Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Mouths Of Babes And Children

One of the good things about living in a small town is that I get a chance to do some volunteer programs at the local schools. This all comes about because I'm one of a very small number of vets in town, and clients who work at schools feel comfortable asking me, because we're all just folks here, if I'd like to do school programs.

I admit I love the thank-you notes that I get from the little kids. But there are compensations to the older kids as well.

One of my annual gigs is to go to the local middle school for mock interviews. This is a program in which the kids are asked what they might like to do for a living, and then to create a resume, a cover letter and fill out an application. Based on the kinds of jobs the kids are angling for, the school counsellor contacts local professionals and asks them to come in for a morning to interview the kids as if they were actually applying for a job. The professionals are asked to rate the "applicants" on appearance, demeanor, cover letter, CV, and preparedness. Because my little land-locked town in not bristling with marine and other wildlife biologists or equine trainers to the stars or TV animal trainers, I generally get tagged for those as well, not to mention all the vet-tech stuff.

Now, these are middle-schoolers, so most of them are about 11 to 13 years old. We don't expect them to come in with all guns blazing - although some of them do - and while many of them are laboring under some serious misconceptions about what is involved in becoming a vet, I always try to find something encouraging to say. I don't want to crush their little egos, after all. On the other hand, I also don't want to be so easy on them that they think it's a cake walk getting into vet school - or having a career in veterinary medicine, come to that. It's not fair to them to lead them to expect that it's just a fa-la-la, I decided to go to vet school and they have to take me because I have the tuition. Unfortunately, some of the kids who think they want to be vets are probably barking up the wrong tree. It's not so much my place to tell them "This is not the career for you" as it is to introduce them to the realities of it and get them to think about what they propose to let themselves in for. Vet school is expensive and gruelling, and although it was also really great (at least for me), it's not for everyone. If you're not cut out for it, or vet med isn't really your cup of tea, it's probably better to discover that BEFORE you go to the trouble and expense of vet school.

It's a delicate balancing act; I have to tell the truth but do it kindly and with some finesse. Hm. It turns out that being a vet has trained me to do a few other things besides medicine, because the delicate balancing act is one at which this line of work makes you adept, whether you want to be or not.

Mind you, being a middle child in a large family has instilled diplomacy into me from the cradle. This has come in handy many a time, and often long before vet school. Once as a grad student I was trying to describe to a colleague a particular student who they needed to talk to. A fellow grad student, who also knew the student in question, was standing with us. Well, how do you actually end up describing faces? They nearly always have the usual number of eyes and noses and mouths, and there are only so many shapes a face can take. So I said, "He's about 6 feet tall, clean-shaven, has dark hair and eyes and - um - a youthful complexion - "

The other grad student burst out laughing. "You are SO diplomatic!" she said.
"What do you mean?" asked our colleague.
"She means he has acne!" exclaimed the other grad student.

Um, well, yes. But there's more than one way to present the facts, don't you think? You don't want to obscure the truth, but there's no reason to be harsh.

At any rate, one year when I was doing my interviews, I had in front of me an absolutely petrified 12 year old boy. As always, when doing the interviews, the student had been provided with a list of questions intended to act as a guideline to get them thinking and asking about the realities of the job. I had been provided with the same list of questions (so as to be prepared). In addition, I'd been doing the interviews for several years by then, and had my patter down, my stock answers at the ready. So, when this boy was sitting in front of me, so terrified that his hands were actually shaking, I was able to smile encouragingly at him and wait calmly for him to stutter out the question, doing my best to let relaxation ooze out of me and across the table and seep into him before his heart actually leapt out of his chest.

Maybe that's why I wasn't expecting it.

"Wh-what is th-th-the best thing ab-b-b-out your job?" asked my little student, reading from the paper trembling in his quaking hands. Remembering the interview skills with which he had been coached, he then looked up at me, pupils dilated with terror, but expression trusting and earnest. Maybe it was that, that disarmingly trustful look, reminiscent of a thousand anxious pets and clients I've seen and treated and tried my best to help, that did it: that look that tells me they're frightened, but they have placed their hope and faith in me, and believe that I will not willingly see them come to harm. I opened my mouth, ready to give him my usual answer, and then it happened. Someone hijacked my lips. Instead of what I meant to say, this is what came out of my mouth:

"The best thing about my job is that every day, when I go home, the world is a better place than it was when I got up - because I got up."

