How do you overcome challenges? - Veterinary Practice
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How do you overcome challenges?

The power to endure, battling expectations and developing positive mindsets are just some of the skills we learn from the experiences of inspirational veterinary women

Inspirational veterinary women: 1 of 2

Challenges and difficulties in our working lives may not be welcome at the time, but they can bring the opportunity for growth and development. Learning how others approach difficulties and overcome obstacles can empower us in tackling our own. With this in mind, I asked our Veterinary Woman role models – who all have diverse roles and career stories – to reflect on how they have overcome their greatest challenges, and what they learned from the experience.

What has been your biggest challenge, setback or failure and how have you overcome it? How did you grow or change as a result?

Vet school

For Séverine Tasker, the chief medical officer at Linnaeus, the stumbling block was at the very start of her chosen career path and nearly stopped her from becoming a vet. “This one happened a while ago! I didn’t get into vet school when I first applied. Getting the UCAS rejections one by one was heart-breaking, and I remember opening the rejection slips in the little brown envelopes and sobbing for hours.

“It was difficult to focus on A levels, knowing that I didn’t have a place on the only career path I had considered, but I pushed through and managed to get the grades required for vet school. On results day, I remember spending the day ringing all of the vet schools pleading for a place – it was a different system then – but my persistence led to an interview at Bristol Vet School the next week for one remaining place for the 1987 cohort. I didn’t get the 1987 place, but they offered me a place for 1988 entry, so I had to take a gap year.

“In the end, the gap year was the making of me and the best outcome,” says Séverine. “I was able to get more large animal experience, take on two jobs to save money for university (including a nanny job abroad and making friends for life with the family I cared for) and gain the independence I needed to hit my veterinary degree running when I started at Bristol in 1988.”

However, for Alexia Yiannouli, junior communications officer at CERN, the challenges started towards the end of her third year of university when she failed quite a few exams. “I had failed exams before and narrowly avoided resitting them, but it was quite a shock to me. I had to spend my summer practising in the clinical skills lab for my resit OSCEs, with the weight of potentially being kicked out of vet school on my shoulders.”

I had to adapt my mindset […] it really made me question what I wanted and how I wanted my career path to look

Alexia Yiannouli

She continues, “I passed the resits and moved to fourth year, when the same thing happened: except in fourth year, I failed way more exams – both practical and written this time. There was even more of a possibility of failing them again and being asked to leave, and I found myself spending my Easter and summer holidays juggling EMS, practising for resits and trying my best not to have a meltdown. Somehow, I managed to pull through and pass everything and make it to final year by the skin of my teeth (the year where I passed almost everything the first time!).

“From this, I really learned what it means to be resilient. I learned how to deal with failure, and I had to adapt my mindset. It also made me question what I wanted – I was doing a degree I hated, and I was struggling to deal with that alongside the fact that I wasn’t just sailing through it. I could have called it quits after my third year – pass my resits and leave with a bachelor’s degree – but it really made me question what I wanted and how I wanted my career path to look. Looking back, I don’t regret sticking it out – it’s taught me to manage expectations and deal with unfavourable situations and has given me valuable transferable skills that I can take with me in whichever direction my career goes in.”

A key mantra for resilience

For Susan McKay, the director of Companion Consultancy and founder of Veterinary Woman, “There have been so many times when I’ve completely had the rug pulled out from under my feet. People always think that entrepreneurs are devil-may-care but that’s often not the case.”

She continues, “You can be absolutely terrified by or grieving over a turn of events, but you have to keep going. What was yesterday’s disaster does pass and becomes a sad, upsetting, and hopefully increasingly fleeting, memory. The power to endure and come back from a setback is something you have to learn in life and business. The other way I look at things is that there are three solutions to every problem – you can put up with it, you can change it or you can walk away. I find that strangely comforting.”

There are three solutions to every problem – you can put up with it, you can change it or you can walk away. I find that strangely comforting.

Susan McKay

The pandemic and connections

We are all acutely aware of the immense ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic on the world. However, for Petra Agthe, a European specialist in diagnostic imaging, it was deeply personal as well as professional. “My dad died during the first lockdown and my family lives in Germany, so that was obviously incredibly tough,” Petra shares. “We also had significant transitions in our imaging team, which proved quite challenging. Additionally, I had two health scares and had to undergo major surgery, so it really was a whopper of a year!

“I have overcome these challenges by really connecting with those who are close to me, and by relying a lot on support from family and friends. I also had excellent support from my practice and the team, who really rallied around me.

“That period made me realise just how resilient I had become by cultivating the skills of mindfulness and self-compassion over the years, as I had some mental tools to support myself through the madness, in addition to reaching out for other help.”

Petra continues, “The events made me fully realise that there are some things you cannot control and to take life as it comes. They also motivated me to become a mindfulness practitioner and coach, so that I can help others in discovering their own inner skills.”

Battling expectations

“My biggest challenge in life has been having a vision of where I expected to be at midlife and not achieving it,” says Marie Holowaychuk, veterinary specialist and mental health and well-being advocate for veterinary professionals. “In my work life, I have already accomplished more than I had ever hoped to, but in my home life I have struggled to meet ‘my person’ and have a family. I believe this comes from years (decades!) of putting work before anything else and the ticking biological clock adding pressure to relationships.
“Finally, I decided to have a family on my own, so I embarked on my journey as a single mum by choice. It took more than a year to get pregnant but, in June 2020, I had my healthy baby girl. I love her more than anything else in the world and while our family is unconventional, I remain grateful and joyful. I have learned that family can take on many different forms and that life doesn’t always turn out as you expect it to. And that’s more than OK.”

Family can take on many different forms and life doesn’t always turn out as you expect it to. And that’s more than OK.

Marie Holowaychuk

Negative mindsets

Remi Onabolu, who is an RVN, vet student and co-founder of Scrub Mentors, has a common foe: her mindset. She says, “My mindset is probably one of the things that sets me back the most. I always knew that I had feelings of imposter syndrome, especially after I qualified as a nurse, but it kicked in again when I started vet school.

“I did the accelerated veterinary medicine course, so I had the pressure of paying for the course out of my own pocket mixed with the fact that I had to pass as I could not afford to resit. A lot of my peers had completed degrees before vet school, so I felt out of depth when topics were genetics- or pharmacology-heavy. I honestly felt like an imposter as it took me longer to understand things compared to people who had master’s degrees.”

It can be hard to overcome your mental attitude, so how did she do it? Remi says she signed up for an online group coaching course where she got to speak to other vets and vet nurses who felt the same. She says, “Surprisingly, specialists experienced the same feelings as me. I realised that the amount of letters after your name truly doesn’t correlate with not feeling like an imposter. I try to remember that I got this far due to my own efforts, and I should not let the negative voice in me think anything different.”

The right work environments

“I had a really difficult time working for a former employer; there were multiple compounding factors that resulted in the environment being a toxic place to work and certainly not a good fit for me,” says Helen Harrison, a veterinary advisor for TVM Animal Health UK Ltd. “It took me a long time to realise it was the situation that needed to change and not me – I worked myself into the ground trying my best to adapt and give it my all before recognising that the environment wasn’t giving me what I need to enjoy my job.

“I’ve learned a lot about my motivations and what I need to be happy at work as a consequence. These include things such as clear objectives; time and resources to do my job to a high standard, including structure, breaks and two-way feedback; camaraderie and support; and avoiding employers with a blame culture and finding those with a culture that encourages creativity. I feel really lucky to have found a job with TVM that not only meets these ideals but exceeds them!”

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