Memories Lost, Found, and Shared

June 25, 2015

People join HSVMA-RAVS clinics for many reasons, to help the animals, to help the community, to learn, to teach, but sometimes RAVS surprises. Sometimes a thing unexpected greets you, grabs you, changes you. Welcome to RAVS.
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Dr. Breckenridge explains his age to disbelieving students.

Students were gathering at the RAVS meet up. Small clusters that came from the same school or met on Facebook looking for rides; a few individuals looking a bit lost, but hopeful. Roll call preceded the caravan to the clinic. A slight young woman spoke her name so softly I could not hear, but our trip leader could and we mounted up. RAVS is hard, sometimes heavy work, I thought of the young woman on our way, wondering if she was ready for the next week.

I noticed her during the unloading, gamely shifting heavy crates, holding her own with her teammates, but did not observe her until the surgical skills assessment required to participate in surgery. As she approached the surgery table, she seemed even smaller. As I described the assessment, I noticed her fine, delicate hands and thought of times in surgery I wished for fingers a bit more delicate. Then, as we were about to start, I saw her eyes. Eyes of hope and fear. Eyes that held your gaze, that proclaimed this was a woman of depths still undiscovered. The assessment began, those delicate hands started to shake and could not complete the required skills.

On every clinic there are students that do not complete the surgery assessment. Some have not yet received formal training, some are simply stressed and tired from the effort required on the first day of a RAVS clinic, some want the surgery rotation so badly they are overcome by internal stress. Regardless of the reason, RAVS veterinarians work with them—and any other student—each night after rounds to increase their confidence and prepare them for a possible second chance. A second assessment is not always scheduled; the trip leader makes a decision mid-week based on how the clinic is progressing and the quality of work at the surgical practice sessions.

The young woman worked hard in the practice sessions. Her initial skills were easily sufficient to complete the assessment and improved during practice, along with her confidence. When our trip leader announced there would be a second chance, I knew she would do well. She stepped up to the table, the fine hands I envied steady, those eyes held mine with confidence. The first two parts of the assessment were flawless and under time. As she started the final part, I noted a change; apprehension crept into her eyes, her hands began to shake. She had done this exercise well and quickly in the practice sessions, but it must be completed in the assessment to be assigned to surgery. As evaluator I could not offer suggestions or corrections, but with those delicate hands struggling, I found, to my surprise, that I had not reset the timer. I told her to please stop so I could get the timer ready. In those few moments, her hands steadied and her eyes focused with determination. I started the timer, and she completed the assessment perfectly.

She was in surgery the next day. At the start of each day, the students and veterinarians assigned to surgery describe their experience, including when they graduated. This is always disheartening for me as I graduated before most of our students were born, but I proudly announced, “Kansas State University Class of 1986”.

After introductions, she approached shyly and asked, “Did you say you graduated in 1986 from Kansas State?” Since this was exactly what I had said, I knew this was the easiest question I would have all day and replied with enthusiasm that I did. She looked at me for a moment, those eyes of depth holding me still, then asked if I might remember her mother. I doubted I would, but asked her mother's name. As she spoke her eyes filled with something more than simple anticipation and I was surprised as three of my classmates I had not thought of for nearly 30 years came to mind, three women who were often together, and one was her mother.

“Yes, I do remember her”. I watched tears start to fill her eyes and a slight quivering of her lips.

“My mother died of cancer 15 years ago and you’re the first classmate of hers I have met.” As my eyes began to fill, I took her by a small, strong arm, nodded at the surgery lead’s concerned face, and went to a quiet area outside the clinic.

I did not know her mother well, but remembered her as a good person, a smart, reliable partner, and quiet, like her daughter. She described her mother’s Army career and fight with cancer. We hugged, embracing in the memory of a good woman too soon gone, and went back to surgery orientation. I worked with her on two surgeries that day and she was exemplary. On returning home, I dusted off my yearbooks and looked across hopeful faces with the world of 1986 laid out before us; faces that would now be wrinkled like mine, recalling a world that was, seeing a future we know will be too brief. I looked across those faces and was suddenly held by eyes of depths still undiscovered, eyes of the mother, the same eyes as her daughter.

--Paul Breckenridge, DVM, Kansas State University Class of 1986.
  HSVMA-RAVS Senior Staff Veterinarian