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From left, Michele Vedbraaten and Erika MacKinnon, veterinary assistants at the Animal Care Clinic in Bemidji, perform a routine checkup on a cat Friday afternoon. Both women are students at the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine in St. Paul. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Eight years of school - bring it on; local clinic offers students a close look at being a vet

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Michele Vedbraaten placed an X-ray from a Maremma sheepdog onto an illuminator for the dog's owner to see.

"It looks good," Vedbraaten said of the hip bones.

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Sighing with relief, the owner walked her dog to the front counter to fill out some final paperwork.

Vedbraaten, 28, originally from Fosston, works as a veterinarian assistant at the Animal Care Clinic in Bemidji. This is her second summer working at the clinic as a veterinary student at the University of Minnesota.

Erika MacKinnon, 21, of Bemidji, a recent graduate of Bemidji State University, also works as a vet assistant at the Animal Care Clinic. This fall, she will enter her first year of vet school at the University of Minnesota.

Both Vedbraaten and MacKinnon agree working at the clinic gave them the necessary experience needed to get accepted into vet school.

Eric Thorsgard, doctor of veterinarian medicine and owner of the Animal Care Clinic, said in the past decade eight veterinary assistants at the clinic have gone on to veterinary school.

"I don't think many clinics do this," Thorsgard said. "Unfortunately, you get a few people who get into vet school and realize when they get there it's not what they want to do. So then someone who really wanted to get in didn't get in because that place was taken."

Thorsgard said pre-vet students who work at the clinic learn whether they want to become vets before vet school.

"They are dealing with sick and dying animals," he said. "They're dealing with tissue samples and cutting things open and sending in parts. They see the healthy and the very sick. This way, those who are considering this profession don't go to vet school blind."

Vedbraaten said after she graduated from high school in Fosston, she chose to go to BSU because it was close to home and had a good science program. And, admittedly, being closer to home meant she could keep an eye on her family's pets.

"I always wanted to be a vet," Vedbraaten said. "I have just always loved animals."

Like Vedbraaten, MacKinnon said a love of animals got her interested in becoming a vet.

"I just kind of always knew I wanted to be a vet," MacKinnon said. "I loved animals when I was a kid. When I got in school I liked science."

Both women graduated from BSU as biology majors and as students enrolled in the BSU pre-veterinary medicine track.

Pre-veterinary medical student at BSU fulfill all requirements for a Bachelor of Science degree. Although the pre-vet program is not an academic major, it gives students an outline of classes to take in order to be prequalified to get into veterinary school.

Most veterinary medical schools require students to take the Graduate Record Examination or the Veterinary College Admissions Test, which are usually taken in the spring of a student's junior year.

Admission to veterinary school is very competitive. Accepted students typically have a grade point average of 3.70 and average GRE scores of 1800 or higher.

Vedbraaten and MacKinnon said in order to get into vet school, persistence pays off.

"It's really difficult to get in," Vedbraaten said. "The main problem is there's less than 30 vet schools in the U.S. and a lot of schools only take between 80-100 students."

Vedbraaten said she applied to three schools before being accepted from the University of Minnesota.

MacKinnon said vet schools look at grade point averages and extra-curricular activities. While at BSU, MacKinnon said she got involved with Habitat for Humanity and did therapy dog training.

The first time MacKinnon applied to the University of Minnesota she didn't get in.

"I got a straight-up rejection letter and that was a bummer," she said. "It's very rare to get in on your first try. You hope you don't get, one but you expect it."

MacKinnon said she continued to work on boosting her résumé by working at the Animal Care Clinic and even teaching a biology lab at BSU.

This past spring, MacKinnon was accepted into veterinary schools at Iowa State and the University of Minnesota.

Vedbraaten and MacKinnon said that working at the Animal Care Clinic gave them the tools needed to get a good start in vet school.

While Vedbraaten's love of animals was her main reason for wanting to go to vet school, once she started working at the Animal Care Clinic, she learned how to work with people.

"When I first started working here I was scared to answer the phone," she said. "I think a lot of people think, 'I want to be a vet because I don't like working with people,' but that's really not the case at all. There's a person at the other end of that leash."

Through the years, Vedbraaten said dealing with really sick animals hasn't stopped her from becoming a vet.

"The bad is definitely euthanasia or finding out you can't treat something," she said. "But the good is puppy and kitten visits, or turning around an animal that was really sick, and you were able to treat it."

Now that she's passed her second year of vet school, Vedbraaten said she can bring more knowledge with her into the clinic.

"Before, I would take the X-rays, but I wouldn't really know what I was looking at," she said. "Now when I'm looking at something, I know what it means."

In starting out in vet school, Vedbraaten said in her first year she learned what normal animals should look and act like.

"We dissected cats, dogs, cows and horses," she said.

In her second year, Vedbraaten said, she learned about animal abnormalities, such as diseases and injuries. She said one of the highlights was performing her first reproductive surgery on an animal.

"I had a large pit-bull mix that was in heat, so it was a little bit more of a challenge," she said. "But I was glad to have a tough surgery for my first one. I feel like you learn more from it."

Last summer Vedbraaten traveled to Africa and studied wildlife veterinary medicine for three weeks.

"We did game capture and learned to shoot tranquilizers out of a dart gun," Vedbraaten said. "We did game capture where we moved them from one game reserve to another. It was very exciting."

Going into her third year, Vedbraaten said she is excited to do more lab work, but knows time management will be the key to getting good grades.

"I really like school, but it's still tough," Vedbraaten said. "A lot of people get frustrated and stressed out. There are a lot of tests. It's a lot of information to learn in four years."

After vet school, Vedbraaten hopes to move back to the Bemidji area to work at a mixed animal clinic.

"I want to do be honest with people and do whatever's best for them and their pet," she said.

MacKinnon said while she's nervous about the course load in vet school, she feels her experience working at the Animal Care Clinic has also given her a lot of practice working with clients.

"I've seen a lot of different kinds of people. I think that will help a lot," she said.

MacKinnon said she has heard vet school is a lot of hard work, but also a lot of fun.

"I hear it is like a totally different four years of school," MacKinnon said. "I don't know if it will feel like school because it will feel like your career prep."

Both Vedbraaten and MacKinnon said vet school is expensive and is often a big stressor for many students.

"There are a lot of student loans to pay off," Vedbraaten said.

Animal Care Clinic veterinarian Thorsgard said having pre-vet students get accepted into vet school and move on is rewarding, but also means a loss to the business.

"It's hard. You get someone to the point of either of these two women and then you lose them," Thorsgard said. "It's tough for us as a business, but it makes us feel good to know they're going on and still interested in becoming a vet."

awilliams@bemidjipioneer.com

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