About Dr. Amber Parks, DVM, DABVP
Many people love pets and some even dream of becoming a veterinarian to help those pets. I was once that person, but I didn’t know how much work, dedication, perseverance, and sacrifice would be needed to get to that point. The following is my story from the very beginning, my inspirations for pursuing this career, the struggles encountered along the way, and what I hope to bring to this blog and pet owners worldwide.
Dr. Amber Parks
During my entire life, my paternal grandfather struggled with numerous, chronic health conditions, many of which were life-threatening. My entire childhood consisted of times were we would drive into Boston and visit him at Massachusetts General Hospital. His ailments were many, but primarily included respiratory diseases from years of working in factories in less-than-ideal conditions. For this reason, he had one entire lung removed. He lived the rest of his life (12+ years) with one lung and was on oxygen 24/7. As his disease progressed and changed over time, his frequent visits to Mass General became a mainstay in my childhood. Due to his uncommon conditions, his doctor once remarked, “You will never get a bill from me” as Mass General was a teaching hospital, and due to his rare conditions, he provided an intriguing and educational case to learn from as a student. As nice as this was to not worry about many of the financial responsibilities of healthcare, you never want to be “that” patient who has many rare, but “exciting” conditions! During the many hospital visits over the years, I became very comfortable in a hospital setting even as a child. I was fascinated with the medical equipment in the hospital rooms and even more interested in what the doctors and nurses were saying.
Each summer I spent at least one to two weeks at my grandparent’s cottage on a lake in New Hampshire. Here my grandmother would oversee my grandfather’s care at home, keeping to a meticulous schedule of medications and treatments. Years after his lung was removed, he was left with a 2-inch hole just under his armpit area. This hole was intentionally placed to stay open and provide an entry into the chest cavity so the right side of his inner chest could be flushed out twice daily. This was indicated to help keep the ongoing, rampant infection that was a constant battle for years. As clear as day I can remember my grandmother flushing saline into the hole and my grandfather would lean to one side to allow the saline to run back out as was intended. Sorry for the graphic description – I was (and still am!) so interested in such a medical marvel! Watching this irrigation process and the advancements in medicine over the years solidified my interest in medicine.
Early Computer Program
One Christmas I even asked for an interactive computer program on the human body. The CD-ROM (if you remember those things!) allowed you to click on different body systems and showed you an overview of how they worked. As a 12-year-old, there were times when I skipped watching TV to get on the computer and dive into this program. Unfortunately, after a long battle with numerous diseases, my grandfather passed away when I was 13 years old.
My Pets Were Some of My Best Friends
Even after my grandfather passed, my curiosity in medicine continued to grow as did my love for animals. At this time, I still had Bingo and we kept one of the kittens from the litter, who was named Katie. I have an amazing sister, but due to the age gap between us, she moved out, went to college, and graduated while I was still young. For this reason, I remember most of my childhood as an “only child” at home. My pets were some of my best friends even from the earliest age. A natural connection between medicine and my love for pets became more evident during my teen years.
My First Animal Hospital
When I was 17, my dad saw an ad for a job at the local animal hospital. I applied and remember thinking there is no way they are going to hire me, I have no experience in a veterinary hospital! I was hired and started at the bottom of the totem pole cleaning kennels, walking dogs, and general housekeeping in the hospital. I worked there three times a week during my senior year of high school. During this critical year, my love for veterinary medicine began and flourished. I was certain this was a professional career field for me. I then focused on applying to colleges with strong pre-veterinary or zoology curriculums.
I attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst as an Animal Science major and a pre-veterinary concentration. As luck would have it, Bingo became very ill during my first two months at UMass. My parents brought her to Tufts Veterinary Hospital in Grafton, MA for evaluation and treatment. She was diagnosed with severe liver disease among other illnesses. We tried many different treatments, but she continued to decline. I remember my dad picking me up at UMass in the middle of the week in October, so I could go home and visit with her during her last few days. Bingo was laid to rest later that week. I had her front and center in my life for 14 amazing years. As if there was any doubt (there definitely was not!), the passing of Bingo further fueled my desire to pursue veterinary medicine. I felt helpless not knowing if her condition was preventable or if there was something else that could have been done (I later learned it was not preventable and there was nothing else that could have been done at that time).
Love of Labor
I continued to work at the animal hospital back home, working 1-2 weekends a month throughout my entire college career. The hospital was a busy six-doctor practice open 7 days a week. It was often chaotic during the day and could quickly become a stressful environment with the nervous pet owners, stressed-out doctors and staff, and appointments backing up throughout the day. There were many days I went home after work and cried. This environment was demanding and stressful, oftentimes being put into situations where I was not adequately trained, then reprimanded for not knowing how to do a certain task. Nevertheless, there was something that still drew me to veterinary medicine, despite the many feelings of dread as I was driving to work. Call it crazy or stupid – or both – I still wanted “in” on veterinary medicine and my next big step was applying to veterinary school.
