A Day in the Life of a Veterinary Student
As a fourth-year veterinary student, Donna Almondia’s day often begins as early as 5:30 a.m. when she arrives at the Ryan Veterinary Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. But Donna doesn’t mind getting such an early start. “Veterinary school has been everything I hoped it would be,” she says. “It is an exhilarating, intimidating, fun, and life-changing experience. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Donna grew up with her adoptive parents and two brothers in Torrance, California, surrounded by a variety of pets that included dogs, fish, birds, hamsters, and reptiles. “My first pet was a rabbit, which I loved dearly,” says the 26-year-old veterinary student. Her love of animals led her to study zoology at the University of California at Santa Barbara before being accepted into the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “I always knew I was born to work with animals,” she says. “After gaining experience working as a veterinary assistant, there was no question in my mind that this was the career for me. I loved the satisfaction of not only helping animals but also working alongside the people that loved and cared for them.” Donna is specializing in small animals—mainly dogs and cats—but there are many specialties that veterinary students can choose as their focus. Students can decide to work with small animals (dogs and cats), exotic animals (birds, hamsters, and reptiles) or large animals (horses and livestock) in a clinic or practice setting, or they can go into the areas of research, academic teaching, or government work.
WHAT IT’S LIKE
A typical class at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine consists of about 110 students. The University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary hospital is one of the busiest veterinary teaching hospitals in the country, with over 28,000 patients coming through its doors every year. Aside from emergency cases, most of the animals that come to the hospital are referrals from veterinary practices, so they are often the most challenging and serious cases.
The first two years of veterinary school consist of challenging, intense courses in the basic sciences, including biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, and anatomy. “The surprising thing about veterinary school for me was the sheer volume of material we are expected to know and understand in such a limited amount of time. It was very overwhelming at first,” Donna says. “I found Anesthesia class to be very difficult, but my favorite class was Clinical Laboratory Medicine, which is designed to teach students how to interpret the results of blood work and laboratory tests. It was an extremely vital and interesting class, since veterinarians depend heavily on many of these tests.” Along with their studies, many students participate in federal work-study programs or find work in faculty-run research laboratories or at a local veterinary clinic to gain hands-on experience. Donna decided to start an organization to help other veterinary students learn more about the business aspect of becoming a veterinarian. “During my second year, two other classmates and I started the Veterinary Business Management Association,” she explains, “which is a student-run organization for students and local veterinarians interested in achieving a higher standard of business and practice management skills, a cause I strongly support and believe in.”
In the third year, a student’s clinical exposure increases as they do more lab work in addition to their course work. Fourth-year students like Donna actually work alongside a faculty veterinarian to examine, diagnose, and treat patients in the University’s veterinary hospital. Once a student completes four years of veterinary school, he or she will graduate with a D.V.M. degree (“Doctor of Veterinary Medicine”) or, in the case of the University of Pennsylvania, a V.M.D. (“Veterinariae Medicinae Doctoris”) degree. Students can go on for further study to receive a PhD degree as well, which usually takes another three years of study, or can participate in various internship and residency programs. Each veterinary school has different areas of study, degrees, and requirements.
During her fourth year, Donna has seen many interesting patients. ”My favorite case so far has been a beautiful shih tzu named Chloe,” she remem-bers. “She came into the emergency service diagnosed with immune mediated hemolytic anemia, a disease that attacks red blood cells and causes them to disintegrate. When she was transferred to me, she looked at me with eyes that understood I was trying to help. She was always cooperative, seemed pleased to see me, and made me look forward to coming to work. Chloe’s owners made working with her an even more pleasurable and gratifying experience. They visited her every day, so I was able to speak with them about her progress. They were so appreciative and grateful, and expressed that to me freely. Thankfully she made a quick turnaround.”
A “TYPICAL” DAY
Working seven days a week, Donna’s days usually start before the sun comes up. “I have gotten up as early as 4:00 a.m. to start the day,” she says. “Some days can go very late in the evening, or sometimes to very early the next morning if I am on call. Even if you are in the hospital until 3 a.m., you still have to be ready for an early next day.” Donna walks to the hospital from her off-campus apartment, checks on her existing patients, and then begins seeing new ones (see the timeline below to see what a “typical” day for Donna is like). She works closely with faculty veterinarians to help diagnose and treat patients, then moves on to clinical “rounds,” where she and the other fourth-year students discuss their patients under the guidance of a veterinary advisor and learn from each other’s cases.
