“We should forever be thankful for being vets” - Veterinary Practice
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“We should forever be thankful for being vets”

It saddens me to read research suggesting that one in five vets would choose a different career given the chance. There is rarely a day that goes by that I do not feel that this is the best profession one could imagine. Caring for animals and their owners offers such opportunities to make the world a happier place, that we should forever be thankful for being vets, as far as I can see.

But maybe this is a question of how we approach life as a whole, not just veterinary medicine. The American poet Emily Dickinson mused “To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else!” Most days I feel the same thing about our wonderful profession.

Perhaps I can share with you what my day held for me yesterday. I started at 8:30am with a brief service of morning prayer in our chapel at St John’s. I always find this a great way to focus before the day begins. By 9am I was at the vet school to hear a student’s presentation of her work on how zoos deal with ageing tigers in their collections.

There was not much time to spare, for my first case was a dog with a longstanding corneal ulcer in a practice a fair few miles from Cambridge. I had been trying to treat this dog for a month, using diamond burr debridement but without success. The final option was a superficial keratectomy under general anaesthetic. Having almost exhausted the owner’s limited insurance cover with previous attempts to heal the ulcer, I offered to operate for £50. The dog’s own practice quoted £550 for hospitalisation and anaesthesia, so the owner moved to another practice that was, in this situation, prepared to match my fee and charge £50 for 10 minutes of anaesthesia to perform the surgery. The value of a happy owner and a healed animal are priceless though.

On to my next case of the day, which was a 15-minute drive away. This little Bichon had a cataract in one eye, but mere nuclear sclerosis in the other, and was able to see quite well. I advised doing nothing – benign neglect. The owner was almost in tears. She had been worried all week, nervous of how she could afford the cataract surgery which she thought I was bound to recommend, as the £3,000 she had spent on the cruciate surgery last year had left next to nothing in the kitty.

The chat I had with her left me rather late for my next call to an ageing dog with gradually failing vision. At the age of 15, though, the phacoemulsification surgery suggested by another referral practice was just, as far as I could see, an opportunity for a financial transfer from the owner’s wallet to that of the practice in its chrome and glass magnificence. We talked about how much of this dog’s problem was in the eye and how much in an ageing brain. A difficult but valuable conversation.

As I drove home, a phone call (hands-free of course!) alerted me to a case, which was quite a few miles away, of a dog I had previously treated for a keratitis which now was afflicted with an acutely painful eye. I was meant to be hosting pre-dinner drinks for the vets and medics matriculation dinner at St John’s but had just enough time to race to that emergency. Actually, by the time I had got there, “David’s Distance Healing Ministry” had worked its wonders and the dog was back to normal! I think the wind had blown something irritant into the eye and I told the owners I was much happier to come to a dog that was miraculously cured than one where they had been less concerned and the eye had deteriorated beyond repair. Not that I could make much money from that of course, but honestly is that our main concern? Of course not. Somehow as a profession we have got ourselves into a financial fix as far as I can see – but maybe that’s enough said!

David Williams

Fellow and Director of Studies at St John's College, University of Cambridge

David Williams, MA, VetMB, PhD, CertVOphthal, CertWEL, FHEA, FRCVS, graduated from Cambridge in 1988 and has worked in veterinary ophthalmology at the Animal Health Trust. He gained his Certificate in Veterinary Ophthalmology before undertaking a PhD at the RVC. David now teaches at the vet school in Cambridge.

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