The boy nodded earnestly, thinking this over, and completely unaware that I was hearing this for the first time, too - or that, having had something else entirely in my head, I was far more surprised to hear it than he was. My heart gave a deep, thudding beat, knocking hard against my sternum as if to punctuate my words, as if to tell me: Pay attention. This is the Truth.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: twelve year old boys. They'll break your heart. Wide open, sometimes.

Because that is the truth. That's it. That's why I do this. That's why I get up at 4 in the morning and 40 below zero when someone calls me. That's why I am willing to literally crawl through blood and shit to try to save the life of a parvo puppy. That's why I drag myself out of bed after a long night of emergencies in the clinic and go in and do it again: It's because when I'm done, the world will be better off. I'm just one little person in one little town, and I only change this one small corner of the world - but it takes me, specifically, to do that bit of good. These are the skills I chose to learn, and worked very hard to acquire; not everyone has them. So it's up to me to take my brain and my hands and whatever else I can bring to it, and do my little part to make the word better.

It's not like I'm creating world peace or ending poverty or world hunger, and I'm by no means the only person who spends their days making the word a better place. Probably most of us do that, in one way or another, every day. But still. There's something deeply satisfying about building good, one little piece at a time, and being able to see the results of it. And it's humbling to realize that if I don't do this part, the part that is mine to do, it won't get done. Maybe that wouldn't be as true in a bigger community where there's more overlap, but here - there aren't many of us, so maybe it's more obvious the ways in which all of us count.

It's a humbling thing, and one that I am grateful for: to have work that I love, and which helps the community in which I live.

Humbling too, and full of a strange and lovely grace, that I learned this, the central Truth of why I do what I do, from one young, earnest and slightly terrified boy.

Out of the mouths of babes and children....


Holly said...

I work in law enforcement and I agree, it is deeply satisfying to be able to help people, to be able to do what I do and to have acquired the knowledge and experience that 18 years on the job have taught me.

I think both your profession and mine also have the side effect of making us more aware of how hard life can be, the difference between *real* problems and minor annoyances and how brief life can be.

I can't say I always like my job, sometimes the work is difficult, and sometimes the hours take a toll, but overall it is very satisfying.

MaskedMan said...

To make a stand, to be able to point at something and say "I did that. I made it better"; that is a powerful thing.

Congratulations and God Bless - Your are in your correct place. Not everyone can say that.

Dragon43 said...

You got me with this one.... And I'm a big mean biker.... :-)

Gets your attention when things like this happen.

We have a great vet also. I'm going to point him to your blog.

Mutt Gal said...

And that is why veterinarians are my heros. I think a lot of vets know they do good, but not all of them realize what you have realized and shared with us in this post. I've worked for horse vets and have seen what they go through, emotionally and physically, and they come back every day, because that is what they do.

Thank you.

Barb said...

Having a career that you love, AND that is meaningful and satisfying, is truly a blessing.

Also, finding another blog entry from you so quickly after your last one is a blessing too! I enjoy your writing so much, and look forward to many more wonderful stories in 2009.

Happy New Year, by the way!

Kelly A said...

I have to say, I almost completed my undergraduate in pre-vet medicine, for this very reason that was my major. Life got in the way before I could ever even apply for vet school!! Your story touches my heart and I wish every vet felt the same way you do.

aimee said...

Knowing I can be of use to another is what gets me up in the morning as well. It is The Truth for me too - I feel not only a strong compassion towards creatures on two feet or four - but I feel ethically obligated to be a veterinarian. To do the bit of good that I can, to be of use to others, because I have the ability to.

I'm so grateful to read your thoughts on it as well.

Once, while my vet school classmates & I were talking about Why We Wanted To Be Veterinarians they laughed off my "ethically obligated" answer as being on a high horse... But it doesn't feel arrogant - quite the contrary, it feels deeply and sincerely humbling!

Thanks for sharing this so eloquently, now I don't feel alone!

AKDD said...

Holly, I know it's hard sometimes wading through the disasters of life and trying to stem the tide, but it's noble work. Give yourself a break when you need it, know you are doing well by the world that you live in, and keep the faith. And if no one else does it, I will: Thank you for your service.

