Interview with Dr. Lydia L. Donaldson, VMD

by Cathy Sivak
Interview with Dr. Lydia L. Donaldson, VMD

As an undergrad student, Lydia Donaldson considered following in her father's footsteps to become an M.D. But an aversion to sticking people with needles combined with a love of animals led to a veterinary education and ongoing, nearly 30-year career in the field including equine and anesthesiology specialization.

After completing her undergrad BS degree at Mount Holyoke College in 1969, she wasn't sure what direction her further education would take but had an inkling that veterinary school was an option. She served in the Peace Corps and took classes in biology and genetics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and made the decision to focus on medicine for animals rather than people. She earned her VMD from the University of Pennsylvania.

Nearly a decade in small animal practice led to an anesthesiologist opportunity at an equine health center. At the same time, she embarked on completing her residency at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Anesthesia and her postgraduate studies at Georgetown University Medical Center to earn her Ph.D.

Currently Dr. Donaldson is a contract anesthesiologist who teaches the art of anesthesiology to veterinary students at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine anesthetizes animals for MRI at the IAMS Pet Imaging Center. Her professional background also includes publication of more than a dozen articles in veterinary journals, presentations at professional events and authorship of several book chapters.

Named a diplomate of The American College of Veterinary Anesthesiologists (ACVA) in 1991, Dr. Donaldson is extensively involved with the organization as a reviewer and committee member. In addition, she is member of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), Virginia Veterinary Medical Association (VVMA), the Association of Veterinary Anesthesia, and the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine (SEBM).

While an interest in animals is somewhat of a given for those going into the veterinary field, Dr. Donaldson reminds students to work on their people skills, as well. "You love animals, but every animal has a 'people' attached".

Dr. Donaldson & Her Career

What led to your interest in the veterinary field?

My father was an M.D, so there was medical activity my background. We always had animals. He wanted me to medical school, and I wanted to go to vet school, and it evolved.

What about your interest in veterinary anesthesiology?

I really enjoyed the anesthesiology in school. It's circumstantial as an interest, because you have to be located in a place where you can do anesthesiology. Its fun, it's different, it's risk-taking. The animals are alive and yet, almost dead. It takes a different kind of individual to be an anesthesiologist, which I really see in the students I work with. We have some students who are very happy to take the challenge, and other students who are scared stiff the whole time.

What led you from small animal practice to equine practice and anesthesiology?

Because my father was an M.D. and was on a medical school faculty, I've always had an academic slant to my life. As a student I worked in the neuro-anatomy lab in the summers doing research. But at the end of school, I was ready to get out of the city, out of academia and out into practice.

In school, I was considered an equine student, although treating dogs and cats is no problem. My husband is a veterinarian, and he was a couple classes ahead of me. When I graduated, he had already re-located to Virginia, so we married and I came down here and found a job in a small animal practice. After nine or so years I was restless, the anesthesia position became available nearby at the Virginia veterinary school ancillary clinic, and it's always been a field that intrigued me.

What differences and similarities did you find in the two areas?

In small animal practice, you work on pretty much any animal that comes through the door, including some exotics. Small animal medicine is much more like human medicine, in that there's a wider range of possibilities and things you can do to treat the animal. You even can amputate limbs. When you are treating horses, well, they just don't tolerate a lot of things. It's also rare that they get the complexity of diseases of small animals; the greatest concentration in equine medicine is keeping them mobile and sound with their intestinal tracts working.

What ranks among the favorite achievements that you've completed in your career and why?

Certainly the thing I've had the most fun with is teaching the students in the clinics and working with students. They have such fun input. It's wonderful to see them work. At the same time doing research and learning is part of it.

You extensively involved with the American College of Veterinary Anesthesiologists, belong to several other professional organization. What drives your involvement?

Really, they mostly just require you pay the membership. But I am very active in the ACVA. The others are more a way of keeping in touch with my colleagues at various levels, being able to share experiences; it's sort of a broader community.

Most veterinarians in small private practice are quite isolated. Even when I was working at the equine faculty, it was a group of 12 veterinarians, and nobody had an interest in anesthesiology.

So being part of the broader group allows interaction with direct peers in the field; its important to keep our eyes open, and to be able contribute, too. Motivation to be a member is similar to my willingness to be interviewed and to write articles; to share with other people what I've learned, and to hear what they've learned.

How can such professional and academic groups help prospective veterinary students and recent grads?

A lot of the professional groups have student chapters; students should join those groups. They can learn a lot, and get a better idea of what can be ahead of them once they graduate. Membership helps you keep in touch with the whole profession; you may be the only person in town doing veterinary work, so it can be pretty hard to remain stimulated.

The Actual Work

Describe a typical week of work for you. What are your key responsibilities?

