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From Portakabin to hospital
  1. Gillian Page


Gillian Page qualified as a veterinary nurse from Berkshire College of Agriculture in 1988 and worked in a number of roles before she and her husband Tony bought a piece of land and started their own practice

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THERE it was, the advert I'd been waiting to see for what seemed like a lifetime: ‘Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies (R[D]SVS) seeks trainee veterinary nurse’. I knew it was mine, or, rather, desperately hoped so. At that time there were no training centres in Scotland and competition for places was strong. I knew there would be many applicants, so I'd have to think of a way to get noticed. The plan was that, when asked the inevitable interview question, ‘Why do you want this job?’, I would find a way to stand out. I decided most applicants would say ‘I love animals’, or ‘I just want to work with animals’, so I wouldn't say that; however, I hadn't actually thought what I would say. When the question was asked, the unbelievable words ‘I'm in it for the money’ came out of my mouth. Fortunately, the interview panel thought it was amusing and, a month later, with great excitement, I put on my green and white striped dress. What an education was to follow.

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I completed two years and my first year of VN training at the Dick before deciding general practice would benefit me more in the long term. I was keen to see a puppy vaccinated rather than another hemilaminectomy. I found a good practice in Blythwood Vet Group in Pinner, Middlesex, and after qualifying from Berkshire College the following year, was delighted to take up the Head VN role with them. I loved my time in Pinner, working alongside great colleagues with whom I've remained in touch.

So keen was I to gain a nursing position that, on leaving school, I hadn't taken the opportunity of going to university, something I'd always regretted. When considering my next move I decided to return to Edinburgh to do a science degree at Queen Margaret University. I worked as a locum VN during the student holidays, covering the UK, which made for a tiring but educational few years. I would often daydream about what my own practice might look like, but in those days it wasn't possible for someone other than a veterinary surgeon to own a practice.

Following graduation, I moved to Worksop in Derbyshire to be with Tony, whom I had met while working as a locum. He had already started to formulate the idea of having his own practice and we realised that we shared a vision of the type of practice we wanted. That decided, Tony came home one night with a map of the UK and a pin and asked me ‘Where do we put the pin?’ Although happy in Derbyshire, my friends and family have always been paramount in my life so we moved to Scotland in 1996. We were unemployed, had no money and no home – we had to do something and quickly.

Fortunately, Tony got a job with the PDSA and I joined a healthcare company with a veterinary division. This role involved me with national veterinary wholesalers and veterinary school key accounts in Scotland and the north of England. This was a whole new world, tougher than I had been used to, and I gained a great deal of knowledge of veterinary business. I worked alongside colleagues who might be considered ruthlessly focused and ambitious, but they were also extremely good teachers. My interest and enthusiasm for veterinary practice management was strengthened by working in this environment. The travelling and hours spent away from home were tough, so I found another focus that would allow me to be at home more often. Having felt for quite some time that I would like to teach, I inquired about, and was offered, a post at Oatridge Agricultural College. As well as teaching, I was learning to write and develop material for the higher national certificate and higher national diploma courses in animal care, and I'm sure this was the reason I was offered the post of centre manager with the College of Animal Welfare (CAW) in 2000. When I joined CAW, Scotland's first ever degree in veterinary nursing – offered by CAW, Edinburgh Napier University and the R(D)SVS – was about to be validated. Having a passion for veterinary nursing, it was a dream job for me being involved as deputy programme leader.

Starting on our own

Throughout this time, our dreams of our own practice had not gone away and the building was in the first stages of design. All we needed was £550k to build it! Ever confident, and with business plan in hand, we approached the high street banks. The answer, without exception, was no. The reason given, though not in these exact words, was that a couple of eejits with no real experience couldn't produce a building that resembled something out of Star Trek, and in West Lothian. The advice to ‘go and grow up’ was offered. We had a choice, did we believe them or go ahead with what we knew to be true, that such a practice could be built and would be a success. We decided to trust ourselves.

We bought land within a year, with the council agreeing to grant planning permission when we raised the money. It was a necessary but expensive way to start up, but we took out personal loans to rent a Portakabin and buy the necessary start-up equipment. Burnhouse Veterinary Centre opened on March 8, 1999, and although I was working, I was very involved with the building project. That year was good personally, too: we bought a house we loved (but couldn't really afford) and married in an 11th century keep.

Our initial hope of receiving funding after three years of hitting our financial targets was not to be, and it wasn't until year 6 that the bank gave us the green light. Building started in May 2005 and the practice opened in May 2006. We re-named it ‘Ayrton’ after our beloved cat and after my personal inspiration, Formula 1 racing driver, Ayrton Senna.

Ayrton Veterinary Hospital is the thing that I am most proud of in my working life. The project, five years in total, involved finding land, raising finance, designing the layout, interior design and co-project managing the build. There is no doubt it pushed us to our limits mentally and physically, but thankfully we came through, relatively unscathed, but perhaps a little wiser and more sober.

To have been able to produce something so personal, lead on and put in place a working culture, structure, clinical protocols and working processes in line with our personal values and beliefs has been incredible. From those early days to achieving hospital status, which was awarded by the RCVS in 2007, we have been fortunate to work alongside a small, dedicated team of people who have helped to make the practice what it is. In terms of division within the practice, Tony is the veterinary clinical partner and I handle the business aspect. As individuals we are very different characters and approach things in different ways, but almost always with the same goal in mind, so it works well for us.

Reflecting on my path, I think it is important to have confidence in yourself: don't shy away from calculated risk, stick to a personal value and belief system no matter who or what tries to shake it, and push out of your comfort zone in order to facilitate personal growth and have fun in what you do. I truly believe these points have been the foundation for my own career.

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