Staying power

2013-05-02 00:00

WE frequently host children who are interested in a career in veterinary science. Inevitably, some are motivated and show the necessary credentials, others not. Academic ability and school-subject selection are only some of the skills needed. Probably more important is a built-in love of animals and a focus to achieve, come what may. These children stand out from their peers. Their eyes light up when they see surgery for the first time, they delight in the miracle of birth and they feel a deep, wrenching pain when exposed to death. They are not clock watchers, are not fazed if there is no time for lunch and they don’t have an unhealthy relationship with their cellphones. These young people realise that looking after the health and welfare of animals is a privilege and a calling, and they are prepared to do anything to achieve their objectives. It has less to do with intelligence; it is more about passion. Endurance is as important as ability. Some have it, others don’t.

Gemma was one person who had what it takes. She was born with a serious medical condition that necessitated life-threatening, open-heart surgical procedures on a number of occasions at a very young age, as well as throughout her life. But her overriding aspiration was to be involved with the veterinary care of horses and nothing would stop her achieving this goal. She grew up on a dairy farm that I looked after and I got to know her well. She spent much of her spare time seeing me practise and I realised when she was still young that she had the necessary dedication. Her medical hiccups were never mentioned and she showed absolute commitment and fortitude. Her school grades were not quite good enough to allow her an easy passage into our one and only vet school at the University of Pretoria, Onderstepoort Campus (OP), however, so she read for an agricultural degree at the local Maritzburg campus of UKZN, eventually accumulating enough credits to gain acceptance. Her first year at OP was not as successful as she would have liked it to be and she repeated it, but she eventually qualified. When I last heard from her, she was employed at one of the most prestigious equine veterinary hospitals in the United States, taking referrals from all around the world.

It’s a nice story and I like repeating it.

Debbie also showed remarkable stamina, taking a long and scenic route towards her goal. Matriculating from Westville Girls’ High School in 1976, she knew from an early age that she wanted to be a vet, but her school marks did not match her objectives, so she did a BSc at Rhodes University instead, majoring in zoology and entomology. In those days, the veterinary profession was dominated by the masculine gender, with only a handful of women being accepted every year. Consequently, on completion of her degree, she did not apply to vet school, returning to university in Durban instead, where she did a higher diploma in education and taught at schools in the area for a couple of years. Her wish to work with animals did not completely recede, however, and she eventually went back to university where she did her honour’s and Master’s degrees in zoology, and in order to finance her studies, started a business offering adults education and training skills. But her drive to be a vet had merely been put on hold all these years and the dormant passion occasionally bubbled close to the surface. So, in 1995, she applied to OP, but was unsuccessful as she did not have Physics 1, a prerequisite for vet school. Back to varsity she went, acquired the necessary credit and reapplied. She was rejected once more. The selection committee notified her that her original degree was now outdated and no longer acceptable for the credits required for entry. Ten long years went by until her enthusiasm, hibernating under a pile of negative realism, gradually resurfaced. But again her application was refused, this time the reason given was that she did not have any animal-science subjects in her primary degree. So she became a student again and two years later, emerged with the necessary credits in nutrition and animal science. Everything was now in order.

But the vet degree at OP had changed somewhat in the interim and was now a two-degree course. Her hard graft had at last been recognised, however, and she was allowed to waive the first two years of the first degree, but still had to do a bridging year at the main campus of the University of Pretoria before being accepted to OP.

By now, unfortunately, her finances had dried up, so she did not return, and spent the following year raising the necessary funds to allow her to continue.

She finally started the veterinary course 35 years after matriculating. She is currently in her second year of veterinary science and will complete her degree, God and finances willing, in 2015. Good manners and a reverence of the fairer gender forbid me from revealing her age. Let’s just say that she will be “mature”, another important commodity for a successful veterinarian.

I sincerely hope that the veterinary profession recognises her commitment and dedication, and lines up at her door with offers of employment when she eventually qualifies.

She certainly deserves it.

• The author is a practising vet with a passion for his profession and a giggle in his heart.

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