2013 Year in Review: Michelle Whitehead, Veterinary Student

It’s time to look back on 2013! Check our blog between Christmas and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2013 from the staff, students, and volunteers of the Wildlife Center.

Sitting at home in Vancouver, British Columbia (CANADA!), I find myself reminiscing on my experience at the Wildlife Center of Virginia. I was fortunate enough to complete a four-week externship in September as part of clinical rotations during my fourth and final year in veterinary school at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM). The WCVM is a little bit different than some of those in the States, in that my clinical year did not start until August, so I was a little bit new to the whole “being a doctor” thing. It was comforting to have guidance and encouragement, while still being given the freedom necessary to learn and progress my skills. Drs. Dave, Rich, and Kristin were all amazing at holding student-learning in highest regard, second only to patient care and well-being.

On my first day, I recall being filled with nerves and excitement to be in this incredible facility, as I was asked to catch an Eastern Screech-Owl for routine blood collection. My fellow fourth-year student, who was toward the end of her externship, calmly set forth to the task and smoothly got the job done. I remember thinking, “Wow, I wonder if I will ever get to that level.” This is just one of the many areas in which I noticed a drastic improvement in my skills, and just a few weeks later, I was proficiently performing blood collection in birds! With this new skill, I had also become more confident in performing physical examinations as well as creating and pursuing diagnostic plans and initiating treatments. I was finally in my element!

The Center is composed of so many people who help keep it running smoothly, both out in the open and behind the scenes, including the administration staff, outreach facilitators, as well as the veterinary and rehabilitation teams. Every individual contributes dedication, passion, and enthusiasm toward a common goal – the conservation of native wildlife in Virginia. This was noticeable from the very first day I stepped into the facility! I could not have imagined a better place to learn and grow, as a veterinary student in training. I had the joy of working with such a huge variety of animals ranging from a juvenile mouse to an adult Bald Eagle to a juvenile Black Bear cub in the span of a few hours. And this is what I loved so much: the diversity of the animals we worked with brought different challenges to overcome. 

One of my most memorable experiences was performing ear surgery on a 35-gram juvenile Eastern Box Turtle, as it presented with an aural (ear) abscess. Dr. Kristin was encouraging and acted as a sounding board while Sara (another veterinary extern) and I worked together to remove the thick material and flush out the ear. I was elated having just completed my first surgery on a turtle, let alone one that weighed only 35 grams!

Performing a high standard of medicine on these wild animals and watching them improve to the point of release stir an insurmountable feeling. I am one of the luckiest people in the world to have had this amazing opportunity and I can honestly say that I will be back, even if just for a visit!

With this experience, I not only gained insight into wildlife conservation medicine, but also clarity of my goals to pursue a specialty in zoological medicine. As my first step, I have applied for a 12-month internship in a small-animal or zoo/exotic/wildlife medicine and surgery position, to begin in June 2014. Only time will tell what the future holds; however, I can say with certainty, my experience at the Wildlife Center of Virginia was invaluable and if I ever have a chance to return, I’ll be there in a heartbeat!


Keep checking the Wildlife Center's blog for more year-end posts this week!

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