So You Want to Be a Veterinarian? Be a Vet Tech First.

Read my lesson plan first before running toward the admissions office of your local vet school.

Vet school is a big challenge. By: Lindsey Turner

My experience as a veterinary technician saved my bacon when I finally made it to vet school.

When I walked into that first job as a baby veterinarian, my experience as a vet tech was invaluable as I faced the early years in a tough profession.

When you start working at that first big veterinary hospital right out of school, they will try to eat you alive. I’m not talking about your patients.  You can learn to muzzle them.

No,  it’s your co-workers and your clients who will be out to get you. They want to see what you’re made of. They want to test your skills in the real world. People can be very mean indeed.

Should You Go to Vet School?

Let’s go way back to when there weren’t so many women veterinarians. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a vet, a notion that would put myself and my husband at tremendous financial risk. We had no money and no monetary family backing. And that’s before I got pregnant with twins! (Great timing, there, eh fertility goddess?)

There was only 1 way to discover if veterinary medicine was a pipe dream or a career choice grounded in reality. I needed to get hired as a vet tech.

There was a cute little storefront vet hospital right around my corner in Philadelphia. I walked in and asked the Doc if he was hiring. He said no. I told him I was willing to work very hard and didn’t know anything. He told me I had the job that had just came into existence. To this day I still don’t know why he hired me. I am still grateful.

Soon I had 2 part-time jobs at 2 wonderful vet hospitals right in my South Street neighborhood. That was when funky city neighborhoods were still cool and not loaded with designer boutiques selling the same pocketbook for $800.

I immersed myself in all facets of these great little hospitals and loved every minute of it. I opened up in the mornings and took care of the hospitalized patients by myself. I was the surgical tech in the morning and helped with appointments later in the day. I worked weekends and helped with emergencies.

By the time I entered vet school, I had already been to the school of hard knocks. If I was going to dedicate many years of my early adulthood and many thousands of dollars to becoming a vet, I wanted to be sure I would be a good vet and love my career.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg
That’s me and the twins, South Philly, 1980s.

The Penn Years

Accepted into Penn vet school on my first application, I  think they thought I could fill their oddball demographic quota. I was an older student with an MFA degree, no science major and the mother of nearly 1-year-old twins, and the admissions committee took a big chance on me.

A great deal of veterinary school is spent in the classroom. Anatomy, physiology, neurology, dermatology, oncology. You learn a lot of “-ologies” but not a lot about being an on-the-job veterinarian. They want you to figure that out on your own.

Learning in school during the day, and working at a real vet hospital on occasional nights and weekends, I was better prepared for the clinical part of vet school — the part where you actually touch sentient animals.

As a student, you follow the real veterinarians around the university vet hospital and hang on their every word as they attend to their patients. Think of this as the animal version of those medical shows like Grey’s Anatomy, where the docs treat the interns like poop and try to show them how stupid they are.

This is how it goes in vet school. You rotate through different services as a vet student, just as in medical school. Hence, the name rotations: surgery, internal medicine, radiology, ophthalmology, and so on.

Veterinary students take care of the patients in the hospital on that particular rotation. If you get a lot of hospitalized animals on your current rotation, you need to check them, do their treatments and report back about their progress at rounds.

The Challenges of Rotations

A nasty cat that needs blood drawn every 2 hours can be a very taxing patient indeed.  The nurses don’t help you. They want to see what you’re made of. Your fellow students are busy with their own cases.

I recall using tourniquets on the leg and towels over the face and whispering, “Nice kitty, I just need 2 drops of blood. Be a good kitty. Love you, kitty, please don’t scratch my eyes out, kitty. I respect you, kitty.” After the third or fourth blood draw, Mildred Fierce, the calico terror, had my number.

On my dermatology rotation, I drew the short straw for caring for a 75-pound dog with a deep, severe skin infection. The dermatologist admitted the dog to the hospital and wrote orders for 2 therapeutic whirlpool baths daily, before and after regular hospital hours. When I asked him who would be around to help me load her in and out of the tub, he smiled a self-satisfied grin and said, “Nobody.”

Scabby (my pet name for her) was the sweetest dog in the world. She knew I was trying to help her as I struggled to get all her Gordon setter feathers and flailing legs in and out of that extremely high and user-unfriendly tub without hurting either of us.

By the end of the week she had learned to balance her front legs on the side of the tub, let me towel off half her body, and then we made the hoist to safety on to dry land again. Scabby recovered, and I was happy to rotate out of dermatology and into oncology. Scabs and I decided our spa week wasn’t so bad after all.

Big Animals Included

I felt compassion for my fellow classmates who came into the wards with little practical experience. They were at a disadvantage in what could feel like a hostile hospital environment.

My time came due when faced with my large animal rotations. I grew up in Queens, and the closest I ever came to a horse was waving to them in the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

I didn’t know the difference between beef cattle and Holsteins when I started field service, and I wanted to bring the baby pigs home as pets. Knowing I would never be working on farm animals, I tried to treat my large animal patients with respect, finish those rotations as quickly as possible, and get my diploma with all my teeth in my head and my legs not pinned to a wall in a horse stall.

So if anyone out there has a daughter or son thinking she or he wants to be a vet, suggest a job working in the field first. This is a vet who learned her best lessons as a vet tech.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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