The pathogenesis of a veterinarian

June 8, 2018
Bo Brock, DVM

Bo Brock, DVM, owns Brock Veterinary Clinic in Lamesa, Texas. His latest book is Crowded in the Middle of Nowhere: Tales of Humor and Healing From Rural America.

It takes years of blood, sweat and tears to get a veterinary degree, but it can take about five seconds in the real world to feel clinically incompetent.

The euphoria before the fall. ('s the first of June, which means that all over America, brand-new veterinarians are starting their careers. This year is particularly special for me because my daughter Abbi and her husband, Zach, just graduated and have entered the realm of veterinary medicine. 

Our clinic takes two interns every year, and we love their fresh outlook and zest to learn. This year's batch, Taylor Powell and Dominique Comeau, are really smart and excited to get started on their career paths, but I know what will happen to them-all four of them, really. Abbi, Zach, Taylor and Dominique are about to encounter the second phase of being a new graduate.

In order to understand this second phase, you must first understand phase one. Something happens to your brain when you walk across a stage, shake someone's hand, receive a diploma and have your prefix changed to “Dr.” for the rest of your life. 

A lot of hard work and sacrifice led up to that stage walk-about eight years of nose-to-the-grindstone study and labor, including 1,000 quizzes and about 10,000 hours of study and class time. Every year, nearly 3,000 people graduate from veterinary schools in the United States, which comes to about one veterinarian for every 2.4 million people who live in this country.

Compare this to the 17,500 medical students and 40,000 lawyers who graduate each year, and you'll start to see how exclusive this club is. There is perhaps no time that a person is more aware of how much they've sacrificed and how special their accomplishment is than when they walk across that stage to receive the diploma they've longed for all of their life. 

This feeling follows these fresh graduates to their first jobs. Most take a few weeks off before heading into the rigors of full-time work. These weeks are fleeting but sweet as grads feel the weight of their accomplishment and begin to relish the sound of being addressed as “Dr.”

Then, everything changes.

The euphoria that comes from hearing your new title is soon replaced by the realization that you actually have to be a doctor now. When these new graduates start working, it doesn't take long for them to enter the second phase of being a doctor: the “I'm a dumb doctor” phase. 

Oh, yes. It won't take long for each and every one of these new doctors' confidence to dissolve upon confronting the reality that they're expected to know and practice all of the things their vet school professors tried to instill in them from day one. Making matters worse, those trusted professors are no longer on hand to answer questions.

I remember the feeling well. I was smacked with this awareness on my third day in practice. An old rancher came into the clinic where I was working with a horse that had been bitten by a snake. The critter's nose was swollen, and he could barely move any air through his nasal passages. I immediately fetched my notes from vet school and scanned them to see how to treat a horse with a rattlesnake bite. After storing the knowledge in my brain, I headed out to tell the cowboy what I was gonna do.

When I arrived back on the scene, the vet tech, Billy, who'd worked at the clinic for years, was standing by the counter holding two large syringes and a ping pong paddle. This was no ordinary ping pong paddle, however. This one had multiple large hypodermic needles poked through it and looked like some sort of medieval torture device. I had no idea what I was walking into, but I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut.

The rancher saw me eyeing the ping pong paddle and began quizzing me.

“How old are you, Boy?” the old man asked me.

 “Well, sir, I'm 26,” I replied with a squeak.

What? I have a wart on my fanny that's older than you.”

So there I was, looking at a fella holding a needle-riddled ping pong paddle and listening to an old rancher use redneck code to describe my incompetence. That's when I entered that aforementioned second phase.

My notes from school didn't match what was used in the real world by a man who'd practiced in Clarendon, Texas, for 40 years. He sedated the horse and put lidocaine all around the bite before slapping the site with the needle-laden paddle in order to release pressure from the tissue and lessen the suffocating edema caused by the venom. All in all, it wasn't that different from human doctors doing a fasciotomy on people who've been bitten.

I stood back and watched Billy slap that horse's nose with the paddle over and over until serum and fluid were running down its nose and onto the ground. The horse went from a state of panic over not being able to get enough air to relaxed and almost happy.           

If you know any new graduates, encourage them a little for the next few months. They're gonna be hit with the ping pong paddles of life, and when they do, they'll be just like I was that day, wondering how I would ever wind up being a good doctor.

And if you're a brand-new veterinarian, keep your head up. You're already a good doctor. 

Bo Brock, DVM, owns Brock Veterinary Clinic in Lamesa, Texas. His latest book is Crowded in the Middle of Nowhere: Tales of Humor and Healing from Rural America.