This vet's experience with surgiphobia (fear of surgery is not just for pet owners)
I think most non-medical people assume that doctors are born with some kind of innate ability that allows them to complete their medical educations with skill sets polished to a fine sheen and ready to implement—like the mythical Athena popping fully formed from some hinged fixture on her father’s skull.
If we stick to mythological metaphors, recent grads resemble more the Medusa with lively snakes aplenty ready to recede once tamed into submission. One of our ugliest snakes usually emerges once our typically non-existent surgical skills need to be put into practice.
Did you know that the average vet student gets less than three scalpel-wielding hours of hands-on instruction in surgery? If my own personal experience is in any way exemplary, vet grads are woefully unprepared to cut up anything but an orange without direct supervision from an experienced veterinarian.
My first surgery? A botched spay. Of course, in vet school, a board-certified surgeon was immediately on hand to help fix the bloody error I had committed. Although a frequent occurrence for neophytes, the disaster left a deep impression. My confidence was shot for the rest of vet school (I never volunteered for another surgery) and, indeed, for my first three years in clinical practice.
The month I graduated vet school and received my Pennsylvania license, my inner Medusa was let loose within an emergency practice on the Pennsylvania-Delaware line. The board-certified critical care specialist who hired me had tremendous confidence in my potential (based solely on my class ranking, I’m afraid).
Her mentorship helped greatly but surgical cases didn’t always show up when she was conveniently available. Once, facing my first GDV (bloat) surgery, I even had to call up the same surgeon who saved my butt back in vet school. She drove 45 minutes at midnight to help me save the ten-year-old German shepherd before whose open abdomen she found me frozen and visibly shaking.
I had graduated with the expectation that I would be capable of Athena-like wisdom and strength, but the reality was sadly otherwise. While I could reason my way through even the most difficult non-surgical emergencies, my surgical skills sucked. I offered to volunteer my time at the local ASPCA to help boost my skills. They declined—I was too inexperienced for their fast-paced spay and neuter clinic.
When I moved to Miami two years later, I still suffered from the same lack of confidence. Another local rescue organization refused to let me spay and neuter their strays. They felt my recent grad status (even after two years!) would put their pets at risk. Another blow.
Perhaps I would never become a competent surgeon. This concern was enough for me to consider life in a non-clinical setting. With a fancy graduate degree in business under my belt, I launched a vet-themed Internet company at the height of the bubble. I sold out before it burst but any financial gains got sucked up into another company’s holdings. So much for my fancy business degree.
Finally, the direct supervision I received from an experienced vet tech (an unlicensed vet with a degree from Argentina) marked the turning point I needed. Under her patient tutelage my skills gradually improved and my quivering hands steadied. I repaid her by securing her a position in the non-clinical vet world (where a degree means more than a license). She still works there making better money than any vet tech ever could and probably more than I do today.
My final push past the barrier of low confidence came from an unlikely source. I took up knitting and sewing again—something I had done as a child but had never fully explored. The manual dexterity I gained gave me incredible confidence in the operating room. My speed and suture lines surpassed even that of many experienced vets I knew. I had crossed the line into the realm of the competent.
So many vets suffer from the same surgiphobia. I know many who won’t even lift a scalpel—ever. They work in large, multi-doctor practices where they can concentrate on the areas of medicine they do best. While it’s true that not every vet is cut out to be a surgeon, most will eventually get there if they work at it enough and get the right mentorship from the start.
Vet school is not hard—it’s just voluminous, and gets more so every year. With everything we have to squeeze into four years it’s not hard to understand why we can’t possibly become competent surgeons in that time. Internships and residencies make a huge difference but this path is not for everyone—it’s expensive and stressful and obtaining a position in these programs is very competitive.
While taming your inner Medusa is not a must, I personally think I’d feel incomplete as a vet without my surgical skills. Whenever young vets bemoan their substandard surgical skills in my presence I give them my own sob story. Just knowing others suffered the same humiliating process is usually enough to get them through those first lean years on the skinny side of the learning curve.