Thankfully, working at the veterinary hospital wasn’t all bad. I met some great doctors and mentors, two of whom wrote my letters of recommendation for my vet school applications. Spring of my senior year at UMass, I was anxiously awaiting to hear back from the veterinary schools to which I had applied. Slowly, one by one, I received rejection letters from 3 out of the 4 schools. The fourth school, Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, AL, wrote a letter stating that I was on the waiting list. “OK!”, I thought, “I’ll take that over a rejection letter any day!”. I mean, it’s not a full “no”, so at some point, it could be a “yes!” – maybe?!
Tuskegee Vet School
It was one of my last weeks at UMass. It was a Monday night around 7 p.m. as I was studying in my apartment bedroom for the next day’s quiz. I received a call from an unfamiliar number on my cell phone. I reluctantly answered. It was the Dean of the vet school at Tuskegee. He was calling to inform me that a spot opened up and offered me a seat in the incoming class of 2009. I was accepted into vet school! This was beyond an exciting time, especially because I was a mere few weeks away from graduation and was holding out hope for this one opening. I really didn’t have a backup plan. It had to work, there was no other option. Lo and behold – it did!
I continued to work at the animal hospital during that summer prior to vet school and started vet school in August 2005. Within a week of school starting, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans with massive effects on the people and the surrounding areas. Several vet school classmates were from or had family in New Orleans. It was a difficult time for many, all of us coming together as mere strangers to try and support one another. Despite coming together and forming fast friendships, the pressure, stress, and emotional burden took a toll on some of our classmates, resulting in a few dropping out during that difficult time. They had waited their whole life to get into vet school and within a few short weeks, it was quickly taken away.
First Year of Vet School
The first year of vet school was beyond difficult and emotionally exhausting. The amount of knowledge we were taught and expected to know took a whole semester in college, but in vet school, it was taught in a two-week time frame or less. This high volume and speed of learning were draining. We were also expected to spend hours outside of class time studying anatomy in the lab. You could find students there at 3 in the morning and on weekends – it didn’t matter. We were also just trying to keep our heads above water. Anatomy was expected to be one of the hardest classes of the first year and had been known to “weed people out” of the program – i.e. drop or fail out. You didn’t get to come back unless you re-applied to vet school again and started the process from the beginning. You didn’t get any special consideration, so dropping out was not an option. I spent countless hours in the lab including meeting my professor at the lab at 6 a.m. before school so I could get in extra study time and help. Somehow I continued to struggle in all classes but made it through the first year, then the second, third, and finally the last year of school started. The classes and volume of knowledge didn’t come easier, I just learned how to manage time and study more effectively, although almost every waking hour was spent studying or in class/lab.
Last year of Vet School
The last year of school came quickly, but the excitement of becoming seniors was quickly overshadowed by the acknowledgment of our upcoming national board exams. This exam was offered between November and December of your fourth and final year of school. I was signed up to take the exam at the end of November. My friends and I started studying in June of that year. Every day, whether it was quizzing each other or voraciously reading and absorbing any piece of knowledge we could, it was a rush to cram in any further information we thought we didn’t know. Even though most of my friends and classmates were planning on pursuing small animal practice, we still had to learn about large (farm) animals. Our board exam could (and it did!) ask questions on horses, dogs, cats, sheep, goats, pigs, cows, birds, lab animals (mice, rabbits, rats, etc.), and even fish! Just to name a few! You could learn one condition or disease in one species, but that disease may be diagnosed or treated differently in another species. Keeping all of this information straight was a massive undertaking.
My friends and I took the test in a testing center on the same day. After 8 hours of being there and almost 7 hours of active test-taking, we were done. We were tired and mentally drained when we left. Despite being done with the test, we knew we wouldn’t get results until the end of January. So for over almost two months, we all waited on pins and needles. At the beginning of the spring semester of my fourth year, we were expected to participate in an externship. This consisted of at least six weeks of active observation at a veterinary hospital of your choosing. Most classmates chose either a hospital they wanted to work at or a hospital that offered their concentration, such as small animal practice. I found a small animal practice in the Tampa Bay, FL area that allowed me to tag along with their doctor into every appointment, phone call, and surgery performed over that six-week time period.
One of the days we were getting ready to close for the day. The support staff was cleaning up and I happened to check my cell phone. I started seeing multiple text messages pop up on my phone from classmates. The final results for our national board exam were posted. We had to log in to check the results. I casually walked over to the computer, not saying anything to anyone. I remember having an out-of-body experience, where I really didn’t hear or see anything around me at that time. I quickly put my login information on the website. Once logged in, I scrolled down and saw four little letters “P-A-S-S”. It took a whole minute or two until that realization kicked in. I turned to one of the staff members and quietly said, “I passed my boards”. She replied, “Congratulations!”. I began feverishly replying to text messages and contacting my friends. We had all passed! The almost 6 months of studying, 4 years of vet school, 4 years of undergrad, and 5 years of working in a hospital had paid off!
