I’ve wanted to be a veterinarian since I was 7 years old. If I’m to believe all the smarmy stories my veterinarian friends tell with respect to their first pets, first jobs and first loves, this probably sounds familiar. (Yes, I tell those smarmy stories, too.)
We dreamed big. We dreamed of saving tigers and elephants from extinction using our knowledge of molecular biology. Armed with artificial insemination guns, we repopulated jungles and plains. We envisioned better lives for pigs and poultry in confinement, even vowing to one day abolish the slavery of vealdom forever. And, of course, we imagined shelters full of cats and dogs that would look deep into our eyes and know just how much we cared about finding them their forever homes.
Most of us were encouraged by our families. We ate up the adulation we got for dreaming big dreams like all kids do. Most of us had to put up with obnoxious naysayers too quick to counter the familial cocoon’s blandishments with trite little ditties about geniuses forced to enter medical school after veterinary schools rejected them. To veterinary dreamers like us, these cautionary tales grated like nails on a chalkboard. Yet they often equipped us to tilt at our windmills, real or imagined.
Corny as they seem, these treacly dreams mark the idealism most veterinarians I know still cherish as our guiding principles. We may not tell them over drinks at conferences, but we harbor them just the same.
Count Yourself Lucky
Sure, we all know more than a few colleagues who see their work as a means to an end, their field of vision never straying too far from the nearest golf course or marina. But most of us still toil in a world where helping animals goes hand in hand with a challenging and rewarding life as champions of animal health.
It’s a satisfying career we’re lucky to practice, especially as we approach the end of 2016.
Now that the concept of pets as family has finally arrived, now that animals are treated to health care options that approximate ours, now that the validity of our animal agricultural machine is being deeply questioned by a broader coalition than ever before, now that animal welfare is no longer synonymous with PETA …
… now we’re talking. Now we’re really making inroads. The level of veterinary care for all animals, not just pets, has never been higher. So for those of us who truly love science and animals, this career is nothing short of heaven.
What’s more, almost everyone agrees. Which probably explains why most people’s first response when they learn we’re veterinarians is, “You must be really smart!” or “Wow! You’re so lucky! I always wanted to be a veterinarian!”
Don’t be a Dream Crusher
I know this column is about gratitude. That’s why I’ve written it. Yet I’ve had cause to feel discouraged lately.
Too often I’ve heard veterinarians complain that this isn’t the profession it once was. That we’re compensated too poorly for our degree of expertise. That it’s impossible to make ends meet. That, given access to a time machine, they’d never ever do it again. What’s worse, they tell would-be veterinarians to steer clear of this profession altogether.
Some among us, disenchanted with the veterinary profession as they are, are increasingly willing to contaminate young idealists with our gloomy brand of self-hating negativity. “Don’t do it,” they say; it’s a dead end, a surefire path to burnout and disillusionment.
The way I see it, these dream crushers are way worse than the obnoxious naysayers who once told us we’d never make it. Telling us we can’t do something we’re impassioned about can be motivating. Telling us we’re stupid and wrongheaded to pursue our passion is simply cruel.
From Pessimism to Optimism
The truth is that what this profession needs is not more cynicism and woe. What we need are more good vets. We need more well-prepared, positive-minded candidates to vie competitively for seats in our schools. We need more dedicated animal people of all ages and all backgrounds, not just the 20-some-year-olds armed with biology and animal science degrees. (Don’t get me wrong; that’s just fine, too). After all, this profession is only as good as the competitive environment we create.
But I worry: How many would-be vet students are not preparing, not planning, not competing, not striving because of these bitter admonitions? How does the money thing, addressed persistently and alarmingly on a routine basis throughout veterinary school, impact our mind set?
Sure, the money thing is a hard thing to bear. I should know. I was one of those students who graduated with well over $100K in debt way back in ’95. What’s more, I almost filed for bankruptcy about 10 years ago. Debt management through a debt-consolidation service saved my butt.
I’m not bitter. Not one bit. I’d do it again 10 times over, though maybe a little differently.
Ultimately, I strongly encourage anyone who cherishes the concept of a career in vet med to get off their backsides, ignore the haters, dream big about animals and embrace the inevitable challenges of a career in veterinary medicine.
Trust me: If you feel like most of us did when we chose this path—remember to feel grateful every day—you’ll be thankful you ignored the haters and took the higher road.
Dr. Patty Khuly owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at www.drpattykhuly.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.
Originally published in the December 2016 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today!