As an anesthesiologist my responsibility is to make sure it is safe to anesthetize the animal, choose (or guide students through the process of choosing) the appropriate methods and manage the anesthesia to a successful outcome, which means having the animals recover and be normal again.

When I was at the equine center, I did a lot of anesthesia myself, because I was the only veterinary anesthetist there with one or more anesthesia technician(s). As a teacher, my responsibility is in coaching the students through, asking things like "why are you doing that?" and "what does this mean?" and so forth.

At the imaging center, where clients bring in their animals to have an MRI, I have direct contact with the client. I talk to the owners, make sure they understand what we're doing, help them deal with their worries about anesthesia, and advise them through the post-anesthesia period. Anesthesiologists also do a fair amount of pain management and consulting.

Another responsibility is emergency duty. I also work on academic things such as putting notes together for lectures, that sort of thing.

On a basic level, what skills does your job demand?

You need to have skills with animals, but the people are equally as important as the animals. Not only the owners, but also the students and co-workers and making sure everyone is on the same page.

That is a skill that people who want to go to veterinary school should not ignore; you love animals, but every animal has a "people" attached. We do need to know about people and be sympathetic to them.

The technical skills that are involved in anesthesiology include placing the catheter, managing the monitors; minute-by-minute problem-solving skills, even if it's a matter of solving personnel issues. You are making knowledge-based judgments, so being up to date on basic information and research is important.

What unique challenges and rewards come from working with veterinary patients? Owners? Students?

One of the nice things about anesthesia is that has a specific time that it is scheduled. Every animal that is anesthetized successfully -- that means no crisis or problem and the animal recovers to be the same wagging dog or purring cat -- that's success.

Having an owner that appreciates what we do is always very rewarding; some of them take it all for granted. The owners that are particularly worried about their animals, and have some sort of awareness about what's going on, and are particular appreciative afterwards -- all of that's very rewarding.

With students, it's when the lights go on that's fun. For some of them it never really clicks, they want a routine and to do it safely and that's fine. But for others, they start to think "what is this drug really doing?" and "why did that animal do that?" and that's really fun.

How can the reality of a career in the veterinary field differ from typical expectations?

You come into vet school loving animals and thinking that's all you have to deal with. When you get out, you do deal with animals, but you have to deal with people as well. I don't remember that being a problem, myself.

Veterinarians tend to job hop a lot. There is a lot of dissatisfaction. My husband is also a vet, and he thinks many veterinary school graduates are too intelligent to be in private practice. They are selected for vet school based on their intelligence, and then they get out of vet school, go to some small town to practice, and all they do is treat skin diseases, spay and neuter, and vaccinate. Although there is a lot of reward in that, if you have the right personality, for some, suddenly it's not so challenging. That was a little bit of my problem, I wanted to do more.

Best patient/owner care tip for a novice veterinarian?

The most important thing is to be empathetic and sympathetic. Your bedside manner is really important for success in practice. You could do a bad job, make misjudgments in treatment, but as along as you are open and communicative with the owner and they are on your side, they will see you as a person and understand. You should work with the owner to help them with their animal, not be a "big, important" veterinarian who is impersonal.

The biggest thing you can tell a new owner of an animal, any species, is to develop a routine with the animal so you can pick up on changes in the animal. If your horse doesn't come up to be fed, or doesn't call at you or do whatever it is the horse normally does when you arrive, or if the dog doesn't greet you when you come home from work, or doesn't want to eat, it could indicate a problem with the animal's health.

Education Advice & Insights

How did you choose the University of Pennsylvania for your veterinary studies, the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Anesthesia for your residency and Georgetown University Medical School for your post-graduate studies?

Penn was the only choice in those days; I don't even think I applied anywhere else. Penn is a good school, I'm glad I went there. Then I moved to Virginia, I started working at the equine center that is part of Virginia Tech, and I did my residency while I was there working. Part of the requirement of my residency was met by doing the Ph.D at Georgetown, which was the closest medical school. The people at Georgetown were very generous, and let me do what I could, when I could, and it took me seven years.

How did your studies at Mount Holyoke College and Massachusetts Institute of Technology create the foundation for your advanced education?

MIT sounds really good, but I was working at the time, and had not taken genetics yet, so took a few classes there. Mount Holyoke is a serious academic institution, my family background was to study and achieve well, and I went to a college that required the same. Everybody there was serious about education. They reinforced my basic study habits and my interest in learning, so that when I went to vet school, it was no harder than undergraduate school, and I was not the top of my class.

One of the things that vet students seem to get overwhelmed by is they come from a smaller, maybe not-so-competitive undergrad school, where they are the top of the class, getting straight As, and then they are plunked into a class of 100 people who are the same. They all expect to be on top, and they suddenly find out there are people who are smarter than they are, with stronger backgrounds.

