PennVet | Life At Vet U: Behind the Scenes
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Life At Vet U: Behind the Scenes

By: Ashley Berke Published: Feb 24, 2017

Penn Vet cast members share stories from Animal Planet series

“If anyone thinks that it’s easy, they’re dead wrong,” Lindsay Gallagher says emphatically in the trailer previewing Penn Vet’s Animal Planet docu-series, Life at Vet U. And over the course of six episodes, Gallagher and her five castmates illustrated just how true that sentiment is; the show reveals that becoming a veterinarian is a grueling and often emotional process, but one that is also incredibly rewarding.

Airing on Saturday nights from October 1 through November 5, 2016, Life at Vet U followed a group of fourth-year Penn Vet students as they completed their rigorous training while learning from experts at both Ryan Hospital and New Bolton Center.

Filming began on Match Day in February 2016 and continued through graduation in May, providing a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the world of veterinary medicine. With scenes ranging from an intense canine cataract surgery to a stallion collection for artificial insemination, to a cow C-section and stressful rotations with Dr. Dean Richardson, the series captured the passion, proficiency, and perseverance required to make it to graduation.

Prior to filming, producers held an open casting call for the Class of 2016. Six students were selected for the show: Rebecca Bernstein, Clint Kuban, Melanie Lang, Morgan Taylor, Max Emanuel, and Gallagher. The graduates, now interning at hospitals across the country, took time from their busy schedules to answer some questions about what it was like to finish veterinary school with cameras documenting their every move.

Why did you want to participate in the show?

Rebecca Bernstein: Honestly, it has been my dream to be on Animal Planet since I was a kid. When I started veterinary school, I told my parents that I wanted to do something different. When I heard about the opportunity to be on the show, I jumped at it. And I loved every second of it. It really was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I never thought I’d actually have the chance to be on Animal Planet!

Clint Kuban: I was excited to work on Life at Vet U because it was an opportunity to get more exposure for the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, and in particular, my foster dog, Tsunami, who is part of their ovarian cancer detection program. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to brag about Tsunami!

Melanie Lang: The altruistic answer is that I really wanted the public to understand the amazing things done by veterinarians, by veterinary students, and by Penn Vet doctors and students, in particular. I wanted people to see how hard we work and how dedicated we are to our profession and our patients. The selfish answer is that I really like being the center of attention!

Morgan Taylor: I wanted to show people what it’s like to be a veterinarian. This really is an underappreciated profession, even though we work so hard to get here. Nobody knows what it takes. And if you don’t tell people and show people, we can’t expect them to change their minds.

Max Emanuel: I thought that if I passed on this opportunity, it might be something I’d regret. I grew up watching Animal Planet and have always been enthralled by their wildlife shows. Melissa [Max’s girlfriend, who was also a fourth-year student at the time] was very supportive throughout it all. She really encouraged me to go for it.

Lindsay Gallagher: I’m extremely passionate about veterinary medicine and Penn Vet, so this was the perfect opportunity to share that passion with a large audience. Plus, I’ve always loved Animal Planet. When I heard that the production company working on the show was High Noon, that also got me excited. They made the show Emergency Vets, which I watched religiously as a kid. I knew they made quality shows that portrayed veterinary medicine in a positive way, so I was excited about the project.

What was it like having cameras document your final months of veterinary school?

RB: I really didn’t mind having the crew around. I honestly forgot they were there most of the time! We all became friends with the crew and it was nice to have people around to lighten the mood. Most of all, I’m so happy that I have lasting evidence of this journey to look back on.

ML: The entire crew was so respectful of the fact that our primary responsibilities were our patients and our learning. Plus, working with the crew was a ton of fun, so I can't complain!

ME: There definitely were growing pains in the beginning. My first rotation during filming was Anesthesia. It’s stressful enough trying to induce an animal, and doing that with a camera in my face was extra nerve-wracking. Communication with the crew was key. We set some boundaries and it worked well for everyone involved.

LG: There was definitely a learning curve in the beginning, but I got used to it pretty quickly. I used the experience as an additional opportunity to learn how to improve my client communication skills. As veterinarians, we have to speak about our work in a way that makes sense to people without a medical background.

What was the most stressful part of veterinary school?

RB: Getting in! I also think the hardest part was the transition from fourth-year student to doctor. When you’re the doctor, there’s no one around to tell you the answers. Being the boss and making the decisions can be really tough.

