‘I Contemplated Quitting At Least Once A Week’- The Reality Of Vet Student Life In Lockdown
January 2020 was a strange time.
The words ‘coronavirus’, ‘covid’, and ‘pandemic’ were being tossed around the news, with no real sense of how this would affect our lives a mere three months later.
When the first covid-19 case was reported in England, I knew it would not be the last.
As the daily infection toll crept up, word spread that universities may close and we may go into a national lockdown. It was not long until the university acted, and vet students would be put into Microsoft Teams groups preparing for online teaching.
‘It’s just precautionary,’ they said.
On March 17th, our Dean of Veterinary Medicine emailed the entire student and faculty body to announce that face-to-face teaching would cease that day due to the rapidly changing environment. It was no longer safe to sit in a lecture theatre with my peers or dissect specimens in the lab. Luckily for my cohort, our teaching finished only three days later, so we did not miss much. However, other year groups were still weeks away from finishing, and final year students had rotations cut short.
As it was coming up to Easter, lambing placements should have been in full swing- but the fear of spreading the virus was too much for some farmers. Placements were canceled, leaving many students without the compulsory lambing experience they needed. I seemed to strike lucky, though, as my two-week placement in the Oxfordshire countryside went ahead.
Not only was this fulfilling our Animal Handling Extra-Mural Studies (AHEMS), but it was a pleasant break away from the rest of the world as it headed into lockdown. As hospitals became overrun with patients, we became overrun with pet lambs, and we replaced worrying about the virus with worrying about lame ewes.
Lost Placements And A New Virtual Reality
2020 was a pivotal year for Nottingham Vet School.
We were to welcome our first April cohort since announcing the dual cohort system in February 2019. 150-students had their freshers canceled and would start their veterinary journey from the comforts of their homes. It was not until July when these first years could move into their accommodation and start attending in-person practicals and meet the rest of their cohort.
The summer of 2020 seemed like a light at the end of the tunnel. As England emerged from lockdown, placements started to pick up again. I managed to secure two weeks on an alpaca farm and one week at a falconry center.
However, I lost my compulsory equine placement and the chance to see practice at Yorkshire Wildlife Park- something I had been planning since 2018.
Vet students were in a state of limbo, not knowing if we would be returning to university in the autumn and silently panicking about losing precious weeks on placement.
The following academic year started online, a new wave of would-be vets attended virtual welcome fairs, returning students set up their home office (sometimes just a laptop on the kitchen table), and staff geared up for a year of remote teaching.
I did not expect to spend my third year at vet school online, but I have to commend the staff at Nottingham Vet School for allowing students to attend practicals in person. Those weekly timetabled lectures were usually the highlight of my week, giving me a chance to put my knowledge to the test and see friends, even if it was through a face mask and a visor.
A Mental Toll
We spent the best half of the first term learning how to stop our face visors from steaming up, feeling guilty for asking the lecturer to please repeat what they said for the third time, and just generally feeling sad that this was our lives right now.
Admittedly, I did stop attending the in-person practicals.
I had not perfected my face visor technique, so every lesson I spent either clouded over or constantly wiping down the inside of my visor. I got increasingly frustrated with how limited the practicals were and how inadequate I felt attending them.
My mental health took a big knock. It was January 2021 when everything seemed to hit me like a tonne of bricks. I remember sitting in my home office and crying endlessly- because I could not see how any of this would get better.
The content in the degree was getting harder, and the list of lectures I needed to catch up on grew exponentially. I ended up feeling depressed, angry, and frustrated. I think I contemplated quitting at least once a week.
‘Maybe I don’t want to be a vet after all’ was the excuse I would tell myself because I just wanted a break.
I aired my feelings to my Instagram followers and was inundated with messages of love and solidarity. I suddenly realized that I was not on my own.
Every student that spoke to me had felt the same way at some point during the pandemic. And even though that is incredibly sad, it was also very comforting.
The rest of the academic year carried on. My teaching finished in March, and I went on a dairy placement I planned for a few months. Once again, it was nice to get away from the world and to focus on nothing but the animals. The weeks I had spent on placement were some of the best weeks of my life purely for the distraction they gave me away from covid-19.
Exams were very different this year. Some students sat them remotely online, but some were in person under invigilation. Some students had proctored exams at home, and some had an open book. I was in the group of students that sat remote, online, open-book exams.
I am glad to say I passed all of my exams- despite all of the challenges this year has thrown at me.
The New Normal
As vaccinations started rolling out, I went into my summer break feeling hopeful for the next academic year. My peers and I were pretty confident things would be returning to a new normal. After all, we would be completing our dissertations at the start of next year.
Some students had been given laboratory-based projects or needed to utilize practical fieldwork to collect data. So, when these were canceled, I was devastated- as were many of my peers.
The reality that covid is going to keep disrupting our lives for the foreseeable future is disheartening.
No one really knows when lecture theatres will be back to full- capacity or when veterinary practices will feel safe enough to allow students back indoors.
I think it is the unknown that is scary.
We start our journey to veterinary medicine with a clear idea of what our years at university will be like. So, when that does not go to plan, we panic.
I feel like I’ve been in a constant state of panic ever since March 17th, 2020, and I don’t know when it’s going to end.
A Glimmer Of Hope
I wanted to finish this piece of writing with something that has helped me over the past 18 months. It is just a saying:
‘We may not all be in the same boat, but we are all in the same storm’.
So please be kind to each other, support each other and look out for each other.