By Laura Stampler
It’s easy to love animals. (In fact, some research shows that people like dogs more than they like other humans.) What’s significantly harder is taking that passion for cuddling fur babies and honing it into the rigorous dedication required for taking responsibility for the health and well-being of animals.
Although 85 million American families own pets, only 113,394 people in the U.S. have embarked on four years of veterinarian school (plus two to five years of residency training, depending on their specialty) to become a vet.
What made them go the extra mile? We talked to vets across the country about when they decided to become veterinarians. Here were their “aha” moments:
Childhood Slumber Parties With The Family Dog
Rhode Island veterinarian Gary Block, DVM, MS, DACVIM, never questioned his career path. “I knew I wanted to be a vet when I was a child and rather than sleep in my bed, I would sneak downstairs to sleep on the laundry room floor with my dog,” said Dr. Block, who is a member of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association and co-owns Ocean State Veterinary Specialists.
And he’s hardly the only veterinarian who knew long before stepping into a biology classroom. According to Zachary M. Wright, DVM DACVIM, “My mother tells a story that most 2-year-olds carried around a blanket while I carried around a plastic horse. Everywhere. Consequently, my parents encouraged veterinarian school and I had a clear passion for animals. But to be honest, I never really explored an alternative.”
Dr. Wright didn’t figure out his area of specialization until he hit high school, when his family pet died of a rare bone cancer of the skull at only four years old. “At the time it didn’t register with me but as my training progressed, that memory became more significant and definitely played a role in steering me towards veterinary oncology as a career path,” said Dr. Wright, now the Director of Oncology at the VCA Animal Diagnostic Clinic in Dallas. “I view oncology of all species as the last frontier and it’s incredibly rewarding to play a small role in the exploration of that frontier.”
Saving Small Animals In Their Backyard
Some vets can trace their professional turning point to a specific rescue mission in their early lives.
“I knew I wanted to be a vet at the age of 4 after ‘rescuing’ an injured cricket from my backyard,” said Alison Mason, DVM cVMA. “I still remember finding this cricket that appeared to have an injured limb, held it in my hands, and then a few moments later it hopped away. I told my family that I had I saved this cricket and was going to be an animal doctor when I grew up.”
Dr. Mason has been practicing small animal medicine since graduating from veterinary school in 2012. She is currently the medical director of the VCA Hope Animal Hospital in Brooklyn, NY.
Sometimes these formative animal rescues involved moving small creatures from the yard into the living room. When Dr. Susan Kimmel, DVM DACVIM (Small Animal Internal Medicine), was 7 years old in Long Island, “Hurricane David resulted in a baby squirrel being thrown from its next and my older brother, also named David, brought ‘Fluffy’ home with him. My mother raised that squirrel and was able to later release to an animal sanctuary because he was too friendly for the ‘wild.’”
A love of science and learning added more force to her career trajectory. “As a vet student, I had an amazing teacher, an internist, that further fostered this love of learning and ‘problem solving,’ and I remember that moment in rounds, as a 4th year student in John Randolph’s internal medicine rotation that I knew that was what I wanted to do,” said Dr. Kimmel, the medical director of VCA’s Veterinary Referral and Emergency Center of Westbury in New York.
It Can Be A Winding Path
Of course, not every successful veterinarian knew what they were going to do professionally since college. Many pursued other career paths before even applying to veterinary school.
For example, Anhe Simonsen, DVM, worked in documentary film and television after graduating from college. Although her family and friends said they always knew she would be a vet—and she’s now the field surgical director at Rural Area Veterinary Services in Colorado—Dr. Simonsen didn’t figure that out until she volunteered at a wildlife rehab facility as an adult.
“It helped me understand the inner peace and satisfaction that came from helping animals in need,” Dr. Simonsen said. “The blend of hard work, creativity, and science gave injured animals a second chance or a peaceful death. I wanted to know more in order to help more, so I signed up for post bach pre-vet science classes and applied to vet school.”
And If At First You Don’t Succeed…
Having an early “aha” moment doesn’t mean that the path to becoming a vet is going to be easy. In spite of knowing she wanted to be a veterinarian for as long as she can remember, Jennifer Kitchen, DMV, pointed out, “I didn’t have a very straight path to get there.”
“Out of high school I went to community college for a few years, then transferred to UC Davis,” she said. “I got a degree in biochemistry—just in case I didn’t get in to vet school, I needed a degree with more job opportunities than Animal Science. I did all my undergraduate research with the vet school though to try to stay connected. I applied and didn’t get in.”
But that didn’t stop her from pursuing her passion. Although she got a good job doing biochemical research at a UCSF lab, “the thought of going back to my same lab bench, to interact with the same few people, knowing exactly what was going to happen each day made me feel ill. I didn’t just want to be a vet, I had to be a vet.”
Dr. Kitchen took her entrance exams again and got into her dream school. She has now worked in small animal general practice for 12 years in Southern California at the VCA Venice Blvd. Animal Hospital, now primarily working from home for the VCA support team.
“I feel, because of my journey, I have always had a little more patience for the ‘difficult’ clients than my colleagues,” she said. “Because even though they may make my day a little more difficult, they ensure my day is never boring.”
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