I had a strong background, but I didn't have that preconception that I was smarter than everyone else. I sort of knew I was going to go to veterinary school, though my father still wanted me to go to medical school. I had a scientific interest, so I majored in chemistry. But I didn't do all the biology, the genetics, so it wasn't as if I had tunnel vision about my career. Between Holyoke and the MIT, I went in the Peace Corps for a little more than a year. When I came back, I worked for a year, finished up a few classes at MIT.

In retrospect, is there anything that you know now, that you wish you knew before you pursued your education?

I don't know that it would have changed much. Sometimes I think I should have taken my father's advice and gone into human medicine. But my argument to him then was that I didn't like sticking needles into people, and I still feel that way. Veterinary medicine has lots and lots of opportunities, it's absolutely open-ended. But unless you are a business person, you are not going to get rich. It's a lot of work.

How can prospective vet and vet tech students assess their potential aptitude in the field?

They need to be at least sympathetic to people, and willing to understand.

There are vets who bury themselves in third layer work levels and don't have to deal with their clients much. It helps to be a people person as well as to be an animal person, to like problem solving, the scientific process. You have to be a good and disciplined student to get through school. The ability to study and the willingness to put the time in is important.

And once you become a veterinarian, you keep on studying to keep up-to-date. The education is an ongoing process.

What factors should students consider when choosing a veterinary school at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels?

A serious student can get a good education anywhere.

If you live in a state that has a vet school, it makes good financial sense to go to that vet school and apply yourself. All of the faculty should be well qualified, but some of the newer schools are not as established don't have the depth of faculty and expertise as the older programs.

If you find you are not being satisfied by what you are being taught, these days you can do six months somewhere else, or do a rotation, or spend the summer at another vet school to explore a particular interest.

Think about finances; so many students are coming out of vet school with horrendous debt. If money isn't a problem, then going to one of the bigger, older schools is good, as the more established, older schools are generally stronger. Consider schools that are affiliated with a full university with a medical school and an ag school -- that ends up being University of California-Davis, Ohio State, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania and Tufts is one of the newer schools that's done pretty well.

Are there different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in a certain area?

All of the schools have good small animal programs. There are schools that have strong points, the horse places are UC-Davis and Penn, with Ohio and Florida to some extent.

For the exotics, Florida has a good marine biology program. If students think they want to go into marine biology, they should look at a school like UC-Davis that has an association with SeaWorld in San Diego.

All of the school web sites are pretty good about pointing out their strengths.

Based on your experiences teaching veterinary and vet tech students, how can potential students prepare to succeed? What should they expect in terms of curriculum difficulty?

They should expect lots of work. There was a class at Virginia Tech several years ago that complained that they had to study on the weekends. That was mind boggling to all of us. After all, what did they think? It's veterinary medicine. Students should expect to be submerged in their studies, period. You'll be surprised when you have a free afternoon.

From your perspective as an educator and a professional in the field, what are generally considered of some of the most respected and prestigious veterinary schools, departments or programs?

With anesthesia, not all of the schools have residency programs. As a vet student going in, if you think you might want to do anesthesia, or if you are a graduate looking into an anesthesiology departments, UC-Davis, has the strongest, most organized program. People who go through their anesthesiology residency come out and pass the boards on the first try. And Penn is likewise.

The other schools, particularly newer programs: the North Carolina State University program is getting stronger, Florida and Tufts are is getting stronger; Ohio used to be really strong, but that's not necessarily so anymore. Cornell has a good program, and is working on and expanding its program.

If anesthesia is a consideration for a residency, the big thing to look for is the number of the anesthesiology faculty. The more anesthesia faculty, the better the program is.

Does school choice make a difference in landing a good job or establishing a practice?

I don't think so. I might be an idealist. I think personality and work ethic are bigger factors.

Show up at the interview on time, be pleasant, show interest and ask proper questions, think about whether you get along with the personality of the boss, the person hiring you. Certainly, the general public is not that aware of the vet schools and their individual strengths and weaknesses. I imagine vets hiring a new gradate would generally like to hire from their own school, but I wouldn't think that would be the deciding factor. The person's personality and competence -- will they get along with the clients, the help, and show up for work -- are the types of things employers will want to gauge.

What challenges and trends will be addressed by the veterinary educational system in the next ten years?

The biggest challenge for veterinary schools to address is going to be the loss of faculty to private and specialty practices.

