The fourth and final year of veterinary school is not easy. At the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, it’s when students leave the classroom and enter the exam room to do their clinical rotations, working long hours and getting hands-on experience treating patients who can’t exactly tell the soon-to be-doctors what’s wrong.
As if that wasn’t stressful enough, last year, a half-dozen fourth-year veterinary students gave themselves an additional challenge and joined the cast of Animal Planet’s “Life at Vet U,” a six-part docu-series that followed them around the Ryan Veterinary Hospital in Philadelphia and the New Bolton Center (a hospital for large animals) in nearby Kennett Square.
Now that (spoiler alert!) all the students have graduated and moved into the world of veterinary medicine, we caught up with some of them and their professors to look back at their experience.
On Becoming a Vet
Cast member Max Emanuel knew from childhood that he wanted to work with animals. “I’ve always been moved to emotion by animals and had a complete and utter fascination with them,” he says. Emanuel initially wanted to be a wildlife vet because he had a passion for travel and seeing other countries, but since studying at UPenn and seeing the standard of care they provide and the breadth of things they can do, he’s concentrating on emergency medicine for domestic animals.
Rebecca Bernstein also had a passion for animals (and grew up with plenty in her home), but wasn’t sure she’d be good at science and instead majored in business at college. Six months before graduation, though, she started volunteering at an animal shelter and decided to switch gears. “I had so much more fun cleaning up poop than I did sitting at my desk job,” she says, and even though it meant lots of science courses, she applied to veterinary school.
Melanie Lang knew she wanted to be a vet all along and was a pre-vet major in school when she decided she “couldn’t hack it.” She changed paths, got a different degree and started a business career she enjoyed, but felt that she gave up on what she really wanted.
“I started to think about what I wanted to do everyday for the rest of my life and working with animals was high up there on the list,” she says. “So i decided to give it another shot.”
On Practicing Medicine on Camera
The cast overwhelmingly says the Animal Planet production crew was great to work with, but there was a bit of a learning period for everyone.
“The first week was rocky,” Bernstein says. “They had no idea what the layout of the hospital was, no one knew each other, you forget you’re mic’d up and you go to the bathroom and everyone’s listening to you. So that took a little bit of getting used to, but once everyone understood what the flow was, I really forgot they were there.”
The cast also learned that even reality TV can move a little slowly for a busy hospital staff.
“There were definitely logistical hurdles because sometimes the crew wanted to follow a case, but the clinician was ready to proceed and couldn’t wait for the crew to get permission waivers from the clients and put microphones on everyone,” Lang says. “The crew was amazing at being as minimally invasive as possible, but there were times when I could tell the doctors were not super happy about this being a stumbling block to making their day efficient.”
Despite the challenges, the cast and their coworkers found that having extra eyes on them all the time helped them do their jobs better in some ways. Bernstein says that the vet students and staff often fall into the habit of speaking in medical terms, which can sometimes go over the heads of clients. Knowing that they’d have an even larger audience of non-specialists watching the show helped them concentrate on speaking more plainly.
“It was a good lesson in making things more simple when we talked and slowing the conversation down,” she says.
Dr. Brady Beale, a veterinary ophthalmologist who appears on the show, adds that the production crew had a talent for pulling out stories that the audience could relate to, which helped her get a feel for explaining things in ways that made sense to viewers.
On How True to Life the Show Is
With every reality show, it’s easy to wonder how real everything is and if certain things get glossed over or altered for the sake of good TV. Emanuel had these concerns when he signed up for the show, but they went away as filming progressed and he saw some of the finished product. “I think some of my worries going into it were things being embellished or overblown and there being unneeded drama,” he says. “But it was a really nice window into our world. I was really happy and really proud of what the show portrayed.”
Bernstein says the production crew took a hands-off approach and let things play out. “Sometimes we had to stop things to get better camera angles,” she says. “But we were never coached to say anything and it was all really natural.”
Beale was also a little hesitant about filming the show because she didn’t know what the takeaway message was going to be or how the school and its staff would be portrayed. After seeing a few episodes, though, she says she saw a lot of thought and care went into the show, from the initial production to final editing.
“They did a fantastic job of honing in on key stories and experiences out of thousands of hours of footage, she says. “They captured the essence of Penn Vet, these six students and the faculty, and portrayed veterinary medicine as real medicine and not just ‘cute’.”
On Their Weirdest Patients
The staff and students at Penn Vet see a lot of dogs and cats, but in a city as big and sometimes as strange as Philadelphia is, they also get their fair share of more exotic animals.
For Emanuel, the biggest surprise during his fourth year was working with a zebra at the New Bolton Center.
“Dealing with a wild animal and having to put it under anesthesia, get x-rays and vaccinate it was amazing,” he says.
“I’ve worked with wild animals in the past, and this brought me back to working with wildlife, but it was funny to be doing it in suburban Pennsylvania as opposed to the plains of Africa.”
Lang’s oddest patient turned out to not even be someone’s pet, just an animal that was having an unlucky day.
“It was a regular old turtle that some guy had hit with his car that he felt really bad about and wanted to do everything possible to fix,” she say. “That poor little turtle was one of the coolest cases I worked on, and I couldn’t believe we were doing this for a garden variety backyard turtle, but this guy really just loved this little turtle and wanted to give him the best shot at life.”
Bernstein rattles off a list without any hesitation: “The zebra was a weird one, two camels [One came from a circus that was in town and the other was a pet. Neither, she notes, was very friendly], an alpaca, a bearded dragon. I think zebra was a the strangest though.”
On Being a Celebrity Vet
We couldn’t help but wonder if the limelight had changed things for the new doctors. Are they in high demand with patients and veterinary practices because they have some star power? Do people come up to the on the street for autographs?
Turns out they their lives are still pretty normal. Lang and Emanuel say that their coworkers like to tease them about being television stars, but things haven’t changed all that much because they’re both focused on their work and becoming good doctors.
Bernstein was a little concerned that the show could have a negative impact on her, because it makes it clear that she’s a recent graduate. But, she says, “The way I see it is I’m freshly trained and up date on the most current research. Being a new grad isn’t always a bad thing. And I’ve had one person recognize me and ask for me as their doctor.”
Whatever it does for the six cast members, Brady and Bernstein are happy with how the series portrays veterinarians in general and raises the profile of veterinary specialties. At a recent conference, Beale says other veterinary ophthalmologists thanked her because people had started coming to them for help with their dogs’ cataracts after seeing the show and learning that “doggy eye doctors” exist. “For the field in general, it’s gotten the word out,” she says.