They Call Me Megan Thibodeau, DVM

I graduated. It happened. After 20 consecutive years of schooling, I donned a cap and gown for the very last time. If you’re wondering how life in the much vaunted (and feared and avoided) “real world” has been, just look at the date of my last post. Reality hadn’t fully set in until all the “oh em gee I can’t believe vet school is over” posts from the students a year behind my class flooded Facebook. I was almost a year out. Perhaps something more elegant or poignant should be said, but all I could think was “I need to change the heading of my defunct blog from Veterinary Student to Veterinarian.” Thus begins the next chapter of my life and of Chompd. I call it: Megan Thibodeau, DVM.

 

In my first months as a veterinarian, confidence was in even shorter supply than cash. Self-doubt swirled around my head like a buzzing swarm of flies on a roadside carcass. Unable to disperse the pestilent cloud, I surely was soon to resemble dead meat. Second-guessing myself became a luxury; usually the count was in the seventh or eighth-guessing before arriving at an uncertain plan of action for any given situation, no matter how trivial.

The flies escalated their infuriating hum to a roaring din when, during a difficult spay, a clamped artery suddenly tore in half. I stood still as death for a moment, processing the impending disaster as the dog’s abdomen quickly filled with blood gushing from the liberated vessel.

What do I do? How can I fix this? Where did that vessel go? I can’t find it, oh God, I can’t find it in all these intestines floating in a rapidly filling pool of blood. She’s going to die if I can’t fix it!

And there it was, the reality of the situation: No one else was there to help. No one was coming to my (or her) rescue. My patient would die unless I fixed her, unless I acted decisively and quickly – no waffling, no self-doubt, just swift and confident action. Emily, the assisting technician, interrupted my panicked babbling with a simple, calming assertion, “You got this.”

A minute later, a gory pile of blood-soaked gauze beside me and a clamp firmly secured to the rogue artery buried deep in the abdomen, I actually did have it. The flies would have neither me nor my patient today. Underneath the anxiety, the panic, the self-deprecating humor and only half pretended self-hatred, I proved that there was skill. There was grit and know-how and actual justification for the three very expensive letters after my name.

I still question my diagnoses, my treatment plans, and my sanity, but I have not since questioned my competence, my ability to alleviate suffering, and my value as a veterinarian.

The Dead Bunny Bad Day

Today will be okay, I tell myself just before nearly treading on a dead baby bunny with a hornet eating its eyeball. Surely this wasn’t an omen! (Hint: it was.) The power of positive thinking would make today wonderful. (Spoiler: it didn’t.)

First, I had to take a case with the Japanese intern who does to the English language what Picasso did to painting. While managing that, my young patient in ICU tried to die in a new and creative manner (in addition to several traditional ones). Even worse, the only thing more difficult than admitting there was nothing more that could be done for this sweet three-year-old in kidney failure (who now had fluid in her lungs and was struggling to breathe) was convincing her owner of this. Despite our best efforts on both fronts, her dog was dying and she continued to exist in a vortex of denial, hysteria, and misplaced hope in miracles.

Just as I packed up my things and prepared to roll the credits on this horror show of a day, her owner finally admitted that the time had come to drop the curtain on her poor pet’s life. I waited in the wings for two hours while she visited and said goodbye, her parents accompanying for moral support. Turns out it was more moral breakdown than support. Her well-intentioned but misinformed father enabled her delusion that her dog would live a long life frolicking in wildflower meadows if only we gave her one more day (as we had been doing for the past six days). So, after a full day of scenes just as depressing as a decomposing baby forest creatures, several hours of waiting around for a farewell that was long-overdue and yet cancelled on a desperate owner’s whim, and a package and a half of plain rice cakes, I was reasonably sure that each and every one of my few remaining feelings had been used up. Several months of clinics and six very stressful days of supporting a dog in kidney failure (as well as her hysterical owner) had me running on fumes; by 9 pm, I wished I had enough fuel left to accelerate to 60 mph and crash into a tree. As it was, I had just enough left in the tank to maintain my composure (if not sanity) and stumble home, if only I could take care of a few things before leaving.

Cue the death of my favorite resident of the ICU, a sweet, beautiful Collie who looked far too much like my own dog for comfort. Even then, I held it together (more of a generic brand tape hold than a superglue hold) as I finished some notes on a treatment sheet. My emotional well was still dry until, at hour fourteen of the day of the dead bunny omen, I saw the locks of fur that had been saved for the collie’s family.

I lost it.

