“Dr. Walker, there’s a hit by car coming in, they’ll be here in about 10 minutes. It sounds bad.”
I stood in the corner of the room, awkwardly tugging at my ill-fitting scrub top. I was 16 years old, and had just started my first summer job at a veterinary clinic as a kennel assistant. Which meant I spent my days not so patiently waiting for dogs to poop in the sweltering Tennessee summer heat. It wasn’t glamorous, but I liked my job. Hanging out with dogs all day wasn’t so bad, and what was even better was that the vet I worked for knew I wanted to be a vet. So as a trade off for a job well done, he would let me shadow him when there was downtime.
This was one of those times. All the dogs had been walked and watered, so I was lurking in the shadows, taking in all the happenings of the clinic that morning.
It was a routine morning-- lots of vaccines, skinny and dehydrated cats, new puppy exams. It was someone's birthday so there was the typical spread of cake and pizza in the break room. Chit chat of weekend plans and football-- the usual.
And then we got the call about the hit by car. In an instant I felt the air in the clinic change. Everyone was alert. There was a buzz in the air that was intangible but ever-present. The techs started to hurriedly wrap up the appointments in anticipation of the emergency on its way. Jenna, the head tech, began arranging materials that might be needed for a bleeding animal. Gauze, IV catheter, sutures, flush. I watched her working swiftly but carefully, anticipating what she might need to have ready.
It was a beagle, and there was a lot of blood.
That’s what I remember most clearly about the moments that followed. The whole thing was a blur, my teenage mind trying to compute what I was seeing.
The owner came rushing through the door with this lifeless creature-- he was rushed straight back, tears and panic spread over the owner’s face. The door shut behind them before I could make it in. I stood in the lobby, heart racing, wondering what was happening in the room. Was the dog dead already? Was it going to be ok? The minutes crept by while I waited to see someone emerge. After what felt like an eternity, the door opened.
The room was empty.
All that was left was blood saturated towels and medical trash. And so I grabbed the mop bucket and trash can and started to clean…
I don’t know what happened to that dog. I don’t remember seeing him again on the other side of that door, so I have to assume that he died. What I do remember is the complex emotions that came from that experience. Concern, excitement, sadness. And awe. Seeing the way the team snapped into action, and how a regular Tuesday morning could go from casual conversation to intense action was like a tragic ballet. Regardless of the outcome for that dog, I knew I wanted to be a part of this world.
As I started undergrad, I declared Biology as my major and proudly proclaimed my Pre-Vet status to my guidance counselor. I trucked through the first few years of college in the typical undergrad fashion-- lots of studying and lots of partying. I had friends and a life outside of school, but I never allowed myself to lose sight of my goal to get into vet school. And I knew to make that happen I had to get the best grades I could. That was always number 1 to me. No matter how many Bud Lights I drank the night before, I always dragged myself into class and always made time to study.
As far as jobs and animal experience goes, you find out pretty quickly while in undergrad that to look good on your application for vet school you want to have some varying animal experience. I had a few small animal veterinary jobs in undergrad, but it quickly became apparent to me how little large animal experience I had as compared to the resumes of my fellow Pre-Vet gunners. I grew up in Nashville, long before everyone wanted to live there-- straight up a city girl, I never had been around large animals of any kind. The only cows I had seen growing up were the ones on our store-bought cartons of milk. After asking around to see what kinds of opportunities there were around town, someone suggested the college’s dairy. “Alright”, I thought to myself, “I like cows, sounds easy enough”.
And so began one of the hardest but best summers I’ve ever had.
First, let me just frame my naivety about the large animal world for you a little bit. My interview for that job went a little something like this.
Twenty-year-old me pulls up the long, dusty road to the dairy wearing a summer dress and flip flops, undoubtedly listening to something obnoxious on full blast with the windows down. I excitedly hop out of my gold, hubcapless 2004 Corolla and look around for the interviewer. There’s no one around, the shanty one-room building they call the office is a ghost town. I see a line of bawling calves in what look like little plastic igloos and think, “Oooo, baby cows!” (because everything is a “cow” when you don’t know anything about cattle)-- I pat several of them on the head as I pass by.
