In my youth, I pictured myself with a rosy glow about me, white coat and stethoscope around my neck dispensing life-saving surgeries and medications to my docile animal patients. It’s interesting that James Herriot (or in real life, James Wight, veterinarian and bestselling author) also clung to a similar idealized vision of his profession.
James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and small painted a charmingly antiquated picture of veterinary medicine for me and the rest of the world. As a scrappy veterinary graduate of 19, James Herriot introduced us to mixed practice in a 1930’s rural countryside. As a twelve year-old animal lover and keen reader, I was captivated. I thirstily consumed every book he ever wrote. I couldn’t get enough of the quirky characters that peopled his stories, his animal patients and their miraculous recoveries, and the heartwarming relationships he described between owners and their pets.
As a child, I had the niggling itch that becoming a veterinarian was my calling, however as a teenager, James Herriot solidified my resolve. The residual warmth that all of his books left with me helped fuel my good grades and courage to apply to vet school—that expensive and elusive higher level of education that everyone told me was almost impossible to penetrate.
Elated, I was accepted into this exclusive club. It was only then that I began to realize some of the cracks in my pristine vision of veterinary medicine based on the world of James Herriot. James Herriot highlights his own misconceptions of his future career in his introduction to James Herriot’s Dog Stories. At the age of 16, he begins vet school in Glasgow, where vet schools are actively seeking out vet students due to the 1930’s depression threatening to make the veterinary profession obsolete. The main focus of his course work is equine medicine, large animal husbandry, with only a few afterthought pages on canine care—let alone a mention of the cat species. There is only one girl in his class, antibiotics and steroids haven’t been invented yet, and all of his professors are significantly aged, deaf, and short sighted.
Imagine my shock when I found myself almost a century later in vet school learning about the workings of CT and MRI machines, bacterial resistance to antibiotics, and the numerous chemotherapy protocols we now have to manage cancer in animals—James Herriot never had to learn any of this! And of the 85 students in my class, I was one of the 70 girls, with as much of our study focused on small animal medicine as equine and large animal combined. However, the one staying similarity through the decades was our significantly aged, deaf, and bumbley professors.
After I graduated and supposedly equipped with all the knowledge and skill required to be successful, I was released into the real world to become a vet. I thought, this is where I’d find those adventures, that feel-good factor that pervaded the profession and life of my hero, James Herriot. Wrong again.
James Herriot doesn’t go into the detail of the nauseating insecurity that sits in the pit of your stomach your first year as an animal doctor; how you can’t sleep the night after your first twenty dog spays because you’re worried you mightn’t have tied that ligature on the right ovarian pedical tightly enough. He doesn’t tell you how soul shattering a day at work is after you’ve euthanized the third animal in three hours and had to fight back your tears as the owners mop up their’s with wads of tissue. He doesn’t talk about the patients and owners with financial constraints who endure weeks of tests and a battery of medications, only to still frustratingly not know what ails them. He doesn’t talk about the distraught owner threatening to sue you for malpractice because their pet died under anesthetic during a routine operation.
And yet…and yet…a few years later after becoming more confident in myself as a vet, and even after the decades of miraculous medical advancement that separate my experiences from James Harriot’s, I’m beginning to find that long forgotten warmth in my own professional life—after the successful removal of a tumor from the flank of a cat or pulling three live bleating lambs from one of my father-in-laws heavily pregnant ewes, there are definite pockets of satisfaction and tenderness among the stresses and emotional strains associated with being a veterinarian.