As the door to the 50-year-old Cessna opened 10,000 feet above the ground, air rushed into the plane. I put my foot outside and had a very brief moment to contemplate the nature of fear. Then the adrenaline kicked in and I was falling. It was a phenomenal experience. I was telling a friend about skydiving a few days later and mentioned that it wasn’t the first time I had felt that kind of rush, which surprised him. Admittedly, I am probably more into random almost-but-not-really-dangerous activities than the average person, but it did make me realize that finding a way to deal with fear is an essential part of the veterinary profession.
Evolutionarily, fear is healthy. Our early ancestors were afraid of predators and dangerous situations. This fear forced them to make an effort to avoid danger and helped them survive. Theoretically, those who were crippled by fear did not survive because they could not remove themselves from frightening conditions. Likewise, those who were fearless did not survive because they put themselves into dangerous situations. So what role does fear play in our lives now?
As veterinary students we are, for the most part, relatively sheltered from the life and death aspects of our future careers. In clinics at school, there will be interns, residents and clinicians overseeing most of what we do and, with the exception of a few of us who have more extensive experience, when we are at other practices (for externships or jobs) we are not regularly put in charge of animals’ lives. However, we are still currently dealing with the concept of fear in different ways.
The fear of failure is the primary one we have to contend with. We have worked our whole lives to get to where we are, and the idea of failing academically right now is almost incomprehensible. This is one of the (many) factors that motivates us to do well, especially because we don’t want to disappoint all of the people who have supported us thus far. This brings me back to the notion that fear is healthy — we are motivated by it right now, and very soon, when we have patients’ lives on our hands on a daily basis, we will know how to use fear as motivation for providing the best quality of care. This is vital because if we did not have to deal with fear now and learn how to use it to succeed, we would be crippled by it in real life. We would burn out quickly with anxiety, or would put our patients’ lives in danger by being too reckless. I am sure that many people in completely unrelated professions also fear failure, but what I think sets us apart is that we are aware that in the future, our failures can have catastrophic impacts on the lives of animals and their people.
So, when I told my friend that the rush from skydiving wasn’t foreign to me, I mostly meant it in the sense that the idea of having other lives in my hands is more intense for me than jumping out of a plane. I pay much more attention in class when we learn about treatment side effects than I do when reading the side effects of any human medication I have to take — I am fairly certain that over the counter medication is not going to kill me, but I could kill someone’s best friend if I do not know what I am doing. The purpose of each stage of veterinary school, and of our careers in general, is to allow us to develop mechanisms to cope with the responsibility of being doctors, and the fear and uncertainty that comes with treating patients. In a few years, hopefully I’ll be able to revisit this topic with more tangible stories under my belt. Until then, there’s always skydiving.