Facing Adversity in Vet School
Updated: Sep 13, 2019
Over a year ago, I started my social media platform to document my journey and help current/prospective veterinary students with theirs. I value the connections I’ve made and the support this community has brought me throughout my time in vet school. I’ve experienced many bumps in the road during my three years and have tried my best to be as transparent with those experiences, so others know they aren’t alone. This past semester was the one that almost broke me. I questioned EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. if I was supposed to be a veterinarian. I wasn’t excited or passionate about going to school anymore. I was depressed and unmotivated. I was everything I told myself I wouldn’t be during vet school. I tried so hard to build healthy habits that would nourish my mental and physical health, but sometimes life just happens, and you need help.
I was struggling in majority of my classes and went into finals with 3 failing grades and a lot at stake. Luckily, I found a way to study hard for these finals and make passing grades. On top of that, I was trying to cope with the loss of two very important people in my life. What got me through these times were my friends, family, and classmates. The genuine support I received was the only reason I came out on top. I almost failed out of vet school, but I survived it and that’s a big win for me.
I reached out to the Instagram community to see if other veterinary students were interested in sharing their own personal struggles and how they overcame them. I was absolutely shocked by how many people messaged me which is why this post exists. Some individuals have requested to remain anonymous while others included their contact information if you ever feel the need to reach out <3 Wherever you are in your veterinary career, just know you are not alone and you can get through anything.
Shelby, 2nd year DVM Student
Veterinary school is just like everything else in life - it is not easy. The challenge comes not just from the academic workload, but from external factors in your everyday life. I have found that no matter what age you are, things go wrong. There is nothing you can do about it. And when you are in a high stress environment (i.e. professional school), these “external factors” can lead to numerous health issues mentally and physically.
So how do I personally overcome hardships in vet school? Well, for me, I faced the totally life-altering and practically debilitating hardship of losing my dad when I was 17 years old. After he died, I had to go on the long journey of grieving and overcoming the emptiness. I had to pull back the shells of myself, going deeper and deeper until I reached the core of the pain I felt at his loss. Because of this, I have a fairly unusual perspective on hardship. Internally, I know that I will be “ok” no matter the obstacle. In the days after my dad’s death, I clasped onto that feeling of “ok-ness” and have never let it go. I don’t mean to be morbid when I write this, but this is who I am and what I have been through. Because of his death, I developed a “tool box” that I often talk about in my blog (https://travelingdogtor.com/blog). In this tool box, I have things that I do when I face adversity and feel my mental health slipping away. These activities include journaling, meditation, reading, running, talking with friends, seeing a therapist, yoga, walks in nature, etc. When I feel my anxiety start to rise, I allow myself to feel the pain. It is NOT easy, and doesn’t always happen immediately. Sometimes I need a good book (a great one for suffering hardships is called No Mud, No Lotus) or a friend to remind me that I am allowed to process how I am feeling and work through it. We are a social species after all and should learn how to be vulnerable with those closest to us.
My best advice for anyone entering veterinary (or any professional) school is to come prepared! Take the time to develop your own “tool box” of things that work for you to cope with anxiety and hardships. It will not be the same for everyone. Try everything you can until you find an activity that speaks to you and helps you process your emotions. Coping skills are also an excellent point of discussion in interviews. I wrote about my coping skills in my personal statement and spoke about them frequently during veterinary school admission interviews. This IS a concern of faculty when interviewing students for a professional program – Can they handle it? How will they overcome adversity? Will they be able to manage their workload? If you take the time to develop these skills, and work on them regularly, I promise you that you will have a much better quality of life all around. Your grades will be better, your relationships will be more stable, and your health will improve. When you work on yourself, you show yourself love. In doing so, you are showing all those who love you just how much you love them. There is nothing your loved ones want more than to see more than you healthy, happy, and thriving.
So get to it! Lots of Love.
The Traveling Dogtor (@traveling_dogtor)
1st Year DVM Student
My name is Susan and I’m a first year vet student. I have a bachelor’s degree in animal biotechnology and a master’s degree in genetics. At the beginning of my master’s program I decided I wanted to pursue a career in veterinary medicine. My first year of veterinary school is also my ninth year of college (yes, 9!). I always had to work hard to make good grades, but I never struggled and my grades were consistently high. I knew veterinary school wouldn’t be easy, but I was not ready for the semester I walked into.
