As we age, birthdays kind of lose their magic. We may get happy birthday greetings from friends and family, perhaps a special dinner, but for most of us adults it is little more than just another day, often even working on our birthdays; another year older, another year removed from our youth. Turning 40 today, however, I am overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude and reflection on a truly blessed life.
Looking back on the early years of my journey, as a child, I was moved and awed by the beauty of animals. Whether it was playing with my family dog, watching squirrels at play in my backyard, or watching muskrats swim in the river in the town woods, they always fascinated me. I also had an overwhelming yearning to keep animals safe and free of harm…I could never understand how anyone could find joy in shooting them with pellet guns or mistreating animals in any manner.
Although lacrosse and girls eventually began to occupy an increasing segment of my life, my love and fascination with animals never faded. There was only one career choice for me, to become a doctor of veterinary medicine. However, having enjoyed a bit too much lacrosse and girls in college, while my grades were quite respectable in my undergraduate major of biochemistry, they were not in the elite category that it took to gain acceptance to one of only 27 US veterinary colleges, representing about 2000 spots for tens of thousands of applicants. My dream was in jeopardy at no fault but my own.
Refusing to give up on my dream, I found a potential solution, in Ross University, School of Veterinary Medicine in the British West Indies. The offices of the school were in New York City, but the school itself on the island of St Kitts. Ross University was founded by Dr. Robert Ross in 1983 and owned by Yale University at the time I was seeking a veterinary education. Ross had and still has a primarily US student body and faculty. While Ross University certainly scrutinizes grades and test scores, they also look beyond just grades and numbers, considering the applicant as a whole. If they saw that you had the experience, the drive and the character, they would accept you into their rigorous program, but not hesitate to fail you if you did not meet their high standards (my class started with 84 and finished with 33). The high standards were in place, because in order to complete the doctor of veterinary medicine program, following pre-clinical training in St. Kitts, the student had to then successfully complete a full clinical year at a US veterinary college.
Thus my journey took me to the picturesque island of St. Kitts to study veterinary medicine. The island was absolutely scenically and naturally beautiful and the tourist areas were very nice; but the remaining nine tenths of the island consisted of a very poor population, essentially little more than a third world country. The pace of life was slow. The grocery stores were not always stocked with items we simply take for granted here. We had to go to the phone company once a month and stand in a one hour line to pay our telephone bill, and power outages were at least a weekly occurrence (losing air conditioning for any period of time on a Caribbean Island is not fun, nor is studying by flashlight or candlelight, for power outages were no excuse to postpone a test).
But in this atmosphere, I thrived, grew as a person, took less for granted, and gained a greater appreciation for simple things in life. Following my time at Ross, I gained acceptance to the University of Illinois, College of Veterinary Medicine for my clinic training. There, I aced every clinical rotation through the veterinary teaching hospital, with the exception of one…equine medicine. Having grown up in northeast NJ, as much as I found them beautiful and majestic, I never really felt 100% comfortable handling horses, so I had to settle for my only B. This is pretty funny, considering my wife who I met while rotating through the radiology department (Melissa was a radiology technician there), has an immense passion for horses and is an accomplished rider.
After all of this, the payoff finally came and the fulfillment of a dream arrived: a career of doctor of veterinary medicine. This is all I ever wanted to do for a living, and I jumped right in, getting involved in every aspect of medicine, surgery, emergency and critical care, and most recently, alternative/holistic medicine. But as much as being a veterinarian can be gratifying and exhilarating, in the end, it is still a job; one that you have to wake up for every morning and not leave until all the work is done. There is paperwork, call backs, dictating, and typing. When you own a veterinary hospital as I do, there is also taxes, insurance, building repairs, and staffing issues to name but a few responsibilities that tend to zap the joy out of anything.
Being a job notwithstanding, however, there are still moments in the career when you look back and reflect why you are doing this to begin with, and how fortunate you are to have the privilege to do it. Whether it is saving an innocent life, teaching the younger members of my medical team, learning a new cutting edge procedure, or investing in new state of the art medical equipment; these moments cause you to give pause and realize that you do not just “go to work” every day, but are living your dream.
Turing 40 today, I appreciate that my life has been a dream realized, a dream come true, and I am utterly filled with gratitude that I have lived it, and will continue to live it. Looking back, although I took the scenic route to achieve my dream, I would not change a thing. Going to school initially overseas, built my character and gave me a unique experience few have had. Gaining acceptance to Illinois showed me the rust belt, a part of the US I previously knew little about. Illinois also led me to my beautiful wife and amazing mother to our two children.
No, I absolutely would not change a thing. 🙂
Dr. Roger Welton is the President of Maybeck Animal Hospital in West Melbourne, FL, Chief Editor of the Veterinary Advice and Information Website, Web-DVM, and founder/CEO of Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care.