Winner, Life as a Vet Student
Holly Burchfield, University of Georgia
She was astoundingly tiny. Cupped in the palm of his hand, she gazed up at us, bewildered.
“Free kitten!”, he announced, as my classmates and I shuffled from our seats to have a closer look. “A resident found her – er, well, his dog found her – under a bush this morning. She is probably three weeks old. Free to a good home!” The senior student had brought her up to our classroom during his lunch break, knowing that one of us would cave and take home yet another creature. After several minutes of people clambering to see her and take a turn holding her, it became clear that no one was actually going to take her home.
“I’ll foster her”, I heard myself saying. The words came out before my rational brain could stop them. Whoops.
“Great, she’s yours! Come by after class and we’ll give you some formula and a carrier for her.”
So I took her home that afternoon; the tiniest kitten I had ever cared for. I had rehabilitated numerous small mammals for our Wildlife Treatment Crew, so I thought I would be competent enough to take care of this tiny, orphaned kitten. It would certainly be a learning experience.
During the first few days, I carried her around in a satchel slung across my shoulder. She would sleep for hours in her nest of blankets inside the bag, swinging as I walked, perfectly content and quiet. I drove with her. I took her on errands. She was surprisingly convenient.
She readily suckled formula from a dropper, and would urinate when gently rubbed with a warm cloth. Everything was textbook. Easy. Within a few weeks, she was ready to be weaned. She was eating canned food mixed in with her formula, and she had learned to use a “litter box” – a pie pan filled with shredded paper. She would cry and scramble for her food, tracking it across the bathroom floor and smearing it across her body. It wasn’t easy anymore. She had accidents, too. After a weekend visit to my boyfriend’s apartment, he later discovered “presents” on his couch, beside the bookshelf, and near the door. She was learning, but making plenty of mistakes.
Until this point, I had been feeling fairly confident in my abilities as a foster mom. My plan was to wean her, get her litter box trained, and then find her a wonderful home that wasn’t my own. As she grew, my older cat, Catniss, decided she was no longer prey to stalk but rather an interesting playtoy. Catniss pawed at her, chased her, scolded her, groomed her. During one of these play sessions, Catniss picked up the kitten, now squirrel-sized, by her scruff and deposited her on a favorite cushion by the window. Catniss had made her decision – the kitten was hers, and it was staying.
Of course, I happily obliged. A pair of cats! What an idea! A few more dollars a month on food, a few more scoops of the litter box, and I’d hardly notice a difference! She was staying. I named her Rue.
A few nights after making this decision, I was reading in bed with Rue asleep on my lap. Rue was still too small to jump on and off of my bed, but she enjoyed the times I’d hoist her up for a nap. It was late, I was tired, and we were both too comfortable to rearrange. It had been an uncommonly bad day. After getting a 45 on a radiology quiz (!), I had trudged to my illegally parked car (I was late for class, what else was I supposed to do?) only to find a $50 parking ticket. Really? The numerical value of my ticket was higher than my quiz grade, as well as my entire weekly food budget. I had given up for the day, convinced that it couldn’t possibly get crappier. I was relieved to finally be in my clean, cozy bed. I fell asleep.
This is where my life as a vet student becomes embarrassing; disgusting, even. We’ve all seen and experienced things that would make the average person lose their lunch. We can look at lesions and dissections over meals, can clean slobber and vomit and diarrhea, and can drain abscesses. We can handle the necropsy floor without being scarred for life. We are pretty tough. But we do these things at the comfortable distance of school or at work. Our homes are sacred places – sanctuaries. We don’t worry about the filth that may accumulate on our scrubs because we know at home we have a change of clothes and a hot shower and clean sheets to slip into. That’s one of the best parts of the day – coming home, dumping my dirty scrubs in the washer with a ton of bleach, and showering off the evidence of whatever gross matter and odors had decided to cling to me that day.
So that night, asleep in my clean bed in my clean clothes with my clean hair (which, I have to add, had formed into miraculously smooth curls that I was excited to show off the next morning). Part way through the night, I half woke from my sleep smelling something… off. I was too tired to process it, and definitely too tired to open my eyes or turn on a light, so I rolled over onto my shoulder and forgot all about it.
A few hours later, still before dawn, I awoke again. The smell was real this time. It was foul, and it was close. Very, very close. I reached my hand up to brush the hair back from my shoulder and was met with something sticky.
Crap. Crap! Really, crap!
I jumped out of bed, trying to keep my upper body perfectly still so that whatever was in my hair wouldn’t touch the rest of my body and my bed, which I desperately wished were still as clean as they had been when I fell asleep a few hours earlier. I turned on the light and slowly turned to face the wreckage. It was worse than I had imagined.
Tiny Rue, unable to jump down off of my bed to her pie pan full of neatly shredded newspaper, had emptied every last corner of her bowels onto my pillow. My hair, my shirt, my pillowcase, my sheets – they were all smeared in a homogenous brown layer of crap. I didn’t know a squirrel-sized animal could contain so much crap.
I artfully peeled off my shirt and put it straight into the washer. I stripped my sheets and did the same with them. I poured a cup of straight bleach in after them, not caring if I ever saw them again.
