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20 Questions: Allison Ward, DVM

Created November 18, 2012 by Juliet Farmer
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Allison Ward, a veterinarian in New Jersey, attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 2001. Ward earned her doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM) in 2011 from Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Manhattan.

During her education, she received several accolades, including the Donald Trotter Award for Excellence in Anatomic Pathology (2011), the Col. Frank C. Hershberger Memorial Scholarship (2009, 2010), the John B. Cheshire Memorial Scholarship (2008), and the Dr. Harlow Kenyon Hudson Memorial Scholarship (2007).

Dr. Ward served a rotating internship in small animal medicine/surgery with Garden State Veterinary Specialists in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. She is currently with Southeast Veterinary Neurology for a one-year specialty internship in neurology and neurosurgery. Dr. Ward has been published in the Journal of American Veterinary Medical Assoc. She was a member of the Student Chapter of the American Veterinary Medical Association, as well as the Student Chapter of the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society, and is a current member of the Veterinary Business Management Association.

When did you first decide to become a veterinarian? Why?
As cliché as it sounds, I knew as a little kid. I always loved animals and was drawn to the sciences–how and why things work. I loved the idea of solving puzzles for a living and having the ability to make life better for four-legged creatures. In short, I was fascinated by the science and believed the profession to be emotionally gratifying. I briefly considered human medicine, but in veterinary medicine, you can help animals AND people–making the maximum impact on quality of life.

How/why did you choose the veterinary school you went to?
To be honest, I went where I got in to. It took me four admissions cycles over seven years to get accepted.

What surprised you the most about veterinary school?
Probably the social atmosphere–it was a lot more like high school than I expected. A close second is the incredible lack of practical knowledge in the first three years of school. As a vet tech for years prior to vet school, I often wondered how interns could not know such “basic” everyday things–once I was in vet school, I understood–they were missing from the curriculum.

What was it like finding a job in your chosen career field? What were your options and why did you decide what you did?
I’ve chosen to pursue specialization, specifically neurology. I always knew I wanted to specialize–the idea of knowing as much as possible about one field and practicing excellent medicine is very appealing to me. (My personality is not amenable to being pretty good at a lot of things!) I chose neuro because it’s the most intellectually stimulating and deeply gratifying specialty. Neurological disease is very apparent to both pet and owner–the ability to help a paralyzed animal walk again, or improve a companion’s mentation so that they enjoy life again would be deeply fulfilling.

Unfortunately, neurology has become increasingly competitive. For most specialties, you are required to do a one-year rotating internship and a three-year residency in your chosen field, during which time you make an exceedingly low salary. Residencies are becoming increasingly competitive (approximately 90 applicants for nine neuro residencies this year), and so in some specialties it is becoming the “new normal” to complete a second specialty internship in order to make yourself a more competitive residency candidate. Surgery, neurology, cardiology and oncology are increasingly going down this route. I have just matched to a neurology internship.

If you had it to do all over again, would you still become a veterinarian? (Why or why not? What would you have done instead?)
I would, though I wish almost every day that I had been accepted the first time I applied (in 2001). Veterinary school tuition has been skyrocketing exponentially over the past 10 years, and I have even less time to pay my student loans due to my age. (I owe $233,000 for veterinary school.) However, there is absolutely nothing else I would rather be doing. What I usually tell people who say they want to become a veterinarian is that if they can find anything else that would make them remotely happy–do that instead. If you can’t–then go to vet school.

Has being a veterinarian met your expectations? Why?
It has in a lot of ways. Being a doctor is fun–and challenging, and scary, and exciting. I absolutely adore my patients and (most of) my clients.

What do you like most about being a veterinarian?
I love considering challenging cases and formulating diagnostic plans. Watching a patient recover from a serious illness and knowing that I helped is extremely gratifying and humbling. Almost as fulfilling is knowing that a pet’s recovery often makes a tremendous difference to their owner, which is incredibly meaningful.

