All of us have scars. They can be large or small, unseen or quite obvious, but they are all caused by a painful experience that leaves a mark. Some of us come into this profession with previous scars. Luckily, the only childhood scars I have are the physical ones on my forehead from accidental encounters with fireplaces – Thanks Mom and Dad! But, in all seriousness, I was very lucky to grow up in a wonderful family and enter adulthood with minimal scars.
However, this career in veterinary medicine has definitely left its mark. I have physical scars that have taught me specific lessons. I have unseen emotional scars left by patients. And, I have mental scars from the people I have met throughout my career. I am the doctor I am today because these scars have affected me. But, instead of damaging me, I think these scars have actually given me special powers. I would like to share with you how vet med scars can be powerful, and useful, and maybe even a little bit magical!
I have a range of physical scars from this profession, as I’m sure you do as well. Unfortunately, my really awesome sea turtle scar on my forearm has completely faded, but I do have a couple permanent physical scars that have taught me specific lessons.
On my wrist I have a small scar from when I was first starting out at an animal hospital as a kennel worker and a 10 week old kitten jumped out of my hands. Of course my kitten scar is permanent instead of that much cooler sea turtle one! This kitten scar is a constant reminder to pay attention at work because even the most unassuming patients can injure you if you are being careless.
My other noteworthy physical scar is from a scratch I received while I was restraining a crazy labrador for a nail trim during a private practice externship my final year of vet school. On paper, this practice should have been the perfect place for me, but there was just something wrong. All the pieces were there, but I just didn’t fit. That scratch annoyed me the entire time I was there. Every time I scrubbed in to surgery and that fresh wound stung as the antiseptic soap touched it, the desire to just run away from that place would bubble up as well. The resulting scar has been a powerful reminder that even when everything should be set up for your success, you cannot succeed if you are unhappy with your situation. Trust your gut, and don’t lie to yourself. If it feels wrong, it’s wrong. How strange that a seemingly insignificant nail trim scar has given me such powerful career insight? Or maybe it’s a little bit magical!
Now to move on to those unseen vet med scars, which can be much more dangerous but also much more powerful:
All veterinary professionals live with the scars of dear patients they have lost. I do not have time to tell the stories of all the patients who have left big emotional scars on me, so I wanted to share just one. And, the one that has been the most powerful emotional scar may seem like a strange pick to some of you. This is the tale of my patient: Tyson the tegu.
For those of you who don’t know, a tegu is a large lizard. Picture an iguana-sized lizard that is black and white and really chubby. Tyson came to me early in my career after his family had suffered a house fire. Tyson had burns on his body including severe damage to his tail that required me to amputate it… twice – because the first time I didn’t go high enough – which was a complete rookie mistake. And, to the vets out there ever have the opportunity to amputate a tegu’s tail – Do it!!! It’s the easiest, most satisfying surgery ever. You just snap the tail at a natural breaking point—it is so cool! …but that’s not the point of this story. Although Tyson’s tail did regrow, which in and of itself was quite a magical scar!
Anyway, a couple years later Tyson presented to me very sick. His body was bloated. He looked like an overinflated balloon. Tyson was diagnosed with three large fluid filled structures within his coelom. I was faced with performing an exploratory surgery to remove them, and I was terrified. I had never done a surgery like that before. So, I stalled. I happened to be going to a conference soon, so I waited and discussed the case with some colleagues there for advice. I had everything I needed to proceed, and I still couldn’t gather the courage to put my all-time favorite patient through this life-threatening procedure. It was definitely NOT very Gryffindor of me!
And then I got the phone call. Tyson had died. My cowardice had failed him. Now, I know that rationally there was a high chance that he wasn’t going to survive the surgery anyway, but I still live with that scar that he left… the one that makes me wonder “what would have happened if I had the courage to give him a chance”. That scar, reminding me of a cowardly moment early in my career, has given me the power to be brave for my current patients and give them every opportunity to get better. I’m sorry I didn’t learn this lesson in time to help Tyson, but I’m grateful for the emotional scar that he left that makes me strive to be a better doctor for all those who have come after him.
And, I’m sure each one of you has your own Tyson, who left a big emotional scar on your heart, but who makes you strive to be better for all those who have come after.
Now just a quick end note to Tyson’s story… I was able to do a necropsy, and I discovered that those 3 large fluid-filled structures were actually ovarian cysts. Yep, Tyson was a girl the whole time. So, SHE left another powerful scar that reminds me not to automatically trust the owner (or the pet store) when they tell you that an animal is male or female!
All right, now we’ve reached the trickiest scars to describe: the mental scars left by people I have met throughout my career.
At my first job as a vet, I encountered an assistant who seemed to question my every move. I was the baby vet and she had experience, so I was just supposed to listen to her because she’d seen it all before. One of my first cases was a vomiting puppy. I asked the assistant to perform a Parvovirus on him. When I left the treatment room, I overheard her badmouthing me. She had seen lots of Parvo puppies, and this one just didn’t smell like it. I was wasting the owner’s money by running this test. I swallowed my frustration, and I jumped into the next exam room while waiting for the test results. When I got back to the treatment room, I heard the technician cursing and assumed she was still making a scene about disagreeing with my medical decision. However, I discovered that that test had come up Positive! I had made the right decision for that puppy.
That assistant could have left me with a scar of self-doubt that damaged me for the rest of my career. But instead, I found that scar to be a reminder to believe in myself. It gives me the power to trust in my medical training, and stick up for my professional decisions when I know what I’m doing is right.
My other big vet med mental scar was left by mentors who didn’t know how to mentor effectively. Mentorship is a special skill, and it doesn’t just come naturally. I have witnessed several very smart, very experienced individuals unintentionally leave mental scars on young professionals. They think they are being helping by pointing out mistakes, but their approach can be demoralizing. Mentorship is not about tearing someone down, but about building someone up. I use the scars my ineffective mentors left on me to try to make myself a better mentor for the next generation.
Despite encountering some toxic people in my career who have left mental scars, the vast majority of veterinary professionals I have met are absolutely wonderful. They are my favorite part of this profession. Yes, I have had some awesome clients and patients, but the outstanding colleagues and co-workers are why I’m still doing this.
So, I want to encourage all of you amazing veterinary professionals out there to please embrace your own veterinary scars. Instead of letting them limit your abilities, discover the magical powers they can give you.
Because, just like my favorite fictional character who happens to be the inspiration for my social media alter ego: Harry Potter Vet…
Scars may change our lives, but they can also give us the power we need to survive.