The theory and practice of learning to be a vet
Next week I am giving a talk to a class of vet students who are half way through the veterinary course. My task is to somehow inspire them, to give them encouragement to continue cheerfully through the hard work of learning how to be a vet.
I remember starting out at vet school as an enthusiastic seventeen year old. I was so excited: I had wanted to be a vet since I was five years of age, and now, here I was, about to learn how to do the job.
In that first week of lectures and practical classes, I discovered that I was still a long, long way from being a vet. There are two lengthy phases that lead up to qualifying as a vet: three years of pre-clinical studies, followed by two years of clinical education. And the pre-clinical years are the most challenging for wannabee vets: it's all about the theory of animal health and disease, without being allowed near a real-life sick creature. For someone who had imagined that from day one, I'd be mopping the brow of an ailing dog, this took some getting used to.
The truth is that to be a clinical vet, you need to have the pre-clinical years under your belt. You need to understand the basic biological sciences. You need to know how the body works, from the cellular level of chemicals and enzymes, to the organ level of the liver, kidney and lungs, right up to the names, structures and functions of the various muscles and nerves. And you need to know this stuff for dogs, cats, birds, horses, pigs and other farm animals.
You need to know about nutrition, animal husbandry, animal handling, and many other subjects. Before you are ready to examine a sick animal, you need to be utterly familiar with healthy animals. You need to know all about the theory of the wide range of ailments that can affect them. There's no point in examining a sick animal if you have no understanding of what illness might be causing the problem. You need to learn about viruses, bacteria, auto-immune illnesses, and cancers.
And that's just the pre-clinical stuff. When you've learned all this theory, you then need to start into your clinical years, where you are doing what you have always dreamed of doing: working with real, live animals that are suffering from illnesses.
There's an immense amount to learn. It reminds me of the old riddle: how do you eat an elephant? The answer ('one bite at a time') is a good reminder that to accomplish a seemingly impossible big task, you simply need to break it down into much smaller, manageable tasks.
The seemingly massive veterinary curriculum can be broken down into many smaller fragments of information, given out to students in one-hour lectures and two-hour laboratory sessions. It's still a huge amount of information. It's no wonder that vet students have eight or nine hours of teaching every day backed up with long evenings of study to try to squeeze the information into the long term memory.
It's difficult to get the life-balance right. In my first year, I was so worried about the risk of failing that I studied every minute of the day and night. My life was made up of work and sleep: nothing else. And while I did pass my exams with credit, I was miserable.
The following year, I decided that I had to enjoy life more, and perhaps I reacted too much in the opposite direction. I started to go out in the evenings, often on weekdays as well as at weekends. My exam results dipped, but I still managed to scrape passes, and I was much happier in myself. I had learned an important lesson of life as a vet student: to be successful, you need to work hard and play hard.
The great news for vet students is that the learning is not just theory: it really does prepare you for real life as a vet. I remember, as a new graduate vet, being asked to go to my first farm call. The farmer had reported that he had a calf that was suffering with diarrhoea. Despite my intensive training at vet college, I had never before actually had to treat any animal, of any kind, by myself. I went to the older vet in a panic: what on earth would I do to treat a calf with diarrhoea?
His response was simple: I had just completed my final exams, which included oral interviews. If the examiner had asked me "how would you treat a calf with diarrhoea", how would I have answered? I replied: 'That's easy. I'd do this, and this, and this". The older vet smiled, and said "Exactly: now go and do it.".
I learned an important lesson that morning: the purpose of education is to prepare you for real life, and if you have learned what you are meant to have learned, you will be properly prepared, whatever you may feel inside. Of course it's important to be cautious, and to stay within your zone of competency.
The support of older vets is critical. After my visit to that farm, I went back to my senior colleague to report what I'd found, and to tell him what I planned to do for the sick calf. He reassured me that yes, I was on the right track. The lesson for me was that my learning had not just been theory: I had been taught at college how to do a task, and as a result, now I was able to do it.
So my message next week for for that audience of young, mid-college vet students? Keep chewing that elephant, one mouthful at a time, and you will soon be scraping your plate clean, with an entire elephant of veterinary education inside you. You'll be ready for your new life as a vet.