Field of Dreams
by James T. Shissler, V’04
My interest in veterinary medicine, particularly in large farm animals, developed from my grandparents’ farm, located between Hershey and Middletown, Pa. The homestead included about 150 acres and a small herd of beef cattle, as well as about 150 acres leased on nearby farms. Having lived adjacent to my grandparents’ farm as well as my cousin’s dairy farm, I had the great fortune of spending many hours farming and working with animals. Numerous visits to help my uncle, John Shissler, V’68, also a large-animal veterinarian, helped cement my career choice. While observing him, I developed a keen interest in helping livestock producers maintain the physical and economic health of their animals. In fulfilling my personal goal of maintaining and improving the health of large and small animals, I will be a contributing member of the farm community to which I owe my heritage.
My grandfather, Russell Shissler, was a Mennonite farmer who loved his family and his work. He was very industrious and provided well for his loved ones, and I would like to follow his example. At a very young age, I observed my grandpa and dad doing their chores. My dream to help came very early in my life; in the agricultural tradition, even the youngest are expected to contribute. I learned that farming is a noble profession, essential to the survival of the human race. I feel incumbent to return to that community as a veterinarian to contribute my expertise to those who have toiled for generations in their farming endeavors. Besides fulfilling a debt of gratitude to those who helped shape me, by promoting the health and well-being of farm animals, I would strengthen the vital farming culture for future generations.
As far as education, I attended Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., receiving a bachelor's of science degree in biochemistry, and then graduated from Penn Vet this past May. During my four years as a student, I was very active in the Food Animal Club as an officer and worked with dairy practitioner Bruce Keck, V’93, of Annville one summer through Penn Vet's Food Animal Fellows Program. I also rode with Drs. Michaela Kristula and Billy Smith of New Bolton Center’s Field Service team in my free time to practice rectal palpation at herd checks, worked with Dr. Thomas Parsons as an assistant herd manager and researcher at Penn Vet's swine teaching herd one summer, and served as a teaching assistant with underclassmen enrolled in the swine neonatology and husbandry elective classes.
Fortunately, Penn Vet and Dean Alan Kelly are still committed to providing food-animal students—usually making up less than five percent of a class—with a quality experience. The Marshak Dairy and Penn Vet's swine herd offer access to hands-on training for students. During senior clinics, the food animal medicine and surgery rotation offers technical and medical training; Dave Galligan, V’81, and Jim Ferguson, V’81, have dairy production medicine rotations that offer much insight into current theory, economics, and record keeping in dairy production systems; and the Field Service rotation helps tie together medical skills as well as dairy production medicine.
Although Penn offers a food-animal program that surpasses those at many other veterinary schools, like many food-animal students I sought additional instruction from outside Penn Vet. Through extra course credits I received from independent research and study, elective courses, and Penn Vet’s flexible program that allows students early entry into their fourth year clinical rotations, at the third or fourth quarters of the third year, I was able to complete several externships and private practice rotations as a senior. My goal was to seek enough practical experience to quickly and easily become a contributing member of the veterinary community after graduation, and to gain a perspective of veterinary practices and dairy operations in several regions of the country.
I secured externships at dairy farms operated by veterinarians in Wisconsin, a swine and beef practice in Nebraska, a corporate swine practice in North Carolina, the food-animal pathology rotation at Iowa State University, and the dairy production rotation at the University of California at Davis. Because coursework at veterinary schools is driven by students who are mainly interested in companion animal or equine medicine, these opportunities to branch out are essential for a well-rounded food-animal student.
Through teaching and mentoring, I would like to foster student interest in food-animal practice and hopefully offer financial support at some point in the future. I highly commend those individuals who support students, the future of the profession, with generous scholarships, as well as our state legislators who support students with state grants and educational funds. The cost of a veterinary education is becoming progressively more onerous, as post-graduation debt commonly exceeds $100,000, and starting salaries for veterinarians have not kept up with inflation. If support for students in the form of scholarships and grants continues to increase, the students’ debt burden can be further eased.
Since graduating, I secured a position in one of the best and most progressive practices in south central Pennsylvania, in Franklin County: about 90 percent dairy and 10 percent companion animals. The transition from veterinary student to veterinarian is a constantly challenging process, but with several other veterinarians in the practice, help is almost always available. Life as a vet is a continuous learning experience, and new graduates, with limited experience, must now make rational diagnosis and treatment on their own, a daunting task to say the least. Just in six months, I’ve found the profession to be very fun and rewarding, and have found most clients to be very tolerant and accommodating to a new doctor.
The firsthand exposure I gained in food-animal production and medicine, along with a high-quality education, has allowed me to make a smooth transition from student to professional. My career choice is a tribute to my faith in the future of the American family farm, and to the hard-working people who are attempting to maintain their farming lifestyle for generations to come. I know I can be influential in aiding them to accomplish this goal.