Year One

The Long (and winding) Road to Vet School

For most students going to vet school I’m sure the journey was very straight forward – you excelled in your GCSEs then you got an A* in all your A Levels and hay presto before you knew it you were getting caked in eggs and flour at Fresher’s Week! Well let’s just say I took the scenic route!

“I want to be a vet”. Children say it to their parents all the time but most parents simply brush it aside along with their offspring’s dream to be a ballerina or an astronaut. However, I really meant it. You may well be asking why it’s taken me until I am thirty one to get here? Well I shall explain.

Like most animal lovers I’ve read all the James Herriot books and never missed an episode of All Creatures Great and Small. I’m sure my list of heroes reads exactly the same as many other budding vets.

When I was at school I could never understand my classmates who didn’t know what they wanted to do when they left school. I was lucky; I had always known what I wanted to do. My friends knew it, my family knew it, I was sure of it – I was going to work with animals. Thinking about it I actually think they were the lucky ones. If you don’t have a specific ambition then you can’t get upset when you get knocked back. Take it from me; it’s a lot harder to know where you want to go but can’t get there!

When I told my school career advisor that I wanted to be a vet he simply said “You’re not clever enough to be a vet, be a vet nurse instead” (apologies on his behalf to all vet nurses!). He gave me a feeling I wasn’t good enough that has stayed with me, mostly buried, to this day. Frustratingly, my twin brother was always academically better than me, especially at my nemesis – maths! I constantly asked him to explain my homework but he would simply do it all for me then walk away with me shouting that was no good, I had to understand how he had done it. He was always the one who was expected to go to University.

I left school with one B, three Cs and it seems one of each letter of the alphabet after that. After school I did a string of mundane jobs spending my spare time helping at local kennels and livery stables and then a friend suggested getting a qualification to improve my prospects.

Three years after leaving school I started studying a National Diploma in Animal Care and at the end of my first year I was astounded to be given the College Award for the student who achieved the highest standard in the first year of the course.

Toward the end of the two year course my lecturer handed me a UCAS application form. “What do I want this for?” I asked. “You’re going to university aren’t you?” “Err,no, Judy and university don’t go in the same sentence!” “Well apply anyway and see what happens”

I got offered a place on the BSc Zoology course at Surrey University. I loved every minute of it. After graduating I did an MSc related to conservation. I had now surely proved to myself that I was capable of being a vet, but the words of my careers advisor still rang in my ears and anyway I couldn’t afford the fees. So, after realising that kneeling in a heath land counting invertebrates wasn’t for me, I started my own pet services business.

About four years ago I got a new client who was a vet, we became good friends and hearing about her work reignited a flame I thought had been extinguished a long time ago – I still wanted to be a vet. I called the Royal Veterinary College in London and chatted with the admissions tutor about fees and so on. He said I didn’t exactly meet their criteria and I had missed the deadline for that year but I was welcome to apply next year. That was it; I went into overdrive to get more work experience. I spent time at an equine practice, a mixed practice, helped at a local farm with milking and calving and spent the whole Easter lambing whilst evenings and weekends were spent at my local small animal practice.

I submitted my application in October 2006 and prayed. It seemed to take forever but finally just before Christmas I received an envelope in the post with the RVC stamp on it. I opened it very gingerly as if it were about to detonate. Dear blah blah, sorry but you have not been successful blah blah blah. I was shattered. I was now even more determined and re-applied the following year.

It seemed to take even longer to get a reply this time, Christmas came and went and still no news. Eventually on February 14th I got a large envelope in the post, I didn’t hold out much hope having been rejected once. The letter was inviting me for an interview at the RVC! This was so much better than any St Valentine Day card!

I did nothing but worry about my interview for the intervening days and on the morning I decided that I would simply be myself and answer any questions exactly as I would if I were being asked them by a friend. If they didn’t like my answers then they didn’t like me, rejection would be hard but at least I would have been honest to them and myself. I actually thoroughly enjoyed it ~ I’m sure many applicants don’t!

After four weeks I seriously thought they had forgotten about me but on 1st April I had an email letting me know that I had been offered an unconditional place starting September 2008. Being the pessimist I am I had to confirm it on the UCAS website before I told anybody. It was true. I was going to vet school. I barely stopped crying or smiling for a week. After years I am finally about to make my dream come true and start at vet school. If I get there I am definitely inviting my career advisor to my graduation!

I am undeniably worried; selling a business and becoming a full-time student for five years is a serious undertaking. Am I mad? I don’t care; this is my dream and I will give it my heart and soul. The other day I caught myself punching the air and screaming I’m going to vet school! I was sat at traffic lights with the window open!