I feigned an allergy attack, my eyes red and watering, as I hurried to the bathroom. Safely in the sanctuary of the stall, I let loose and cried, cried for the first time in months. Perhaps the well hadn’t been drained by the stress and pressure of clinics, but only dammed up in an unconscious attempt to preserve my sanity? It didn’t matter now, because the dam was breached and the river flowed freely from my puffy eyes.

What am I going to do? How do I keep going? I asked the blotchy face in the mirror. There was only one option to save me from drowning: take a breath, patch up the dam, and do it all again tomorrow.

By the next morning, some unfortunate municipal worker or brave neighbor had disposed of the rabbit carcass.

I survived Small Animal Medicine. My sanity, on the other hand …

My first small animal medicine rotation is almost done. Currently, I’m seated at the large oval table in the conference room that has become my own personal batcave for the past 13 days. Gathered around me are small groups discussing the relative possibility of lily toxicity in the cat in ER and the differentials for cluster seizures in a two-year-old dog. Both conversations would be thoroughly valuable information for me, but two straight weeks of eleven hour days with my mind constantly revving like the engine of a sports car with an overcompensating middle aged man behind the wheel have left me utterly spent. The fount of knowledge is still flowing, but my brain bucket is full. So instead, I sit here, waiting for my patient’s owner to arrive and take him home. Sitting and waiting feels good for a change. Grades haven’t been finalized yet, so I should at least present the illusion of being productive. Perhaps if I school my face into a studious and suitably serious expression (as is appropriate when reading scientific literature or writing out problem lists for patients and doing Important Things), perhaps no one will notice I’m actually composing flippant haikus (I may not be able to do simple math at this stage of mental exhaustion, but I can still count to five and seven) instead of the latest study on the effect of radioactive iodine therapy on glomerular filtration rate.

 

The theme of SAM A:
Lymphoma does what it wants,
Killing three-year-olds
 
“Who wants the old Lab?”
“Oh, I’ll take it!” cries Megan.
She loves the sad ones.
 
Sleep deprivation
I’m sorry, what did you say?
Cannot brain today
 
Cancer everywhere
Medicine, oncology
Same thing at this rate
 
I miss Candy Crush
And free time and sanity
Is this block done yet?
 
Cyto rounds, a bore
Want to sleep in this dark room
Motion sickness, barf
 
Nope nopity nope
No brain power left to think
Just call it a day
 
Food Fridays are great
Getting fatter by the bite
Exercise? No thanks
 
Is there life outside
This Soviet submarine?
Hah, not anymore
 
Laundry and dishes
Are those still even a thing?
No chores done on SAM
 
Diarrhea flows
Maybe it is IBD
Oh wait, it’s cancer

My rather ridiculous, yet entirely valid, excuse for being late

I straightened my aching back after heaving another shovelful of snow over my shoulder. My eyes met Sport’s, who kept watch at the top of the flight of steps, regal save for the dusting of powder on his nose. I’d like to think that, should I slip on the inch of ice coating the steep, uneven stone stairs, he would run to the neighbors’ and sound the alarm (“What’s that, boy? Timmy fell down the well?” Ruff! Ruff! “No, Megan’s unconscious and bleeding profusely at the bottom of the stairs!”). Previous experience shows that to be a delusion; the last time I had an icy mishap and ended up flat on my back, he stood over my face and drooled, wondering why we had stopped and when we were going to continue our walk.

I glanced at my watch. 7:30 am – still enough time to change my cold, wet socks and get to class. A sudden woof! disrupted the early morning hush. Woof! There it was again, deep and emphatic and … mischievous, even. I turned to see Sport, my 11-year old, arthritic, crotchety, sullen Sport, play bowing and leaping into the deep snow, joyously inviting me to follow suit. My laughter joined his exuberant barking as I chased him through the yard, ruffled his fur, and playfully pushed him away when I caught him. He zoomed (well, zoom is a relative term for a man of his age and distinction) back and forth on the narrow cleared path, bowing and barking and jumping at me like a puppy.

“I have to leave! You’re going to make me late,” I managed between giggles as he nibbled the edge of my jacket (the ultimate sign of excitement for him). To which he replied, “Woof!” and launched into a snow bank with reckless abandon.

I considered whether to fetch my errant canine and corral him into the house so I could leave for school or to throw responsibility to the biting winter wind and romp in the snow with my best friend; the debate was short-lived. Should I be late to class? No, but would I regret it? Next year, next month, even tomorrow, would I regret not having savored this moment, this rare spark of youthful exuberance and joy? Most certainly.  I may have paid a small fortune for the information in class, but I can’t put a price on that perfect, if ever so brief, moment of uninhibited joy we shared that morning as we laughed, barked, chased, and embraced in the pristine white drifts of snow.

