The roller coaster of veterinary medicine


From the highs of newborn puppies to the lows of euthanasia, establishing a career in veterinary medicine takes stamina and determination through all of the ups and downs.

I began my career in animal health at Portland Community College in Portland, Ore. It was my first college experience, and for the first week I was in a serious panic about whether I was smart enough to actually be there. After a few weeks of barely controlled panic, I settled in and realized I did belong there and made it through the program.

If there is one lesson I have learned from my 17 years on the job, it's that veterinary medicine is a wild roller coaster ride of emotions. And who's sitting in the seats around you on that coaster is oh so important.

Tomorrow had to be better

I graduated in 1994, passed my CVT boards, and started working at a local clinic. On my very first day, we had a German shepherd that had been run over by its owner's car. Hysterical owner, crying kids, sad, sad scene. Euthanized. Second case: beautiful harlequin Great Dane. Diagnosis: Lyme disease. Euthanized. Third case: ancient cat with kidney disease owned by sweet old couple. No quality of life left. Euthanized.

I went home to my husband in tears, once again questioning what I'd gotten myself into. This was the saddest job in the world. He cluck-clucked in all the right places, assured me tomorrow had to be better, and calmed me down.

Day two on the job. First case: emergency cesarean section on a bull mastiff. We delivered nine puppies, and every one of them lived. There we were, standing in various sections of the clinic, rubbing squealing puppies and smiling. Second case: exotic farm owner brought in a bobcat. After the doctor sedated it, he brought it into treatment, plopped it down on the table, and said, "Hand scale these teeth, please." Really? I paused for a moment to appreciate just how terribly cool that was, then scaled the teeth. Third case: another hit-by-car dog. This time we set the catheter, got the oxygen going, injected the drugs, and saved the dog. The owners were ecstatic and grateful.

I went home to my husband, overjoyed: "This is the coolest job ever!"

'This is why we do this job!'

I've been in animal health in one capacity or another for 17 years now. I moved from technician to inside drug sales representative, then back to school. An MBA later, I'm now managing the practice I left when I went to work at the drug company, and I'm loving the new perspective. The thing I try to impress upon our new, bright-eyed employees who are coming into the industry for the first time is this: "Get used to the highs and lows. They are very extreme."

One day a clinic is slow: "Oh no, we're going out of business!" The next day the appointment book is full and everybody is running around saying, "We're too busy! When will it slow down so we can catch up?" One shift will have four euthanasias in a row, which all somehow fall under the same doctor, earning him or her the name "Dr. Death" for the day. The next day will be packed with new puppy and kitten exams all day for the same doctor.

Once we had to euthanize a bull mastiff we'd diagnosed with a progressive cancer. The owner himself was battling cancer and didn't have the strength to get himself to treatment and do the same for his dog. He opted not to put his dog through it and chose euthanasia. After we performed the euthanasia, I stopped for a moment to ponder that situation. Here was a man fighting for his own life. He had to make the decision on what was the kindest route to take for his dog. He chose to end the dog's suffering. What sort of a decision must that have been? That occurred 15 years ago, yet I will never forget it.

Another day I'll never forget, three of us all sat around in the doctor's office bottle-feeding 3-day-old neonates. Two of us had baby squirrels, the other had a kitten. Who gets paid to do that? We looked at each other and beamed, "This is why we do this job!"

More fun to share

Veterinary medicine is a game of extremes. Some days, it's the very best job in the world. On others, it's the most difficult and emotionally taxing job. The trick is who you've got in the trenches with you. If you're surrounded by competent, kind, compassionate folks who all support each other, then the lows are easier to take.

By the same respect, the highs are even more fun with others to share them with. As a manager, I try to be sure I've assembled team members who can support each other as well as celebrate together. With that balance, the highs and lows not only seem tolerable, they're actually fun. What's that old saying? "It's not about the destination; it's all about the journey." I agree. Seventeen years in and I'm still wondering what's coming up around the bend.

Denise Saxon, CVT, MBA, is practice manager at Powell Boulevard Veterinary Clinic in Portland, Ore. Share your own first-day work experiences at

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