CK: The long hours of studying very dense material at a fast rate was definitely stressful, but absolutely worth it. Sleep deprivation is a necessary evil in this world, and that's always a little stressful, but manageable. Unfortunately, real-world problems don't just go away during veterinary school, so dealing with that can add to the stress.

ML: Waiting. Waiting to know if you've passed boards, waiting to know if you've matched—it was a nightmare. Once you take the test or submit the application, it's out of your hands, but then you have to wait months for the results. That leads to a lot of "I wonder if I should have..."

MT: Second year. You’re taking the most classes and there are exams every other day.

ME: I think it got progressively harder each year, so fourth year was the hardest. The combination of applying to internships, while trying to do well in school, while also trying to pass the board exam was really stressful.

LG: The sheer volume of information. Learning everything at once is incredibly challenging, if not impossible. It’s hard for veterinary students—who are all overachievers—to realize that you can’t do it all ... You also have to learn how to rely on other people. You can’t do this alone. These have been very valuable lessons in my internship, too.

The show portrays Dr. Richardson as one of the most intimidating faculty members. What was it like on his rotation?

RB: He can definitely be intimidating, but he’s also really nice. You just have to be prepared and confident going into a rotation with him. He wants to make sure that we’re all prepared to enter the world with the correct information.

CK: He's one of the most passionate, no-nonsense teachers you'll ever meet.

ML: Dr. Richardson really cares about learning. Yeah, he can be harsh, but that's only if you haven't done your homework. Personally, I think he’s hilarious and a big softie deep down.  

MT: It’s exactly like it appears on the show: intense. I have not yet worked with a clinician who is as intense as Dr. Richardson. Because of him, I’m able to work well with people who others think are intense. He pushed me in ways that no one else will ever push me. I have a much thicker skin as a result.

Overall, Dr. Richardson is knowledge-hungry and wants everyone else around him to be knowledge-hungry. He always told us that, when you wake up in the morning, you should wake up with questions in your head and come up with more throughout the day. Now, in my internship, I remember those words when doing diagnostic work-ups. I think to myself, “Morgan, what questions should you be asking right now? What don’t you understand and need to look up?” He instilled that in me.

ME: Being on Dr. Richardson’s rotation is all about preparation. You need to know everything possible about the procedure, the patient, and the anatomy. The principles I picked up in surgery with him or discussing cases with him really made me a better veterinarian. Even though I’m not a large-animal veterinarian, I think about cases differently and more dynamically because of Dr. Richardson.

LG: He cares so deeply about his patients. Once you show that you do, too, by being prepared and passionate, then he respects you. I studied so hard for his rotation, and as a result, I remember those lessons and cases to this day. It’s really scary to work with him, but you also get so much out of it.

What is your favorite memory from veterinary school?

RB: I went to Thailand after my first year, and we did spays and neuters in Bangkok and other areas. It was incredible. I made great, lifelong friends on that trip. Other favorite memories: Passing my boards. Getting my internship. Anything from my Emergency rotations. Those are all pretty spectacular memories.

ML: I think my overall favorite memory is the feeling of overwhelming love and support I had from my classmates. There’s nothing better than knowing you’re in it to win it with 100 of your closest friends. 

MT: I really enjoyed working with Pat Reilly, the farrier. I took his Podology rotation and loved it. It was definitely one of my favorite rotations. The equine foot is a complicated thing!

LG: As a small-animal person, I loved working on large animals! Doing the guttural pouch scoping on the show completely blew my mind. It’s fun to be someone who works primarily with dogs and cats and then have my arm all the way inside a cow. Veterinary school allows you to get a broad range of experiences.

What was your most memorable case from the show?

RB: Cocoa’s case, the Yorkshire terrier that came in through Emergency. This was the most memorable because it represents the majority of what I deal with every day. I was really touched by the family; I felt for them. But it was a good learning experience to find a happy medium between compassion and also being a medical professional. It’s important to provide a safe environment for the owner to make a tough decision. This case was also memorable because the clinicians let me do a lot on my own: the history, treatment options, etcetera. Because this was my second time on the Emergency Service rotation, and because they knew I was going into Emergency for my internship, they gave me a lot of autonomy within a controlled environment. I really started feeling more like a doctor. 

CK: I'll always remember Sophie's C-section. Dr. [Carol] Margolis is an amazing doctor and I learned so much from my time with her. She really makes sure you understand every facet of the case and ensures that you get the experience needed to practice in the real world. The emotional highs and lows from Sophie's case are very emblematic of the veterinary experience; these cases stay with you forever.

