It’s been nearly fifteen years since I first saw the practice. I was working in vaccine industry research. I was tired to death of the cycle of injection, blood sample, observation, and statistical analysis, and the narrow yellow building with its neat little arena, soft lawns, and white veterinary trucks parked alongside, looked like something close to paradise. I dropped off the milk samples for analysis by the microbiology laboratory tucked into a corner of the large animal clinic, sighed at the trucks with their packs full of everything I had given up, and headed back to my spreadsheets. “I wish I worked here,” I mumbled as I got into my car.
Five years later, I had left the vaccine company, and was on month 8 of a year-long experiment in stay-at-home motherhood. I had spent the bulk of that year in a house in the middle of nowhere with a toddler and a mother-in-law with a recent knee replacement. I needed to go back to work. When the phone call came, everything clicked into place. “This is Tom Zehnder of Bradshaw Veterinary Clinic. I got your name from the AVMA matching service. Are you still looking for a job?”
I explained that I was still looking, and that I would love to work at his practice, but that I had been away from clinical practice for five years, essentially since graduation, and that I lived over an hour from the clinic, so I wasn’t sure how it could work.
“Oh, well, we’ll figure something out. You can ride with me for a month or so, and we’ll figure something out for the on-call situation. Why don’t you come down, and we’ll talk.”
What I hadn’t realized at the time was that the shortage of large animal practitioners was so acute, and my future boss so desperate for an associate, that he would have taken any warm body with a valid veterinary license. But, we suited, the practice and I, and I agreed to give it a try, to try the commute -- “for a year or so,” I told my husband.
“A year or so,” the standard run for a new associate, particularly in large animal practice. Most of us, after that year, purchase a used pack for a used truck and go into practice for ourselves or transfer into the more lucrative and less hazardous world of small animal medicine. But, there was something no one told me. At some point, my positions stopped being a job and became membership into a community.
I can’t tell you when the shift happened. Was it the first time a tearful client pressed a packet of cookies into my hands after I euthanized her horse? (Over the years, whenever I return home with a gift or food from a client, Mike asks, “So, what did you kill this time?”) Was it when Lana, our amazing technician finally loosened the technician-doctor boundary enough to tease me about my incompetence with the ancient stick-shift truck? (The thing was missing 3rd gear, and 1st only went to about 5 mph on a good day.) Was it the first time a rancher called and actually asked for “the lady vet?” (I am, and I suspect will forever be, ‘The Corriente Queen of the Northern San Joaquin.’) Was it when a client gave me a handmade baby quilt just before I went on maternity leave? (Incidentally, the best way for a woman to prove that she can work in a man’s world is not only to do everything the guys do, but to do it while pregnant – see the Corriente Queen title, for example.)
I don’t know when I became a part of the community into which our practice has been so deeply embedded for over 30 years. There are a lot of landmarks in a decade. But, I have watched children grow from grade-schoolers to college students. I have listened to clients as their jobs failed, their marriages disintegrated. I have consoled them in times of loss and congratulated them on triumphs. I have cooed over new babies, and offered sympathy to the newly widowed.
Large animal medicine, particularly the sort of mixed, ambulatory ranch work that we do, creates a deep bond between veterinarian and client. We do not rotate patients through our exam room at 7-15 minute intervals. Our average appointment lasts an hour, and we frequently travel to our patients, often visiting our clients’ homes. I can tell you who the obsessive housekeepers are, whose horses live in greater luxury than the owners, who collects which sort of memorabilia, whose children need extra tutoring, and whose teen recently wrecked the pickup.
This is a love letter of sorts, to a place where I found a job and a home; to people who welcomed me, who put up with my inadequacies and foibles, and gave me space to grow; to Sheila whose voice fills me with dread when she calls to apprise me of a “situation,” but who works her butt off every time to help remedy that situation; to Lana, who carried me through my first few months in clinical practice with her endless tact and boundless knowledge, saving me from more mistakes than I care to contemplate, and who always has “great faith” in me; and to Tom, who gave me that shot nearly ten years ago to “see how it goes.” It is a love letter to my patients, to the wounds I have sutured, to the newborns I have delivered, to the colics I have treated in the dark and in the rain; to my failures, the ones I was too late, not smart enough, or not lucky enough to save. It is a love letter to my clients: to Mel, once my tech, always my friend, and the person I call for everything under the sun because she always “knows someone;” to Al, farrier and friend, who loves me because I didn’t sew up his horse, and whose gift for gab is un-thwarted even by a broken jaw; to Marc, who made me what I am “The Corriente Queen of the Northern San Joaquin; to Lynn and Chuck, who never complain, always follow instructions, and who have taught me that the truth usually lies between two viewpoints; to Tina who manages the people and horses of Project R.I.D.E. with perpetual calm and a terrific smile; to another Tina with her “woolly mammoth” cattle, who never lets me out of the driveway without a 15 minute chat, diesel running or no; to Fred, who remembers the lost art of civil debate, and that agreement is never necessary to intelligent discourse; to Joe, who always knows how to find me when there is an emergency, and who will get me the name of the horse and the owner – sooner or later; to Elaine, who has a cure for everything and who never gives up on anything; to so many people, the list wanders into the hundreds as their faces flash into my mind. This is a love letter to them all, to all of those whose lives have touched mine in so many ways.
The phone calls began on Friday, as people received their letters. Some tearful, some optimistic, some angry, others frightened, some have rotated through all these emotions and more, as we all process the inevitability of our new reality. You see, this is also a eulogy. After February 28, the large animal side of our practice will exist no more. Our little group, in the office “out back” will be disbanded. Like any terminal illness, this one has been hard fought, and a long time coming. But, it turns out that livestock medicine is not recession-proof, and the practice that once supported 5 full-time doctors has been struggling to carry three of us part-time.
“What are you going to do?” I prepared for this question during the interval week between learning that my job was evaporating and the official notification to the clients. My answer still feels inadequate. Of course, after speaking to a few people, I begin to realize that my discomfort lies not with my plans, but with the uneasy sense that I am somehow abandoning those who have come to depend on me. My answer is not the one they wanted to hear.
I have neither capital nor credit to purchase my own pack and supplies and begin my own practice. Nor, at 40, with aching joints, many a night spent waiting for the phone to ring, and many, many hours spent away from my family, do I want to segue into the life of a solo practitioner. Looking back at my last couple of years, I get the sense that the universe is shoving me in a different direction. Either that, or I’m the mole in a cosmic game of ‘whack-a-mole.’ Being of an optimistic nature, I prefer to think that the mallet thumps to the psyche, bank account, and body are directive rather than destructive.
So, what am I going to do? I’m going to start fresh, building on something that I lacked the courage to do twenty years ago. Apparently I required this roundabout course, especially the last decade, to develop that courage. I am going to expand my freelance writing, pursuing magazine and newspaper pieces more aggressively, and branching into commercial writing. You can always find me here with my personal musings, or, for a more professional perspective, at my new website, http://www.vet-writer.com. (Give me a couple of weeks, it’s still under construction.)