White was the Color of my True Love’s Hair

Lounging in the grass, errant twigs poking into my back through the blanket I had laid out, I gazed into the tangle of branches overhead. Spotty sunlight filtered through the leaves, peppering the ground with bright freckles. Plump purple berries dislodged by the breeze littered the grass, awaiting hungry critters to carry off their seeds and sow new life in distant corners of the neighborhood. Sport stood out stark white and regal against the green and brown. He quickly cast off this dignified aura by unceremoniously flopping and rolling about, grinding himself jubilantly into the fruit-covered earth, wriggling on his old, arthritic back like a dog of many fewer years. His sudden playful display brought a smile as I drank in the spectacle, lovingly storing it away for future enjoyment in less happy times when he would no longer be at my side. He righted himself, shaking off the leaves lodged in the voluminous fur of his hindquarters, and I choked on my amused laughter. Purple. My dog was purple. I gaped at the sight, his coat that moments ago gleamed pristine as fresh snow, now stained with a vibrant amethyst hue. My eyes narrowed into slits as I glared at my Crayola canine, who clearly knew just what he had done, his eyes displaying his smug satisfaction at having undone all the labors of yesterday’s bath.

A Girl and her Dogs

After nine months of forcibly implanting so much knowledge into my brain that my body began to physically reject additional information, I returned home to New Hampshire to recuperate. Thinking I could not possibly have any more to learn within the scope of the earthly sphere, a metaphorical “no vacancy” sign was stamped on my forehead.

Back home, the shelties swarmed around me like a pack of hungry wolves cornering a baby moose (thankfully, they wanted cuddles rather than blood. On second thought, I’m not so sure about Toby; he’s a devious little scoundrel). Lounging on the sofa, attempting to relax, my efforts proved futile. Instead of escaping the constant squawking of lecturers bombarding my ears, I simply traded those droning voices for the ceaseless din of five barking dogs. However, I stopped trying to tune them out (unlike during class time) because I realized they had far more important things to teach me than the serum biochemical pattern of a diabetic cat or how to pass a crop tube in a chicken. To pay homage to a poster hanging in middle school classrooms around the country, everything I need to know I learned from my dogs.

From Jason: Out of brains, brawn, and beauty, two out of three isn’t all that bad.

Jason

From Tuukka: Whenever anyone says, “What’s one more?”, the answer is this: one more is fifteen solid minutes of wailing and gnashing of puppy teeth interspersed with plaintive barking and whining, magically appearing puddles with tiny wet paw prints leading away from them, late nights and early mornings spent on potty watch in the yard wearing your pajamas, arbitrating disputes between baby and big brothers and sisters, spending more money puppy-proofing your house than you spent building it, and countless scars on your toes from surprisingly powerful jaws armed with needle-sharp weapons. One more is also giggling at puppy antics, rubbing a warm, pink belly, having a warm neck from a little body perched across your shoulders, swelling with pride as a naive little baby learns to sit, and cradling a fuzzy little sleeping creature so freakin’ adorable you could just vomit rainbows.

Image

From Toby: Nice guys finish last because little guys bowl them over and steal their dried chicken feet (or, you know,money or whatever it is humans are after these days).

Toby

 

From Kaleigh: From puppyhood until I left home, we had a rocky relationship. I would say love-hate, but without the love. I came back two years later and reluctantly admitted that I kind of sort of maybe just a little liked her. Sometimes, you just need to give a girl time to grow up a little to really appreciate her (or tolerate her, as it may be).

966492_10151480866848791_1959234661_o

 

From Hannah: To pursue my dream of becoming a vet, I had to leave my baby girl and return to a dog no longer my own. I died a little inside when she refused to go on a walk with me, looking longingly back at my mom standing in the driveway, obviously wishing it was her on the other end of the leash instead of me. You can’t have it all, but sometimes the sacrifice is worth it. It hurts to have lost her, but I wouldn’t trade my career or education for anything.

Hannah

And, most importantly, from Sport: Disregarding creaky joints and aching bones, he recklessly raced around the backyard, bounding back and forth and barking for the sheer joy of it. Even if your outside belies your old age, you can still be young at heart.

Sport

A Chip on my Shoulder and a Bun in the Oven

My dear friends and family (and others for whom I hold slightly less affection), I regret to tell you that Reality and I are experiencing some relationship problems and are no longer on speaking terms. He threatened to leave me after finding evidence that I had been flirting with Insanity. I promised him it was over, but, one night after dinner, he accused me of continuing the affair. As he stormed out, he shouted, “If you honestly thought pickle juice would be a good marinade for fish, you have already effectively divorced Reality!”

