A Labor of Love

One Woman’s Path to Becoming a Veterinarian

I didn’t always want to be a veterinarian. There were a few years in elementary school when I wanted to own a horse ranch in the foothills of Colorado and write novels about animals. And there was a brief period in college when I felt defeated by calculus and didn’t think I could make the grades. But from a pretty early age, veterinarian was high on the list of things I wanted to be when I grew up. I read James Herriot. I knew my path.

What I didn’t know—I was eight after all—was all of the choices I would have after completing my degree.

To becomelicensed to practice veterinary medicine, vet students must pass a national test called the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination, or NAVLE, taken during their fourth year. The NAVLE covers anatomy and diseases of food or “production” animals as well as companion animals. All vets need to pass this exam regardless of the species they plan to work with after they graduate. This means that I needed to learn how to diagnose mastitis in a dairy cow, and how to recognize and contain a pseudorabies outbreak in a grower pig operation. Not exactly pertinent knowledge to a small animal veterinarian practicing in Capitol Hill!

After passing the NAVLE and completing four years of veterinary school, we are veterinarians. We can look for a position in a practice and begin our life as a doctor. But we can also pursue further clinical training or additional degrees to work in public health, research or academia. We can also seek to work for governmental organizations such as the USDA and FDA, and branches of the military.

While not required, many veterinarians participate in a one year clinical internship upon graduation. After completing the internship, the vet can then pursue a residency to become board certified in a special area. There are currently 40 distinct specialties in both small and large animals, as well as zoo, shelter and lab animals. Most of these residencies last two to four years. At the end, the resident must pass comprehensive exams to become board certified in that specialty.

After I graduated I chose to do an internship in small animal medicine and surgery at a private practice emergency and specialty referral hospital in Rochester, NY. There I worked one-on-one with specialists in internal medicine, surgery, ophthalmology, dermatology, neurology, and cardiology. We interns also did a lot, and I mean a lot, of overnight emergency and urgent care. I then went into my professional career as a small animal veterinarian.

While I have achieved a great deal of satisfaction as a general practitioner, I did need to come to terms with a number of things that surprised me once I graduated. For instance, a large part of my day is spent writing and record keeping. Writing the record can take longer than the animal’s exam! Another surprise was how much time I spend balancing medical care and finances. When I was a child my stuffed animal patients did not need me to find creative cost-effective solutions for their hurt leg, or consider euthanasia for their achy stomach. I have to offer different medical plans and itemize costs, always trying to keep the wellbeing of the pet and the financial means and goals of the owners in mind.

The last surprising, and most difficult, aspect of medicine for me to accept, is how rarely we get a definitive diagnosis. In school we learn that X disease will present with symptoms A, B and C, and these are the tests you run to prove it. In reality, symptoms A, B and C can mean diseases X, Y, Z, XX, YY, ZZ, or idiopathic (which means we have no idea). We have suspicions. We learn to make a list of differentials, or “rule-outs,” and we make a list of tests to narrow them down. We treat things symptomatically, the animals get better, and we never know if we had the correct diagnosis. It is frustrating but that frustration is tempered by knowing we have done all we can for the animal.

When I was ten I did not consider whether I wanted to be a board certified veterinary dentist or critical care specialist, or whether I was going to limit my practice to dogs and cats or horses, or pursue a PhD during my veterinary training so that I could go into research. After vet school, I considered specializing, and I spent time in emergency medicine, but in the end I came back to what appealed to me the most, and what coincidentally fell in line with my childhood aspirations-- working with people and their pets in a small animal practice. 

Dr. McCurdy is a graduate of the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.  She currently works at AtlasVet in Capitol Hill, located at 1326 H St. NE. She lives with her husband, two daughters and assorted animals in the northeast Washington DC neighborhood of Brookland.

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