“I have lived in the countryside my whole life; however, my mum and dad are not from the country,” explains Leah McDermott.
“My parents moved to the countryside before I was born and bought a few acres of land. Over time, they accumulated more land and established a livery yard.”
“As a result, we had horses growing up and my dad has Clydesdales.”
Having horses and being surrounded by farming neighbours, coupled with a love of the outdoors, gave rise to the 22-year-old’s passion for veterinary medicine.
“I was very young when I first talked about wanting to be a vet, but I definitely took a roundabout way of getting there!” she told Catherina Cunnane, editor of That’s Farming.
“I didn’t think that I would be able to get the grades and I didn’t have the confidence to give it a go.”
The scenic route
After completing her A-levels in business religious studies and Spanish, the Carrickfergus native ventured to Cardiff University where she studied theology and Spanish for a year.
“At the end of this year, I decided to bite the bullet and try to get into veterinary. I took a year to complete my biology and chemistry A-Levels and then started my studies at the University of Surrey.”
Leah enrolled in the programme in 2018 and will graduate as a fully qualified vet in 2023.
During the week, course candidates attend lectures, practicals in anatomy laboratories or clinical skills laboratories, seminars and engage in group work.
“I chose to study here because Guildford is a lovely, small town with lots of green space and it isn’t too busy!”
“This suits me perfectly. I selected this course, in particular, because Surrey has a really big focus on practical learning throughout the course.”
“This was so important for me as I want to graduate knowing I have developed my practical skills as much as possible.”
The relatively new veterinary school also has well-equipped facilities for practicals, laboratory work as well as theory, the vet student added.
“I love the course. We have lots of practicals to break up a lot of theory which is really nice. The content is so interesting, and it is even better than I ever anticipated."
As part of the degree programme, students are required to complete placement during summer, Christmas and Easter holidays.
In her first year, Leah completed approximately 11 weeks of animal handling placements, which saw her work on a dairy farm and in kennels.
This summer, she had planned to begin pre-clinical placements in veterinary practices, however, due to current circumstances presented by Covid-19, most of these placements have been cancelled.
One of Leah’s highlights since enrolling in the course occurred in the early days of placement on a sheep farm in the height of lambing season.
“No one else was around and I still had no idea what I was doing. Next thing I know, we’ve got a head and one foot.”
“I looked around me, no help was to be found anywhere, so I jumped into the pen and tackled the ewe to the ground.”
“It had been cold that morning so I was wearing approximately one hundred layers, so my body temperature was rising thick and fast.”
She remembered the farmer telling her that when lambing, it is important to try to have two feet coming out first with a head, if possible.
“Of course, I could only see one leg. I tried feeling for the other, and managed to get it out, resulting in a successful birth.”
“Now, I could relax because hopefully number two of the triplets would wait until the farmer came back.”
“This, however, was not the case, number two was coming whether I liked it or not.”
By this stage, the first lamb was getting confident and attempting a quick getaway. “Can you imagine the stress as I fumble about for triplet number two while the sweat stings my eyes?”
“Number two came out with one leg also, but I managed to get it sorted. I couldn’t feel number three anywhere.”
“This was another stress as the farmer is still nowhere to be seen and the lambs are literally being adopted by other pregnant ewes in the pen as we speak.”
“It turns out that the ewe was only pregnant with twins so all was well.” Leah laughed.
Advice for aspiring vet students
Leah’s advice for aspiring vets is simple: “If you really want to do it, go for it, and don’t hesitate”.
“If you have already started something else, don’t despair it’s never too late. Put the work in and do your best.”
“It definitely is hard work but one hundred per cent worth it. Before I applied to vet school, I didn’t have the right subjects, so I had to take time out to complete more.”
“Definitely consider doing this or resit exams to get the right grades. Many vet schools are open to resitting exams and entering vet school through alternative routes.” Leah added.
Women in ag
The 22-year-old admitted that she feels she has been underestimated in her strength and abilities compared to her male counterparts - regardless of their experience or education in placements.
“Women in agriculture are not getting the recognition they deserve. So many people, inside and outside of the industry, don’t think women are as capable as men at farming.
“However, I think there are improvements in the way women are being perceived in agriculture.”
“More and more I am seeing women working on farms, who aren’t from farming backgrounds, which is small steps in the right direction,” she added.
Once she graduates as a vet, Leah intends to enter the working work immediately. “I plan to get a job as soon as possible. I can’t wait to get some hours under my belt!”
“I think initially I would like to work in a mixed animal practice but eventually I want to work in a large animal practice. I am so excited to get out and get practicing as a vet.”
“Agriculture plays a huge role in our society so a career in this sector is hugely rewarding.”
“Being able to contribute to the welfare of animals, production of food, food safety and human and animal health is such a privilege,” Leah concluded.
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