What is Donna’s goal after she finishes her final year of veterinary school? “After graduation, I would like to do an internship,” she says. “This is basically one year of intense clinical training for recent graduates, or any veterinarian looking to become a specialist. The difference between this and going into a general practice is that an internship is a structured, organized program where I would handle lots of cases and have supervision and feedback from seasoned clinicians and specialists. An internship can be done at a university or large private practice. I believe an internship will be a good way for me to solidify and refine the knowledge and skills I have learned in school.”
While it might seem like a lot of work, it’s clear that Donna loves what she is doing. “Being a veterinary student becomes a way of life,” she says. “You love it and you hate it. The hard part is the long hours, endless studying, and having no days off. The most enjoyable part is everything that comes with that—making close friendships, helping animals in need, and simply passing time with my colleagues.” A veterinary student’s life isn’t all work and no play, however. “There are a fair share of parties, dances, and dinners for us to indulge in,” Donna says. “With the little free time we have, we turn to our hobbies for stress relief. Many students go to the gym, play sports, or go out with friends. I am a dancer, so I depend heavily on dancing for stress relief. Many of us will just kick back with a good movie or spend time with our significant others.”
IS THIS THE LIFE FOR YOU?
If you think becoming a veterinarian might be the career path for you, Donna suggests gaining experience as early as you can. “The most important thing someone can do is to work for a veterinarian,” she says. “This will give you the practical aspect of what a veterinarian does on a daily basis.” Visit local veterinarians and shelters and see if they have any volunteer or part-time job opportunities available. “Involve yourself with activities that involve animals,” Donna continues. “Working or volunteering at a local shelter, stable, zoo, or wildlife rescue is excellent experience. Working for a veterinarian will allow you to develop skills that will be extremely useful when you are in your clinical year as a veterinary student.” As far as academics go, you should concentrate on the sciences and mathematics, but you do not have to have a degree in science to apply to veterinary school. Liberal arts are equally important to be a well-rounded student. Donna suggests taking business courses, too. When a veterinarian decides to open a practice, he or she is not only taking care of patients but also running a business that has to be profitable to succeed.
After following Donna around for an entire (very busy!) day, her love of animals and her dedication to her career as a veterinarian shine through. “Veterinary school has made me into a better person and is a real eye-opening look into the life of all medical professionals,” Donna says. “Knowing that you are in a profession that is respected and helps animals live heathier and happier lives makes it all worthwhile.”
OUR DAY WITH DONNA
Donna arrives at the hospital and checks in on her patients. She makes sure they have had all their treatments and medications, assesses their progress, and updates their charts.
Donna visits Abby and her owner, Amy, in an exam room. She goes over the dog’s history and conducts a basic physical examination. Everything is documented on Abby’s chart.
Dr. Groman meets with the client and examines Abby. Donna observes and takes notes. Dr. Groman asks for Donna’s input on the case. They recommend antibiotics for Abby’s infection as well as an ultrasound. They also check to see if Abby is up to date on her vaccinations.
Donna takes Abby to radiology for an ultrasound. The radiologists see some irregularities in the bladder and recommend further tests if the antibiotics do not clear up the infection.
Donna goes to the pharmacy to pick up Abby’s antibiotics.
Donna picks up a chart for her next patient, Max, a 9-year-old poodle who has been having seizures and seems disoriented. He has had surgery for kidney problems in the past. Donna meets Max’s owners, the Sweigerts, takes a history, and does a physical exam on Max.
Donna takes Max for his blood and liver tests and sets up an ultrasound to be done later.
Donna checks on her patients, making sure they have been getting their recommended treatments and assessing their progress. On this day she has two patients in the hospital, including a Chihuahua with a stomach infection.
Donna heads home to study and hopefully relax. Two to three times a month, she has to stay late for “treatment duty,” where she helps the hospital nurses take care of other students’ patients until midnight.