After reading a recent article depicting the abusive nature of veterinary internships in the United States, I felt compelled to come out of the shadows and tell the world about my horrible experience. I can still remember how excited I was when the VIRMP notified me I had matched. I was going to one of the premier practices to perform an internship for those seeking a residency. I had done an externship here so I thought I had a good idea of what I was getting into.
First Rotation - Emergency Overnights
My first rotation was emergency overnights. Excitement, nerves, and a whole bunch of butterflies all at once. But it wasn’t going to be that bad because I was overlapping with the outgoing intern for one week so I wasn’t going to be fully alone. I actually knew her from the class ahead in veterinary school; she was super smart so I knew we’d be fine.
Our duties were to take care of all the inpatients which usually ranged from 10-30, some of which were stable and others that were critical, as well as admit, stabilize, and treat anything that walks through the door. The shift started at 7pm and it would last till 7am. Immediately, we had a dog come in with several lacerations after being attacked by another dog. By the time we had the patient admitted and ready for heavy sedation to repair the wounds it was about 9:30pm.
We sedated the patient and I started working on repairing the wounds when 30 minutes later the senior intern I was with says I’m doing fantastic and she thinks I’ve got this. She also tells me she is going home and just call her if I get into trouble. I remember thinking “oh, crap”... that means I am “the doctor” if something goes down...I get into trouble. She only lives a few minutes away, so whats the big deal?
But, at that moment hiding my hesitation and fear of what could walk through the door or what might pass away during the night, I told her to have a wonderful night and I’d see her in the morning.
I made it through the night all by myself and by the time all doctors were updated on their patient’s status, my internmates rounded, and owners called, I was going home at about 11am. Had to hurry up and go to bed to be ready for my next shift. I would soon realize this was just the beginning, and my internship was going to be nonstop. My world was now this internship. During the year it was not unusual for us to work very long hours. I would have to arrive at 4:30am to start performing my SOAPs on the 20 plus inpatients I was responsible for even though I didn’t “have to” be there until 7am. Frustrated owners would yell at me about pets that were not improving. There were many, I mean many, 20-hour days. Some of my intern mates would occasionally break down crying. It was not unusual for us to feel like second-class citizens. It was not unusual for us to feel utterly exhausted. It was not unusual for us to feel taken advantage of. We had two interns that had to leave the program that year and it only made it harder on the remaining interns who had to fill in the holes despite already being stretched thin. It felt as though we were past our breaking point the entire year. Why would anybody in their right mind put themselves through this unregulated abuse? Maybe I made the wrong choices with my life.
Fast Forward 12 Months - Surgical Internship
Fast forward through 12 months of what us interns perceived at times as unrelenting torture and I moved on to start my surgical internship. Boy, was I happy to be done with my rotating internship. Interestingly, as I went through my surgical internship and later my residency, I occasionally compared myself to my colleagues and realized I had acquired skills from my rotating internship that went beyond veterinary medicine.
I was more disciplined, organized, quick on my feet, and I didn’t lose my cool, no matter the situation. Long days were not really long days anymore. My work ethic was bananas. I was able to multitask and no emergency situation phased me because I had been taught to always think and reason through the problem at hand. People would wonder why I had so much energy and I would think to myself… “This is nothing compared to my internship.”
On the veterinary side I also began to understand that I had probably acquired no less than about 5 years of experience thanks to the massive caseload and workload during my internship. I was answering questions for veterinarians that had been in practice for years, but it didn’t stop there, because I was making diagnoses that they had not been able to make. My technical skills were also beyond those of many of my colleagues. I was comfortable performing neurology exams, orthopedic exams, basic ultrasounds, endoscopy, surgery and managing specialty level cases, to name a few.
My feelings of being overworked and taken advantage of faded as the life tools that were passed along became all that stood out. Now I remember pearls of wisdom as one of the specialists instructed me how to find organs with the ultrasound probe or when I would listen to another specialist on the phone talking to a client at midnight about their pet’s disease process.
I remember how close I became with my intern-mates and how I am so thankful I had them in my intern class. I could have never had done it without them. Over a decade later, I know I can count on any one of them for anything. I remember how I was fortunate to be surrounded by technicians who were amazing and much smarter than me. They made me so much better and to this day I am humbled by their dedication to the patients.
Four Years Later - The Surgeon
Four years after my rotating internship, I returned to the same hospital as a surgeon, confused because they wanted me back and double confused that I really wanted to go back there. Having always had a passion for teaching I was very keen on making sure the interns had a great internship experience. This didn’t mean leaving at 5pm and going to the beach and having a “good quality of life”. This meant trying to provide an intense training experience because as tough as it was and as much as it stripped me down to the core, it built me back up to be stronger in the veterinary field and in life.
My Internship Sucked.... and was Perfect
I’m not saying all internships are perfect. I agree that there are, unfortunately, internships out there looking for cheap labor without providing outstanding mentorship, training, and experience. That needs to stop immediately. The facilities that host interns for the wrong reasons should be utterly ashamed of themselves. What I’ve learned is that there is no easy path to becoming a great doctor in one year and it’s not going to happen putting in a “regular” day’s work.
You need to roll up your sleeves, suck it up, and get dirty. I was looking for 5 years of experience in one year of internship. I was fortunate enough to get that and more. My intern year was a huge sacrifice of pay, time, and effort so that I could hopefully one day become a doctor that made a real difference. I knew going into it that my internship was not for the faint of heart, but it was worth the sacrifice and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Today, those doctors who were the source of my 12 months of agony are a key reason for my success. Their tough love was absolutely instrumental to my success. I can’t say enough how grateful I am for the experience, the mentorship, the memories, and the agony they must have endured in trying to mold me into a good veterinarian.
I continue to look up to all of them and I’m proud and humble to have been given the opportunity to be part of this family. My internship experience might be described as “horrible” by someone who didn’t know what they were getting into or didn’t understand how to get everything out of it. It helped me realize I’m capable of so much more and if you give yourself the chance to perform a high caliber internship, you will realize that it’s not all about long hours, grunt work, and manipulation.
In closing, yes my internship year sucked… it was perfect. I hope yours ends up being the same and if you make it through with a positive attitude, you will do great.