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At the cutting edge
  1. John Williams


John Williams started his veterinary career in general practice, honed his surgical skills in academia and now works in a referral practice

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I WAS a member of that generation influenced by the books of James Herriot, and as teenager I had an idealistic view of enjoying calving in bleak midwinter in a murky cow shed in mid-Wales. By final year I fully realised that trying to find the remnants of a bar of carbolic soap in a bucket of freezing cold water was not for me. This was in part due to the excellent teaching we had received in small animal surgery and medicine, and to an increasing wish to follow a career path in a warm environment armed with a scalpel.

And so, after qualifying, I was drawn to Mike King's practice in Enfield and Waltham Abbey. We were then a group of young vets who supported each other and were encouraged by the principal to develop our skills, though this was far from the mentoring that new graduates now expect. I spent six years in and around London honing what I thought were my surgical skills; little did I realise I was in fact still a novice with much to learn. Even then I always had a hankering to enter academia and further improve as a surgeon. At the end of 1989 an opportunity arose, I applied, and became a surgical house officer (an intern today) at Cambridge vet school. This was the most significant and best career decision I ever made. At the time it involved a significant drop in salary, not ideal with a mortgage to pay and a daughter on the way, but the gains I made in my skill base have more than made up for this over the past 20 years.

I spent four very happy years at Cambridge under the mentorship of Dick White. The training was intense and the learning curve steep. I learned so much, once I lost the bad habits that I had developed in general practice, where there was no-one to correct them. It proved to me that self-directed learning is valuable, but there have to be checks and balances to ensure that you are on the right track. Working in a team environment found at a vet school ensured that I was always current and standards were maintained at the highest level.

Four years of training, the CertVR and an FRCVS worked for and, thankfully, successfully achieved – where next? In the early 1990s, referral practices in the UK were few and far between and a career in clinical academia beckoned. I felt at the time that academia had been good to me and that I should pay that back by teaching other would-be surgeons and students. I joined the staff at Liverpool's Small Animal Teaching Hospital as a lecturer at what proved to be a troublesome time in academia in general and at Liverpool in particular in that decade. I soon progressed to head up the hospital, but at a time when retention and recruitment of academic staff was problematic. By the end of the 1990s, private referral practices were beginning to appear throughout the UK and I decided that the time was right for me to dip my toe in the water. In late 1999, I joined the Willows Vet Group in Cheshire and set up a referral soft tissue service within their hospital. This prospered and allowed me to train residents. It was during this period that I spent some of my time working with the BSAVA. I would encourage all veterinary surgeons to spend some time volunteering within the profession. It's a great way to broaden your horizons and make new friends, and to gain some understanding of the machinations of our diverse profession. I had a very enjoyable time initially on the congress programme committee, which I sat on for a number of years and then chaired for three years. This was followed by time on congress committee, culminating as chairman of congress, with the pinnacle being organising the World Small Animal congress in April 2012.

With this WSAVA/BSAVA/FECAVA congress done and dusted and after 12 years in one practice, I decided that I needed a new challenge. But where and what now? Further study possibly? I had taken a number of Open University courses in the past, culminating in a law degree, but no courses attracted me enough. Back to teaching? This was something I already did as I am part of the CPD unit at Liverpool University, where I find that I can enjoy teaching and still carry out my ‘day job’ to a high standard. I decided that the time was right to further develop my surgery and I missed the multidisciplinary team environment that had been such an important part of my career at both Cambridge and Liverpool universities.

Serendipitously, Northwest Surgeons were recruiting for a second soft tissue surgeon. Here was an established referral centre which had expanded from orthopaedics only to a multidisciplinary centre staffed by RCVS and ECVS diploma holders in cardiology, soft tissue surgery, orthopaedics, internal medicine, anaesthesia and diagnostic imaging. I already knew or had worked with a number of the clinicians in the past. It seemed ideal, and so it has proved. This has been a great career move for me; I work alongside like-minded clinicians where our ethos is to provide high-quality investigation, surgical intervention (where appropriate) and care.

What I have learned in my career is that it is never too late to make that jump to improve yourself, and that it is so important to have people around you to ensure that you don't stand still and that your standards and the quality of your work stay as high as they can.

It is also important to have interests outside work so that you can relax. For me that has been my family, the dogs, kayaking, hill walking and photography.

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