The university course leading to a degree in veterinary medicine and surgery is by necessity a hard-working, information-packed five years. The focus has traditionally been on accumulating facts, with the presumption that other aspects of being a vet can be learned later, when life in practice has commenced. As a result, there has sometimes been a perception (which may or may not be true) that new graduates can be over-academic, with a tendency to be impractical.
An innovative response to this criticism has been established at many vet schools, with a concept known as the “Practitioner-in-Residence” . An experienced veterinary surgeon leaves their own practice for a period of ten weeks, to spend time at the Veterinary College, teaching students about “real life”. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to fill this role at my own local vet college.
My teaching duties had various aspects. Every morning, I consulted as a normal vet, seeing “real life” cases with on-looking students. However the pace was different to my usual busy lifestyle in private practice. Instead of examining fifteen patients in a morning, I might see only one or two, with every aspect of the case scrutinised in fastidious detail. Students were involved as much as possible, asking questions and taking part in discussions.
In the afternoons, I took part in tutorials with small groups of students. We discussed the cases seen each morning, and we debated the pros and cons of various investigations and treatments. A member of the university staff provides the viewpoint of the academic vet, and I was then asked about what I would do in practice. Sometimes there was no difference in approach, but at other times my approach would differ. “Real life” clients do not always want the standard academic route. Some tests may give information that is of interest to the vet, but that may not make a significant difference to the treatment of the animal. Such tests can be expensive, and pet owners often have a limited budget. My input to these tutorials aimed to help students understand more about how they would be expected to treat animals in the world of private veterinary practice when they qualified.
The tutorials also focussed on other aspects of life in veterinary practice. What should students look for in their first job? What sort of facilities and equipment should they expect to find? How do you tell the difference between boss who is a friendly, helpful mentor, and one who might be a hot-tempered intolerant slave driver? What sort of stresses will the young vet be under? How can they minimise them? Vets have one of the highest rates of suicide in modern society, and young vets need to be told about this. It can be difficult to live a balanced life, with focus on both work and leisure, but it’s important.
My life as a “practitioner-in-residence” was very different to my normal routine. I spent lunchtimes in the university library reading the latest veterinary journals. I attended early-morning seminars held by visiting experts. I took part in departmental meetings with the academic team. It was like having a taste of an entirely alternative life, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
But I did miss aspects of my normal life. I missed the social chat with my clients. I missed those animals that I have learned to know as individual characters over the years and who have become my friends.
If there was one single message that I wanted to give to those students, it was this: “Veterinary practice is an enjoyable, sociable, stimulating, exciting job – get qualified, get out there, and enjoy it!”
Mrs Kennedy was an elderly widow, whose only companion was a small seventeen year old cat called Puss. Mrs Kennedy had phoned me because she thought that Puss had broken her leg after chasing another cat.
I wasn’t expecting anything too serious. Cats commonly hurt themselves while fighting with each other. An owner may think that the leg is broken, but in most cases the problem is a simple cat bite abscess, which can be easily treated. However, this time it was different. The owner was right.
Mrs Kennedy explained how a neighbouring cat had sneaked into the kitchen, and Puss had leapt up to chase it away. Immediately afterwards, she’d started limping, and since then she had barely moved from her bed.
When I touched Puss’s shoulder I could feel heat and swelling, and when I gently probed deeper, I could feel the rough ends of broken bone. I asked a few more questions, and it turned out that Puss had been drinking more than normal for a few months, and she had begun to be fussy about her food. She had also started to vomit occasionally. The pieces of the jigsaw began to fit together, and I explained it to Mrs Kennedy.
“Puss is very elderly and at this stage in her life, her body is gradually failing her. Her main problem is that her kidneys have stopped working properly, which is why she has developed an increased thirst and a poor appetite. As a result of her kidney failure, her bones have become very fragile. Unfortunately, advanced kidney failure in a seventeen year old cat is not easily treated. And worse again, a broken bone in a cat like Puss cannot be fixed. At this stage, all of her bones will be as weak as egg shells. If she carried on, Puss would continue to suffer from further broken bones during normal activities.”
Mrs Kennedy sadly shook her head. “ So it’s time to say goodbye.” She knelt down beside her cat, and gave her a last, long hug. I gave the painless injection, and Puss quietly passed away, as her owner whispered into her ear.
Mrs Kennedy told me how Puss had originally been a wild stray cat. She had finally been tamed after months of coaxing her into the kitchen with food. She had been Mrs Kennedy’s closest friend, but she would never have another cat. She was elderly and she could not bear to think about what might happen if she died herself. I tried to tell her that somebody would look after her cat, and that this could be arranged in advance, but she just shook her head again. I felt very sad as I left her house.
Two weeks later, I received a call from someone who had a half-tame feral kitten in their garden. They were moving house, and they didn’t know what to do with it. An idea occurred to me. I collected the kitten, and drove on to Mrs Kennedy’s house. When she answered the door, I smiled and I said that I had something that might interest her.
Mrs Kennedy could not take her eyes off the kitten in the basket beside me. “He is just like Puss used to be –the poor frightened creature. Bring him inside”. She went to her kitchen cupboard and took out a tin of cat food. I stood back, as she spooned the food onto a plate, and opened the cat basket. The kitten licked the food hesitantly, and then began to eat heartily. As he ate, Mrs Kennedy chucked his cheek gently. He looked up at her, and to my surprise, he purred. A new friendship had begun.