I can’t put into words just how much I am looking forward to September. I hope to make some great friends and have some amazing experiences. But mostly I am simply looking forward to all the things I am going to learn. I don’t know how far enthusiasm gets you, I guess I’ll find out, watch this space……..

One Term Down 14 to Go!

“Oh my God I’m going to be sick!” It was 8.00 am, I was on the train and the stark reality of what was happening had hit home. I knew I had to get off at the next station and I thought my lungs would pop and my heart would burst through my chest, the feelings were almost too much to bear. This is what happens to me when I am nervous or worried about something and boy did I have cause to feel both of these emotions today.

I walked the short distance from King’s Cross station giving myself a pep talk, “It will be fine” I told myself “You’re a nice person and they’ll all be really nice people” My emotions swung from fear and trepidation one moment to excitement and pride the next. It was like the first day of school all over again except this time I was too old to hold my mum’s hand! As I turned to climb the steps into the building I saw a large metal plaque on the wall, it read:

“The Royal Veterinary College, Hobday Building”

I nearly cried, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that little old me would be entering this building as a first year Veterinary Medicine student. Bursting with pride I walked through the doors and entered my new life.

We were to gather in the canteen for coffee at 9am and Induction would commence at 10am. I stepped into the canteen to be greeted by an almost audible whoosh as heads turned to look in my direction, my worst nightmare. I did what I always do when I’m nervous ~ talk. I smiled and simply said a cheery “Morning” I didn’t know what else to say! I’d expected there to be many more people there, all eager to get started on the long road to their vocation but there were only about 20 people dotted around, all keeping a very respectful ‘British’ distance from one another. The room slowly started to fill up and it turned out that most of the people, who’d arrived as early as I, were actually the mature students. The younger students came in in dribs and drabs. Many of them spotted familiar faces from the previous evening’s Freshers event and naturally gravitated toward them. Induction was a whirlwind of queues and form filling, not forgetting the painful payment of tuition fees too!

Outside of timetabled events I spent the rest of the week drifting around trying to orientate myself with the building layout, timetables and wondering if I would ever get my head around all of the information that we had been flooded with. Boy it’s a lot harder when your 31 year old brain is on its way to mush!

I think I expected all the people in the world who want to be vets to have come from a little mould somewhere which makes us all the same – it turns out they don’t! There is a huge variation in the type of people on this course: mostly teenagers, some conscientious students, some seemingly not. Some foreign students, and of course us oldies of which I’m thankfully not the eldest!

This first term has been packed with things to do – email him, call that farmer about Animal Husbandry Work Experience, double check this, that or the other! In terms of teaching it has been pitched as a revision/introduction term. Each week a different area has been introduced, interspersed with some Scientific Principles lectures. Skeleton, muscles, embryology, cardiovascular – you get the gist. We also had dissections almost immediately – the second week. I was surprisingly trepidatious at what to expect in my first dissection but needn’t have worried, as I walked into the room I slipped seamlessly into ‘work mode’. I have to say I have thoroughly enjoyed each topic and think it will set us in good stead for exploring them in greater depth in subsequent terms.

Thankfully it didn’t take too long for me to find a group of like-minded individuals. To whom I must give my thanks because this, very different new life, would undoubtedly have been much harder without ‘clicking’ with such nice, friendly people so soon. The RVC has been very good at communicating their concern for students’ welfare and it is comforting to know there is such support if necessary. Some people may think it’s quite ‘sad’ to say but I am thoroughly enjoying being exposed to and immersed in all things veterinary. There are talks to attend and ground-breaking research happening in the same buildings as my lectures and I am so thankful and happy to finally be with my kind of people!

Last Friday I did the Qualifying Exam which must be passed in order to prove you have understood the subjects so far and which will allow you to move onto the next stage of the course. I will finish by saying that I love being at vet school and am so glad that I have done a scientific degree previously and have some experience under my belt and a mature attitude toward this very demanding and vocational subject. Until next term….

Is It Easter Already?

I can’t believe the term has finished already! Ok, so we did break up a tad earlier than other universities but this is because we all went off to do 6 weeks of farm placements over Easter. Students have to complete 12 weeks of Animal Husbandry Extra Mural Studies (AHEMS) within the first 2 years of the course. There are certain species which are compulsory for us to work with – 2 weeks each of horses, pigs, lambing and dairy farming. The other 4 weeks can be at any placement of our choice. I spent a week mucking out, sorry working with horses at a lovely local stable just before Christmas. We had to write an essay over the Christmas break too. My randomly assigned essay topic was the liver. I really enjoyed writing the essay and learnt so much from my research, and I got an unbelievable 90% for all my hard work!

