Monday, September 28, 2009

The Red Hand of Death (And Other Ways to Stay Sane During Vet School)

Vet school is a stressful gig. It's not just the responsibility of it, the knowledge that you are undertaking to go out and save lives, do surgery, make tricky medical diagnoses; undertaking to be the expert, to have people rely on you for help in matters of life and death. It's not just the astonishingly fast pace or the intense workload or the massive amount of information and skills you are trying to master. It's not just the expense of it, the long hours and the early realization that, rather than floating somewhere near the top of your class, an academic over-achiever, you are suddenly average: EVERYONE in your class is an academic over-achiever and ALL of them are from the tops of their classes - and at least half of them (and probably more) were better students than you were.

No, there's also the sneaking suspicion that your admission was a dreadful administrative error, and that you don't really belong here. This feeling will be emphatically underscored by the realization that the stunning girl who sits next to you - who is beautifully made-up and has her long strait hair perfectly curled, who has a husband and a house and a job.... this girl is not just smart enough to get into vet school, but she's SO smart she also has time to manage a full life AND look like that. Every day.

That's when you're pretty certain you're sunk.

Maybe it's not a big surprise that I went a bit frantic on the studying the first semester. We had an exam every 10 days, because if they stretched them out further, the amount of material to master was just too vast to be contained within one exam.

Now, the upperclassmen and the faculty were all well aware of the fact that the first exam of vet school was the most stressful of all of them - until it came time to take the National Board Exam and the Clinical Competency Test in senior year (plus or minus a state board exam, depending on the state in which you proposed to work). It's tradition that an outgoing Freshman - now a newly-minted sophomore - "adopted" a "little sib": an incoming and somewhat petrified freshman. In my case, I had my regular big sib - who, on the morning of the first exam, brought me a plate of home-made snicker doodles and a nice encouraging card, which was bright and cheerful and full of moral support - but I also had my neighbor's big sib, a very kindhearted girl who had met me via a work-study situation and to some degree taken me under her wing. She brought both of us - me and the kind, funny, intelligent and intimidatingly beautiful girl who sat next to me, who was her ACTUAL little sib - a new and freshly-sharpened #2 pencil, a brand-new eraser, and a petri dish of m&m's, labelled "m&m culture, eat on [date of exam]". My neighbor also got a few extra goodies, but it seemed her big sib didn't want to leave me out. Isn't that sweet?

Next we are all ushered, trembling, sleep-deprived and sweaty-palmed, into the lecture hall, where they are to pass out our exam papers and tell us the rules (the exam being half written, half practical). There is a strange murmuring noise, which you quickly realize is composed of 131 freshman muttering last-minute aides-memoirs to themselves or their neighbors. The professors proctoring the exam are on the lecture stage as the second hand sweeps away the remaining time before the exam. Suddenly it's 8:00. You can almost hear a hundred and thirty-one hearts skip a beat in synchrony.

The lab coordinator gets up to tell us how the practical stations are set up in the lab: there are no more than four students allowed per station at any one time, though we're allowed to go back and forth between stations as many times as we like, within the 4 hours we are allotted to take the exam. We are also welcome to take the exam sitting in the lecture hall or go back to our cubicles and take it sitting at our desks, or anywhere else inside the building, as the honor code applies: we are expected not to cheat. (Although an honor board exists - a group of students who self-police their peers, with advice and supervision from a professor - it is rarely needed over the next 4 years, and never is a student actually found to have been cheating, at least in my vet school class).

Now there is a slight pause, and the lab coordinator tells us a joke. A pretty good one, getting roars of laughter. A bunch of students shuffle in at one side of the lecture stage; they are upperclassmen, and they put on a skit to loosen us up. It's pretty funny - although to this day everything that happened before that exam is a blur to me, and I have not the faintest recollection what the skit was about. What I do remember is laughing so hard I was nearly crying, while one part of my brain stood off to the side, looking at me and saying: Man. You are REALLY stressed out. Get a grip on yourself.

But the joke and the skit do their jobs: I am feeling cheerful and upbeat and a bit more relaxed as I start my exam in my cubicle, with my snicker doodles and my m&m culture, looking at a picture of my pony I have taped to the wall. (Okay, it's one of the racehorses I groomed right before I came back to school, but you get the idea.)

After the first exam, when I realise that I did well, I start to relax just a little. Maybe it wasn't a huge administrative error after all and I really DO belong here. I don't let up on the work, but I'm not so freaked out any more, since I've proven to my personal satisfaction that I can in fact handle the material, as long as I apply myself.

