What I Learned From Trying Out My Childhood Dream Of Working As A Veterinarian

Long before I wanted to be a writer, I dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. As a kid, I thought nothing would make me happier than getting paid to work with animals all day — after all, animals are literally good for your health, they're cute and fluffy, they don’t care if you have social anxiety, and they need just as much medical attention as humans do. Plus, because I grew up in the rural Midwest, animals have always been a big part of my everyday life. For all these reasons, I spent a good chunk of my childhood aspiring to a career in veterinary medicine. After mourning the loss of a few pets and realizing that any form of medical school would be super hard, I moved on to other dreams. Still, I’ve often wondered what it’s like working in an animal hospital. I don’t have to wonder anymore, though — because last Tuesday, I tested out my childhood dream job.

Thanks to this assignment and the cooperation of the awesome Dr. Catherine Hicks — who opened Hicks' Animal Hospital 35 years ago in Poplar Bluff, Missouri — I now know for certain that I didn’t miss my calling when I decided to become a writer instead of a veterinarian. Though I enjoyed shadowing Dr. Hicks and her vet techs, Karen and Amanda, immensely, I don’t know how they do the work they do every single day. As far as I can tell, working in an animal hospital seems to be just about as physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting as working in a hospital for humans. Here’s what I learned from trying my childhood dream job.

It's More Fast-Paced Than I Expected

When I arrived at the animal hospital at 8 a.m. Tuesday morning, the receptionist let me know that Dr. Hicks and her nurses were already "dealing with an emergency." I was happy to wait, of course — but I was also a bit surprised that they were dealing with something so major this early in the day. At this point, the hospital had only been open for half an hour.

When the emergency (the details of which I didn't ask for) had been handled and I was led out of the waiting room, I quickly realized just how chaotic working in an animal hospital can get. In the operating room, Karen and Amanda were working on a German Shepard who had been hit by a school bus the day before (she's going to be OK). Immediately after that, the techs started prepping a cat who was there to be neutered (he did very well); still more workers were either handling paperwork or cleaning cages, and all the while the hospital's resident tortoise, Turkel, freely roamed the halls. Everyone was hustling hard, but they all seemed happy to be doing so. The busy, female-dominated atmosphere almost immediately reminded me of the year I spent working in a dialysis clinic for humans.

It's Physically & Mentally Demanding

Between standing on concrete all day and routinely lifting and carrying patients of all sizes, I can see how working in an animal hospital would be physically taxing. Perhaps even more importantly, though, I feel like working with sick animals would be emotionally exhausting as well — and research backs me up on this. According to the CDC, veterinarians are prone to depression, and they're at a higher risk of dying from suicide than the general population.

As unfortunate as these stats are, they don't surprise me. Not only does becoming a veterinarian mean you have to be OK with seeing animals in pain; it's also part of your job to witness firsthand how neglectful pet owners — and people who abandoned their pets — purposefully put animals through hell. In fact, though Dr. Hicks and her nurses were some of the most seemingly positive and upbeat people I've met in awhile, Dr. Hicks admitted that loving her work doesn't keep her from feeling frustrated with clients who wait way too long to bring their pets in for treatment. She also shed light on the physical hazards of veterinary medicine. As Dr. Hicks informed me as she was amputating Frank The Rescue Dog's hind-leg, it's not uncommon for vets who regularly perform amputations on larger animals to "blow out their shoulders" in the process. Yikes.

It's Definitely Not A Job For Squeamish People

After working in healthcare for over a year, I'm not nearly as squeamish as I used to be. I've seen people who were technically dead be brought back to life by EMTs, and I've cleaned up patients' blood on several occasions. On top of that, as a young girl growing up in rural Missouri, I had to bury more than one baby bunny who just couldn't survive the cold of winter. That said, I still don't think I could handle operating on animals every day.

Merely observing Dr. Hicks spay and neuter her patients was a bit rough on me, and those surgeries weren't even the most difficult to watch. At one point during a declaw — a procedure Dr. Hicks says she will only perform with the slightly less invasive method of laser technology — I actually had to excuse myself for a minute. Surprisingly, though, I was able to observe Frank The Rescue Dog get his leg amputated without feeling sick to my stomach whatsoever — a fact that I'm simultaneously shocked by and proud of.

I still don't think I could actually perform any of the surgeries I witnessed on Tuesday, unless an animal's very life depended on it. For one thing, none of these procedures were over quickly; actually, Dr. Hicks and her nurses spent over an hour slowly removing Frank's nerve-damaged leg. As you can probably imagine, it was super bloody, and pretty difficult to watch. Fortunately, though, Frank is going to be just fine.

I Don't Think I Would've Liked It Very Much...

Although I love animals just as much (if not more) than I did as a kid, I don't think I would have enjoyed being a veterinarian. Contrary to what I believed as a child, working in an animal hospital isn't all cuddling with kitties and finding adoptive parents for puppies. From what I can tell, it's a lot of long, hard days. You have no guarantees that your patients are going to be properly attended to post-surgery, and you're so busy saving animals' lives that you don't actually get to play with them that much. Everyone I spoke with at Hicks' said they got a lot out of the job, though. Which leads me to...

...But It Seems Pretty Rewarding

Although I've established that working as a veterinarian would not make me happy as an adult, I can see why so many people choose to make their living working as veterinarians and vet techs. If I were a veterinarian, I don't think I would ever doubt that my work matters — but I'm also convinced this kind of work wouldn't do my mental health any favors. One thing's for sure, though: I'm now more grateful than ever for veterinarians — because their job is far from easy, and all of our pets need them.

Images: Pixabay, Elizabeth Enochs