From the beginning of veterinary school, I suspected I was not going to be a surgeon.

In the first semester anatomy lab, cadaver dogs were issued to groups of four students. Ours was a shelter dog we named Barney. We used him all semester to figure out where muscles, tendons, bones, and organs were. On the day that we cut him open my classmates were saying “oooh” and were very excited to find out what was inside and I suppressed an “eeuuw.”

I made it through the anatomy lab, but have never liked the innards of things. As a child, I had an irrational fear of the stuffing in my animals. If there was a rip in a seam, I thought they were dying and cried hysterically. My mother tried to comfort me, but I wouldn’t calm down until she sewed them up.

When it came time for the junior surgery class in school I was conflicted because I thought a ‘real’ veterinarian should do surgeries. That meant I would be doing multiple procedures on research beagles who were already scheduled to be euthanized at the research facility. The beagles were delivered in metal crates, had never seen the light of day, and their sweet faces were heartbreaking. Many schools have halted this type of surgery instruction in favor of models, but, at the time almost 17 years ago, mine was not one of them. 

My childhood dog was a beagle named Bitsy, who was hit by a car as she came to my call. I was 11 years old and believed I had killed my best friend. Shortly thereafter, I began ‘playing veterinarian’ with my stuffed animals – wrapping their legs, giving them medicine, but never cutting them open. When faced with making beagles die to become a surgeon, I couldn’t do it. 

I was the only one in my class of 100 who opted for the “alternative surgery program.” Instead of participating in these “terminal surgeries,” I took two extra clinical surgery rotations, and an extra anesthesia rotation. I suspect I was viewed as a wimpy outcast for not participating in the surgery program, or an animal rights activist – or both. 

To compensate for my lack of hands-on experience, I performed about 100 spays and neuters during an externship with the local humane society. My first spay was a disaster that required emergency assistance from the shelter vet. But things got better and I became competent at something I found terrifying and didn’t like very much.

I am fortunate to have worked for the past 14 years at practices where I don’t need to perform surgery. At one point, I thought perhaps I had changed and signed up to spay and neuter animals at a local shelter. I perspired under my mask and fogged up my glasses, tried to steady the surgical instruments in my shaking hands, and my assistant had to remind me to breathe. I was worried something terrible might happen that I could not handle, and afterwards I worried that something I did may not have been right. They all turned out fine, except for my own frazzled nerves.

I have finally come to accept that I am just not cut out to be a surgeon. Especially when, after the first incision, the fat under the skin pops out like stuffing.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the editorial team.


Dr. Gail Cutler is currently a relief veterinarian in Sonoma County, California, and works as a hospital inspector for the state Veterinary Medical Board.  Veterinary medicine is her first love, but second career.  In addition to her DVM, she has degrees in Agronomy and Agricultural Economics, and worked in public policy for both a farm organization and the Michigan legislature.  She graduated from Michigan State University in 2004 and started writing as a new graduate to help decompress after long days in a busy practice.