Academics who are now the experts are going into private practice, making lots more money and having a simpler life. The whole faculty part of the veterinary college structure needs to be addressed, including the requirements for faculty and funding for faculty. Either the salaries have to be competitive or there have to be perks that enable and encourage people to stay. The ones who stay do so because they like the students, but at some point if you are expected to do community service and clinics and research and teaching, plus also keep up in your field, it becomes overwhelming. That's why a lot of people have left school faculties to go to a 9-5 job or an emergency specialty where the hours are somewhat under control and they are making much more than they would at the university. The ones who stay are the ones who really like to teach and to do research; the schools have to identify those strengths of their faculty and develop those strengths to encourage them to stay, or start using the specialty practice as part of the education.

How do you feel that the veterinary education system could be changed to better serve animal welfare and society as a whole?

My stock answer is to add two more years to the education. There's too much stuff for the students to learn. They just cram it in, and some of its sticks. It's horrendous. Schools including Virginia Tech have started to allow students to track to certain concentrations -- small animal, government or whatever -- so they don't have to take all of the classes for everything. I don't know if that's been successful in the outcome: have those people gone out and stayed in those professions? One of the nice things about vet medicine is that you can do anything you want with it. If I decided I wanted to inspect meat tomorrow, I could do that. If I wanted to, that is.

Veterinary Career Information & Advice

What challenges and trends will be addressed by the veterinary profession in the next ten years?

Veterinarians in general need to not get hung up on money. That's hard to say, because society is so demanding. The one thing people say about vets compared to MDs is that they care. They don't immediately insist that you pay to take care of your animal, and as long as you did a good job of supporting people in their pets and animals, that means clients come back and come back. We don't need to make a million dollars.

You specialize in anesthesiology. What veterinary field career specialties are expected to be growth fields over the next decade?

The specialties that aree growing now are alternative medicine-holistic, pain management and physical therapy, post-surgical and geriatric patient management. It's the same new recognition of quality of life in addition to just life that has been happening in human medicine.

Areas that will always be strong are small animal specialties including some of the imaging services. People who have the luxury of a small animal pet that sleeps on their bed will continue to pay for high end treatments; a certain amount of that extends into horses, as well.

How available are internships, residencies and other hands-on training opportunities?

There are a lot them out there, interns are cheap labor for the vet schools and someone who wants to do an internship wants to expand their knowledge base.

Some schools that don't list an internship will make room for a student who calls and says "I'd like to do an internship, I don't care what you pay me, I just want to learn something." There are lots of opportunities. Sometimes it's just a matter of asking, even if it's not listed, because a lot of schools can create a work situation that can be called an internship and paid through staff salary budgets.

Right out of vet school or shortly thereafter is when you need to be concentrating on learning. Students who have debts can graduate and go on to do internships and residencies, and defer payment on student loans.

What are the best ways to land a job in the veterinary field?

Doing an internship is the better step up to getting a job. If you wanted to have one foot in the door ahead of your classmates, do a mixed internship, a mixed environment of small animal or large animal, or work at a really good specialty practice. Those give you a little more exposure, so when you go out to private practice, you have more behind you than the person who comes out of vet school and has never castrated a cat.

A specific residency in something like large animal internal medicine residency has fewer employment opportunities because there are a limited faculty positions. The majority of large animal internal medicine is equine, where what you will be good at is using an ultrasound to look at heart murmurs or kidney disease, you might end up working in a practice, making the same as anyone else in the practice, but you'd specialize a bit and your colleagues would refer you some of the more difficult cases such as equine neonatology (consults on all of the foals that are sick).

What is the current job market? Long-range forecast?

There are always thousands of ads for jobs in the AVMA Journal listings. There are lots out there. My bias is I think a lot of those positions are more rural, and probably include some emergency work, so are less attractive to people. When I graduated from vet school, I was not expecting a 9 to 5 job. But more and more students today have that as a priority. They are more sophisticated, we didn't think about health insurance and all the benefits. For one, they're carrying a bigger debt, so they are looking for a good salary and usually, not too much work. A veterinarian I talked to employed a first year graduate who finally told him he had to leave the practice because he wasn't making enough money to support his two horses and various other things that he insisted on being able to do.

What contributions do you feel the veterinary field makes to society?

The obvious is the food supply protection. And the other, is to help us all as pet owners, who are becoming increasingly dependent on our pets. As humanity becomes less humane, we need pets to make us feel like human beings. Veterinarians help people protect their animals, and we do have a certain responsibility to wildlife. Would the world survive without veterinarians? I don't know. Not that long ago, 150 years ago, there weren't any trained veterinarians.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the veterinary profession that would be interesting or helpful to potential veterinary students?

The one thing I've always told students is that there are lots of opportunities.

If you go to vet school thinking you are going to work on horses, keep your mind open. Even if you do that, somewhere down the line, you might decide to go into small animals, meat inspection or one of the many other opportunities for veterinarians. None of them are going to make you any richer, unless you are a business types. Keep your eyes open and be flexible.

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