Friday, October 28, 2011

Sink or swim? More like drown or doggie paddle.

Sensing that I was plagued by feelings of incompetence, inadequacy, and unprepardeness and believing myself totally unqualified and incapable of doing my job at the lab, my supervisor attempted to reassure me that everything would be fine, even after the fiasco that was my first solo shift. She said, "You know more than you think you do." Fortunately for me (and for the patients whose blood I analyzed), this actually proved true. I would go to sit at the microscope, petrified, as everything I once knew about how a lymphocyte differs from a monocyte fled my panicked brain. However, as I scanned the slides, I knew exactly what I was looking at. The clicks from the counting machine ticked off like rounds from a machine gun: seg seg mono lymph seg seg nRBC and Ooh! toxic neutrophil! Since that disastrous first night, my confidence has grown. I still question my results all the time, but in a productive way, rather than in an oh-my-God-I-inevitably-fail-at-life-in-every-manner way.
The danger in taking solace in the "knowing more than you think you do" adage comes when you start thinking you know more than you do. But how to tell into which category a situation falls? Perhaps the only way to find out is to dive in and see what happens. But what about when the water is teeming with flesh-eating piranha and infested with toxic fungi? When the stakes are high, as they almost always will be as a veterinarian, I historically err on the side of caution (not so much caution as intense self-doubt and reliance on help from others). I'm quickly discovering that this approach won't be feasible much longer; as a real live doctor, I'll essentially be pushed off a cliff into that treacherous water and will either be devoured by swarms of carnivorous little fish or doggie paddle and flounder about, keeping my head just above water, long enough to reach the shore alive. The biggest part of my mind (because it gets the most exercise) tells me that I'm not up to the challenges that await me in the latter years of vet school and in practice beyond, that I'm incapable of thinking on the fly, being solely responsible for preserving the life of living creatures, and working longer, harder, and smarter than I've ever had to before. The little portion of gray matter I reserve for optimism has to chime in and say, "Look what you did to get to this point. Look what you've done since that you've arrived. Weren't you thinking the same thing about the obstacles you've already conquered?"
In the past year, I've worked harder than I wanted to (and thought I was capable of), ventured miles outside my comfort zone (1500, from New Hampshire to Minnesota, to be precise), suffered through uncomfortable situations (some even more unpleasant than my currently 61 degree house), slept less than any human being should (I sleep so poorly and am so utterly exhausted at this point that when I wake up in the wee hours of the morning, I just start sobbing for the loss of sleep I know I'll never find again), and forced myself to exchange old habits (slovenliness, laziness, self-doubt, passiveness, and self-centeredness) for ones that will be requisite in tackling the myriad of daunting tasks that await me in the coming years.
I know more than I think I do. But is it enough? As I venture further into my chosen career path, most of what I encounter will be unknown, and I will be expected to not only face it, but understand it alone. I know more than I think I do, but can I do more than I know? I guess the only way to find out is to press on, to forge ahead, to find the strength, motivation, and sleep (the most doubtful of all) to keep swimming for the shore, even when challenges, doubts, and fears gnaw at my willpower like millions of tiny, needle-sharp piranha teeth sinking into my toes (oh wait, that's just the kittens going through a foot-biting phase).

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Scatterbrained and wanting to scatter my brains on the pavement

With anatomy and biochemistry exams looming in the not-nearly-distant-enough future, I of course was struck by an irresistable urge to divert my attention from memorizing nerve plexuses and examining embalmed canines to the more enjoyable task of providing my adoring public (all three of you) with a blog update. Unfortunately, the formalin fumes from the lab have left me with few brain cells and the many hours of studying (two counts as plural) have destroyed the capacity of those few brave survivors to piece together a coherent series of thoughts. Therefore, this entry is as disjointed as the limbs we removed from our cadavers the very first week of lab, but infinitely less icky and I hope at least slightly more enjoyable.

Days always end better when you kick them off with a smile. Things that made my mornings this week:
A man riding a unicycle, not in a "practicing for the circus" or "obscure hobby that makes his nephews giggle" way, but in a "serious cardio training, full bike-shorts and racing gear" way.
A woman jogging hard and fast with her dog ... her dachshund, that is.
An upward kitten face as I attempted a downward dog (yoga with kittens present - don't try it at home).

We made it to October 21 without getting below freezing here in St. Paul ... outside, at least. My house is another story, seeing as I have Ebeneezer Scrooge for a roommate. The following is a dramatic reenactment portrayed by trained actors:

"Sir, may we throw another log on the fire please?"
"NO! And just for asking, I'm canceling Christmas!"

As a future veterinarian, I will have to be resourceful and creative in problem-solving, so I figured I would put my ingenuity to the test. How could I keep warm without getting the cold shoulder from the miser in charge of the thermostat? I devised a few clever solutions:

After showering and blowdrying my hair, blowdry the rest of me.
Roasted vegetables every night. The bigger the veggie the better. A 10 lb squash takes an hour to bake at 400 degrees, raising the temperature of the house from the level of Satan's bedroom in the seventh circle of hell to that of the women's restroom in purgatory.
Kitten pile!!!