Walking around the back of the office building while dodging cow patties so as not to soil my brand new, high end Old Navy sandals, off in the distance I see a figure waving from out in the field. He’s on a tractor and seems to be telling me to walk out into the pasture to him. I consider how that’ll be difficult with what I’m wearing, but I start the trek towards him anyway. As I approach, he hops off the tractor and sits on a small bale of hay and pulls a sandwich out of a brown bag. I couldn’t help but think about how wonderfully “farmy” this whole experience was, and how I couldn’t wait to tell my roommates about my hay bale interview today.
The interview was as informal as you can imagine; he asked about my experience with large animals and I tried to impress him with the little knowledge I had picked up from my 2 weeks in ‘Intro to Animal Science’ before I dropped the class. He told me I could start next week and that I’d be helping with the afternoon milking. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but it sounded exciting enough to me. As I thanked him for the interview and started to walk away, he called out, “Hey! You’ll need to wear some different shoes when you come back…”. In an “of course I knew that” kind of way, I told him I’d be sure to wear some tennis shoes, to which he gave me my first simple but important insight into the large animal world-- “you’re going to need some boots”.
I quickly learned that the dairy life is a hard life. That summer was one of the most difficult experiences I’ve had, but it also is one of my most fond memories from my time in college. Milking cows is in-fact not like they make it seem in the movies (are there even any movies about milking cows? I don’t know but if there were I’m sure they’d make it look luxurious). It is back breaking, dirty, exhausting work.
In a short time, I went from having no idea how to even dress to be on a dairy farm to bringing up 70+ cows from a 50 acre pasture in 100 degree Tennessee heat, milking them all, feeding their calves, and cleaning the entire barn. All by myself. To those reading that grew up on farms (that includes my husband…), this may not seem like a big feat. But to me it was one of my greatest accomplishments of my time in college, right up there with making an A on an Organic Chemistry exam. It was a humbling experience that made me appreciate a life outside of the one I had always known. I felt a little less like a fraud and a little more like a part of the “large animal club” every time my non-ag friends complained about the smell of cow poop on my clothes when I came to hang out after work. I never knew the smell of poop could be nostalgic, but every time I see or smell a cow patty now, I’m automatically transported back to that unique time of my life.
So you may be wondering, where did the idea to do veterinary pathology in particular come into play? Well, those seeds were actually planted for me while in undergrad. Around my junior year, I started taking my higher level science classes which included Molecular Biology, Histology, and Embryology. These three classes were hands down the most difficult of my major, but they lit a little spark in me that I couldn’t ignore. Learning about pathophysiology and how small missteps and disease could completely ravage the entire organism was fascinating. I absolutely loved being able to essentially “see” into the microscopic world-- a world that is a part of all of us but that we often don’t even realize is there in our everyday lives.
I knew at that point that I loved both pathology and veterinary medicine, but I still had no idea that veterinary pathology in itself was a career option. It was around this time that I started looking around at some other career options, just to see what all was out there and make sure I had fully considered all avenues (...in my true type A fashion). Human medicine and medical technology were the two careers I most thoroughly investigated. But after shadowing a number of medical doctors and med techs, neither of these careers seemed to be the right fit for me, and I always came back to vet med (in case you guys didn’t know, humans are gross). Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to find a way to meld my love for vet med and the microscopic world. After some research on the good ole world wide web, I found that my perfect career actually existed-- specialization in veterinary pathology. And I never looked back.
I applied to one vet school, the University of Tennessee. I really wanted to stay close to home, and I really didn’t want to pay out of state tuition, so I put all my eggs in that basket. My application was solid. My grades were my biggest asset. Extracurriculars were probably where I was lacking the most-- I did participate in several clubs and had some animal related work experience, but it wasn’t the hundreds of hours that some of my classmates had. Unfortunately, they don’t consider time laying by the pool and playing poker with friends as valuable application material for vet school, otherwise I would have been golden.
Nonetheless, I was accepted to UT on that first try, which was a godsend considering I had no backup plan. I remember the weird mix of excitement and fear when I got that acceptance letter. More than anything though, I was ecstatic-- I was going to be a vet! As corny as it sounds, it was a real dream come true. I was on my way.
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