The Pet Effect for Medical Students

Ask an American University of the Caribbean (AUC) student what drug to prescribe during a hypertensive emergency and watch them answer confidently. Then ask that same student the day of the week, date, or season, and watch them squirm with hesitation. Especially since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, medical students are completely out of tune with the outside world. The only association we have with days, is how many we have left until our next exam. Who cares what day of the week it is when everyday seems like one horrendously long Monday?

Medical school can be monotony mixed with chronically high stress levels. Students’ fortitude is tested and strengthened with this consistent heat and pressure, just like the blade of a sword being sharpened with skill. This process also pushes its students to introspectively re-evaluate if the world of medicine is the right path. Yes it’s tough, but many paths can be tough. Yes medicine is interesting, but many medical students have more than one interest. This high pressure process allows students to decide whether they have made the right choice with medical school, simply by seeing if it’s worth the struggle and pain.

I’m often asked by non-medical students, “is med school really that hard?” The short answer is, undoubtedly yes. The real answer is, it depends on what you mean by medical school. Are the classes and the material difficult – somewhat and sometimes, but nothing a human being can’t handle. The most difficult aspect of medical school is the lifestyle. Everyday we choose to continue to compete for delayed rewards that come weeks, months, decades after the hard work began. We chose a path that demands less sleep, less support, and habitual coffee.

However, the lack of sleep and healthy habits are manageable. The nitty gritty difficulty of medical school is exemplified by everything we leave behind in order to pursue the dream of becoming a physician. We pack our two luggages with lots of sunblock that we will rarely have the opportunity to use and pictures of our loved ones we won’t be able to share space with for the next two years. We miss birthdays, weddings, funerals, and graduations, but truly miss the every day conveniences of venting to a loved one, or kissing a partner. Deciding to go to medical school in the Caribbean is not for the faint of heart. On top of the difficulties of medical school, the temptations of the beach, and change to “Island Time,” we are stranded from our support systems.

So what is a sleep deprived, stressed out, lonely medical student supposed to do in Sint Martin? The AUC dog family would love to answer you with a big shout of “BRING OR ADOPT A PET!” Most physicians-to-be are natural empaths who thrive on caring for others. Sure, having a pet may seem daunting since we barely have time to scarf down our meals between lectures and studying, but it’s certainly not time that a pet gives you, it’s love, and every AUC student could benefit from just a bit more lovin’.

Read a couple of stories from current medical students and how having their pet has enriched each of their lives: Liz, who brought Bolt to the island, and another Nalexus who adopted Pirate once here.

Bolt and Liz’s Story: Liz was strolling through Craigslist when she saw an add looking for a loving home for Bolt and his puppy siblings. She instantly fell in love with him. However, it wasn’t until she went to see him in person that she knew they were meant for each other. He chose her. As soon as she walked in, he strolled up right to her and chose her while his siblings continued to play among themselves. Animals always know.

Ever since that day, he has been her savior in many ways. “He kept me afloat through a really hard breakup, he has kept me going through medical school. He has been my saving grace really.” Though the transitional move to Sint Martin can be tough with new cultures, responsibilities mixed with less family time and support, Liz and Bolt have found a family with the people at the dog park (West Campus). Among their island family, Bold is known as The Referee as he is always breaking up fights and making sure everyone plays nicely. He tends to stay aloof (or should I say awoof), because his protective demeanor prefers to keep a birds eye view on everyone.

Bolt likes to keep the peace, but he isn’t shy to intimidate when needed! Liz explains that he will give warning barks when he feels Liz is in danger, including unwanted catcalling from construction workers. He can feel Liz’s emotions as if they were coursing through him, and acts upon them in a heartbeat. He and Liz have shared many memories, moving to this island being one of the biggest changes. Each memory is added to a collection of bliss, but some of Liz’s favorites include their late afternoon walks on the beach before sunset. “We just sit in peace and quiet, watching the waves and it’s just really calming.” Being with a partner who loves unconditionally in addition to bringing calm and security, is something we all strive for. Only dog owners can attest to achieving this magic.

