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Into the fires of Mordor: Overcoming your biggest veterinary fears
"One does not simply walk" fearlessly through life. Dr. Hilal Dogan knew that FOR SURE in the case of her early fear of surgery.
There's no one ring to rule all of your fears and anxiety. Scaling your own personal Mount Doom takes support from not only the people around you, but from yourself as well. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images). Before I can explain how I scaled Mount Doom, I have to share the factors that held me back from thinking I was capable.
I think that most people who are afraid of surgery have some sort of insecurity and lack of confidence that affects their ability to perform. Perhaps they didn't have any great successors before them, maybe they're the first from their tiny little Hobbiton to ever venture beyond.
For me it was my shaky hands compared to everyone else's non-shaky hands.
"It's dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door"
I spent a lot of time comparing myself to others. Even before I started veterinary school, I dreaded the thought of having to do surgery because I knew my hands were going to shake and I was going to be judged for that. Throughout my life, people seeing my jittery hands would always ask me if I was cold or if I was OK or if I had Parkinson's. I spent a lot of time in doctor's offices asking them to "fix" me, and instead I was told I was perfectly healthy.
My shaky hands even seemed to give other people anxiety and they would appear panic stricken. I was told to be cautious around clients because of my shaky hands. People worried that if they saw my hands shake I would be judged as incompetent. I even had one veterinary technician in my final year of vet school rotations who called me "The Queen of Shakes." I would get so much anxiety around her that my hands would be even worse.
This made me acutely aware that my shakes got worse with anxiety. Maybe that's how my anxiety manifests itself. I thought I was doomed because it seemed near impossible not to have anxiety in vet school. Even when we had to sit the test of scrubbing-in for surgery, I had so much anxiety about failing that I was shaking like a leaf and the assessor told me to calm down and try to relax. I couldn't believe how much anxiety I was having over washing my hands, because I was scared to death I was going to mess up and fail.
I realized then that if I was ever going to make it in a stressful job, I needed some stress-relieving techniques. This is also around the same time I was working on the Vet Confessionals project. I felt a need for more support to grow-not this horrible anxiety I felt as I worked to become a veterinarian.
I started working on just trying to ignore what other people said to me about my shakes. Then one day something shifted...
"Courage will now be your best defense against the storm that is at hand"
It was my final year of vet school and I was closing an incision. My mentor had just finished demonstrating a TPLO sugery. I was so shaky, so I started telling her I was really grateful she was letting me close the incision and I started apologizing for my shaky hands. I was so embarrassed because she seemed like such an amazing surgeon.
She told me, "Oh, no, don't worry. I was exactly like you when I was first learning, and you'll get over it."
I was shocked. No one had ever told me that before. Finally, someone wasn't judging me or looking at me like I was some sort of mutant. She had been there and she was fine. I don't think I ever told her how much that meant to me, but it really did change my life. To this day I will never forget that.
Even though I had already started working on my self-confidence, the truth is I couldn't do it alone. Maybe lots of you couldn't either. Somebody has to believe in you-just like Gandalf tells Frodo he needs to scale Mt. Doom and he can do it (you LOTR fans get it). Even though Gandalf sometimes isn't completely sure Frodo will make it, he still believes in him. This is why mentors are so important. And not only mentors, but a whole community that's supportive and wants to see you succeed. Frodo could've never accomplished his mission without his allies.
From the moment I heard those kind words, I started moving from a place of shame to a place of love. In my observations I would focus my attention during rotations on other veterinarians who had shaky hands who were perfectly capable. I basked silently in the joy that came with seeing their hands shake in surgery or drawing blood and knowing they were like me-and doing an amazing job.
"Your part in the story will go on"
As I graduated from veterinary school and moved into the professional world, I was lucky to have a close personal supporter at my side at all times-my boyfriend, or you could also say, my Samwise. He's also a veterinarian, but he has more years of experience than I do, so I observe him and learn from him. I'm also lucky to have a large supportive group beyond my immediate surroundings through the Vet Confessionals project and veterinary conferences.
There are still times when I'm scared and nervous about surgery. I learned through my colleagues and mentors that those feelings don't ever fully go away. But I did learn to process the emotions differently. Think about it differently, and my fear and anxiety is just proof that my patient is important to me and I care about doing a great job.
But I'm not going to let fear and anxiety own me. Those emotions are fleeting, they're transient and they do not define me. Because, let's face it, there's always going to be somebody who's more talented, smarter and stronger or apparently better than you are-somebody who's proverbial hands never shake. The way to find out who you are is not by comparing yourself to others, but by looking to see whether you're fulfilling your own potential the best way you know how. There is no shame in that.
Hilal Dogan, BVSc, is an associate at At Home Animal Hospital in Maui, Hawaii. She started the Veterinary Confessionals Project as a senior veterinary student at Massey University in New Zealand.