While growing up in Nanaimo, B.C., Joel Bilyk was surrounded by a variety of pets that included cats, dogs, chickens and Lucy the lamb. His passion for animals was only reinforced during the summers when he helped his grandparents operate their thoroughbred racing stable in Langley, B.C.
Many of Bilyk’s summers also included a family trip down the West Coast and a requisite visit to the West Coast Game Park Safari just outside of Brandon, Oregon — a highlight for him that only diversified his love for animals.
“I developed a strong interest in zoo and exotic medicine as I was able to handle and feed some of their large cat cubs — tiger or panther,” says Bilyk, now a first-year student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM). “Through these experiences, I have a strong connection to zoo exotics that I maintain to this day.”
From a young age, Bilyk decided that he wanted to be a veterinarian, and he set out to gain as much experience as he could. He also involved himself in retail jobs and volunteer activities that would help him to develop the communication and personal skills he would need in his future career.
Although Bilyk’s focus was on becoming a veterinarian, he also developed a keen interest in basketball, and he set out to learn and practise the skills he needed to excel at the sport.
“My parents could tell you about the times I went out to the local park when it was raining or snowing outside, and I would be practising my jump shot,” says Bilyk. “I dedicated myself to being as proficient as I could be, and I simply put in a ton of hours to realize my goal.”
Bilyk’s hours of practice paid off when he was offered a scholarship to play varsity basketball for the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI) where he completed four years of a Bachelor of Science degree majoring in biology.
“Playing on a varsity team was everything to me,” says Bilyk who appreciated the sense of community and the kindness of both the students and the staff. “The comradery with my teammates, the level of commitment and passion that it takes, the shared dreams and goals as well as the memories and bonds with my teammates are moments that I will remember fondly for the rest of my life.”
To acquire experience working with animals, Bilyk volunteered at Mill Bay Veterinary Hospital, a small animal clinic on Vancouver Island that used to include large animal services. During his time at the clinic, he accompanied large animal veterinarians Drs. Leo Hylkema and Elizabeth Riddett on farm calls. He also observed Dr. Dhawala Abeywickrama (DVM’18), a WCVM graduate, as he worked with the small animals brought to the clinic.
Bilyk also spent several months as a farm hand on a dairy farm where he gained experience working with cattle while learning more about agriculture at the same time.
In addition to his volunteer and work experiences on the West Coast, Bilyk had the chance to experience veterinary medicine on the opposite side of Canada when he was hired as a summer student at the Atlantic Veterinary College (AVC) Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Charlottetown, P.E.I.
Although Bilyk was initially assigned to the emergency department, staff shortages led to his working in several hospital departments that included exotic species, wildlife, small animal intensive care, surgery and internal medicine.
“By being dependable and picking up shifts whenever I could, I established a level of trust with the staff at the AVC, and that helped me to further my veterinary skills,” says Bilyk. “The best part of the job was being able to see so many different forms of veterinary medicine in a day.”
Since Bilyk began his veterinary studies at the WCVM in August, his favourite subject has been anatomy — particularly because he enjoys learning about all the similarities and differences among the various animal species.
After witnessing so many aspects of veterinary medicine, Bilyk is unsure where his career path will lead, but he would be open to a career involving emergency medicine or zoo medicine. As well, he eventually hopes to be a mentor for other students with dreams of a future in veterinary medicine.
“I hope to see myself as a veterinarian that provides a positive impact on my clinic and the surrounding community,” says Bilyk. “I hope that I can become a veterinarian who can help put a smile back on a little girl or boy’s face as I help heal their best friends.”