Dealing with family medical issues during vet school

Scenario #1

Last night my mother called from Ohio. She said Dad had been coughing a lot lately so she finally got him to see a doctor. He had an X-Ray done and they found something in his lung that might be a cancer. I know if he has lung cancer, he’ll probably die. I’m thinking of flying back tonight. I’m thinking of quitting [med] school.

Scenario #2

My grandmother is really ill. She has heart failure, hypertension, and brittle diabetes. Her memory is poor and she needs help going to the bathroom and eating. Last week, she had a stroke and has been in the hospital. My family says we should do whatever I say. I don’t want to say the wrong thing. I don’t want them to blame me for what happens to grandma.

Scenario #3

A friend of mine was just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He says that they are recommending that he have a Whipple Procedure done. He wants to know if I think that is the best thing. What should I say?


Members of the veterinary profession, including students, are often turned to by family or friends whenever a medical or family crisis arises. Because of our love for them, we want to do all we can. However, we must also remember what role we should play when a family member is involved. We don’t want to inadvertently cause confusion, conflict, or mistrust. What is most important is to express care, concern, and when asked, to help the family understand those aspects of their disease or therapy that still seems unclear and that we are comfortable explaining. We can help alleviate fear and uncertainty.

Things to Remember

  • Make sure the role you’ll play is clear to all parties. Communicate in a way that allows others to know how much you care.

o The way I believe I can help best is to help you understand the treatments being prescribed and how they’ll help. I also want to provide emotional support and help to communicate some of the questions you have to your physician. You’re so important to me. 

  • Remember that as students we have not yet completed our training nor accumulated the clinical experience necessary to fully counsel patients on complex topics. Know your limitations and become comfortable sharing with others that you are just beginning to learn medicine.
  • Recognize that some family members may not wish to “burden” you because they fear their problems might interfere with your studies. When you suspect this may be happening, encourage open discussion and express your love and concern.
  • In some instances, embrace the fact that quality time with a loved one may be more important than academics.
  • If necessary, a leave of absence can be arranged from vet school in order to address the needs of a loved one.

People I Can Talk to

  • Student counseling services: (612) 624-3323
  • Athena Diesch-Chham, 612-625-4168,
  • Dr. Erin Malone, 612-625-4762,
  • Anyone in the Office of Academic and Student Affairs
  • GOALe mentor(s)
  • Any faculty you feel you can approach
  • Classmates, friends, and family
  • Your spiritual advisor

** Illness or death of an immediate family member is an excused absence**


“Family, friends, even acquaintances will start looking to you as their own “expert” in medicine. For me, it was easy to get sucked in and involved. I soon learned what most of them needed was someone to listen to their experiences, and, when appropriate, refer specific questions and concerns to true “experts”.

JABSOM Student, Class of 2004

”It has been really great how the whole class has come together with expressions of support for classmates with ill family members. Several have opted to defer a year in order to be with an ill family member. The [med] school is very supportive in [such difficult situations].”

JABSOM Student, Class of 2007

“Your family comes first and being a medical student doesn’t change that. When classmates have family health [concerns], it is a time for us to come together and support them because we [too] are a family here. The courage and determination [shown by] some of our classmates as they have dealt with [health-related] challenges of their own or of family members have been an inspiration.”

JABSOM Student, Class of 2007


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Well-being Handbook Copyright © 2019 by Erin Malone is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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