ML: It would have to be Sammy, the diabetic Pomeranian. He was a dog with so much personality. His owners were the sweetest couple and they loved him so much. The outcome was very sad, but I'm thankful I got to meet Sammy and his mom and dad. 

MT: I loved Mollie, my case in the Emergency Service. I also loved her parents. Mollie was their precious baby and they wanted the best for her. It felt good to be able to play a role in helping her. Plus, she was little and I could carry her around. You can’t carry your horse around!

ME: Zippy the zebra. I’ve been to Africa several times and wanted to be a wildlife veterinarian for a large part of my life. So to have a zebra as my last patient in veterinary school was pretty amazing. And to have him as a patient with Dr. Richardson was pretty cool.

LG: The mare and foal that I helped treat at New Bolton Center. Any animal that comes in without an owner has a special place in my heart because they don’t have people to visit them … I always tried to give them a little extra love so they were excited to see me when I entered their stall, as if they had a family member coming to visit.

What was it like to watch yourself on TV?

CK: It's surreal to watch, but also really exciting to have this important chapter of my life documented. What a great thing to have and to show my kids one day.

MT: It’s not that bad, really. But I mostly watched the show so I could see my fellow cast members in action. I found the show to be very entertaining and engaging. They did a nice job of capturing our professional and personal lives, as well as our aspirational goals.

ME: I’m not sure that it’s really sunk in yet. My initial reaction was, “Do I really sound like that?” I haven’t heard myself talk that much in my entire life. But, overall, I thought I did as good of a job as I could have. I’m pretty proud. Watching the show was really gratifying.

How have people responded to the show? Has the show changed your life in any way?

RB: I knew that my parents and friends would watch the show to support me, but it’s so great to hear them comment on how much they love the medicine! Friends of mine have gotten their friends hooked—even those who would never watch this type of show—and they all love it. Nurses and staff at work have gone out of their way to tell me that they love watching the show. People have recognized me from the billboard and the show. I never thought I’d get to do an interview for Nightline, so that was exciting! It’s all been a great learning experience. Best of all, I now have memories that I will always be able to look back on fondly and cases that I will always remember and use.

CK: The show has definitely affected my life in a positive way. I've made many promising professional connections and am well positioned to start my post-internship career. Everyone has been so thrilled about the show. As it was airing, people kept telling me they couldn't wait for the next episode.

LG: Everyone has been really positive. A client asked me to pose for a photo with him and his dog to show his kids, who love the show. Another story that stands out is about a client of mine whose cat was euthanized. She sent me a message saying that she was having a hard time at home, but then she saw the trailer for the show for the first time and felt at peace. She said it was a sign that everything was going to be all right, and that watching the show would be a tribute to her cat, as she remembered all of the things I did for her. Another friend told me that her mother-in-law was a Penn Vet alumna who had since passed away, and that watching the show made the family feel more connected to her. These stories validate all of the work we put into the show.

What do you hope people learn from watching the show?

RB: I hope people realize that veterinarians can pretty much do anything you can do in human medicine for your pets. The care that Penn Vet can provide is truly incredible.

CK: I hope people take away a better understanding of the level of dedication it takes to become a veterinarian. The educational process is grueling and the job is emotional. We all take our cases home with us at night. It can be very difficult to establish a work/life balance. The issue of student debt is a very real concern, too. 

ML: I hope they gain an appreciation for the hours, love, and passion veterinary students put into becoming doctors. I hope they also see that we're regular people, too, with fears and hopes and dreams. I also hope they fall in love with Penn Vet after seeing what an incredible facility it is, filled with incredible people. 

MT: I hope they get a sense that veterinarians are real people. When we don’t succeed, it hurts us, too. I’m glad that the show demonstrated how much we care and how hard we work.

ME: I hope people see veterinarians differently as a result of the show. I hope they learn that we are legitimate doctors who go through four intense years of education and learning. We’re always put to the test to be the best that we can be. We always have the animal’s best interest at heart, to ease their suffering and improve their quality of life. And we’re compassionate and love what we do. I also hope that the show has an impact on kids. I hope this is something that inspires them. Maybe they’ll consider becoming veterinarians, or maybe the show will cause them to think differently about animals. 

LG: I hope that people walk away with a better understanding of what it’s like to be a veterinary student and a veterinarian. I think the show does that a thousand times over. I also hope that viewers gain a better understanding of our advanced science, medicine, and technology. Even my mom, who’s a doctor, learned from watching the show. She would constantly say, “I didn’t know you could do that in dogs!” I hope viewers see our passion, too. This isn’t just a job. This comes from the heart.