A Glimpse into a Veterinary Externship

During my four weeks as a veterinary student extern at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, I have caught a Bald Eagle out of an enclosure, surgically removed the aural abscesses on an Eastern Box Turtle, and saw the release of a woodchuck that was “my” patient when he presented … and I do not know where the time has gone.

I have been interested in wildlife medicine for a long time, and the last four weeks have been full of valuable and memorable experiences. The first two days of a vet student externship are spent with the rehabilitation team to make sure that we appreciate all that goes into the success of rehabilitating the animals and just how hard the work is to keep them fed and housed. Then I began in the hospital.

The Wildlife Center of Virginia has many veterinary students cycle through the clinic each year. Most stay for three weeks, even less time than I had. So, everyone on the staff is very used to teaching “the new kid”. Many hospitals out there have great doctors, but they have no idea what to do with a student. That was not the case here!

The way it works is we, as students, are expected to be the first ones to look at a new patient:  perform a complete examination, and decide what we would like to do next. For a student just beginning clinics, who has spent the last three years in a classroom, I cannot explain the terror I felt on first being asked what I wanted to do for this animal. But as scary as it was to be forced to begin to trust my training and my judgment, the push out of my comfort zone was necessary. The doctors were very patient.

Another challenge to wildlife medicine is the sheer volume of knowledge one must have to be effective at it. Veterinarians tend to pride themselves on needing to know all that human doctors know but in multiple species. Often this means a dog AND a cat, which obviously are a lot more alike than a blue jay AND a bear. It goes without saying that I have a lot to learn. Teachable moments to discuss disease processes, anatomy, and handling of a certain species were never passed up.

I was able to spend the last four weeks working with so many amazing animals. I have worked in wildlife rehabilitation at other centers in the past, and I have had the opportunity to work with many incredible species. But, I have to admit, when I came to Virginia to start my veterinary student externship at the Wildlife Center, I was really hoping to do something – anything – with the bears. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy just about every species that I get to work with for their unique challenges and rewards. But, I’m from Columbus, Ohio, and I certainly had not worked with wild bears.

I can now say that I have drawn blood on TWO bears!  I was also part of the team that moved a group of cubs from flight pens back to bear pens. And just in case you were wondering, bear cubs are heavier than they look. On my very last day, I was lucky enough to work with another new species. We had a group of six nestling Barn Owls present. We split into three teams to give them all examinations. I was not prepared for the sound they make, it sounds like they are from a horror movie!

The last four weeks have far exceeded my expectations, and I am very sad to go.

--Erin
The Ohio State University