A large amount of the pressure was off! We all sailed through the last semester of school, absorbing any and all cases we saw, but also knowing we didn’t have the stress of a test looming over us anymore. Toward the end of my externship, my mentor sat me down and we talked about veterinary medicine and employment. He didn’t directly offer me a job but did say he would be willing to give me a fantastic reference to any prospective employers if needed. At that time, job offers in the Tampa Bay area were scarce, many of whom wanted a seasoned and experienced veterinarian. There was one job I applied for that was willing to accept new graduates. It was about 30 minutes east of Tampa. I went on the interview, met the team, and toured the hospital, but there was something about the place that was off. It wasn’t the hospital specifically. I liked the people, but something was off and I didn’t feel that it would be my first place of employment as a baby vet. Due to the lack of employers hiring at that time, I went back for a second interview to see if maybe I was missing something. I left that second interview with anxiety because I knew this place was not an ideal fit that would nurture and help me grow as a veterinarian.
I remember the ride home – it was a long ride from the hospital back to my parent’s house, who were now living about an hour northwest of Tampa. As I drove I remembered the conversation my externship doctor and I had months earlier. Feeling as though I had nothing to lose, I stopped by that hospital on my ride home from the interview. I remember that day. It was raining like crazy out and it was a Friday afternoon. I knew they would be busy, but I had to shoot my shot. I was welcomed warmly by the staff and the owner, who was the solo doctor at the practice. He asked me to wait real quick while he finished up with his last appointment for the day. Afterward, we sat down and I pleaded my case on how I was offered a job at the other hospital, but something was off. He said, “I was actually hoping you would have come back”. He mentioned how his practice had grown and it was difficult for one doctor to keep up with his increasing clientele. He offered me a job on the spot, which I gladly accepted. So, this hospital is where I found out I had passed my national boards and could legally practice, which I had waited for my whole life, was also my first job as a veterinarian.
The Next 10 Years
I worked at this hospital for 10 years, becoming the medical director and then a mentor myself to new doctors. We were grateful to be in an area with great clientele and be able to provide the most up-to-date medical treatment and surgery options to our patients. A blessing and a curse – we continued to grow and became very busy. Even with the help of new doctors coming into the practice, it was difficult to keep up. Every day was consistently busy with continuous appointments – both well and sick pets – along with numerous surgeries and procedures. Don’t get me wrong, I learned A LOT. I even learned a good deal on the back end of things, including crucial aspects of business, hiring doctors, and developing and implementing protocols for the hospital. By no fault of their own, I overdid it. I became BURNT OUT.
Time for a Change
The dictionary’s description of burnout is “fatigue, frustration, or apathy resulting from prolonged stress, overwork, or intense activity”. I needed a change, but I wasn’t exactly sure of what that change was or how to go about it. During the time the hospital started to grow, my mentor also started a few other hospitals in the area. Rightfully so, he was incredibly busy and he had several doctors between the five hospitals. He needed a mentor for these doctors and a doctor to collaborate on cases. In addition, he wanted to provide another opportunity for pet owners, by offering abdominal ultrasounds for cases in which this was indicated. This provided an opportunity for me to take a step back from face-to-face interactions with clients and become a mentor and liaison between the doctors as well as provide another diagnostic modality at their disposal. I worked in this role for almost two years. During this time the landscape of veterinary medicine changed and it became harder to find veterinarians to hire. In addition to my mentorship role, I also was pulled back into seeing appointments, and performing procedures and surgery all while continuing to do my primary role – mentor and liaison. Burnout reared its ugly head once again.
I’ll step up on my soapbox for a quick moment. I have learned over the years the considerable amount of mental health struggles in the field of veterinary medicine. It is no secret that veterinary professionals have a higher rate of suicide than the general public. A study done in 2019 showed female veterinarians were 3.4 times more likely to commit suicide than the general public and one in six(!) veterinarians have contemplated suicide. These are alarming statistics, which continue to accelerate at a disturbing frequency. Not my only focus, but in this blog, I hope to provide more information to the general public on mental health struggles both in and out of veterinary medicine.
Full-time Relief Veterinarian
After much reflection and finding out what I needed, I decided to leave my job and become a full-time relief veterinarian. A relief veterinarian is similar to a locum doctor. We are not employees of any particular hospital but are contract laborers who work at different hospitals. A relief veterinarian fills a need for a doctor – typically a short-term commitment – to fill in. The current ongoing shortage of veterinarians at this time gives a lot of opportunities to relief veterinarians. There are many benefits to being a relief vet including making your own schedule, working as little or as much as you want, and being able to work at hospitals you enjoy. If you work at a hospital that isn’t a good fit, you don’t have to go back!
