When a virus pulls the rug out from under graduation

April 3, 2020
Danny Sack

dvm360, dvm360 May 2020, Volume 51, Issue 5

In case you were wondering what it’s like being a veterinary student on the brink of graduation during the COVID-19 outbreak, I can tell you this: It sucks.

Every veterinarian has their own origin story, whether their first word as a baby was “hyperadrenocorticism” or they made a last-minute, self-loathing decision to go through four more years of schooling following undergrad. One constant is that we are not unfamiliar with sacrifice. We chose an underpaid, underappreciated, often misunderstood, amazing, rewarding, pure profession because, above all else, we love to help those who cannot help themselves.

Instead of graduating from college and going out into the workforce to pay off our sizeable debt, we veterinary students decided it’s best to double down and let that mound grow into the Mount Everest of debt because “hey, we’re doing what we love.” Those years in undergrad were no cake walk either; you took the hardest science classes available because veterinary schools required it to even apply, let alone to get in. To do that you needed more than just a stellar GPA; you did externships, research, volunteer work, extracurriculars … anything to make your application stand out. You did it and made all the hard work worth it, because you, my overachieving friend, got into veterinary school.

Until further notice

The next four years simultaneously felt like a lifetime and flew by in the blink of an eye. You learned to cram more information into your brain than you thought possible. You singlehandedly funded your local Dunkin Donuts (because Starbucks is way too expensive for your $0 annual salary) so you could stay up late and learn a few more facts for the exam that was going to kick your ass anyway.

You did this for three years, each year flying by faster than the last, until you finally got to clinics. You were given your white coat, thereby inducting you into the profession to which you have dedicated your life. Your journey finally is starting to make sense. Just one more obstacle to overcome: the dreaded North American Veterinary Licensing Exam—six hours of mind-numbing questions you swear you’ll never have to answer again in your life. No one leaves that test feeling like they’ve passed. The months go by and you finally get your email: You passed! Nothing can stop you now! No more tests, no more stress. Your clinical rotation has been going smoothly and you’re enjoying your first taste of what you’ve been working toward for the past eight years.

You hear murmurs of a terrible virus outbreak overseas, but you don’t have time for distractions … until it is no longer just a distraction. You hear about the first U.S. case, then the first outbreak. At this point, foresight tells you that the last few months of your final year will be affected (clearly foresight was being modest). Over the next few days the situation evolves from cancellation of international externships or research, to transition to online classes for underclassmen, to outright cancellation of clinical rotations “until further notice.”

Just like that

The hardest four years of your life are … over? Other than a few online classes, vet school has effectively come to an end. In-hospital labs and advanced clinical rotations are canceled, any shred of hands-on learning is done and any semblance of a graduation or hooding ceremony will be drastically different than you pictured, if it happens at all. A smart cookie you are indeed, because a week later you are notified that graduation is officially canceled! An anticlimactic, disappointing, frustrating ending to an educational marathon that you wouldn’t trade for the world.

I remember what it felt like coming back to school to clean out my locker. It had only been a few days since rotations had been canceled, but I felt immediately like I didn’t belong. The warm smiles that usually greeted me were no longer there, the busy halls typically filled with clinicians and technicians rushing to see patients or go to their next procedure were empty, and the faint smell of urine … well that was still there—finally something that hadn’t changed.

There were so many people I wanted to thank for molding me into the doctor I would become, to show my appreciation for the extra mile they went on a daily basis to help me, but I couldn’t. There would be no “Class of 2020” banner hung across the hall, no celebratory fourth-year breakfast, no idealized pep talks to the third years reflecting my new-found pearls of wisdom obtained from a whole one year of clinics, and no hooding ceremony where my closest friends and family could celebrate me achieving my lifelong dream.

It’s easy to ask why

Why did this have to be the year that everything got screwed up? Any of the other 20 years of school would’ve sufficed. It’s easy for us to feel sorry for ourselves. But if we wanted easy, we wouldn’t have chosen this field. If we wanted easy, we wouldn’t have decided to treat patients that can’t talk to us. If we wanted easy, we wouldn’t have joined a profession that pays its doctors a fraction of what MDs make, despite the same amount of schooling and student debt. Isn’t this just par for the 20-years-in-school course?

We got into this profession to help. In fact, we took an oath to do just that: “I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society … the promotion of public health and the advancement of medical knowledge.” These are not just words we recite during our graduation ceremony and then promptly forget. Rather, they are what defines our calling to this profession. Four years of schooling have given us the knowledge to educate our friends and family about the importance of quarantine and isolation, to disseminate accurate information to the public about the risk to their pets and to debunk myths and promote healthy behavior in people.

A ceremony doesn’t authenticate our education, it doesn’t give merit to our words and it certainly does not validate our journey or experiences. We will beat this pandemic, and hopefully the world will learn a few lessons along the way: that we should stay home if we’re sick and feel accountable for the health of others, that global problems require global solutions (*cough* global warming, world hunger *cough*) and that it’s important to wash our hands! So, let’s do our part to make this world a better place. We are doctors after all, and our work’s just begun.

Danny Sack is a DVM candidate at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine with a special interest in surgery and rehabilitation. He is set to graduate in 2020. Upon graduation he will begin a small animal rotating internship at the Animal Medical Center in New York City.

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