Most of us have done our compulsory lambing placements this Easter. I enjoy lambing as I really love the hands-on aspect of working with animals. I did my dairy placement before starting my lambing. Whilst I was at the dairy farm I finally got to do something I have wanted to do ever since I first saw James Herriot do it on TV 20 years ago – I actually did a rectal exam on a cow! In laymen’s terms that’s sticking my arm up a cow’s bum! You may think I’m strange but who’s weirder – someone who wants to be a vet wanting to do this or all the people I meet asking if I’ve done it yet – what are they thinking?! I enjoyed every minute of the placements – although this wasn’t what I was thinking every evening whilst my feet were throbbing in a bowl of hot water and my arms were weaker than my granny’s bladder! Chris, the herdsman at the dairy farm, kept calling me ‘vetinry’ all week (a reference to All Creatures Great and Small). Chris was brilliant and I learnt so much from him but best of all were his sayings “That’s never happened before” (usually just after I’d broken something), “Now then, now then” and “Let’s crack on” being just some of my favourites. He calls the cows ‘bugalugs’ (I started calling the cows ‘the girls’ or ‘ladies’) and he knows all of them and their histories intimately (in a completely innocent way you understand!). Chris kindly arranged 2 vet visits whilst I was on the farm.Me-and-Helier-1

Considering that I had been running my own business for the 6 years prior to last September it was amazing how quickly I settled into the routine of going to college everyday. I found that reading a good book on the train enabled me to survive the horrendous London commute – why didn’t anyone tell me to read To Kill a Mockingbird years ago?!? I simply bury my head in my book and don’t look up again until it’s time to get off. Before you all start screaming at your computers – I did try to read my college books on the train but there is a reason why tinned sardines don’t read – there simply isn’t room for large textbooks on a packed commuter train (plus fish can’t read of course).

But back to last term. The learning started in earnest last term; we really hit the ground running. Although lectures are only 45 minutes long they cram an unbelievable amount into this short period and there is a lot of additional reading necessary to understand the finer details of the information given in lectures – the actual problem is knowing where to stop reading! Areas covered last term included proteins, genetics, welfare and behaviour but the main focus of last term was alimentary – from teeth to bottom and everything in-between. If you were on a human medicine course this would probably take half the time to learn as you only have to worry about a single body plan – humans. When you’re studying veterinary medicine it’s slightly different because just as you thought you had mastered the cow and its elaborate gastrointestinal tract we moved onto the horse, then the dog, oh and not forgetting pigs, with just a little on elephants thrown in for good measure! Each species has a slight variation on the theme from the last. Learning alimentary took a multi-pronged, very comprehensive approach. We had to learn the organs involved in feeding and digestion, their development, structure, anatomic positions, relationships with other organs, functions, neural innervations, blood supplies and secretions (including their hormonal controls). Of course you can’t do alimentary without a little nutrition and metabolism so we also had to learn buckets of biochemistry too and EXACTLY how fats, carbohydrates and protein etc are all metabolised!

The lectures were complimented with dissections of a foregut fermenter (a sheep) and a hindgut fermenter (a pony) and a monogastric (a dog). It wasn’t until I saw the structures in situ that the anatomy of it all fell into place and made sense. I thoroughly enjoyed the practical classes as we got ‘hands-on’ and were really able to appreciate in 3D what we were seeing in lectures and books. It is just amazing that all the different systems have evolved and how they are arranged in each species – absolutely fascinating! The college also has some animals which live at college enabling us to practise clinical skills, handling and of course to trace anatomy on the live animal. We have 2 ponies, 2 Jersey cows and 2 dogs, whose time we can book and spend as many sessions with as we wish (just a tip for future students – if you want to book a pony try to get Pippin as Troy can get a little bored of pesky students!).

Because we were all off to AHEMS placements over Easter we also had some preparatory lectures on animal husbandry which included housing, handling, nutrition, assisting with birthing problems, care of newborns etc. On the last day of term we had mock oral ISF (Integrated Structure and Function) and practical skills exams – I can’t tell you how nervous we all were, you’d have thought they were real exams. We all passed too!

Another important thing I learnt last term was that veterinary medicine books are the most expensive books on the planet! I have only bought 5 books but these have cost over £200! To cap it all I have just heard from a 3rd year student that they are being advised to buy 2 books on surgery which cost £150 EACH! (All donations greatly received).

