We all sometimes wish we could go back in time or have a do-over on some situations, University is such an important time in our lives, and often when we look back with hindsight and more life experience we wish we could have done things a little differently, or perhaps focused our time and energy in a better way. I have been reflecting recently as my career has progressed, and whilst I am incredibly proud of what I have achieved and where my journey has bought me, if I could say 5 things to the Gerardo Poli about start University, this is what I would say:
Funnily enough, when I was doing my study notes at university in preparation for exams, I don’t recall writing down a lot of notes on the typical signalment for the different diseases. At the time I couldn’t really see the relevance nor importance of it, especially when there were so much more pathophysiology waiting to be memorised. Fast forward a few years when I started working, and the first thing I want to know – even before I lay eyes on the patient – is its signalment. It is the one crucial clue that helps me narrow down a long list of differential diagnosis, and from there help develop a diagnostic plan. Signalment can be so telling in some cases that my colleagues and I will often guess what the patient presented for; a young Labrador retriever that presents with protracted vomiting is most likely going to be an intestinal foreign body until proven otherwise, and a geriatric cavalier King Charles spaniel with dyspnoea is most likely in congestive heart failure secondary to its genetically predisposed mitral valve disease.
Obviously just knowing the signalment isn’t everything to reaching a diagnosis, but it does definitely give you a place to start. The difference between an experienced and an inexperienced veterinarian is that, the former is a lot more familiar with the type of diseases and illness a particular demographic of patients is predisposed to, whereas the latter is not. My advice is to read up on as many clinical cases as you can and don’t forget to look at the patient’s signalment.
Practical work is where connections are built:
Coming from my experience as a practice owner, I suggest that students do as much practical work as they can in the clinics and hospitals that they might want to work in. This could be part of the formal practical program, in the form of paid work (e.g. working in veterinary nursing) as well as voluntary work. When you are on practical placement, you build relationships with the team and get exposed to the team dynamics.
It will give you an insight that will help you decide if this is the practice you want to work at after graduation. It also gives that practice an opportunity to get to know you. If they like what they see, they are more likely to hire you over someone based on a resume that they have never met in person.
Nurses and reception teams are your lifeline:
I did not appreciate how much I would come to rely on them for support. For me the support is both clinical and emotional. Not long after graduation, I remember how I asked my head nurse at the time for advice on how to treat a hotspot as I have never treated one before. It was an extremely humbling experience, especially since it had never occurred to me until that point that I may need my nursing staff to offer clinical tips or perspective. Then again, I forget that a lot of the nurses have more experience than me, having assisted other vets for years before I even graduated.
Nurses are also there for you emotionally; they are the ones there with you when you treat your patients, so just like you, they share all of the patients’ wins and also the losses. You will not be able to find someone else who can empathise with you more. Sometimes, there are particularly difficult consults that you’ll have to do. You will be surprised how often you off load your stress to them, and it’s quite a relief to know that you have someone to talk to. I don’t think I could possibly explain to myself just starting out, how much I will come to rely on the support teams.
My year was the first year at University of Queensland to have any formal lectures and practicals on client communications, and I cannot tell you how underrated this crucial course is. In fact, I can argue that having good client communication skills is just as important as knowing the science behind veterinary medicine itself. You can know every veterinary textbook off by heart, back to front, and be the top graduating student of the class. However, if you are unable to build a rapport with your client and gain their trust within the first three minutes of the consultation, they may still decline every diagnostic investigation and treatment you recommend and seek treatment elsewhere.
Client complaints are every vet’s worse nightmare. And the number one reason for client complaint? Mis-communication. Therefore it is vital that everyone practices their communication skills. For most of us, this isn’t something that’s innate and second nature to us and that is perfectly fine. Knowing your weaknesses means that you can work on it. Communication skills are something that can be learned and enhanced over time. I encourage every student to go into as many consults with clinicians as you can, observe what the vets do well in and watch out for things that are not so well received. It doesn’t have to be just learning from the vets, you can learn a lot from observing the nurses’ and receptionists’ interactions with the clients as well. Practice on your peers, friends, family, lecturers, vets and nurses and get them to give you feedback.
“It is not the destination but the journey”:
This is a quote that I heard many times throughout university; maybe too many times from people who were serious socialites who knew how to live in and enjoy the moment, for me it just didn’t register. I often look back at my time in vet school and think that I could have socialised a little more and enjoyed the time I spent at university more with my friends. This is probably the last chance you have to spend every day with your friends. Once you graduate and start working, it is almost impossible to have all of your holidays aligned together. Even if you can, the time you get to spend with each other is always limited. If your friends move overseas or start a family, it could mean that you may only cross paths very infrequently. Don’t take this time in your life for granted. I was too focused on the destination and not enough on the journey at the time. Even though it has led me to where I am today, and I will be forever grateful, I wish I lived in the moment more. My advice is find a balance that is right for you; be very aware of where you are and who you’re with.
The main advice I would give to myself is, make the most out of every single day.