Bolt enjoying his Sunset Beach Walk along Mullet Beach
Bolt and Liz in Quiet Harmony

Pirate and Nalexus’s Story: Once the COVID pandemic took a hold of Sint Maartin, almost every AUC student decided to move back to the states, while Nalexus stayed here. She wasn’t ready to leave this colorful rock. However, it soon became lonely as everything closed down and extremely quiet. The island quickly felt secluded and loneliness began to creep in.

After a friend kept bringing up a one-eyed loving dog that needed a home, she agreed to go check him out at Dr. Ruth’s Veterinary Clinic on April 30th, 2020. “When I arrived, he immediately sprung out from under tree shade in the backyard to come greet me and get some love. With patches of fur missing, a hole with dry blood in his ear, and 12 staples in his back, I learned that he was brought to the clinic by a passerby after being attacked by other dogs.” Dr. Ruth explained he had been brought in many times in the past due to similar attacks. He was 8 years old and and the veternarian was scared of what would happen to him if he was continuously found on the streets. Nalexus quickly decided to foster him and less than a month later, she officially adopted him as her 8 year old baby.

The first couple of weeks of his transition was far from easy. “He was extremely skittish to the point of not eating, drinking, or relieving himself. Though these weeks were scary for both of us, it brought us closer because I had to give him subcutaneous IV fluids and even had to express his bladder for him.” As her love for him was growing, his trust in her and his new environment were strengthening. Soon, she had a tiny shadow following her every step. “One of my favorite things about him is his dorky little run. He just follows me everywhere and I couldn’t be happier.” Pirate brightened Nalexus’s life, and in return she gave him a safe and loving home. Originally, she was hesitant on the responsibility of being a pet-owner but soon realized how much Pirate helped her cope with the anxiety and stress that comes with being a medical student.

Pirate taking full advantage of study breaks
Pirate and Nalexus strolling through Maho Beach

The Pet Effect is the possible beneficial advantages to a pet-owner’s mental and physical health. There have been plenty of research that shows the benefits of pet-ownership, though there have been conflicting stances on taking this as factual, as scientific research on this subject tends to publish the “good” results and omits the inconclusive. Nevertheless, AUC students have specifically shown the benefits of caring for their furry companions. Medical students seem to be too specific of a sample group keeping them from being the focus on pet-related research. However, one can infer that people who naturally prefer caring for others, would have further benefits from caring for a pet during medical school. Additionally, individuals who are separated from their support can find comfort in pet ownership. Lastly, students who are accustomed to having pets at home, are further uplifted if they are able to have pets while dealing with the pressures of learning. These factors alone are convincing that incoming students would feel happier and more supported if they were to either bring their pet from home, or adopt one once coming to the island. Please read below if you are interested in learning the logistics of either option!

A special thank you to Elizabeth Singh/Bolt and Nalexus Shields/Pirate for sharing their stories and pictures with me. Also, thank you to the other individuals who reached out to share their own stories about their pets!

Resources for pet-owners and people who would like to become one:

AUC Doggie Play Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/477767335632127

Bringing Pets to the Island: https://aucspousesorganization.wordpress.com/bringing-pets/

Caring for Pets on the Island: https://aucspousesorganization.wordpress.com/caring-for-pets/

Fostering and Adopting Animals on the Island: https://sxmpaws.com/

Dr. Ruth Wright Veterinarian information: https://sxmpaws.com/?page_id=32

Local Pet Sitter: Stefy’s Doggy Daycare, +1 (721) 588-9567, https://www.facebook.com/stefypetsittingsxm

Local Dog Training: Sara’s Dog Training SXM, +1 (721) 524-2683, https://www.facebook.com/saradogtraining

Citations

Herzog, Harold. “The impact of pets on human health and psychological well-being: fact, fiction, or hypothesis?.” Current directions in psychological science 20.4 (2011): 236-239.

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