Spoonies can succeed too!

Alex Gorman vet student

My name is Alex Gorman and I am a final-year veterinary student at the University of Surrey. I haven’t had the most traditional veterinary student life and I certainly didn’t take the conventional route into vet school – this is my second degree, I have chronic pain in my right knee and back, and I have been diagnosed with depression for over 14 years…not exactly suited to being a vet student right? 

Wrong! Why can’t someone study to join a career that they love just because they don’t fit the stereotype of ‘a vet student must be able to work with any animal’, whether it be chasing after a loose cat in small animal practice or regularly traipsing off on a three-mile hike to a Highland cow that the farmer says is ‘looking a bit off’? 

So, what is it like studying with a chronic condition and can it be done?

I fell in love with the veterinary profession at a careers fair after my GCSEs – a relatively late age compared to most – and I knew instantly that this was what I wanted to do. However, even at 16 I was already ticking the boxes of ‘unsuitable for the profession’. I remember vividly being told by teachers and some family members that I was not physically able enough to complete the course or that I would be laughed out the door of a vet school interview if I disclosed my mental health concerns. This didn’t stop me applying, but when I missed out on one grade (ABB instead of AAB), these negative statements had taken their toll. Instead of taking a year out to get that second A and reapply, I had a miserable few gap years before going to study biochemistry at a different university. 

'Why can’t someone study to join a career that they love just because they don’t fit the stereotypical image of a vet student?'

Fast-forward three years and I found myself engaged and contemplating what job to get with my biochemistry degree, when my now wife asked: ‘Why not veterinary medicine?’ The fact that this wasn’t even on my radar shows just how damaging being told ‘you can’t do it’ is during your formative years. So, I applied to vet school and by some miracle, I got in. 

I’d finally got to where I’d always wanted to be, albeit by a five-year-long scenic route. But I was still scared of how people would react to my illnesses and instead of being open and working with staff to find suitable adjustments, I put in way too much effort trying to hide my conditions, forcing myself to match the activities of my peers even while my health was declining. 

Eventually it all became too much and I had to retake the second year of my degree. At the time it felt like the world was ending, but in reality it was the catalyst I desperately needed to initiate a change in my attitude. It forced me to take a step back, re-evaluate how I was approaching my studies and enabled me to reach out and ask for help. Were my fears realised? Did I get laughed out of vet school? Did the sword of Damacles that I felt hanging over my head for the previous two years finally slice down? Of course not – I was met with understanding, compassion and acceptance. 

I began to make the course suit me instead of the other way round. Instead of wrestling with a sheep to ‘tip’ it, I could demonstrate my knowledge through explaining the theory behind the procedure. My university experience changed almost overnight. Now that I wasn’t having to expend so much energy on trying to perform as a physically fit student (and spending the next several weeks dependent on painkillers), I could apply myself fully to the true goal of vet school – learning. 

I am now on the last leg of vet school and, when not frantically studying or searching for suitable job opportunities, I can take some time to reflect on my journey. Don’t be under any illusions though, vet school isn’t a walk in the park and there is still a lot more that the profession needs to implement to be completely accessible for all – whether for inclusion of disabilities or in improving racial diversity. However, these conversations are getting louder and they are starting to be heard by the people in positions to enact change. 

Compassion is a key trait in the profession. We use it every day for our patients and clients but we have yet to apply it to ourselves. Change will only occur if we are honest with ourselves – we are not superhuman, we all have challenges, BUT we can help each other through them. British Veterinary Chronic Illness Support (BVCIS) and the British Veterinary Ethnicity and Diversity Society (BVEDS) are just some of the growing communities and support groups that can provide advice and push for change. 

So, if you are in school and considering applying to vet school, whether you have a chronic illness or not, I only have one thing to say – you CAN do it!

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