12 hours after my master’s graduation ceremony, I loaded my two dogs and my cat into my truck and drove 33.5 hours back to my home town to start veterinary school. This place is filled with lots of good and bad memories, but some of the worst experiences of my life happened here. My father was killed here, both my grandmothers passed away here, my brother and I went through various family guardians here, and my mother is in prison here. Needless to say, I still experience a lot of anxiety and PTSD being home.
My first semester I not only struggled with huge flareups of PTSD, panic attacks, and constant anxiety, I also had roommate problems, a death in the family, a break up, severe reactions to medication, and two trips to the emergency room.
As weird as it sounds, the biggest wall I faced was my panic medication. I was unaware of the side effects my body was undergoing and the negative effects this was having on my education. My psychiatrist asked me one day, “have you noticed any issues with short and/or long term memory?” To which I responded, “I can’t remember.” If that wasn’t a sign I’m really not sure what would have been. I started paying more attention to my mental ability to focus and remember – I seriously couldn’t remember a term even if I wrote it down ten times. I was sedated. I was foggy. I was essentially in a medically induced stupor and incapable of performing. And I was failing. I had made more C’s and D’s on exams in one semester of vet school than I had made in my entire life.
Those first 18 weeks weren’t so smooth. I was quickly failing veterinary school. This was devastating – it sent me into a downward spiral that I could not control. I remember having a conversation with my psychiatrist and telling her I didn’t think I would make it through the semester. She told me that I should do whatever I think is best, but that she had complete confidence in me to succeed.
I constantly felt unworthy of being a veterinarian. I felt stupid. I felt incapable and I had absolutely no confidence. I doubted my decision to become a veterinarian every day, each day bringing new failures and more reason to give up. I honestly think I did give up for a while. I gave myself an ultimatum – if I failed out, I would never become a vet.
Once I realized what my medication was doing to me, I decided to stop taking it. I knew I would have more panic attacks without the medicine, but for me, having panic attacks was better than being sedated and incapacitated. I understood the risks and was willing to face them in hopes of saving my chance at becoming a veterinarian. Getting off the medication was not easy – I had intense migraines, I went through days of fever and chills, I was constantly sick to my stomach, sleep only came at the wrong times – I was miserable. I spent ten days like this. On the eleventh day I was alert, eating, sleeping, and was able to recite an entire lecture back to my classmates. It was a whole new game for me, except that I already had so many bad grades it would take everything in me just to pass.
This was my chance at redemption. I spent every moment I could studying because I knew what was at stake. My amazing friends spent all of their time devoted to helping me succeed. They carried me from the hospital to our anatomy lab so I could study. They forced me to sleep and eat. They even came over to play with my dogs so I could focus on school. My school counselor and my psychiatrist were available night and day to talk me back into the right mindset. I never could have gotten through this without all of their support, but I also couldn’t have done it without helping myself.
I met with my psychiatrist again at the end of the semester once I was feeling much better. She told me how she had been terrified for me, both in terms of school and for my entire mental health. She was 90% certain I would drop out or fail out of school. Thankfully, I overcame my struggles, and even though I did not get the grades I hoped for, I made it through!
I will be better. Despite everything that happened last semester, I will still be a wonderful veterinarian. Whether you aspire to be a vet or something else, never give up on yourself! No matter the circumstances, you can always keep fighting, you can always succeed. Surround yourself with people who will carry you when you need help. Use the resources you have available to you. Take a break when you need one. Keep yourself healthy. Do something each day that makes you happy. You have it in you to become who you want to be, do not accept anything less. You WILL succeed!
2nd Year DVM Student
Depression is one of the worst diseases because it takes away everything that you are and replaces it with something--someone--that you have never seen before. It’s scary. We hear the stats, we know the stats, but I never thought that I would be THE one in five.
When I was a second semester first year, I went into a deep depression and struggled with anxiety. How bad was it? I wasn’t brushing my hair. Brushing my teeth was a chore. I didn’t have energy to throw away trash so soon it accumulated in the cupboards of my apartment. When I had energy to eat, I subsisted on a steady diet of McDonalds and chocolate. My bed was the only place I wanted to be, but still, I forced myself to go to school and slapped a happy smile on my face. I didn’t tell anyone. No one knew. My classmates, whom I spent hours with, assumed I was fine because I was getting amazing grades (some of the best in my class) and to them, I seemed fine.