Still: it's a big deal, being in vet school, and I never want someone's animal to pay for me not paying enough attention in school, so like my vet school brethren, I work hard. Which means that we have to play hard - and we do.

At least some students go out dancing every time an exam falls on a Friday night, as there are no classes the next morning. I am amongst those who find this relaxing, and I'll dance til I fall over. Not well, mind you, but with great enthusiasm. Then there are various FACs (Friday Afternoon Clubs) at various bars and eateries around town, which vet students are adept at ferreting out, as many offer free or half-price appetizers and cheaper drinks from (say) 5 to 7 p.m. on Friday afternoons. There's my usual Saturday coffee date with my friend SF, at which we would vent and commiserate. We never said where we would meet; one of us would call the other and it would be:
"You want to meet?"
"Sure, what time?"
"How about noon?"
"Okay, see you there!" [click].
Then we would meet at noon, having never specified WHERE we were meeting or what for. It didn't occur to me until senior year that the only thing we ever specified was the time.

Sometimes I would take out my little mustang mare (or my thoroughbred mare, or one of the horses I boarded in my pasture for extra money) and ride in the beautiful old cemetery across from my house. Sometimes I would go for a walk or a run in the same cemetery. Sometimes I would just sit and listen to music, or watch a movie or a little TV whilst meditatively knitting or spinning yarn, or play silly games with my dog. Sometimes I'd just sit and stare out my window, or go down by the irrigation ditch running through my property and watch the ducks and muskrats playing in the water. I also developed a few culinary hobbies, the B list: making bread, beer and biscotti (all of which had the significant advantage that you could eat or drink the results of your stress-relieving hobby, providing further stress relief.) Sometimes I would write - can't seem to help that, no matter the circumstances - and sometimes I'd get out my pad and sketch, or just draw pictures in the margins of my notes.

In vet school I was also a hiking fool. I had a ratty old Dodge Dart, which half the time had to be started by arcing two poles on the starter with the assistance of large slotted kitchen spoon, but which limped me through the first couple of years of vet school. I took my dog hiking probably at least five times a week for the first three years - less often the last year, as the workload increased, but even then we probably made about three times a week or more (except for the month I spent on the ICU rotation).

But maybe the single most important thing that kept me sane through the first three years of vet school was the discovery of racquetball.

This was introduced to me by MT, she of San Juan rafting fame. For 7 weeks of the first semester of vet school (for me; she was finishing her Master's degree) we had a weight-training class three days a week and would warm up by playing racquetball for an hour or more first. Then we'd do our weight training and then we'd walk to Pescado Bay for fish tacos afterwards. Naturally MT was a much better player than I was, but by the time she graduated, I was hooked. Not because I was so good at it: more because it just felt so good to hit something.

So I developed other friends to play racquetball with, and was on the courts at least 5 days a week the first two years of vet school (during which we were up-campus and within walking distance of the students-only rec center), and on a slightly slower schedule for the third year, when our classes moved down-campus to the teaching hospital. I did have two unfortunate events associated with my racquetball obsession: One was that I tore my calf muscles badly on the court one day early in our sophomore year and was laid off for three weeks; that made me nearly crazy with restlessness, and to this day that calf has never been quite the same. And the other was that, consequent to my years making my living at the end of a pitchfork, I had tendinitis in both wrists. This made for a certain amount of strain on my right wrist during play, with the consequence that sometimes, as my hand grew slick with sweat, the racquet would spin in my grip, ruining a shot.

Well. I can't have THIS. I need to hit the ball so hard I split it along its seam. Need to, I tell you.

So I went shopping for a glove of some kind, something that would keep its grip no matter how sweaty my hand got. But naturally I didn't need TWO gloves, since racquetball is a one-handed game. To my annoyance, I could find goggles and balls and racquet covers, sweat bands and court shoes and all manner of workout clothing - but nary a racquetball glove to be found. Not one.

After much poking about I realised that golf gloves come as a single glove. Well. This looks promising.

So I tried on all kinds of different golf gloves of various sizes and makes, until I found the one that fit me the way I wanted. It was thin and light and didn't ruin my feel of the racquet, but it was made of leather that would absorb the sweat and would, if anything, become stickier if the sweat soaked through the palm. Perfect.

The first day I tried it out I was playing with a male classmate, C. He had thick curly brown hair and smiling dark eyes, and in some way reminded me of both my brothers - the curly dark hair and twinkly chocolate eyes of one, and the teasing demeanor and bratty-younger-brother spunk of the other. He was not so very much taller than me - perhaps six or seven inches - but he was significantly more athletic - well, or at least looked it, with a diver's build and a general lazy ease of motion.

