After a particularly long shift (I lost track of time around hour 13, I think.) I stopped at the local grocery store on my way home. While standing in line with my few random items, the woman behind me asked what I did for a living. I kindly said, “I’m a veterinary nurse at an emergency hospital.” She then exclaimed, “Oh my! You look like you’ve had a long night of snuggling with puppies!” Looking down at myself, it occurred to me I was still in scrubs and covered in who knows what. My hair was a mess, I had multiple unknown stains/spots (blood, urine, feces, drool…the possibilities were endless!), and my jacket was one giant hairball. I smiled at the thought of snuggling with puppies all night, but unfortunately, that was far from the truth.
I have had an interest in veterinary medicine and animals since I was a young girl. I would come home with a slew of different animals–much to my mother’s chagrin. Wild rabbits, frogs, or baby birds I wanted to nurse back to health. She put her foot down when I came home with the lightening bugs in a mayonnaise jar and let them loose in the house. So I was forced to work on my Barbie’s mighty steed, which was often found with band aids on his legs, or my sister’s teddy bears that needed their “heart rates” checked. No matter what it was, I wanted to fix it. When I got to high school I thrived in science. I loved my A&P class working in the lab for hours after school dissecting things and making slides of different organs. I loved learning how and why things worked the way they did. All through college, I was able to work with a few different large animal veterinarians who only encouraged my love for animal science. But it was here I learned the veterinary medicine wasn’t always about fixing things. It was about being a problem solver, figuring out the puzzle and sometimes, just being a shoulder to cry on.
What I wanted to tell the woman behind me at the store that morning was that I wished my night had been filled with puppy breath and wagging tails. But in emergency medicine, it is often the worst case scenarios we see day in and day out. On that particular night I had triaged a dog that had suddenly collapsed at his home. After running diagnostics, the vet on staff had to explain to the owner that his dog had a pneumothorax, which is when air accumulates between the chest wall and the lungs, making it impossible for his dog to breathe. Without emergency surgery, the dog would not survive. The owner chose to euthanize–to humanly end his poor dogs suffering. I held the dogs paw until the very end, petting him and telling him how much he was loved. I didn’t know the man or his dog, but I knew their pain.
As a veterinary nurse it is something we all go through. We struggle with abuse cases, the parvo puppies, the hit by cars, and the old animals whose bodies just can’t go on. We are there to hold a client’s hand when they say goodbye to their furry family member of 10+ years, or help them find the finances to pay for surgery. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of days where we have happy puppies and purring kittens. Days where we laugh about a strange foreign body pulled from the intestines of a dog or cat (we’ve seen it all: women’s undergarments, jewelry, rocks, baby pacifiers, bouncy balls, pieces of shoes, holiday ornaments, even needles and batteries!). I have gone home many nights with the patients of the past day weighting on my mind. But would I change it for the world? Never, I know my calling in life is veterinary medicine. So when I walk into public after a long shift, with endless stains on my scrubs and messy hair and bags under my eyes, I smile. I smile because no matter how hard the shift was, I made a difference to somebody last night–even if it wasn’t full of wiggly puppies.
– K. L. Mitchell