What is it like to be a veterinarian? 

Dr. Teresa Hershey
In this 1998 photo, Teresa Hershey works her first job in veterinary medicine as mixed animal practitioner in southeast Minnesota. Submitted photo

I did a double pet euthanasia recently.

Two small poodles who grew up together and in old age were both very sick. I had done this only a couple of times before. The problem with this situation is the logistics. Who do you euthanize first? Do I ask the owner? That seems like a lot of weight to put on their shoulders, and I thought it would be best to decide for them.

“I will euthanize Naomi and then I will euthanize Bear,” I said. It was agreed that would be the order.

Once it was done, I laid the two dogs side-by-side on the table and covered them with a blanket to the chin. For some reason, it is not twice as sad to see two little bodies instead of one, but exponentially so.

My next patient after that appointment was a new puppy. Time to switch from being Doctor Death to Doctor Smiles. I do it all of the time, so I am used to it.  My job is to be what the client in front of me needs right now. I suppose that is the definition of being a professional: the ability to perform your job with skill even under duress.

I recall one time when I was not successful in making that transition between a euthanasia and a puppy appointment. While examining the puppy, I started to cry and explained to the owner that I had just euthanized a pug friend and was feeling sad.

I didn’t see that client again at my clinic. Who would come back to see a doctor who was crying? I wouldn’t! When a client gives you money for a service, they want — and deserve — to have your undivided attention.

Many people dream of being a veterinarian. But soon enough, most realize it is not for them — not only because of the rigors of school and the time and cost involved, but also because you have to be able to compartmentalize your day and deal with heavy things.

You have to like animals and be able to still think clearly when they are suffering. If you get too caught up in your feelings, you can become paralyzed and not perform your job well.

Of course the other extreme is also possible: where you look past the patient and only see the disease. This happened with one of my veterinary teachers.

One day when I was in veterinary school, one of my professors decided to move his bovine necropsy (autopsy) lab outside on a nice spring day. He sliced into the cow, setting her organs on the grass. He explained the pathology occurring in his subject while his boot-and-overall-clad veterinary students looked on with interest. Meanwhile, the English and history majors walking by were horrified and promptly reported him to school administrators. I can imagine the shock of my professor when he found out that public dissection is not appropriate for the masses.

Being a good veterinarian means that you can find that sweet spot between being caring and being analytical. Both are skills to be developed over time.

I am glad to be a “seasoned” veterinarian now. The growing pains of a young doctor are huge. Not only are you trying to figure out who you are as a person in this profession and how best to present yourself and your information, but also there is so much knowledge to accumulate about pathology, disease and what is normal.

I have been in practice for 20 years now and have diagnosed all manner of cancers, orthopedic issues, skin problems and metabolic disorders. Every once in a while, though, I will see something I have never seen before. Several years ago, a dog came into my clinic that the owner reported was just “off.” We have a term for this in veterinary medicine. It is called “ADR” — Ain’t Doin’ Right. (This is a real abbreviation veterinarians use when we haven’t been able to pinpoint the disease.)

My ADR patient had very nondescript and subtle symptoms: moderate lethargy and a slight loss of appetite. All of his tests came back normal. When I saw the dog back three days later, he looked like a totally different animal. His face was twisted into a smile as if someone were standing behind him pulling his skin backwards. The diagnosis could now be made. This expression, called a “sardonic grin,” is classic for the disease tetanus and occurs because all of the muscles of the face tense up. Tetanus is fortunately extremely rare, but its effects are horrible to see and, for this dog, it was fatal.

Besides treating the animals that come through my door, I also have to treat the people. When I was in middle school and I told my mother that I wanted to be a veterinarian, she told me that was a good career choice for me because I wasn’t good with people. (Note: My mother is a wonderful woman whom I love very, very much). My middle school self must not have been very pleasant to be around. 

But my mother was wrong that veterinarians don’t need to be good with people. Veterinarians have two customers: the patient and the person who brings the patient to your door.

Only a small portion of my job is occupied with real doctoring, like analyzing lab samples and sewing up lacerations. The majority of my job is being a human with feelings while trying to solve a problem with another human with feelings. That part is harder.

Of course, this would not be a proper article about the experience of being a veterinarian if I didn’t talk about the best part of my job: the animals I get to meet.

I have a 30-pound Maine coon with a head the size of a small melon who visits me at the clinic. He is such an amazing creature that it is just an honor to be in the same room as him.

My smallest patient is a 3.5-pound Maltese who hides her head in the crook of her mom’s arm when I come into the room. Poor thing, everyone is a looming giant to her!

My biggest patient is a 150-pound mastiff. His jowls hang low and, after examining him, I need to sponge myself off because of the amount of saliva he deposits on me.

When the day is done, my calls are made and my notes are complete, I sit back and think, “I get to come back again and do this all over tomorrow!” and I feel I am very lucky to do so.

Dr. Teresa Hershey is a veterinarian at Westgate Pet Clinic in Linden Hills. Email pet questions to [email protected].