Sue Hay wanted to be a vet from her early teens – ‘no other career path stood a chance’ – but her determination was tested. After qualifying, she worked in practice, raised her family and then joined the State Veterinary Service. More recently she joined Improve International as Head of Practical Skills, delivering training and revalidation of Official Veterinarians
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MY careers adviser told me that girls couldn't be vets and why didn't I think about forestry! Then I discovered that my school would no longer offer physics and chemistry as separate A levels as it thought physical science was the way forward. At least one vet school told me that it required these subjects as separate A levels, and my request to study these subjects at the boys' grammar school, just down the road, was met with horror. So I left and travelled much further each day to a ‘new’ sixth form college where physics and chemistry were offered to everyone.
Throughout this time I spent all my weekends and school holidays working for an equine vet who was also a racehorse trainer and bloodstock agent. I loved every minute and learned so much about managing competition horses.
My determination was rewarded with the offer of a place at Glasgow vet school. The vet school had recently started to accept more female students and my year was about one-third girls. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there – the sport and social life, as well as the course. We were a class of just over 60, so I knew everyone and made many lifelong friends.
My first job was in dairy practice in Castle Cary, Somerset. This was an excellent practice to start in; I was introduced carefully to the work and given lots of support. I remember being called to cases of milk fever very early, sometimes before the cow went down, and it was not unknown, in the calving season, to visit up to three before breakfast. Treating them in this early stage and seeing the instant response was very rewarding. The small animal work consisted of a half-hour surgery each evening and cat spays on a Wednesday afternoon. How things have changed!
Making a mark in practice
I was the first woman to work in this practice and, initially, many of the clients were reluctant to let me do their work. My break came after only a few weeks when I was sent to a cow with a retained cleansing. When I examined her she had a retained calf. I managed to remove the calf, but the smell was so bad that the farmer was unable to stay to help. This impressed him so much that he told everyone at market the following week. From then on I was welcome everywhere, but was always treated slightly differently from the men. I was given hot water, soap and towel, instead of a cold hose, at the end of a visit, but I was never invited to sample their homemade cider.
After a short spell in small animal practice I settled in a mixed practice in Oxfordshire. I have many happy memories from that time. When I decided it was time to change from career girl to mum we moved to settle in the Blackdown Hills. This is an area of outstanding natural beauty on the Devon/ Somerset border. It comprises steep hills, high hedgebanks and pocket handkerchief-sized fields.
After a few years' break I returned to practice, working part time. But once my children were more independent, I started to look for alternative work and was successful in applying for a post with the State Veterinary Service, now the APHA. The local office was fairly close, so this worked well for me. I joined a great team of experienced vets who made me feel welcome, shared their knowledge and helped me to settle into this new area of veterinary work. Since this was in the south west of England, a large proportion of my work was bovine TB case management.
About this time a doctor friend told me about a postgraduate teaching qualification run by the Peninsula Medical School. I had always been interested in teaching clinical skills and decided that now was the time to find out more. This course was primarily for the medical school staff and for the doctors who taught the students in GP practices all over the region. It proved to be directly transferable to veterinary medicine and was put to good use supporting new colleagues. From this point I took over the Official Veterinarian (OV) TB training for my team. The course that I developed was later used as the national training model.
The opportunity to join Improve International, following its successful tender for the OV training contract, was perfect for me. As head of practical skills I am combining teaching and curriculum development with my knowledge of state veterinary medicine. I am also the course tutor for the essential skills and TB courses and run the TB practical assessment programme.
Improve International is an innovative and progressive company. The new online learning platform that it has developed has opened up many different and exciting ways to deliver course material. It can be accessed 24/7 from anywhere in the world and is continually updated. Working in partnership with the European School of Veterinary Postgraduate Studies and Harper Adams University means that the new official veterinarian training – OCQ(V)s – are recognised postgraduate qualifications and additional CPD courses are planned for the future.