As much as I enjoyed last term I have to say that one of the highlights was going to watch a post mortem of a crocodile! Yes you read that correctly a crocodile. It was being done as part of a TV show being filmed at the RVC – I can’t tell you anymore as its not been released yet – and I’d have to kill you (but suffice to say that if you like crocs, elephants, lions, tigers and giraffes – keep an eye on the TV schedules)!

Oh and in case anyone is wondering I PASSED the Qualifying Exam last Christmas – yippee!


So it seems this whole term has been about the dreaded end of year finals. However, it is merely my mind playing games because we actually spent the whole term on our first visit to neurology – and boy what a visit it was! Obviously the brain is the control centre for all things neurological so is inherently amazing but the rest of the nervous system is somewhat underestimated! Just one example is have you ever sat and thought about just how every single inch of your skin is capable of sensing touch, heat, pain etc? And how that all gets analysed and acted upon – and all in a fraction of a second!

Just like human medicine, veterinary medicine is a subject which requires not only your knowledge to be tested but also your reasoning, practical skills with animals and your ability to discuss a subject in a coherent manner. This therefore calls on a host of exam techniques to be employed. To this end the exams consisted of a one hour multiple choice exam, a 2 hour problem solving exam, a 3 hour essay exam, 4 different practical tasks involving animals, 4 ISF vivas and a SPOT test. Let me explain these last two. The SPOT test is a 1 hour exam where you have 30 ‘stations’. You have 2 minutes at each station where you are asked 3 questions about either a picture of something or a specimen for example a stomach. ISF vivas are Integrated Structure and Function oral exams. This is where your name is called by 2 examiners and they take you off for a ‘relaxed discussion’ about something, for example one of my ‘discussions’ was about synovial joints. The ISF vivas are dreaded by every student and people have come out crying in previous years! As I stood outside the room waiting with the other 11 students in my ‘batch’ I thought one girl was actually going to faint, she looked terrified!

I spent the first 2 weeks of July doing my pig placement. Talking of pigs I would like to take this opportunity to perhaps abuse my position here and beg you all to eat only truly free range pork. Many pork products that are labelled as free range may not be entirely accurate. A large percentage of these pigs would have been born and reared outdoors for the majority of their lives but are bought indoors to be fattened up for the last few weeks of their lives, which obviously if you are buying a product because it is free range somewhat defeats the object! So please do take a moment to ask about the production method.

Because this isn’t a neurology lecture I won’t tell you all the (amazing) finer details of how your brain is enabling you to read this and how millions of nerve cells are making your hand and finger muscles move the mouse, instead I shall ask you to indulge me whilst I tell you my summation of my first year at vet school.

I have enjoyed this last year almost more than I can say. I have enjoyed every single subject we have covered so far – even the ones I have found very difficult to understand! I have done 2 previous degrees and a college course but I have truly found my place here on the veterinary medicine course – it is as if every fibre of my body needs to be a vet. I know this sounds really sad and desperate but until you have a dream and can finally start on the path to that dream you may not understand just what that feels like.

The material and information that we are privy to is amazing. At the beginning of the year we would overhear lecturers talking in the corridors about things that were almost like another language to us. We get taught about so many subjects in such detail that it is sometimes overwhelming to try and analyse it and make sense of it all – especially when they’re telling you how to AI (Artificially Inseminate) a pig and you are in a class room looking at 2D pictures! But now that we have been on the farm placements and talked to very experienced farmers and actually done the AI it all becomes so much clearer.

It is like we have been given a language that only vets and farmers understand. We can discuss things that no average person would ever know how to or probably want to discuss. We can look at an animal and see things Joe Blogs cannot see. It is as though dozens more colours have been added to our visual spectrum. I am not saying any of this to belittle Joe Blogs or to put up barriers or endorse exclusivity I am simply trying to explain just how privileged we all are to be training to become veterinary surgeons.

We have been given 2 inch-thick booklets of notes to read over the summer ready for the start of the 2nd year – they are on parasitology – bring on the bugs! I am confident that each year gets harder but I’m equally confident that they also get more interesting.

Oh I guess I should mention that I PASSED all my exams! Yippee! I had actually planned my whole summer for re-sits in September but I am going to get a holiday as I’m off to stay with a friend in the Lake District for a week – and she’s roped me into helping at her puppy training classes, looks like it’ll be a busman’s holiday then! Have a great summer and I’ll see you in the 2nd year.