Gazette Vet: Broadening My Horizons

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by John Andersen, DVM

I grew up as a suburb kid in an Army family. I spent the first seven years of my life in California and Hawaii before our family finally settled down in Northern Virginia. The exposure to nature and wildlife out on the west coast and on the Islands was surely an influence in my becoming a veterinarian, as was the fact that we always had dogs in the house. My initial impressions of a veterinarian were of someone who takes care of dogs and who also works at SeaWorld making sure the killer whales were fed.

As a quick aside here, one evening during my third year of veterinary school during fall break, I found myself studying late into the night at my parents’ house in Northern Virginia. It was an extremely challenging academic year and I was feeling a bit worn down and stressed, even though I was only halfway done with the first semester. I took a break and just happened to find a box of memorabilia in my mom’s office. I snooped around and low and behold I found my first grade writing journal from when I was in school in Hawaii. It was pretty entertaining, and then I stumbled onto a page that read: “When I grow up, I want to be a veterinarian so I can see dogs’ hearts with the radar system.” This was accompanied by a decent illustration of an EKG machine attached to a dead dog. I must have recently taken a field trip to the local vet’s office. This was a neat moment in my career, all these years later finding out I had been interested in this stuff all along. It gave that semester a little more purpose.

Back to my initial impressions of being a veterinarian. I had never really been exposed to farm animals like horses and cattle, due to my suburban upbringing, so imagine my surprise when I learned that throughout veterinary school I would have to learn about a few more species.

To become a veterinarian, you need to be competent in not only treating dogs and cats, but also horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and birds. This is actually all on our standard veterinary medical board exam – detailed questions about diagnosing and treating diabetes in a cat, followed by questions about the microscopic appearance of viruses that cause diarrhea in pigs. Needless to say, I’m pretty sure I did badly on the farm animal stuff, which, fortunately, was balanced by my small animal (dogs and cats) knowledge. I think in the future this should change, allowing veterinarians to forego spending valuable time and money on species they will never treat. Please note: don’t ever ask me to come on your farm and look at your horse. I will be faking it and I’ll probably get kicked!

Large animal medicine (horses and cattle mostly) was a very interesting part of my education however, having never really been exposed to those animals so close up. It’s one thing to learn about their anatomy and physiology in a classroom, but another to go into a stall by yourself and work on a horse. I felt like they could always tell I didn’t really know what I was doing and they would mess with me psychologically.

Even more interesting was the farm call rotation my senior year. No matter your upbringing, you are going to spend at least three weeks doing farm calls with the large animal vets. Attire for that is Dickies overalls and muck boots.

My first call was an emergency C-section to deliver a calf that was stuck in the birth canal. This surgery was performed in about three inches of mud while the cow laid down and was wide awake the whole time (with proper nerve blocks of course). It was cold, wet, and windy, not consistent with my younger impressions of a veterinarian’s work.

Although I will never work on large animals, I don’t regret having to learn about them and their role in people’s lives. If anything it gave me a unique experience on what it takes to feed this country and convinced me that I will get killed if I ever try to own a horse, so I might go draw a picture of that.