What do you like least about being a veterinarian?
Dealing with financial issues and being forced to pick and choose diagnostics/treatment based on owner’s budgetary concerns. (Not that I blame them at all! I just always worry that I’ve chosen wrong for the pet.) When something doesn’t go well, it’s very easy to beat myself up about the consequences and what I could have done better. There’s a reason it’s called “practice”…but life was a lot less stressful before I was the doctor.

Describe a typical day at work.
As a rotating intern, it really depends on what specialty service I am currently on. During my day ER rotation (currently), I walk in the door, start seeing emergencies as they come in and assess/formulate treatment plans for my in-hospital patients–all under the watchful eye of the critical care specialist. I manage animals in shock triaged to the back (hit by car, anaphylaxis, hemorrhage, diabetic ketoacidosis), order and interpret diagnostics (labwork, ultrasound, radiographs), recommend emergency surgeries (hemoabdomens, biliary duct obstructions, gastrointestinal foreign bodies), tap body cavities (chest, abdomen, pericardium). I manage my own cases (sometimes 10 to 15 per shift), communicate with referring veterinarians and clients, and write discharge instructions for my patients that are going home.

Do you work with mid-level providers, and if so, what kind(s) (i.e. vet techs, etc.)?
I’m fortunate to work with fabulous veterinary technicians and assistants. We also have a radiation therapist (trained in the human world) who works in our oncology department, as well as a radiology technician who only takes radiographs and performs CTs.

On average: How many hours a week do you work? How many hours do you sleep per night? How many weeks of vacation do you take?
During my internship, I work an average of 70 to100 hours a week, again depending on the rotation. I sleep probably five to six hours a night and usually have one day off a week with 10 vacation days allotted to the entire year.

Do you have family, and if so, do you have enough time to spend with them? How do you balance work and life?
I’m single at the moment, but if I had a significant other I definitely would not have enough time for them this year.

Are you satisfied with your income?
I live on a poor intern’s salary, so no. Hopefully one day as a boarded neurologist (knock on wood), I’ll have a much better income.

If you took out educational loans, is/was paying them back a financial strain?
It’s scary to think about my debt load. I’m currently in the income-based repayment plan–otherwise my payments would total about $2,000 a month.

In your position now, knowing what you do – what would you say to yourself 10 years ago?
It will all be worth it someday–but you will wish the clock could have frozen!

What information/advice do you wish you had known when you were pre veterinary school?
I was told as an undergrad student that veterinary schools west of the Mississippi would never accept a Virginia resident–so I never applied. I wish I had–I’m sure I would have gotten in earlier.

From your perspective, what is the biggest problem in veterinary medicine today?
Wow, too many to count. As a new graduate, the top of my list is the growing disparity between tuition and starting salary. A personal soapbox for me is that I believe our current model of veterinary education does not adequately prepare graduates for practice. I firmly believe that tracking/specialized schools (for small animal, large animal, mixed practice) and limited licensure is the best way to proceed for our profession–but it will probably never happen in my lifetime. There is simply no way to know everything about every species–not when our knowledge base has been increasingly exponentially for decades and we still have the same four-year model we did 100 years ago.

Where do you see veterinary medicine in 10 years?
I imagine pet insurance will be a larger player in financing veterinary care. I hope that there will be laws requiring means-testing for nonprofit groups–otherwise certain members of the profession are going to tear each other apart (and ethically it just makes so much sense). I imagine we will be over-saturated with specialists (getting there now) but will have even more exciting interventions (surgical and pharmaceutical) to help our patients.

What types of outreach/volunteer work do you do, if any?
At the moment, I don’t have time due to my internship. In veterinary school, I was a mentor to students in the early-admission program. I’ve never been invited to speak to high school (or whatever age students) in a classroom about veterinary medicine, but I would love to.

Do you have any final piece of advice for students interested in pursuing veterinary medicine as a career?
Do your homework and crunch the numbers. Figure out how much debt you will be in, and decide if it’s worth it. And if it is….go for it with your entire heart and soul. It’s the most rewarding profession on earth.

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