I think we can all agree that 2020 has been a pretty bad year for us all. As a veterinary student in my final year of education, in many ways I have escaped the worst of the lockdown restrictions. In others, I have missed out on a lot of experience, and it’s safe to say I did not expect my final year to go the way it did. 

A Sign of Things to Come

Flash back to almost a year ago, in February of 2020. I am in my fourth year of teaching at the University of Nottingham’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Science. There are only a few weeks of lecturing left before we spend the next year up and down the country as trainee vets, learning how to save animals. The coronavirus was in the news but we all, of course, thought it was nothing. How quickly things changed – I am sure you can all relate to this, and the speed with which the world was turned upside-down.

The way things were…

In a normal fifth and final year at Nottingham Vet School, learning is split into formal rotations organised by the university and placements that we organise ourselves. Rotations are based at the Vet School and a number of associated veterinary practices nearby – our excellent lecturers work with us to ensure we get as much veterinary experience as possible in small animal, farm, equine, pathology and more. Because every veterinary student must graduate with certain standards and knowledge, rotations provide a more structured way to give us this.

Thanks to rotations, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons can be sure we meet the minimum requirements to be vets. On the other hand, placements are a lot less structured and allow us to focus on particular areas we may want to work in; a student interested in horses may work mostly at equine vets, or if they have an interest in cardiology may look for placements that are heart specialists. As we work in a wider variety of veterinary practices on placement, we can understand the industry better and decide the sort of job we may want in future. I am mostly interested in small animals (dogs and cats), so had many placements booked in this field. All of this was to start after our Easter exams and a short break.

2020 flipped all this on its head. 

Lockdown started in March, as you all know, just a few weeks before our Easter exams. It was a bit of a shock to the system, but personally I wasn’t too concerned, as I’d have probably been in a self-imposed lockdown during revision anyway. We finished our last week of lectures online (teething problems and all!) and I started revision in much the same way as I had always done. My experience during this time was likely much the same as everyone’s in the UK. Confusion, boredom, worry and resignation. My exams were moved online, which I was very grateful for as it definitely was less stressful doing them in my bedroom than a stuffy exam hall! I passed with flying colours but it was only then I slowly started to realise that the rest of my summer was going to be very different.

Long Distance Learning

Rather than having a week off, then starting placements and rotation, our uni had spent the early part of lockdown hastily reorganising our rotations. 8 weeks that would have been at the Vet School throughout were now going to be delivered remotely online during summer, with in-person rotations continuing in September, COVID permitting. This meant that I had to reschedule or cancel 8 weeks of placement I would have done during this time, which was very disruptive. 

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I cannot emphasise enough how grateful to the university I am for quickly moving rotations online 

I can’t begin to imagine the stress it must have brought them all. Nevertheless, I personally found online rotations very difficult. Sitting in front of a screen from 9-5 every day was surprisingly tiring, and it is no replacement for practical work. I did learn a huge amount from these sessions, and had some great discussions with various lecturers about veterinary work, but I was always left with the nagging feeling that I wasn’t learning as much as I should. I did think that it was nice to have this structured teaching before our in-person rotations as an introduction and refresher to what we would be doing there – in a normal year this may not have been the case, so I was grateful for that. 

This period passed rather quickly

I made full use of our student house’s large garden and the lovely weather summer 2020 brought. At times, it was easy to forget there was a global pandemic going on. I saw my friends as COVID restrictions permitted, and even took some time to learn a new skill – oil painting! All in all, though summer 2020 wasn’t quite the busy learning experience I had hoped it would be, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been (except for the loo roll and pasta shortage!).

Wake Me Up When September Ends

As summer came to a close and the situation in the UK was looking up, we all prepared to go back to in-person teaching in late September. I was incredibly excited for this, as I learn best practically. We knew that social distancing would make this difficult, and we had been warned that our experience would vary greatly from previous years. Nevertheless, my return to practice was great! We worked in a number of vet practices where I improved my skills in surgery, consulting, medicine, client communication and more. A highlight for me was working with the RSPCA and diagnosing a dog that had toilet troubles with an easily treatable benign prostate enlargement, rather than the cancer the owner had feared.

It was not all positive however; some rotations were limited by COVID and we didn’t have a lot of opportunity to get hands on. It was quite hard having to sit and wait for something to do, knowing I could be there helping in a normal year. This was no one’s fault, just a consequence of the situation. To make matters worse, in October, two of my housemates sadly tested positive for the virus, meaning we had to isolate for 3 weeks – I was unable to attend a week of rotation, and 2 weeks of placement in my hometown (which was especially saddening as I had not seen my family since before Easter). Luckily the housemates were fine and I did not catch COVID either, but it was a blow to my motivation.

Winter is Coming

We come now to early November, where, at the time of writing, I have just finished another 2 weeks of rotation, this time on pathology. It was interesting, but once again lacking in how much we were actually able to do, with a lot still being delivered online. The second national lockdown started just a few days ago, and many of my friends are having more placements cancelled. I myself have had 2 weeks cancelled around Christmas, though others have lost even more. Placements have been a constant battle with cancellations and reschedules almost every week. In fact, I have not actually attended a placement since Christmas, before this all began. Assuming they are not cancelled, I will visit two practices before Christmas, where I hope I can get a lot of experience in consulting.

More worrying to me is the fact that I may not be able to go home for Christmas. Currently, lockdown is set to end before Christmas, however I believe it is highly likely it may last longer. If the lockdown continues over the Christmas period, I may only be able to visit home for a few days, if at all. Thankfully, it appears the government has shown some sense this time, and students are allowed to continue teaching in-person if necessary – this should mean I can go home to attend my placement and be around for Christmas. We shall see how the situation develops. I do feel for other students whose course is not very practical based, as they do not have this luxury and may end up being stuck at home all Christmas. 

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The Future is Not Set 

After Christmas, rotations and placements continue, and hopefully the situation improves and we can get more experience. Currently, we are still scheduled to graduate in summer 2021, and can start looking for jobs – this prospect is more terrifying than any pandemic! However, if we cannot attend placements and rotations and lack the experience necessary, we may well have to delay our graduation.

Even if we do graduate on time, I fear I will not be prepared as much as previous new graduate vets have been. In either case, I think that my first 6 months in practice will be a huge learning curve! Vets are very important for the UK’s pet population and we are lucky our industry has not been furloughed in the same way that others have. Though the next few months are going to be rocky, I keep telling myself that in a year, I will be 6 months qualified, much more confident in my abilities, and COVID’s effects on my education a distant memory. 

Final Thoughts

In my humble opinion, students often get a very bad rep in the press, and it seems the media and the government have been out in full force blaming us for the lacklustre containment of COVID-19 in the UK. I cannot speak for all students at other universities and I am not excusing the actions of the very few – students likely do share some of the blame for the increased number of COVID cases after summer.

However, please remember that most news reports focus on the bad, which makes negative news seem more prevalent than positive, and this is in part why students are getting such a poor reputation in regards to coronavirus measures; do not tar us all with the same brush, as on the whole we just want to get back to proper education! After all, isn’t that why we are at university? 

I hope this article may have helped shed some light on the struggles we as final year veterinary students are all facing, and maybe soften some of the harsher words thrown our way. No one wants this pandemic to last any longer than it has to, and we are all doing the very best we can to end it. The global situation is unprecedented (to use the media’s favourite word of 2020) and scary for everyone – the last thing we need is more division in an already divided world. Stay safe, be kind, help each other, and I’ll see you and your pets very soon!