Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 December, 2008, 12:00am

This column has always been for me a public podium where I can express my opinions and share my experiences from an unique perspective as a veterinarian and scientist, with a small twist of Dr Eric's personal beliefs. It has allowed me to share with all of you the many interesting experiences on the road to become a veterinary surgeon and scientist, and what it is like when you are one. Many of the experiences I have shared with you, I would not have had if I wasn't a veterinarian. Each week, I hope to entertain and inform, and if you haven't gathered from my column so far, I love my job and all the opportunities that go with it.

How shocked I was when I caught up with one of my best friends from Australia the other day. She is the best buddy one could ask for. We spent a lot of time together at university. In fact, her mother was rather surprised to find out that we were never a couple, our relationship was that close. We both graduated together from the same year as budding veterinarians from the University of Melbourne. Her background was way different from mine. Her family has always had a pasture out the back of their house with lots of pets, that not only included dogs and cats, but horses as well. I have always lived in an urban jungle, and having a dog or three and a fish or two was all that I could hygienically keep.

Being a veterinarian is, for many, a dream vocation, and it was so for my friend. You ask the average primary school student what they want to be when they grow up, and many of those with pets at home would swiftly answer: 'I want to be an animal doctor.' If the same student's family continues to own another pet when the previous one inevitably died from old age, the same student may continue his or her notions of going to vet school. This is the story of my friend. She grew up loving animals with a passion and still does.

I had not heard from her for more than three years, and she told me on the phone that she quit being a vet a few years ago, went back to university and graduated again with a commerce degree. Now, she works in a bank. She met a fellow banker and is engaged to be married. I hope that she has found happiness and wish her happily ever after. I was curious why she decided on the drastic change of career, and she told me what I already knew.

One thing bad about being a typical veterinarian is the rather long and unsociable hours that we must work. It stands to reason as most owners only find problems with their pets during their time off work and many only have time to take their pets to the vet on weekends.

I don't think I have had a Saturday off for a year now, so if you plan to quit your day job to study to become a vet, think again.

The grass always seems greener on the other side of the fence, but being a veterinarian certainly has its share of weeds hidden from the neighbour's view. I don't get off work until 8pm, which is reasonable for a typical Hong Kong job, but in Australia this is unacceptable. I am sometimes called in for that midnight after-hours emergency.

Most vets in Hong Kong work in a small company environment, often with only one to three vets, and that means it can get rather inconvenient when someone on the team is sick. I don't think I have taken a day off for sick leave for over a year now, and that doesn't mean that I have had perfect health for the year. It just means that when I am sick, I have to don a surgical mask and take some flu medicine, put aside my dizzy spells and soldier on. My job, my clients and their pets have to come first.

Being a veterinarian is not always about animals. We have to learn a whole lot about animals and how they work, but it is way more than the average person really wants to know. I certainly felt that way when I was faced with the 20th three-hour exam. It is better now that I am actually applying that rote learning every day in a practical way.

When you do graduate and have learned so much already, you find that you have only started the lifelong learning process that goes with being a vet, and that can be quite daunting. The more I knew, the more I knew I didn't know.

A few of us become research veterinarians, but most of us become clinicians that have to deal with clients. And that is what my friend didn't like most about being a veterinarian - she was a good clinician, but she hated teaching. She never had the patience for it and never will. For me, dealing with people takes up 70 per cent of my consultation time, but luckily I love teaching and I get most of my satisfaction from my job when people learn from what I have said.

So next time your kids tell you that they want to be a vet, or anything else for that matter, learn more about it and all the hills and troughs that lie ahead.