I finally got help when my mother saw the clues and urged me to go to a counselor and consider medication. It was a long, long haul but thanks to the support of my family back at home, an amazing veterinary school counselor, the furry love of fabulous feline, and some (literal) happy pills---the numbing haze of depression began to lift. Today, I am okay. I am actually joyful being in veterinary school and it is now the best feeling to come to school everyday with a genuine smile. You don’t appreciate what a smile feels like until you haven’t been able to.
I wanted to share my story on DogtorKristi because I don’t want other people to feel the same pain I felt. You are never alone. I promise. To those of you reading this feeling this way now, fight. Keep fighting. You are worth it. Your life is worth living. Things get better (I promise!), and never hesitate to get help. Admitting to depression and anxiety is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. If you aren’t struggling with depression, please, never assume the person next to you is okay. It takes five seconds to ask them how they really are and it could literally save a life. Be compassionate to those around you. Remember, there is always time to be kind. No exam or quiz is worth the mental health of you or a classmate.
P.S. Medication is amazing! I personally feel every veterinary student needs anti-anxiety pills!! Try it if you feel you need it what do you have to lose?!
The summer before I started vet school my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Though we were fortunate enough to catch it early, she still underwent two lumpectomies, radiation, and then elected to undergo a double mastectomy. What hurt the most is that I couldn't be there, for any of it, not even her first surgery before classes started as I had a research project going on. My family even once told me the wrong date for one of her surgeries because it fell on a day I had an exam, and they didn't want me to worry about my mom instead of focusing on my exam.
Looking back on this situation now, I honestly feel that vet school saved me. Though I do wish I would of had more time go home and see my family during my first year, they understood just how much time vet school really takes. School gave me a distraction from my home life (or lack thereof), and it gave me something to work for to make my mom proud. Most importantly, vet school gave me a whole new support system to lean on.
Over the years, I've found other classmates that were also going through a similar situation, and I wished I would have reached out sooner. We all sit next to each other 8-5 in the same classrooms and labs, and even spend nights and weekends studying together, but we forget that vet school isn't the only thing going on in each other's lives. Sometimes going that extra mile to ask the person sitting next you how they are doing, both in and outside of vet school, can make a whole world of difference. "
Second semester mid-sem break of second year vet AKA my first vet school breakdown.
For the first two and three quarter years of vet school, I’d say I handled it all pretty well. I mean, I still had my fair share of crying due to the stress of feeling unprepared for exams and I had had those normal thoughts about “why do I actually want to be here?” , “am I actually good enough?” and “is this stress worth it?” but they’d all just be passing thoughts. For the most part, vet school was the greatest thing in my life (and honestly, it still is).
This breakdown, however, was enough for me to seriously consider dropping out of vet school.
“How did you get to that point, how did you get through it and have you ever been back to it?”, I hear you ask. Simple answers: overcommitment; my support system; yes.
2017 was the start of my second year of vet but it was also the year that I had been elected to be the president of our Residents’ Club. This required a lot of organising events and took up a lot of my time. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the role and I put my heart and soul into the committee but, boy, did it take up so much of my energy. I struggled in classes that year as the content became harder and suddenly there was so much more of it and even failed a few of the tests we had, but thankfully always managed to pull through with the exams that counted. By the time I reached the mid-sem break of second semester, I was burnt out.
I remember talking to my best friend when I went home and struggling to speak without crying. I was trying so hard to stay positive but she saw right through me. By the time I got home and tried to study, I had realised how tired I was and I just lay on my bed and started to cry. The amount of work that I was behind on made me want to give up as I couldn’t see how I was ever going to be able to pass the year due to how little I felt I knew. My parents and brother came into my room then and although I resisted their help at first, they continued to stay and talk to me about how I really felt. They sat down with me and spoke to me for at least an hour, encouraging me to keep going but also really listening to how I was feeling. My dad then stayed in my room as moral support whilst I studied at my desk, when I finally started to see that the impossible could potentially be possible. Because of them, I passed the year and completed my role as president.
So how did I get to the second breakdown of my degree? Well, over the summer holiday, I experienced glandular fever for the first time. I had it so bad that I wasn’t even allowed to pick objects up due to my splenomegaly as I could have ended up with a ruptured spleen... Thankfully for me, this happened over my holiday (although it meant that I had to postpone two EMS placements). Even though I wasn’t totally recovered, I went back to uni when first semester started in 2018.
