Dr. Maddy Friesen
UVic Women in Science presents an interview series highlighting women in the scientific community on Vancouver Island. Dr. Maddy Friesen is a companion animal veterinarian at the Sidney Animal Hospital. After receiving with a BSc (Biology) from the University of Winnipeg, and more recently her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan in 2017, Dr. Friesen has had a lifelong affinity for animal husbandry. In navigating professional school and the beginnings of an ever-changing career, Dr. Friesen has gained insight to the necessity of balance and perspective when working in the veterinary medicine field.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. I am a full-time small animal veterinarian at the Sidney Animal Hospital. I grew up in the prairies, but decided to move out west towards the ocean in 2017 as an opportunity for adventure and to practice near my partner (who is also a veterinarian at the Sidney facility).
Describe your educational path that brought you to the current stage in your career. I received my BSc in Biology at the University of Winnipeg and I actually made it nearly ¾ of the way through before I decided to switch from Environmental Science to a Biology major for practical purposes: conversations with my dad early on helped me to shape my approach to education with a lens that focused on a career oriented approach rather than a general pursuit of academia. I recognized that research wasn’t an environment where I could easily shape the lifestyle and future that I was looking for, so I began to seriously consider veterinary medicine as a path that combined my love of animals and science.
I managed to be accepted to the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) at the University of Saskatchewan on my first attempt in 2013, and in the following four years I learned so much about medicine, myself, and other people. Now as a full-time veterinarian, I have the career fulfillment and work/life balance that I was searching for.
Why veterinary medicine rather than human medicine? I go to work every day knowing that I chose the right career and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I sure love dealing with fuzzy butts rather than human butts! It’s a really great feeling to solve puzzles and be able to impact the health and wellbeing of animals. Being able to provide peace of mind to owners and their companions in moments of crisis is an amazing feeling, and as a veterinarian, you get to savour the meaningful impact that you can have on others.
What does your work/life balance look like? Did you have one while you were in vet school? Hah! There was no work/life balance while I was in vet school, but it was a compromise that we made willingly. That being said, I was surrounded by a fantastic group of friends and peers who really made an effort to plan social activities, study together, or somehow ensure we had the study breaks we needed. Sometimes that looked like sacrificing study time (and grades) to go hang out with friends for a night, but the mental health benefit often ended up carrying me through the next round of exams. Juggling the schedule of professional school was definitely more of a work/life roller coaster.
On the other hand, now I have struck an ideal balance. I have been lucky enough to find an employer who values the same lifestyle and schedule that I enjoy, and I would strongly advise others to do the same. The number one reason I hear my peers discuss why they are looking to switch jobs is because they feel burnt-out. I think working within your comfort level, whatever that may be, is critical in trying to reach a work/life balance.
What was your favourite course during vet school? Fourth year included elective rotations where I had a chance to experience different areas of medicine that I had otherwise only read about in textbooks. Some of my favourites were the Small Ruminants and Zoo rotations, which had relatively small numbers of students and really offered an opportunity to engage with hands-on learning.
Do you have advice for those interested in applying to veterinary medicine? Get experience! Volunteer everywhere: clinics, pet stores, shelters, feedlots, anything. The selection committee doesn’t expect you to be a veterinarian before you get in, but by understanding the broader industry, you open yourself up to being a well-rounded applicant.
What are your biggest day-to-day challenges on the job? There are a few challenges that inevitably come with the career, but they’re mostly focused around dealing with the unknown. It’s incredibly hard to be the one-stop-shop: general practice, counselling, diagnosis, surgery, internal medicine, oncology, dentistry... veterinarians are the Swiss Army knife of doctors. They’re all exciting areas to work in, but it can be intimidating to fill many of these roles simultaneously. The biggest learning curve is adjusting to not having all of the answers, and relying on the experience and expertise of others to provide insight.
I also find criticism another substantial challenge to overcome as a veterinary professional. Being a young female veterinarian, my age is often commented on, which totally isn’t necessary. What people need to realize is that the new vet industry is mostly women. In the past few decades the gender disparity has reversed: only 12% of my classmates were male. On top of that type of criticism, there is a more direct, financial critique from clients that really wears down on veterinarians as a whole. Sometimes the value that clients are receiving in their animal’s care isn’t recognized, and you begin to undervalue your own time and veterinary services as a result. It’s important to acknowledge the quality of care that you and your practice offer.
Imposter syndrome (phenomenon) is quite prevalent among female scientists and professionals. Is this something you’ve observed during your career? What is your strategy to counter it? Only all the time! The first month after graduating with my DVM was the peak of imposter syndrome for me. In fourth-year of veterinary school they try to bridge the gap between academia and practice, but ultimately it’s so different. Unforeseen questions or circumstances from clients would have me thinking “Woah, that’s a really great point. I’m not sure!” and I felt like I didn’t have the answers that the client needs. Now, I realize that you’re never going to have all the answers, and the best way to help people is through experience and asking for help.
Do you have mentors that you look to for advice or support? My dad has always been an amazing resource during my educational years, not because of medical experience, but because he was able to teach me how to talk to people in a mutually beneficial way. There are a lot of difficult conversations that need to happen as a vet, and he was able to mentor me in a way that enabled me to build skills and handle tough situations.
My partner and my employer have also been great mentors in my professional career – being able to discuss cases in a judgement-free zone and working together to solve problems is a great way to share in both confusion and success.
Tell me about a case that you are most proud of. One of my first cases that I had after graduating was especially interesting. A cat came in looking awful and yellow (and cats aren’t designed to be yellow in any fashion, but this one was quite yellow), and I ended up taking the case because I had dealt with a similar patient while in 4th year at WCVM. Long story short the cat had fatty liver disease; a diagnosis stemming from an undernourished body that subsequently mobilizes fat storage as a source of energy, in turn overloading the liver with an accumulation of fat, reducing the efficacy of the liver to process red blood cells. By implementing tools that I accumulated throughout my clinical experience in veterinary school, I was able to perform the necessary surgery and nurse the cat back to health over several weeks. It was a challenging internal medicine case, but ultimately we had the best outcome possible and it was extremely rewarding. Now that kitty is still happy and healthy!
What a career goal that you’re currently working towards? As a new graduate, I quickly realized that vet school can’t teach you anything close to the variety and complexity of cases that you will see in just one day of general practice. Experience is paramount, and I would really like to become highly skilled at surgery during my career. Often times decisions with clients rely on the veterinarian’s ability to investigate complicated diagnoses, and expertise in surgery and internal medicine would both be extremely valuable tools.
Through all of my education both in university and in the practice, I think that the most important skills I have learned is how to communicate with clients and embody the highest quality of compassionate, professional veterinary care.
Tell me about the animals that you have at home! Last year my partner and I adopted Indy, a 1.5 year old husky but definitely still a puppy! We also have a kitty cat named Marley, and a ball python named Leila that I’ve had since I was 12 years old.