Luckily for all of us, it's not just people in the "hero" professions - medicine, law enforcement, education, parenting, etc - who do the heroic. There's a great deal to be said for the everyday good of helping someone else, even in little ways, and many people do this all the time, unsung. So I'm thanking them, too.

Dragon, I might not have mentioned this, but I have an affection for big mean bikers. I've known several who had hearts as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon. I think sometimes if you have a heart like that you HAVE to have a big mean biker (or similar) outside, because nothing less could contain it. And by all means, invite your vet on over!

Mutt Gal - it's out pleasure, and our honor, to do what we do - but it really helps some days to have someone thank us for what we do, so I'll thank YOU for that.

Barb, thanks, and happy New Year to you, too! You probably won't be able to shut me up - I can't help telling stories, and it's been really satisfying to have a forum for them. Sometimes scheduling and other bits of life get in the way of writing time, but I can't seem to stop myself, so sooner or later, I'll be yakking away here again. You know how I am. :D

Kelly, thanks! I can relate to life getting in the way.... I didn't make it to vet school til I was 28, and there were others older than me in our freshman class. But this is not the only path to good, and if you follow your own path, it'll take you where you need to go.

Aimee, never feel alone. We aren't the only ones who are like this. I know that there are a lot of different reasons for doing what we do, and I will say that maybe not all of us KNOW, in the front part of our minds, why it is we do this. But I'm betting a lot of us, even if we can't put our finger on it, come from this perspective, at least to some degree. And I think that maybe some of us who didn't actually START there will end up there in the end. You just stareted there sooner than most. I don't know about you, but for me this is a very significant bulwark against burn-out, so I cleave to it like mt life depends on it. Professionally speaking, maybe it does.

I'm glad you stopped by and I hope you'll visit again - we high-horse riders have to stick together, after all! :D Where do you practice, BTW? (Just curious).

aimee said...

Oops!! I shouldn't have implied that I'm in practice yet, I'm still a lowly second year vet student, in Texas =)

I love, love, love your blog - and so do a huge online community of veterinary students & pre veterinary students! (via


AKDD said...

Aimee, don't worry about it - it's probably my fault, actually. I probably just jumped to conclusions. Besides... you're still a colleague, even if you haven't graduated yet. (IMO - and I was just talking to a classmate about this - 2nd year is the hardest. I look back at that and can NOT figure out how I sat still that long in that many hours of lecture, day in and day out.)

I'm glad you're enjoying the blog... and quite flattered to know it's popular with other students! How do you know I'm popular on student doctor network? (I'm very pleased, of course!)

aimee said...

If you Google "vet on the edge sdn" it will show the student doctor network forum, where I'm a member (I don't think the hyperlink will copy+paste successfully).

Second year has actually treated me better than first year...I think the first semester of first year was the hardest because of the adjustment. Once I realized my plan to maintain a clean apartment, keep up a workout routine, and see my family more than once a semester was futile, vet school became easier!
I also figured out that sitting in lecture for hours on end while paying steadfast attention is only attainable through abusive amounts of caffeine and sugar ;)
Your stories are invaluable to me, because like you said with the Cushing's/Addison diseases, I feel like its been hammered into me to look behind every bush for them haha!

Then other things like the saddle thrombosis, we had just covered that in pathology 2 weeks prior. However after reading that post, and the emotional impact it had, it really drove home Saddle Thrombosis in my brain and I will never ever forget the signs.

AKDD said...

Aimee, I can relate. First year was scary. I was used to being one of the smart kids in class - but EVERYONE in vet school is one of the smart kids in class. I was pretty worried about that at first. After a while (probably after finals of freshman year) I kind of focused in on the task at hand and stopped worrying about it so much. And if I kept my house from burning down or becoming completely buried in dog hair and flashcards, I felt like that was good enough. Martha Stewart wasn't coming to visit, after all, so why stress?

Caffiene and sugar...? Yeah, they're your best friends freshman year. Well, along with racquetball and hiking.

I'm glad if the blog is making things stick in your head... I don't really intend it as an informational site so much as a story-telling site, but if it educates and informs, so much the better! :)

AnimalDoctor said...

Girl, can you ever write! I just discovered your blog and spent the last 2 hours catching up! As a vet, I sometimes find myself in a vacuum, dealing with the daily stresses and emotional upheavals. It's nice to sit back and read about someone else in the same shoes. Thank you! I look forward to following your blog!