We get on the court and I unzip my racquet cover, taking out my golf glove and pulling it on. It just so happens that this glove, the one that fit me just right, is bright red. C takes one look at it and starts laughing.

"What is that?" he asks me.

"The Red Hand of Death," I tell him with narrowed and menacing eye, trying not to grin. For some reason this makes C laugh all the harder. (Hmm, I can't think why THAT would be). On the other hand - the Red Hand of Death hand, no doubt - I beat him two games to one that day... maybe because he was laughing at me the whole time.

I'm telling you: It doesn't do to laugh at The Red Hand of Death.

Nowadays I find my stress relief in some ways differently, and some ways similarly. I no longer have a horse, and my gym does not have a racquetball court (although there is a gym in town that does, the fees have gotten ridiculous, and I have no partners anymore, so it hardly seems worth it.) I traded making beer for making wine, and baking for making kefir and roasting lamb. I still play silly games with my dogs, of course, although some of those games are a bit more serious - working sheep, for instance. There is less regular TV and more PBS and movies, although music and staring out my windows are still good. I do less sketching and more photography, less hiking and more flying, but I still meet friends for coffee. I have no patience for spinning anymore - in part because the minute I turn my back on it some Border collie snatches the end of the yarn and runs all over the house with it, unreeling it madly and tangling it in a giant spider web upstairs and down - but I still like to knit and crochet, especially while watching TV... it seems less wasteful somehow if I'm making something at the same time. And of course... I still write. I still can't help that. It's almost a compulsion.

These things do me fine, for the most part. Every once in a while, though, when I've had a particularly trying day I can feel a little itch in my palm, and I think: I wonder if I could get away with wearing it to work... The Red Hand of Death.


MaskedMan said...

Stress survival compensation... At least you kept it to the sane side of things. I've seen people seriously hurt themselves, compensating for stress. Not, mind you, that 'The Red Hand of Death' sounds terribly friendly; at least it's aimed at other people...

I wonder... Could you get away with using your racket and The Red Hand of Death on some of your more annoying clients..?

Dragon43 said...

Sounds to me like you still work & play really hard.

I found a base ball bat and an old stump will do if I really need to hit something right now!

I am so glad you have the compulsion to write.... Makes a difference in my life.

Holly said...

"And of course... I still write. I still can't help that. It's almost a compulsion."

well thank goodness for THAT compulsion! The writing is soul satisfying to read!

Callie said...

Just found your blog and will be back to read the rest of your posts. Wonderful reading!

Anonymous said...

I thought you were going to say that since it was red leather, and your hand sweated, that it turned your hand bright red!! So that during school you had one bright red hand...

Your vet school sounded like a great place. Can I ask which school you went to?

AKDD said...

Beth, I went to CSU. Good school.

Thanks, Dragon, Holly and Callie! It's nice to have an appreciative audience - or at least one who doesn't feel like I'm boring the socks off them! :-D

MM, The Red Hand of Death was my alter ego, in its way. It's that wolfish smile, the one that gives you a glimpse of the fangs without giving you a feel of them. The one that says: Yes, it's a game, so I don't take it seriously... but I'm not going to throw the game or make it easy for you. If I lose I'll do it graciously and praise your good work... but I'll keep at it and at it til I win, and while I'll do my best to do that graciously as well, I won't quit til I get the victory. Some people call it competitive, some call it stubborn; I called it The Red Hand of Death, but it's all the same thing. And now I guess we should call it stress survival compensation, as well... good definintion for it. :) It's a part of what Hedra refers to as "The Wolf Bitch"... by no means the whole of that, but a little corner of it. A fun, playful corner, but underlain with a sort of genial ferocity. Or at least, so I'm told.

Never mind by whom. :D

Barb said...

Making bread and clay sculpting have both been stress relievers for me for several decades now. Kneading dough (no bread machine for me, that takes all the fun out of it) and throwing the clay both include the visceral satisfaction of hitting and punching something - and then the joy of making something tangible with one's own hands.

MaskedMan said...

Actually, one of my favorite stress busters is target shooting. It's a zen process: Check the range for safety... Sight in - focus on the front blade, target blurring in the distance... Watch wind riffle the grass and flag... Breath in... Take up slack... Breath out halfway... The surprising >CRACK< as the sear breaks... Work the bolt...

The process invites utter concentration, but very little in the way of thought. Thinking interferes, actually. I find myself adrift in the moment; the whole world fades out. It's a centering, relaxing thing.

AKDD said...

MM, you have GOT to take me shooting with you one day. Next time we're within 100 miles of each other, say.

MaskedMan said...