I headed immediately for the shower, where I watched clump after clump of crap ooze off of my now matted hair. My once-in-a-lifetime curls were gone. I used an entire palmful of shampoo. I have a lot of hair, and had an equally impressive load of crap pasted into it. Clump after clump. Where was it still coming from?! I shampooed again. And again. Still, the strands felt dense and sticky. I still smelled it. It was inescapable. I should probably mention that this wasn’t normal cat crap. This was the pastey goo that results from the transition from mother’s milk to formula to canned food in the period of a few weeks – weaning crap. The worst kind.
I finally gave up and exited the shower. Instantly, the smell followed me. It hovered around me. I dunked my head into the bathroom sink streamed hot water and soap across the now brittle strands. I thought it couldn’t be done, but here it was – a grand finale to my crappy day as a vet student. Failing grades and parking tickets larger than my weekly food budget and the unavoidable smell of bleach and crap filling my tiny, 400 square foot apartment. I wanted to cry. I wanted to give up. I really just wanted to sleep.
Then Rue came around the corner and sat against the frame of the bathroom door. She cocked her head, looking up at me, and mewed her adoration (and, likely, her hunger). I was it for her – the pinnacle of her tiny, kitten-squirrel sized world. I was food and shelter and comfort and love. That’s the life of a vet student. Being able to wash away the stressors and heartaches of a really rough day, and seeing, in the eyes of our patients, that it was all worth so much more than we realized. We are it!
Tracy Huang, UC Davis
A pause, as I turn to take it all in – the hustle and bustle of my colleagues getting more fluids, drawing up vaccines, adjusting the headlamp for intubation, and watching the autoclave on the stovetop. This is Cosiguina, a rural community in northwestern Nicaragua, and day 3 of the December 2013 clinic trip with International Veterinary Outreach (IVO).
IVO is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded and run by veterinary students. In the Fall of 2011, a group of visionary and dedicated veterinary students from UC Davis decided to found an organization to serve animals in rural communities that otherwise would not receive veterinary care. With the help and guidance of Dr. Eric Davis, founder of HSVMA-RAVS and RVETS, IVO became a source of veterinary care for rural communities in northwestern Nicaragua. Twice a year, a group of veterinary students, technicians, and veterinarians make the trek out to these communities to provide wellness exams, preventative care, treatments, and spay/neuter surgeries for both the large and small animal populations. Over the course of two years, IVO has been to Nicaragua five times, and the change and impact is apparent.
My first trip to Nicaragua with IVO was back in the summer of 2012 as a student volunteer. It was an experience that left me dazed and confused. I was supposed to feel good about giving back to the communities. Instead, I ended the trip skeptical about the effects of our work, saddened by the conditions of the animals, and deeply struck by the poverty of the communities. Working in a culture with different priorities, a different mentality, and different resources presented so many challenges. Yet, I was stimulated. So, I took on the role of co-president and purchased my second, third, and fourth plane ticket back to Nicaragua.
During our clinic trips, we set up field clinics in a different community every day. As we continue to return to Nicaragua, there are communities that we regularly return to every six months and communities that we have only begun to work in. Cosiguina is one such community, located close to the border of Honduras. The lack of veterinary services and outreach in Cosiguina is apparent. Dogs that have never before been on leash are understandably much more fearful and difficult to handle, and their poor body conditions are striking. Our surgery board is barely filled with spays and neuters, as there is a lack of understanding about what the surgeries are for and their health and welfare benefits. Cosiguina is what the other communities that we have first worked in started out as – with heavy skepticism from the community about the importance and benefits of sterilization, limited access to veterinary care for their animals, and rampant pet overpopulation.
While there are still these problems in the other communities that we have regularly returned to, we have slowly made progress – progress evident in the growing receptivity of the community to our veterinary recommendations and to pet sterilizations. As we gradually establish relationships with the communities, we see increasing numbers of patients with each trip. In addition, there are notable changes in individual lives, evident in the dogs that return to our clinic for preventative care with the same leashes we provided them in the past, in the owners who bring their dogs back to us every six months for another treatment for their dogs’ transmissible venereal tumor (TVT), and in the woman who walked four kilometers down a hot, dusty road to our next clinic site for her dog’s spay. All this is proof of progress and reason for me to continue to return.
With every trip, we learn more about the needs of the communities that we work in. We implement different educational initiatives to help address these needs, such as basic nutrition, reasons to spay/neuter, and the importance of flea/tick preventatives. In addition, we recruit local veterinary students and veterinarians to promote an exchange of ideas and to better understand the role of veterinary professionals in Nicaragua. It has been through these initiatives that we have been able to and hope to continue to make progress.
Back in Cosiguina, our surgery tables may not be busy, but this is a place we will have to revisit because our work here has only just begun. So, I pick up a chart, grab a leash, and walk out in search of my next patient.
Dr. Eric Etheridge and UC Davis veterinary student, Jamie White, vaccinate a pig in a rural community in northwestern Nicaragua.
UC Davis veterinary student, Matt LeShaw, gain experience monitoring anesthesia, while Dr. Jean Goh, director of Spay & Neuter Clinic at the San Francisco SPCA, perform a canine spay in the field.