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The benefit of hindsight
  1. David Watson

Abstract

David Watson spent eight years in practice in Suffolk, building up a small animal clinic, before beginning a career that spanned 22 years in the animal health industry. He has always had an interest in the media and communication and, following a chance conversation, switched from the pharma industry to a career in veterinary journalism. He is now the communications officer for the diocese of Truro

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MY heart had been set on becoming a veterinary surgeon from the age of eight or nine, when as a family we spent nearly all our summer holidays working on a Norfolk farm, turning our hands to whatever needed doing in order to earn our keep.

I increasingly spent time with the animals, especially the dairy cows, squeezing between them to fasten and unfasten their neck chains, fascinated by the chalked name boards above their heads – Daisy IX, Vera (she had horns and kicked), Ethel X, reflecting the passing of bovine generations – and mucking them out, staggering under the weight of huge slopping wheelbarrows.

Early days

Occasionally an Austin A30 would draw up outside the dairy and the relative peace of the cowshed would be disturbed by a cheerful broad Irish brogue. Peter the vet had arrived. And much to my amazement, any cows that were tied up at the time would begin to shake their heads vigorously. This phenomenon baffled me until one day I helped with a tuberculin test, when the penny dropped. The head shaking was a Pavlovian response simply to avoid the stabbing of the intradermal needle!

As I grew older and stronger, I became more and more involved with the management of the cattle (and the pigs, too) and I grew to see the care and real affection shown by stockmen and vet alike – animal husbandry as a way of life, not just a job; all tempered by firm handling and a patient, no-nonsense approach to life and death, balanced with the harsh realities of agricultural economics.

Once my years passed from childhood into adolescence, the long summer holidays were spent ‘seeing practice’ with Peter and his practice partner, Bill – such that I had seen, smelt and done much that stood me in good stead as, in 1968, I set off to train at the Royal Veterinary College.

Fools rush in …

By that time, I had already learnt a lesson that has remained with me throughout my professional career – not only as a vet, but as a journalist and now, as a ‘bishop's minder’ – the value of pausing before leaping in to ‘do something’. The simple art of observation.

Bill had been a student of George F. Boddie at the Dick vet school and he introduced me to the good professor's textbook, ‘Diagnostic Methods in Veterinary Medicine’. It became my bible. It taught me an approach as reliant on the art as much as the science of veterinary medicine – something that I believe we are in danger of losing today.

If you are in a caring profession these days, there is an expectation from clients that you can fix anything; and this pressure is exacerbated by TV vet and human hospital series. Simple listening and observation does not make for good drama, diving in does. And when did you last hear the question asked of a technique – just because we can, does it necessarily mean we should?

Problem-solving and people

I am often asked the question ‘Don't you miss being in practice?’ My honest answer is ‘Yes, I do.’ And, quite candidly, that answer is at two levels – one I share with everyone, and one that, until now, I have always kept to myself.

My party answer is that I miss calving cows, I miss clients and ‘consults’, and that I miss the challenge and the pleasure of diagnosis. For I maintain that the veterinary degree course – in my case complemented by Professor Boddie's book, coupled with generous hands-on seeing practice – offered me the best basis for the acquisition of problem-solving skills that anyone could obtain anywhere.

Once we have mastered the skills of diagnosis, especially that of observation, we are equipped to transfer those skills into any sector of a plethora of diverse career pathways where there are problems to solve. In my case that has included sorting out dysfunctional teams, building ‘market share’ from zero base for a product range in a market hitherto monopolised by a single player, and converting a monthly newspaper into a weekly over a period of a few weeks. In each case, the same process was applied as to the diagnosis of an ailing pet on the consulting room table.

Hindsight

My previously unspoken bit of ‘missing’ practice is a combination of personal guilt and the accumulation of 40 years' hindsight. It is something I would ask all present-day vet students – and prospective students – to bear in mind, and that is to look upon veterinary medicine as a vocation and not simply a good career option for an academic high flyer.

The technical stuff is the easy bit. Fixing the animals is fine, even taking the credit when things go well, as long as you remember that all you are ever doing is assisting Mother Nature with a natural healing process. We possess no divine healing powers, only the training to complement them in the most appropriate and effective ways.

No, with hindsight, I have come to realise that the real reward of veterinary practice is the handling of the relationships with the clients and all their foibles and frustrating behaviours. The art of eliciting information in a short period of time, of reading the non-verbal messages, and remembering that most of the time we are treating the relationship that the client has with his or her animal, not just the clinical entity.

With the benefit of hindsight, I have come to see there is great merit in becoming satisfied with one's lot; of taking pride in the intimate societal role vets can play, not only in animal welfare, but in the wellbeing of the people whom we serve.

On the face of it, practice life may appear humdrum and unfulfilling but, in reality, the grass on the other side is not greener. It is just a different sort of grass.

So, faced with the decision to leave a partnership in veterinary practice again today, even allowing for the radically altered nature of its structure and constraints, I believe I would now stay there; in that it really did – and does – offer the very things I am trying to recoup as I come to the end of my professional life today. That is not to say that I have regrets – other than perhaps the sadness and the hurt caused to my parents when I left what in their eyes was the fulfilment of their dreams for me. For me to be a partner in a country practice. Local boy done good.

But, alas, that didn't seem enough. The natural communication skills with which I had been blessed sought wider expression and I turned my back on the Waveney Valley to seek my fortune – building a career first in the pharmaceutical industry, then in publishing, and now as communications officer for the Diocese of Truro.

There is a certain irony in that over the years I have built up a reputation as a lecturer and proponent of communication skills, using them to their fullest extent in whatever role I have had, yet only now realising that the most fulfilling way of expressing them is in veterinary practice.

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