Try, Try Again

January 23, 2015
by Amber Nicole Sherry

It’s late evening and students are queuing up, fidgeting with assorted forceps and needle holders, nervously talking about the day, their school, and, sparingly, about the HSVMA-RAVS Surgical Skills Test they are about to take. Surgery is what brings most students to RAVS; the opportunity to develop skills while scrubbed in with a veterinarian across the table who can coach and encourage them. To be certain the students have a basic skill-set, a test is given at the end of the first day. It consists of tying a friction knot ligature around tubing in 30 seconds, demonstrating a figure-8 autoligation on a cord in 15 seconds, and completing a 2.5 inch simple continuous close on a cloth practice board in 3 minutes. The test is straightforward-simple to a veterinarian-but often strikes fear in the hearts of students. Amber Nicole Sherry was one of those students; this is her story.

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Amber (right) works alongside RAVS volunteer veterinarian, Robert McKee DVM, in surgery.   Amber Sherry

As I prepared for my first journey west of the Mississippi, I was awash with excitement, nervousness, and fear. So much of what was going to happen on the trip was unknown. I spent my free time trying to glean all the information I could from the internet resources; anything to help me prepare for the RAVS clinic in Arizona. I had been told by a RAVS veteran that the surgery skills test was extremely difficult, even though she had already taken a course in surgical technique. Following that conversation, I decided to focus on things I was already familiar with and, hopefully, I could attempt surgery on my next trip. For this trip, my goals would be to improve my physical exam skills, anesthetic monitoring, general patient care and client communication—all important skills I knew needed work, but life has a funny way of not going according to plan.

Our first night, lead veterinarian, Dr. Elizabeth Berliner announced, "Get ready, we will start testing all of you on your surgical skills." ALL OF US? Oh no! I had no idea what we were even supposed to do! I panicked and did not even pass the first step. I was mortified my first day, and living out my fear of being overwhelmed and inadequate. Dr. Berliner noted my lack of knowledge when I attempted my practical, and less than five minutes after my fiasco, she sent Dr. Stacey Daley over to help me out. That night, Dr. Stacey worked on teaching me the basics, evaluating my technique, and giving me hints on how to improve. Every night that week the veterinarians stayed up late to help us all practice surgical skills. At these sessions, Dr. Stacey would check on my progress and provide help where it was needed. Some part of my brain was afraid the others students would judge my lack of knowledge, but no one did! Every night we helped each other, learned from each other, and worked together. I hold that feeling with me to this day. We worked 17-18 hour days helping the animals of White Mountain and, still, there was always someone willing to help me for an hour or two every night.

Midway through the week, Dr. Berliner asked a pivotal question: “Would the students who passed the skills test allow the remaining students a second attempt?” Despite reducing the number of surgeries they may end up seeing, the vote was a unanimous “Yes.” I was reminded again of the congregation of genuinely selfless people this program attracts.

I spent the night practicing, but the closer the retake came, the more I doubted my skills. Despite the hours I spent practicing and improving, and the amazing skill of the doctors teaching me, I doubted I could pass. Six of us retook the skills test with RAVS Senior Staff Veterinarian, Dr. Paul Breckenridge. I almost decided to not even try after the other five students passed, but timidly asked Dr. Paul if he would watch me—just to critique without counting it as a true attempt. He said he noted my improvement during the practice sessions and thought I was ready and asked, “What's the worst that could happen? Just do it and see.” Thank goodness he encouraged me! To my utter surprise, even with my misgivings, I passed! Despite the lack of confidence dating back to my acceptance on the trip, I did it! I had never been more thankful and excited.

This trip was one of my favorite experiences to date. Not only did I overcome my lack of confidence and scrub in on surgeries, but I met some of the most amazing people and doctors, was part of a program that helped a record breaking number of animals, and I will be a better veterinarian when I graduate. I can't wait to be a part of another RAVS team!


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Amber Nicole Sherry is in the Class of 2017 at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine.