I’ll confess: I used to be one of those low-confidence surgeons who shivered at the thought of a spay. No, not just the big, fat “dreaded dog spays” I wrote about last month—even the teensiest of spays would find me quaking in the clogs I didn’t feel fit to fill. It’s a common enough malady among young vets, made worse by having eschewed pet practice-driven clinical work in vet school (I’d concentrated on business, agriculture, aquaculture and public health for reasons too complex to explain in this short post).

In surgery, my hands would shake. They wouldn’t do my bidding properly despite my degree of mental preparation and advancing agility in other aspects of practice. It was acutely embarrassing and undeniably stressful so that I often wondered if I’d ever get it right.

Gloriously supportive techs would soothe me by suggesting my fear was unfounded, that all young vets need a few years to gain proper self-assurance. Yet five years out of vet school, I was still floundering compared to others who’d graduated my year. Some who’d had less stellar vet school careers had even completed their surgical residencies by now. Was I just one of those book-smart losers unable to hack real-life medicine? Perhaps I should have followed my initial instincts and stuck with the road less taken—namely, a career less clinical.

A change in such thoughts came about after an unplanned stroll into a strange little shop in South Miami. “The Golden Hand” was a tiny store crammed to the rafters with antiques, early twentieth century costume jewelry and yarn…lots and lots of yarn. A mutual love of antique beads and off-beat fashion inspired its octogenarian owner to befriend me. Our unlikely friendship found me re-learning the knitting my grandmother had taught me years ago. She’d spend hours training my clumsy hands to “let the yarn talk and keep your head out of the way”—a zen-like approach that appealed to my creative sensibilities.

Within a couple of months, I’d gained proficiency through prodigious obsession. For some reason, I just couldn’t stop knitting. I’d knit everywhere—planes, cars, work and waiting rooms of all stripes. I’d make complex designs using no written patterns simply by following my teacher’s “let the yarn talk” mantra.

It was about this time I realized that everything in my life had become a little less stressful. Even surgery, the former bane of my existence, seemed a breeze relative to my previous flailings. I’d hardly noticed the change though, until one tech finally mentioned it—“Your hands move differently now,” she pointed out. “Really? I guess they do…”

It’s fair to say that knitting changed how I practice—unlikely as it sounds. It gave me more confidence in every aspect of medicine by plugging up huge holes in what’s considered a vet’s basic repertoire. But it’s worth wondering whether manual dexterity was ever the issue at all. How much of what needlework did for me was more about breaking down more universal individual impediments? And how much was about finding the right teacher when this student was finally willing to listen?