Why I wanted to be a veterinary surgeon… - Veterinary Practice
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Why I wanted to be a veterinary surgeon…

KOBUS ENGELBRECHT looks back over his many years as a practising veterinary surgeon to answer some pertinent, even basic, questions about his career choice and the challenges faced on a daily basis…

THE question I undoubtedly get asked most often in conversations with people who have just learned my occupation is, by far, “Why did you want to be a vet?”

My answer over the many years has been as varied as a bag of Smarties, depending on my mood on the day, the audience and, to be perfectly honest, whatever came to mind at that precise moment.

“I love animals”, “I always wanted to help sick animals”, “I wanted to be in the medical profession, but definitely not a doctor” and “No one else in the family has studied to be a vet (famously the real reason I started thinking about being a veterinarian after a comment made by my grandmother at a family gathering)” are a few of the answers I have given in the past.

With this mixture, of what can only be described as vague and clichéd attempts at telling people what they want to hear, I must ask myself that very same question: “Why did I want to be a vet?”

Have I actually thought about it properly; I mean, have I really thoughtfully analysed that question thoroughly? I believe I never really did in the last 20 years of practising as a qualified veterinarian. Neither did I in the years before I went to university or during my six years of study.

It is only recently that through various incidents and encounters (notably the new graduate at the practice) I have given this more serious consideration in order to evaluate the current situation.

First, I had to try to determine if it was me being disillusioned with my job after all these years, or whether I have lost the spark or, worse still, whether I have lost interest. As veterinarians we are faced with hundreds of energy-sapping, splitsecond, sometimes life or death decisions every single day, mostly without even realising the mental effort required to be able to assess the situations, listen carefully to important (and filter out the not-so-important) information, examine the patient thoroughly (being meticulous not to miss vital clues) and then construct our thought processes and investigative findings to formulate a diagnosis.

We then have to decide on the appropriate treatment options (including dosages, administration routes, side-effects, costs, efficacy, etc.). All of this we then discuss with an owner to ensure he or she understands what we’ve found, what we are doing, and what the outcome may be.

Oh, don’t forget this is just during “normal” working hours between 8am and 7pm. At nights and weekends the complexities of the cases quadruple in intensity and urgency.

Sounds simple? Well, it certainly used to be. How come then lately I go home more and more with this unsatisfying, knot-in-the-stomach feeling? Is this the same reason new graduates feel completely disillusioned and stressed after a few months into their jobs? Is this the same reason so many veterinary surgeons are finding alternative employment?

More importantly, is this also the reason research has shown that veterinary surgeons are more likely than any other professional to commit suicide? Surely having been in practice for nearly 20 years I should be immune to all of this, rather than feeling more and more pressure?

It is a fact that the internet, social media and pet forums all play a role in educating and informing pet owners more and more. It is also a fact that, in the UK at least, the expectations clients have of their veterinary practices have dramatically increased over the last few years.

I am all for clients using the available media to broaden their knowledge and gather information about diseases and treatment options. In fact, I sometimes refer them to sites I know are trustworthy and that provide factual, scientific information.

However, until someone has completed a veterinary degree successfully, practised for many years whilst continuing to learn, study and keep abreast of the latest developments, they are not in a position to know more than the professionals who dedicate their lives to the welfare of others’ pets. Neither are they in a position to criticise (or blatantly attack) actions taken after thought, experience, knowledge, emotions and planning have carefully been put into each decision.

Discuss yes, question yes, but certainly not showering blame, threats, abuse and more onto those very people expected to do the best they can.

Often, these same individuals are not willing or able to pay for the diagnostic tests, treatments and operations required to provide the necessary answers. Often, it seems to me that people are confused where the responsibility of their pets’ welfare rests. Providing the best possible professional veterinary care in the best interest of the animal is sometimes a world apart from the expectations and financial constraints of the owner.

So, to come back to the question why I wanted to become a vet, after having deliberated over all these years, I can now answer that with much more honesty, clarity and confidence, compared to when I first set out into this daunting career:

I have successfully managed to save the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of animals over the past 20 years and in the same period I have had to put thousands of animals to sleep.

I have made a positive difference to the quality of life of tens of thousands of pets. I have cried with many clients, but I have shared in the joy of many more. I have made some mistakes, but I have had successes beyond the realms of explanation. I have educated thousands in animal healthcare.

I’ve gained the absolute trust of so many and I have let a few down. I have learned about my own strengths and weaknesses, I have grown stronger as a human being and I have realised the limitations of my own capabilities. I have come to realise the boundaries of life and death, science and technology.

I have seen the most bizarre cases and I have done the most amazing procedures. I have passed my experience to many and I have learned so much more. I have argued with so many and I’ve been insulted by a few, but I have strengthened my own resolve, confidence and abilities.

Finally, I go to bed at night knowing that I have made a difference to someone else’s life.

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