Brooke Kehlenbrink: My Summer Interning in Rural Communities

I grew up in Pearland, a large suburb of Houston. My family had a dog, but other than that I had very little exposure to animals; the only livestock I saw was at the Houston rodeo. Despite this, I have always had a passion for animals. Since I was 5 years old, I have said, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a veterinarian,” as I played vet with my stuffed animals.

I completed my undergraduate degree here at Texas A&M. When initially looking for colleges, I was not going to be an Aggie. Then my sister invited me to visit when she was in school and I fell in love. The opportunities that Texas A&M could provide me with and the community that surrounded the college was too good to pass up. It was a natural transition, then, to go to veterinary school here.
In undergrad, I studied animal science and dove into the world of agriculture head first. I took advantage of every opportunity to gain experience with livestock. I have maintained this mentality in veterinary school, leading me to choose the Food Animal and Rural Practice Summer Internship Program.

This experience was well worth it. I gained more knowledge and learned more life lessons than I could of anywhere else.

The internship opened more channels than I had expected. I had the pleasure of working in two different mixed animal rural veterinary clinics, with Drs. Joe and Carol Hillhouse, Dr. Heritage Hill, Dr. Zach Smith, and Dr. Mark Birkenfeld. These veterinarians were dedicated to teaching me veterinary skills and life lessons; they invested their time in my education, and that meant the world to me.

They helped me develop technical and surgical skills, and they let me work through cases completely, from taking histories to making treatment decisions. Although I am exposed to these aspects in school, it was an amazing opportunity to put it all together and apply my knowledge. During this time, I also was able to visit a swine operation and a feedlot. I had not had any previous experience with either of these industries, and, now, I understand the general logistics of running feedlot and swine operations.

In July, I spent most of my time at Deer Creek Calf Ranch, an experience that was completely new to me. Because it is a large calf ranch and heifer yard, there was always something to do. For example, I learned a ton about regulatory medicine. I helped test for tuberculosis, vaccinate against brucellosis, and fill out the associated paperwork. I spent hours learning how to palpate. I also spent a lot of time in necropsy and taking proper tissue samples for the lab. I put splints on contracted tendons, cast broken limbs, repaired lacerations, gave IV fluids, and many other things.

I also did not have any dairy experience prior to this summer. In the dairies I visited, I learned about taking care of cows, milk quality, and the efficiency of the milking process. I helped one dairy set up a milk culture lab, discussing the use of chromo agar that changes color when there is growth of a particular bacteria. This new technique could help the dairy save thousands of dollars. I was also able to assist Dr. Brandon Trichler, a veterinarian working for Select Milk Producers, in assessing the efficiency of the milking process. This was an amazing experience and opened my eyes to the vast variety of career options I have as a food animal veterinarian.

Growing up in a city, you don’t always know or even recognize those around you. People mind their own business and continue on their way. The stereotype of “everybody knows everybody” in a rural community is true, but the best part about it is that they genuinely care about those around them. In the Panhandle, I experienced a community that welcomed me with open arms and cared for me for the two months I was up there. One of the things that amazed me about working as a veterinarian in a rural community is that you don’t just care for people’s pets or livestock; as a veterinarian there, you are a vital part of the community and considered a leader within that community. By caring for people’s pets and livestock, you boost community morale and promote the economics within that town. This is just a small, but extremely vital, part of the job.

While in the Panhandle, I had amazing opportunities to network with the veterinary community. Community is so important to them that they created two different groups that meet monthly. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and working with these veterinarians, and I hope that I maintain a connection as I continue in my career.

Because of my experiences in the CVM and my summer internship, my path is the same, but my passion has gone from taking care of dogs and cats to caring for the people around me and around the world by promoting the health and welfare of food animals. I’m not quite sure how I will fulfill the role I now plan to pursue as a food animal veterinarian. That is part of the joy of veterinary medicine—there are so many facets and options. At this point, all I know is that I have a passion for people and cattle, and I want to do my part to help those around me.

However, coming from a big city, the allure of a small, tight-knit community is great. Since my freshman year of college, I have known that I want to work in the food animal industry. I just had no idea how I was going to get there. This Internship has helped me find my way in to the industry and has given me the confidence to pursue this career, despite my background.

Because of all of this, I believe that the coordinated efforts between Texas A&M’s CVM and West Texas A&M can be helpful to fulfill the state’s demand for rural enterprise sustainability. One of the major reasons why this summer was so impactful to me was because I was submerged in to veterinary medicine, community, and the culture of this rural area. This program would not have been as successful without all of those aspects. Living in a rural community is difficult. There are less creature comforts available, but the people make up for that. If this program is going to be successful, students have to be able to experience all aspects of working in a rural area. Students also need to be fully informed and aware of what this experience entails, the good and the bad.

To continue to place more veterinarians in rural communities in Texas, students also need more support and encouragement. Going to work in a rural community, I know that I am not going to make as much money as I could working in small animal medicine in a big city. That is just a fact; it is very intimidating to look at my student loans and then look at the median salary for rural veterinarians. So, beyond financial support, I need encouragement from our faculty and administration.

While I’m still working to collect the information I need to track food animal, I’m confident I’ll be successful because I have the support of amazing people like Drs. Glennon Mays and Dan Posey. A little encouragement can go a long way.