Due to the extreme tiredness glandular fever made me feel, I found this semester more difficult than previous semesters but I pushed on. Unfortunately, during my first semester mid-sem break of third year, I had a relapse of glandular fever after my EMS placement. It was a pretty bad relapse and meant that I had to stay home doing basically nothing for two weeks and meant that I missed a week of uni. Once again, I went back not fully recovered but determined to keep learning. Then, a couple of weeks before our end of semester exams, it hit me. I was behind in my studies again and I was so exhausted that I just burst out crying. I FaceTime called my mom and just sat there for an hour talking to her with her listening. Not only did I have exams to worry about, I was also part of a committee that was organising a week long leadership conference for the semester holiday and I had my final EMS placement to do that holiday too. Everything, once again, became too hard. After talking (sobbing) to her, I decided I needed some fresh air so I went for a long walk by myself, sat down and just balled my eyes out. Knowing that I had three options: drop out of vet school and postpone my studies until I got better; continue my studies but drop out of the committee running the conference or my EMS placement or, continue all three - the degree, the conference and my placement (which is the option I most wanted to do), I made sure that I had a plan by the time I got back to my room. That plan meant that I tidied my room, researched and wrote out some positive mantras which I stuck up on my wall and downloaded the Headspace app. I also changed my whole morning routine and I booked my first ever appointment with the counsellor. My new morning routine was as follows: I started by waking up earlier; meditating for 10 minutes using the Headspace app; reciting my mantras while eating, showering and brushing my teeth; had 5 minutes of time with God and then checked my social media. Having a plan like this changed my whole attitude, perspective and study life. The counsellor was also helpful and lovely too. She told me that the plan I had made for myself was a great start and that kind of validation just really seemed to help me. She, along with my best friend and parents did suggest to me that I drop out of the conference committee or my placement but they all said that it was up to me and that they’d support me if I didn’t. Determined to finish what I started, I stayed in vet school, thankfully passed my exams, the conference went swimmingly and I did my placement!
But, this didn’t come without a cost. A month or so later and I got a second relapse of glandular fever. This time it was during the semester so I was at uni. Once again, I was determined to not let it stop me. I lay in bed for a whole week - missing lectures and practicals. I am so grateful for the support my lecturers gave me through this as they made an effort to help me catch up on compulsory classes when I was healthy enough to do so. I expected a breakdown to happen again but, thanks to my new found knowledge about how to deal with my own stress, I made it through, passed the year and didn’t have a breakdown!
Vet school can be a difficult time, but so can life. I know that me being a veterinary student doesn’t really make a difference to the kind of struggles I’m facing. Yes, vet school is hard but I don’t like to think of myself as “special” because of it. Any degree will push you out of your comfort zone and will try you. The important thing is learning how to cope with your own emotions; learning to not be afraid to ask for help and learning to believe in yourself.
Katelyn, 3rd Year DVM Student
As soon as I found out I was admitted into veterinary school, I began getting very sick, very frequently, and my crazy medical issues began. I’m sharing this because it was a major issue that I faced in the beginning of veterinary school, and if I overcame it and have been doing okay, anyone can! Prior to starting veterinary school, in my last semester of my undergraduate studies, I visited a ton of doctors, missed loads of classes and had to call out of work all the time. Subsequently, I was diagnosed with an unknown autoimmune disease which, unfortunately, was unable to be treated as they didn’t know what was wrong. When I started veterinary school in the fall, my symptoms were still prominent, and it affected my studies and general health. I was so tired all the time that I could not stay awake in class no matter how much I slept. I was dizzy and would fall randomly. I had migraines 4-5 times a week that wouldn’t go away. I gained weight. I couldn’t study, attend class, or barely function as a regular human being, much less excel in what I wanted to and do the things I wanted to do in vet school. My grades, social life, mental health and physical health suffered. BUT I got through it! My grades weren’t fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but I was passing. And that is what mattered to me. I accepted that I wouldn’t be at the top of my class, but I would still be a good veterinarian, and that is what is most important! I took my health into my own hands, lost 40 pounds, started eating healthier, seeing different doctors, and getting my symptoms under control. Now, I am happier and healthier than I have been in a long time, and I am doing better and able to do MORE things in vet school including doing better in classes, retaining information better, being healthy and well enough to do outside activities such as wet labs, etc. and I made sure to make time for my mental and physical health, at least a little bit every day! It wasn’t easy, and it still isn’t. But I promise you, if I could do all these things and still be a happy veterinary student, you can too. And I wouldn’t change my life choice or experiences for anything, because they made me who I am today!
Katelyn, ( @vet.katelyn)