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Wanted: Fourth Year Vet Student Seeking Thicker Skin - Michelle Wells

(Michelle Wells, AVC 2016, travelled to Natuashish in 2015. The students were asked to submit a piece of reflective writing, about their experience as a veterinarian)

Dangling from my stethoscope is a charm with an orange ribbon that reads, "Proud mom of a cancer fighter, 1.2.15." It's a token to remind me every day, every time I pick up my stethoscope, why I do this job. January 2, 2015 was the day I learned that our three-year old Pit Bull, Siggy, has leukemia. Since that day, my life has revolved around cancer. We've done weekly appointments and blood work, chemotherapy, treatment regimens with backup plans, and I had daily migraines from all the stress. When the day came to leave for the Chinook Project, I was both apprehensive to go and relieved to get a break from it all. Unfortunately, I never really got the break I was hoping for.

Unlike my peers, the most important lessons I learned on the Chinook Project had nothing to do with technical or surgical skills. No. I spent my time learning how to set my personal life apart from my work life. I had to learn how to put on my game face and smile, even when it hurt. It was the only way I could do my job. I had to do this because on day three in Natuashish I got a call from my fiancé with the bad news that Siggy's cancer was back again. She was no longer in the partial state of remission she had been in for the last four months. I spent the evening crying. I felt useless because there was nothing I could do and even if there was, I was too far away to help anyway.

Some of the population of Natuashish

Veterinarians talk a lot about compassion fatigue, but no one ever really tells you how to deal with it. No one teaches you how to have a thick skin. Truthfully, you have to learn to grow it yourself. The only way to move on is to keep pushing through. So on day four I picked up my stethoscope, kissed my orange ribbon charm and went back to the clinic.

It was a busy day. Multiple surgeries were scheduled and our team was getting into the flow of things. The rush of the day kept my mind off my life so I stayed as busy as I could, helping wherever needed. I was assigned to do the last spay of the day and was excited to get more practice as I was starting to gain confidence in surgery. I decided to help with the initial prepping and anesthesia so we could keep things moving smoothly. I was holding the dog while my colleague gave the anesthetic. After only half the necessary dose, we noticed she wasn't breathing. I grabbed my stethoscope and listened.

Nothing. I heard nothing.

It was a fortunate coincidence that Chinook 2015 had an Emergency and Critical Care resident on the team. It took seconds for Chris to take point and start CPR. We had someone giving breaths, Chris giving CPR, a runner to get supplies, and I was drawing up drugs at the medical table. It all happened so quickly. Within a matter of minutes and with no warning, the dog woke up screeching and biting at the air. She was frantic, but she was alive. We had a big collective sigh, and it was over. It's a very rare occurrence, but some animals respond to anesthesia and surgery in unpredictable ways. This was one of those rare cases, but we were able to save her. It was no one's fault. These things just happen.

Thankfully we worked well together and were able to successfully revive her. After we knew she was fine, everyone took a moment to think. Some sat down, some breathed heavily, and some even laughed in relief. Unlike everyone else, I walked away to be alone. I couldn't smile. I couldn't laugh. I just started to cry. In that moment, watching this poor dog getting CPR on the table I could only see my Siggy. It was like a terrible nightmare, and it unsettled me for the rest of the day. I couldn't even count correctly or trust myself to do anything at all.

Michelle with a happy patient.

Maybe it was for the best that we got fogged in the next day. It gave me time to collect myself and get back in the right mindset to do my job. When we set up clinic in the Sunday school, I was ready.

My skin was thicker, my mind was stronger. I won't say that I didn't still break down from time to time. My personal life hadn't gotten any easier, but I was learning to save my breakdowns for personal time, and to remain focused while in the clinic. As difficult as it was, I am eternally grateful for the lessons that I gained through the Chinook Project. The experience I got was nothing like I expected, but I know that I will never forget the invaluable lessons I learned.

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