to me that "… sometimes I don’t feel like a real veterinarian. My boss does most of the surgery, serious cases get packed off to the emergency clinic after five…" On the other hand, she has had the experience of being on night call every other night and seeing her own emergencies… and she didn’t like it.
So what is a "real veterinarian"? I think that whether we admit it or not, a lot of us have that James Herriott gentle doctor as our role model. This is not a bad thing, but it requires you to be all things to all people, which is a mighty tall order. Too tall for 24/7, 365 days a year, not to mention that you can hardly be an expert on everything. I’ve been on the front lines for a long time, seeing "all comers" as their primary care veterinarian. I am very glad to have the opportunity to consult with specialists and to have specialists to refer my patients to when it is possible for the clients. In years past, because of my rural location, I’ve been forced to learn procedures that I’d have never touched if we were thirty minutes away from the university teaching hospital. That’s made me stretch and learn and given me the confidence to try new things. I can’t say that it’s always been the best for that "first patient" (though, truthfully, their alternative in those situations was to have NO treatment).
Of course there’s more to the Herriott model than simply seeing whatever species and problem walks in. It’s also about being part of the community, being "the vet", being available when your clients need you, even when it means some sacrifices in your personal life. This can bring great satisfaction, but it also can bring great fatigue, which brings me to how I got started on this: being the day guy and the night guy.
Last night (this morning?) at midnight-thirty, I got a call from the police station. "These two ladies have brought in a dog they just hit, and I didn’t know who else to call." [Me neither, or I’d sure give you his number.] This little gal had no I.D. and no visible means of support. While she was generally pretty stable, she was not too conscious. That, along with constricted pupils and a little nose-bleed, suggested a cerebral concussion (brain-bruise).
She was better this morning, and continues to improve, though I reckon she’s still got a headache, pain medicine or no. We’re optimistic about her full recovery and finding a home for her. That’s a good thing. Feeling like I was out all night — not such a good thing. Does it make me more of a "real veterinarian" than my classmate who doesn’t like surgery and night emergencies? I don’t think so. You find a niche where your talents satisfy a need, and do your best. That’s real enough, I think.
Here is where I am, and this is what I do. It’s not for everybody, but if you know a nice young doctor who would enjoy small town life, I’d love some help.