Veterinarian ER Doctor
Back in 2017, I had done some shifts in the ER setting for a local hospital when their solo doctor was on medical leave. Now going full-time relief I picked back up on ER shifts as well as other local general practices. I enjoyed the variety of hospitals, staff, and cases. It is interesting to see how each practice is run, but you do have to be on top of your game every time. You have to be prepared for hitting the ground running when you enter a new hospital. New computer systems, appointment time/schedules, and staff members make the variety exciting, but can also be daunting. You do not know the level of training your. You have to be able to think on the fly, change your treatment plan, and adapt to new protocol. Throughout the different cases and hospitals, I learned there was one common theme. Every pet owner wants the best for their pets, which is why they have sought out veterinary care. I also noticed some pets that were not brought in early in the course of the disease, which could in some situations alter their response to treatment and outcome. They did not seek veterinary care right away for a variety of reasons, however one of the main ones was no fault of their owner. Pet owners did not always recognize the signs at the beginning that something was wrong with their pet. Alternatively, some rationalized the changes were from old age or other due to other changes at home. Some of these signs could be weight loss, slower to get up and down, and changes in eating habits to name a few. I think if we don’t understand or know something, our human nature tries to rationalize the change for it to make sense. For example, a pet owner may say their pet is eating less, but they rationalized it was because the pet was “sick” of that food because it had been eating it their whole life. We rationalized the idea of not eating the food, because we could see as humans we may feel that way if we ate the same food all the time. For this reason, many pet owners miss changes or only realize those changes much later in the course of the disease. If the pet’s changes at home were brought to the attention of a veterinarian and a disease was diagnosed (in this case, say for example diabetes mellitus), and addressed sooner, this may have given the owner more treatment options and most importantly may have minimized discomfort and maximized quality of life.
I see this almost every day when I work in the ER setting. Most people end up taking their pet to the ER because their pet needs immediate care and their primary veterinarian is not available. Many times the presenting issue for the pet may have been a preventable one. I see anything from an owner giving a medication that they didn’t know was toxic to pets to chronic conditions that could be prevented or diagnosed earlier to help slow or prevent the progression of the disease. This includes a tooth root abscess from severe dental disease to obesity leading to diabetes and complications from untreated diabetes. As you can imagine, these cases can be frustrating because ultimately the pet goes through some degree of unnecessary suffering and it ends up costing pet owners more money in the long run.
Purpose of the Blog
The purpose of the blog is to help educate pet owners on the health, behavior, and preventative care necessary for their pets to lead full and happy life. I hope this blog can provide unbiased educational information for the pet owner on common diseases, and conditions as well as cutting-edge information and treatment options in veterinary medicine. We are not looking to diagnose conditions and diseases on this blog, but if I can give pet owners the tools and information for them to be proactive in their pet’s healthcare, this will only be a win-win for both pet owners and their pets. Even if this blog helps one pet, it will have been worth it. Our jobs as veterinarians are to help animals and I truly believe helping to educate pet owners, which will inevitably help to facilitate the human-animal bond, is incredibly crucial.
Board Certified in Canine and Feline
To further become knowledgeable in my profession, I began the process to become board certified in canine and feline practice. I started that journey in January 2020. The first part of the certification process includes writing case reports, which included extensive introductions utilizing the most current research and information. These case reports ranged from 30 to 50 pages each. After spending a better part of 2020 writing the reports, I first submitted them in January 2021. I heard back in May of 2022 that they did not pass. I then spent the next 6 months rewriting and tweaking the reports and resubmitted them in January 2022. Finally, in June 2022 I heard back that the reports passed! As exciting as this was, it just meant I could proceed to the next step, which was taking an all-encompassing test.
I studied on average 1-2 hours a day (often more times on the weekends) from June to the first week in November. We were tested on anything in canine and feline medicine and surgery. This includes anything from dentistry, cardiology, surgery, dermatology, ophthalmology, endocrinology, oncology, and infectious diseases to name a few. I took the 8-hour test in November 2022. In a few short weeks, I heard back that I passed the test! After almost three years of research, writing, and studying I earned the additional letters, DABVP canine/feline (Diplomate American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, canine and feline practice), behind my name. Less than 1,000 veterinarians worldwide hold this certification and only a subset of those thousand are in canine and feline practice
Reliable Source for Pet Owners
With this recent board certification along with almost 14 years in practice and over 22 years in the field, I hope to be able to provide a reliable resource for pet owners, which ultimately helps to enhance a good quality of life and to help maintain and allow the human-animal bond to flourish. I look forward to interacting with my readers and providing consistent, expert information, and allowing open communication between the pet owner and their veterinarians.