Niall Connell says his vet degree has given him a rewarding career, allowed him to bring up his family and helped him after he became ill. Next month, he will become junior vice-president of the RCVS.
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Having qualified in 1982 from Glasgow, I initially worked in a mixed practice in Fife.
Almost two years later I moved to London to work for the PDSA. By 2003 life was good. I was the senior veterinary surgeon at PDSA’s PetAid Hospital in East Glasgow. I was very busy, I’d done my orthopaedic certificate and I really enjoyed my work. My wife, Colette, worked part time as a classroom assistant and our children were doing well.
But I became aware of some numbness in my left hand and I checked with my GP who told me to keep an eye on it. It persisted but I tolerated the situation. I thought it was a carpal tunnel-type thing. I also experienced some tingling feelings in my legs, but the episodes didn’t last long. I was very tired each day after work, but who isn’t?
Getting a diagnosis
Then, one weekend in September, my legs gave way. My legs and feet felt like numb concrete. I was taken into hospital for an MRI and a lumbar puncture and the consultant told me that I had multiple sclerosis (MS); I was 43. I was put on 1000 mg prednisone intravenously for three days.
Qualified from Glasgow
Mixed, mainly small animal, practice
Ill health retirement
Clinical skills instructor
RCVS Council and VN Council
To be honest, I was relieved by the diagnosis – at least it wasn’t a brain tumour, which had been my first thought. In reality, I didn’t really know what MS was. I knew a local radio DJ had it and I assumed it was some kind of joint problem, because everything is to do with orthopaedics, right?
MS literally means ‘many scars’. For me, the scars are in my brain; fortunately, there are none in my spinal cord.
Although they help many patients, I made a conscious decision not to join an MS support group. It wasn’t that I was afraid to see people worse off than me and what my future might look like, but I wanted to be part of the active human race for as long as possible.
I’ve had a pretty robust attitude to life since my dad died suddenly when I had just started at vet school; I was 17 and he was 45. The experience taught me to appreciate every day and never take anything for granted.
As soon as I could, I got crutches from the staff, staggered into the corridor and tried to walk again. I began to improve.
Returning to work
After some weeks, I returned to work with some adjustments. I could only do minor ops and consulting, which was exhausting. The weekly intramuscular injections of interferon that I needed came with flu-like side effects that coloured my weekends.
I’m proud to say I lasted another six years in clinical practice before I had to give up.
I really thought it was game over and that I would spend the rest of my days listening to Leonard Cohen and playing the PlayStation. I thought I faced an empty future. I did get very down about my situation and experienced some dark days.
I loved being part of the veterinary community and I held onto that
However, I loved being part of the veterinary community and I held onto that. I attended CPD events and the BSAVA congress exhibition where I met friends and colleagues. No-one ever asked why I was there and everyone was very positive.
I thought I might try to volunteer somewhere and looked around for something I could do and enjoy.
Eventually I began to assist at the patient information centre at Glasgow’s Stobhill hospital, which supports patients, their families and staff. It’s a brilliant facility and works with groups like Macmillan Cancer Support.
It boosted my confidence to help others and the staff found they had someone who was useful and who could contribute. My vet degree and experience were transferable and I fitted in well.
I did a stand-up comedy course for folk with long-term chronic illnesses. It was great and I met some wonderful, crazy people. I also did an occasional reception shift at a couple of local practices when they were short staffed. Every vet should try it.
My wife and family were very supportive and that helped massively.
And then I received a text from a former colleague that changed my life. Lissann Wolfe was a registered veterinary nurse (RVN) with whom I had worked, and who, by then, was a clinical course leader at Glasgow vet school. The clinical skills team do a great job, providing excellent practical learning support for the students.
She asked if I fancied doing a seminar on professionalism with first-year students. I was very nervous about it, even though I told myself they had been school kids until recently. I tried it and I loved it.
I now work at Glasgow – when they need me – testing clinical skills performance through OSCEs and DOPS (direct observation of procedural skills). I present occasional seminars and have taken part in communication skills classes and well as assessing students’ online portfolios. And I help with the programme that aims to widen access to veterinary education. It is rewarding work.
I also help a bit with student and new graduate mentoring and speak to vets training with VetsNow about professionalism.
Things that are worth doing are rarely easy
When I think about my journey I can get quite emotional. These activities are tiring and physically challenging, but then things that are worth doing are rarely easy. I adore doing them.
Taking on a wider role
In 2012, I attended a local RCVS regional question time and listened to Nick Stace, then CEO of the RCVS, talking about the positive changes happening with RCVS Council and its plans for the future. I thought I’d like to be part of it and that I should give it a go.
If anyone had told me seven years ago that I would be elected onto RCVS Council and VN Council, I would’ve laughed out loud. The council members are great – they are knowledgeable and approachable. The staff are a joy to work with. I value engagement with vets and RVNs who work hard every day for the benefit of our animals and who give our veterinary profession such a superb reputation.
I will be honest, having a left hand and legs that feel like painful cement, with all the other stuff and messing around with crutches, a power chair and whatever, is a nuisance. I do have down days.
However, I’m constantly inspired by others and their positive attitude to life. For example, Colette recently had treatment for pancreatic cancer and has come through the other side – back to health – without a murmur of complaint.
I have secondary, progressive MS; when diagnosed, I was told that a man in middle age was likely to have a rapid progression. So, I regard myself as very lucky, I could be a lot worse.
My vet degree has been a real passport for me. It’s given me a rewarding career, allowed me to bring up my family and helped me after I became ill.
It steered my student teaching and it has brought me to what is the most rewarding and humbling part of my career – on 13 July, I become RCVS junior vice-president.
Oh, and one more thing, I’m still very good indeed at the PlayStation.
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