Several weeks later, I was, at the risk of being indelicate, several weeks late. But who was the father? With no way of knowing, I decided to cover all the bases and name the child after both candidates. What title can one give to an entity that is either a painful reminder of what was once a beautiful relationship with Reality, now irreparably broken, or the life-altering result of a wild and passionate entanglement with Insanity? There is only one thing that embodies both those sentiments. In the midst of all this sadness, in several months I will have the joy of introducing the world to my child, little baby Vet School.

P.S. Gifts may be sent to my address in Saint Paul.

The Best-laid Plans

            “But why is it green?” is never a phrase you expect to blurt out upon peeking in the oven to check on the progress of your flatbread (a flatbread which, incidentally, did not contain any ingredients of the particularly alarming emerald shade of the finished product).

            My experimental baked goods may not turn out as planned, but at least my life has. It would be hard for it not to, seeing as I only had one plan: veterinary medicine (well, two if you count eloping with Kiefer Sutherland and starting a Sheltie farm in Scotland). Be it a defense mechanism against potential disappointment or just single-mindedness, I never make plans for the future. What if I set goals and have aspirations beyond my career? Tonight showed me what awaits the best-laid plans: catastrophic failure of a completely unanticipated and inexplicable nature.

            Had I planned on having being in love, God forbid even married, by the age of twenty-five, imagine my would-have-been dismay that, at twenty-three, I have yet to be in a single romantic relationship (and no, those two dates sophomore year of high school don’t count, nor does my passionate love affair with the two kilogram bag of French cocoa powder recently purchased on Amazon). Or if I had foreseen owning my own place? How disappointed I would be to find myself still paying far too much rent and not at liberty to adorn the front lawn with plaster squirrels and gnomes!

            Besides the all-consuming goal of getting into, and now surviving, vet school, I have not set a single goal in recent memory. Maybe I’m just so focused on my vocation that I lost sight of everything else. Perhaps I don’t want to put forth the effort to strive for new, exciting, challenging, and frightening things. It could be I just don’t want to have a dream to compare to reality when all is said and done. Had I expected a crisp, nicely browned flatbread for dinner tonight, how much more dismayed would I have been at the sight of the gummy, green, scrambled-egg like sheet that emerged from the oven? Is it better to have no expectations and no results that come up short (no risk, no letdown, but also no reward) or to dream big, try hard, and risk ending up with a disappointing reality? Of course, you could succeed … but that’s about as likely as a spontaneously green loaf of bread.

 

Update: Rummaging in the kitchen for a glass of water before bed, my eyes alit on the leftovers (aftermath?) of tonight’s ill-fated dinner. Teal. It is now electric teal. Dear God, what have I brought into this world?

Fifty Shades of Beige

            Despite the fascinating nature of my life as detailed in this chronicle (the italics denote sarcasm, by the way), it may be surprising to you to learn that my life is, in fact, replete with thoroughly boring and uneventful happenings (at least to me. I have been informed that vet students have different standards for “usual” though). Years from now, all this will be published as my autobiography: Fifty Shades of Beige (alternatively, A Series of Unremarkable Events). In an effort to inject some drama, I present to you the following vignette, a snippet of my life in the style of a short horror film.

 

            “Could you grab a laundry basket from my room?” my mother asks from the living room.

            “Go up there … alone?”

            With trepidation, I climb the stairs, startling as the seventh one creaks under my foot. My hand hesitates above the doorknob to the bedroom. There’s nothing in there, of course. Right? As I reach for the knob, the door drifts open of its own accord with a drawn out squeak. Drafty windows, I guess. Padding into the room, I survey the surroundings in search of the requested basket. Despite the neat piles of miscellanea piled in corners, the room has an empty feel to it, an almost palpable hush hanging in the air. With a wary glance over my shoulder, I grab the first basket I see and start to hurry out of the eerie room, when suddenly my eyes alight on a particular object on the nightstand. Morbid curiosity piqued, I reach out to examine it. As I recognize the mystery object as a book, I withdraw my hand as if burned.

            “No …” The hoarse whisper grows into a shout. “No!”

            Raking my eyes with my fingernails, I flee from the scene, horrified. That night I rocked myself to sleep, trying to forget what I had seen: proof that my mother (my mother) is reading Fifty Shades of Gray.

