We go through stages in life. Each surviving human goes from infancy to toddlerhood, childhood to adolescence, then to our adulthood. As we grow and develop, our outlook on life morphs a little more. We acquire new tastes and interests. We trade in a hearty childlike love of Hot Wheels and Barbie dolls and buffet style pizza for adolescent angst over the most fashion forward jeans, a socially acceptable date and a sit- down meal with friends. And having a cool enough car to be seen driving. Which, in retrospect, I did not have. But I digress…
From adolescence, we (hopefully) progress again, this time into mature relationships, responsible dealing and suitable career. Perhaps we have family aspirations, a 401K, and a remarkable bucket list. And a cool enough car to be seen driving. I’ll let you know when I get there on that. Not that I don’t love my minivan, because I so do!
Speaking of that suitable career…
I’ve now been a veterinarian for 15 years. Long enough to not be new, short enough to have a lot of future left in the profession. From this vantage point, I have come to realize that a career can morph just like a growing human. Maybe the ratios of time in each stage are variable, and maybe what constitutes a professional infancy for one is toddlerhood for another. But I think the premise holds. Take my own career, for instance…
I was around 12 years old when I first wanted to be a vet. We had a big black tomcat named Happy Cat. And he was pretty happy, except when another cat showed up. Then the big poof of fur became 5 points of ninja furry as he defended his turf. Or maybe invaded another’s. I can neither confirm or deny that theory. But he didn’t often come home unscathed. It was more of a “you should see the other guy!” kind of deal. I did not know anything about cat bite abscesses. But I realized that if I could press on the swollen spot, I could make really cool gross stuff come out, use cotton swabs to put some antibiotic ointment in the hole, and in a day or so, he felt better. I cured him, ipso facto, I was a vet in the making. It was my infancy.
Ah, a tempestuous time, as is typical of toddlerhood. I suppose this would be my undergraduate years. I went into the process as a declared pre-vet track biology major, animal science minor. I had a plan. Then I had inorganic chemistry. Followed my organic chemistry. Then biochemistry. Each of these sucked worse than the one before. Maybe this wasn’t the life for me. I really enjoyed that psychology class I took as an elective. Maybe I could change to a psychology major. I could be a therapist. Or something. I announced these intentions to my parents. They were unimpressed that their support was funding such silliness and indecision. There were arguments and tantrums. There were schedule changes. Then there was a lab named Hannah. And just like that, toddlerhood began to fade into a childhood.
Hannah was adopted during my junior year of undergraduate work. She was young, but she was never terribly healthy. I knew little about her atopic skin issues. And when she began to develop skin tumors, I really did not understand the ramifications of her diagnosis of cutaneous lymphosarcoma. But I did understand that negotiating a job in the kennel of the vet that provided her care was a good way to keep my finances from sinking. So that’s what I did. It felt natural to be in the clinic, and by that summer, I decided to stay in my college town to work there.
The techs and the associate vet took me under their wings. I was taught how to assist, then to work as a tech. I loved watching surgeries, running labs. I wanted to know the why of everything. Oh yeah- I remembered wanting to be a vet! Crap! I had to get back to studying! I finished college with my biology major, animal science minor, chemistry minor…and a psychology minor. I really did find those classes interesting. I took my VCAT, the GRE, and filled out vet school applications. I was accepted. And with childlike wonder, I started my freshman year of vet school.
The gate keeper classes squashed that childlike wonder pretty quickly for me. This wasn’t cool. This was kinda lame. Like my parents were when I was in high school. They wanted all work and not much fun. I revisited the angst of being an unsure, discontent 14- year- old.
Vet school was a time that waffled between the amazement of childhood and the eye rolls of adolescence. Seems like it depended on the class. And the professor. And the on-call schedule. Watching an intricate surgery with wide eyed amazement would restore my faith in my decisions. Then having my chops busted in clinical rounds after 3 hours of sleep left me questioning my path. But alas, I made it through, graduated with respectable marks, and passed my boards. It was time to embark on a first job.
That first job was a doozy, as many first jobs are. Though my adolescence had progressed from “grumpy-this-is-so-dumb-I-know-better” to “anxious-because-I-know-I-don’t-know-much”, I had not broken through to the adult stage yet. I don’t think I really had matured fully during my next job, either, though all totaled, I worked those two for the first 10 years of my career.
Throughout those years, anxiety, frustration, depression and even regret clouded my opinion of my profession, and of my skill in it. I was not content trying to juggle my young family, my still developing sense of capability, and the mundane days of vaccines and skin infections, peppered by anxiety producing emergencies. Finally, I had enough.
When I finally walked away from that second job, I felt defeated. I felt like I had made the wrong choice of career. Like a failure. Like I had wasted 10 years, and in the process, missed time with my human babies and my husband that could never be replaced. I considered moving on to another profession. But something about being a veterinarian made me proud. I wasn’t quite ready to abandon ship, though I knew I could not go back to the old way of doing things.
Lefty, one of my first sweet grey muzzles
Over the past five years, I have truly matured into a professional adult. I found the niche that fits me, gives me purpose and doesn’t detract from the other important parts of who I am. The process started by opening a house call practice. Over the first few years, I found my true calling was with the grey muzzled dogs and the fragile aging kitties. Helping them be comfortable and content in their golden years/months/days. It was holding hands with a grieving owner and helping them find the best path for their suffering pet. Maybe my interest in psychology comes in here somehow. These were ways that I had never considered practicing before I reached my maturity.
I will no doubt continue to mature, for as long as I practice. One day, I will turn around and wonder what I was thinking as a “young adult”, much in the way that I can look back from my 40’s to my 20’s and shudder a bit. Such is life, and such is the profession we grow up in. May we never stop maturing!
Written by: Dr. Kristen Arp
Dr. Arp graduated from the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. She has practiced in the Metro Atlanta area since graduation. Dr. Arp lives in Loganville, Georgia with her husband, Trey and their two children. Tempe, their chocolate lab, can regularly be seen riding in Dr. Arp’s van, always ready to help with her patients.