Donna Cordon Stacey had a career in print and publishing before embarking on her dream of being a vet. She now works in small animal practice and lives in Oxfordshire with her husband and two boys
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LIKE many children growing up in the 1970s, with ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ on television, I announced at an early age that I was going to be a vet. I thought school was going well until my tutor told me at 14 that the school didn't think I was ‘cut out to be a high-flyer’ and that I should look for a more realistic career. With no plan B, I lost motivation and spent my second O level year mucking around waiting to leave school and get a job.
I took a position in an architect's office and taught at a riding school at weekends while I looked for direction. I followed my dad into the publishing industry, becoming an assistant print buyer in an advertising and design agency, where I learnt a lot about marketing, promotions, production and print.
I enjoyed copywriting and proof-reading, so I moved into magazine publishing, as an editorial assistant for an equestrian monthly, where one of the contributors was Derek Cuddeford from the Dick vet school. I mentioned to him one day how much I looked forward to receiving his nutrition articles. That turned out to be a life-changing conversation. He asked whether equine nutrition was a particular interest of mine. Before long I'd told him about my abandoned plans to become a vet. He said that if I really wanted a veterinary career I should have a serious crack at it. If it didn't work out, at least I'd have tried; otherwise I would never know. The ambition was reignited.
For a while, I continued to nurture the idea, but I needed to find an opportunity to study: I only had one A level – in business studies – and I needed to finance my plan. I moved to a better editing job with the fantasy games empire Games Workshop. It was one of those happy places to work, where people were paid to do what they loved – designing, playing and writing about games.
I might have stayed longer, but I met an illustrator and moved on impulse to Devon with him. I didn't have a job to go to, so I wrote to the local equine yards, advertising my services as a groom. I started work on a farm that bred National Hunt horses, kept liveries and had a 300-strong flock of mule ewes. I'd done a lot of lambing in return for my stable on the farm where I'd kept my horse, so I was keen to help with the sheep.
I had fun riding out, caring for the mares and youngstock and, when lambing time came, taking on much of that work too. After a while, an opportunity as a production assistant with a reprographics company came up, so I exchanged physical stresses of my farm job for a mentally stressful job in production. After a year of being on the receiving end of a disorganised management team, I'd had enough and was missing the outdoors, so I looked for my next move.
The farm where we rented our cottage let grass keep to a livestock dealer. I got chatting to him one day and he took me on as a full-time shepherd. There was some seasonality to the work, so I sent out my CV to publishers and got a regular stream of freelance copy-editing and proof-reading, which filled the gaps.
My partner now had regular work as an artist on a well-known comic strip, so we decided there wouldn't be a better time for me to do my A levels. Even so, sometimes when he was waiting for a pay cheque, I'd take a day or two off and do office temping for petrol money to get to college.
During the holidays I worked for my friend the dealer. The lady from the ministry, as it was then, had come to check out one of his cows with an apparently duplicated ear tag, and had been slightly perturbed by his efforts at herd records, so I got these in order.
Being a mature student by some nine or 10 years was great. I really valued the chance to get these qualifications and worked much harder than I would've done if I'd tried to do them with the little motivation I had left following O levels. During the second year, my relationship broke down. My collie Bil and I headed home to Nottingham where I completed my A levels.
A married student
I joined the RVC in September 1999 and soon met my future husband. The following year, when he graduated and got a job in mixed practice, we moved to north Devon. For the next four years, I drove up to Hertfordshire on Sunday evenings, studied all week, and trekked back down the M5 on Friday nights to surf, walk our collies on the beach, and go along with my husband on his calls.
I loved college. Years of wanting so much to be there made me ever conscious of what an opportunity I'd been given, and it felt as though I was now where I belonged. I don't know whether I'd have recognised that had I not spent so long with my sights set on it from so many other perspectives.
Coming relatively late into the veterinary profession has perhaps had its disadvantages – I might otherwise have waited longer to start a family – but I don't consider those years wasted: although I didn't realise it then, I was learning a lot about people. My motivation to pursue this career was, and still is, because I like animals, but I now know that I also care about the people who come with them, and try to empathise, even with the difficult ones because, in their own way, most of them like animals too.
Veterinary practice presents particular challenges to working parents: normal consulting hours exceed those of most paid childcare providers; and when much of your day is booked out as 10-minute slots, and a client expects to collect their newly spayed bitch from you at the end of the afternoon, you can't easily nip out to take your pyrexic toddler home from nursery until relatives can come and help out.
I've worked part-time since our children arrived, although that will change this autumn when Will, the eldest, starts school. My normal working hours include regular weekends. Then, my husband looks after the boys so I don't have to take time off work if they are ill, and we save on childcare costs. We're lucky to have an understanding, flexible nursery and have, on numerous occasions, also relied on family support. This, together with a little determination, makes it possible to combine parenthood with the career for which I worked so hard.
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