            Days later and miles away at my grandmother’s house, I feel a premonitory tingle as the hair on the back of my neck stands at attention. The evil presence from the house has followed me! Whipping my head side to side, I see nothing. No spooks or ghosts lurking in corners. Wait, someone is coming! Two sets of footsteps approach, and my stomach knots in fear. My mother and grandmother step into the light of the kitchen, and I let out a relieved sigh. Until …

            “I just finished the second one, now I need to get the third,” my mother says, no doubt referencing the aforementioned evil tome. Only one thing could possibly be more horrifying than such a thing in my mother’s possession.

            My grandmother replies, “I have that one on the shelf over there.”

            “Oh God, why?!” I cry as I fall to my knees, eyes cast upward and arms outstretched to the heavens. “Whyyyyyyy?” Gray may have fifty shades, but my horror at the thought of that book (I use that term loosely, as I consider it the literary equivalent of a stillborn mongoose with a particularly gruesome birth defect) in the hands of my sweet, lovely grandmother has a million hues.

Cough Syrup

Meticulously putting the final touches on the one hundredth bubble of the one millionth scantron sheet of the semester, I carefully planned my obligatory “end of semester, woo we made it!” facebook status update. A perfect snippet of a song began to ring in my ears: “one more spoon of cough syrup down.” The verse echoed in my head, now empty after having dumped all previous contents out and classifying them as A, B, C, or D. Such is the dual nature of vet school: one invests countless hours learning detailed, complex information (some of which may actually have relevance to the world outside our cave of a lecture hall), appreciating the scope and implications of this new knowledge, anticipating how it will serve a purpose in practice, and then, finally, all those intricate details and rich concepts are chucked into a trash compacter, compressed into a tiny cube, and unceremoniously tossed out like refuse, leaving only the residue of a number 2 pencil in one hundred circular bubbles (which, I note onerously, are normally oblong. Every ten exams or so, they switch to round ones just to irritate me and disrupt my focus).

After putting to paper, “That got me thinking about the dual nature of vet school,” I promptly rethought my life choices. No, not veterinary medicine! Publishing that sentence! I realized that my narrative voice had unwittingly morphed into Carrie Bradshaw and that this was rapidly devolving into the graduate school version of Sex and the City (though the vet school version is closer to “Only One Sex in this City, and it’s Female”). In fact, that embarrassingly trite, voiceover-style transition is the only life choice that does not hold up upon examination. For most of the semester, the better part of our class has been mired in a cloud of “only x number of lectures/exams/semesters until the end of today/this semester/vet school.” I wholeheartedly participated in this, which is why another chunk of my training biting the dust as I dropped my exam sheet onto the pile at the front of the room (looking back only to shoot the professor a dirty look for being cruel enough to think that my brain could differentiate ascaris and toxascaris by the final day of the year) prompted the sentiment of “one more spoon of cough syrup down.” Because vet school is like pulling teeth (which, incidentally, is actually about as much fun to do as to have done), a total chore, a necessary hurdle between you and your “real” life as a veterinarian. Right? Then, for the first time in too long, I stopped and thought. Why didn’t I feel relief? Why weren’t my shoulders lighter after having some of the load taken off? Why had my enthusiasm for my perfectly apt facebook status suddenly waned?

My mouth must have hung open as the cogs turned and the gears gradually clicked into place. My palm met my forehead with a comical slap. What an idiot I’ve been! An ungrateful, whining, unappreciative dipshit. Two years ago, what would I have given to be standing right there, in the atrium of the College of Veterinary Medicine, having just completed the first half of my second year? Anything. And now? Now I can hardly be bothered to go to lecture, can’t get through a full day without some complaint (or two or three … or seventeen). Why didn’t I just stop, reflect, and remember: I love this. I love everything about this – the learning, the challenge, the camaraderie, the stress, the boredom, the clay sculptures of strangulating pedunculated lipomas and necrotic intestines! Risking another horribly trite sentence, I could not see the forest for the trees. So enmeshed in the drudgery of the everyday routine and caught up in the surrounding current of negativity, I forgot that this was not a trial, but an incredible privilege. So there you have it, the dual nature of veterinary school. From the inside, at least after three semesters, you want out, frantically clawing at the almost tangible prison bars of the lecture hall like a pissed off cat at the door of a carrier. From the outside, when you stop long enough to step away from your pig-headed self, you can remember why you wanted in in the first place, into this grand adventure, singular opportunity, and particular honor, one marked not by trophies or medals, but by cat scratches, vomit stains, dog hair, and hundreds of tiny, penciled-in circles.

So, one more spoon of cough syrup down? Not unless it’s Nyquil, in which case, that sounds about right for vet school: it may knock you flat on your ass, but at least you’ll be happy as you hit the ground.

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