Seeing as I have little time remaining and even less brain power, I should probably devote both to my studies ... or to perusing pictures of lolcats online (I can at least pretend to know which ganglion is receiving nervous input that allows them to make funny faces, right? That counts as productive. I can hear you judging me through the computer, and yes, I am a horrible slacker, as indicated by the length of this final parenthetical insertion, at the end of which I will be forced to return to actual work, which is why this sentence has continued this long and may go on for quite some time; it all depends how creative I can get with punctuation, a particular specialty of mine). But alas, the clock has barked ten (why would a vet student have a clock that strikes? a barking dog clock is much more fun), and my procrastination and this entry, much like my days as a sane and functional member of society, must come to an end.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

You might be a vet student and wisdom from Billy Joel

You might be a vet student if ...

You give directions with anatomical terminology ("My house is just caudal to the little grocery store and medial to the blue house on the corner.")
The 3 o'clock hungries hit in the middle of anatomy lab and the thought of food still seems appealing.
The smell of formalin clings to you like a fine Parisian perfume.
You start rationing clean underwear because you know you won't have time for laundry until exams are over.
Your keyboard is encrusted with various food residues from joint dinner-study sessions.
Home is nothing but a place with a mattress where you spend a couple hours a night (and maybe occasionally find the time to shower).

On a more serious note, my first night working in the lab at the veterinary hospital was last night. Basically, everything that could have gone wrong did, but I was anticipating disaster. What I did not foresee was my hands shaking and my knees going weak as I tried to distinguish good red blood cell clumping from bad clumping. Anyone with animal pathology experience knows that's no simple task when the blood in question belongs to a horse, whose blood normally clumps. No big deal, right? Except for the fact that this test determines which blood donor is compatible with the patient. If an incompatible donor is used, the patient's body will attack the blood, and it will essentially coagulate in its veins, resulting in almost certain misery and death. No pressure, Megan. I stared into the scope, looking at each of the thousands of tiny cells on the slide, thinking, "I can't do this. Who the hell expects me to make a judgment call that could kill an animal?" I paused for a second, realizing that I do, and so will the owners of every patient I treat for the rest of my life. This would not be an isolated incident - this was just a foretaste of more to come. I chose this profession, this pressure, this responsibility.
What an idiot.
I got through the test and the rest of the night (and several more disasters) without crying. In the morning, I felt great. I woke up feeling confident and proud that I pushed myself through what seemed like an impossible task (and very glad that I hadn't gotten called in for any stat samples in the middle of the night). Then I opened my e-mail: I had been called in, but apparently didn't pick up. Another tech had to cover for my pathetic ass. Frantically, I checked my phone for missed calls and voicemails. Nothing. I thought back over the entire night, how the anxiety that I would miss a call had plagued my brain and chased away all hope of any rest or sound sleep. Almost every hour, I had turned over and checked my phone - no missed calls, full reception, volume on high - in anticipation of having to leap from slumber and go to work. But nothing came.
So I sobbed for a while, felt like a failure, panicked at what other people would think of the new girl who royally screwed everything on just her first night. Sleep-deprived (from 6 exams in 10 days and 1 more to take online this weekend), emotionally wrought, disappointed in myself, befuddled as to what had happened, and all at once overwhelmed by all the feelings that had been pushed aside in favor of the trapezius muscles, embryonic coelom formation, mucous-secreting epithelial cells, and clumpy horse blood, I broke down and wanted nothing more than my Mom and Dad. I tried to sleep, without much luck, crying into my pillow as six kittens licked my salty face and chewed at my toes.
My ipod's shuffle function must have known just what I needed, because it played the one song that seems to pop up at these moments which is surprisingly inspirational and so true to life: Billy's Joel's "You're Only Human." Listen to the lyrics, and you'll see what I mean. Bright sunshine, a call about people interested in adopting some of the kittens, a trip to the farmer's market, and another 20 pounds of gorgeous squash later, and I felt better. Don't forget your second wind, wait in your corner until that breeze blows in ...
My e-mail held another welcome sight - an explanation for the telephone mishap. They had the correct number, my cell phone had full reception, and they got through just fine ... to my parents' house in New Hampshire. Don't ask me how or why they got that number. In retrospect, it might be a good thing someone else had to cover for me. I don't think I would have had the mental capacity to make any more judgment calls last night (or early this morning). So, as much as I hate to admit it, the old cliche may hold true after all: it all works out in the end (unless more unpleasant surprises await me - like finding out on Monday that I was wrong in my results).
Since this is one of those "serious, self-discovery" posts, I should probably wrap up with a significant and poignant observation about what this experience taught me, like a high school reflection paper. Here's what I learned: in my mini (truth be told, it was major) breakdown this morning, I kept thinking about how I could get out of this job, plead incompetence and inability to free myself from the stress and anxiety and responsibility. Then I realized I didn't really want that. As a vet, I'm going to have stress, anxiety, and responsibility, and I'm not going to shirk any of that. I decided to embrace it, to learn from it, and never to forget my second wind.