Rural veterinary practice
Delivery of a foal
Sleepy foal disease
entrance to the practice
3. Rural veterinary practice
A large sign above the front door reads Veterinary Practice ‘Hintham‘. Next to the name, Siamese twins are stylized into the letter H, the symbol of the practice. Hintham is a district in the city of Den Bosch that lies eight kilometres to the west. The name is a reminder of the time when the practice had its home base in this city with initially only two veterinary surgeons. Which explains the symbol.
Veterinary surgeon in the city
In those days, veterinary surgeons were genuine all-rounders: dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, canary birds and other types of domestic pets found their way to the clinic in Hintham. And the practice was also of service to farmers in the surrounding area: cows, pigs, goats, sheep and horses. But times changed and we needed to specialize. The practice was divided into a clinic for domestic pets, which remained at the city location, and a practice for farm animals, the centre of which relocated to the countryside, to Berlicum.
Rural veterinary surgeon
The name ‘rural veterinary surgeon‘ is more practical than ‘veterinarian for farm animals and horses‘. In the past, rural veterinary surgeons were usually men. The four that worked out of the practice in Berlicum each specialized themselves in two types of animals: cattle and pigs, cattle and horses, pigs and small ruminants (sheep and goats), pigs and horses. My task concerned cattle and horses. We all four only became all-rounders again in the case of an emergency: during the evening and night shifts, each of us had to be capable of delivering a cow or sheep, by means of a Caesarean if necessary; or putting a leg in plaster, for example. Every day, following consultations per telephone, we would go on the road and work through all of the calls. The medical options were often limited, because the costs of treatment had to be earned back by the animal following its recovery. Livestock breeding is the bread and butter of the farmer; it is not a hobby that the farmer enjoys spending money on.
Nowadays, the term livestock owner is preferred to the term farmer. But livestock owner and farmer are not synonyms. Take the example of someone moving from the city to the countryside and then purchasing a number of cattle. That makes that person a livestock owner, but not a farmer! A farmer not only has cattle, he also has a certain lifestyle. Many generations of farmers (and farmer’s wives) were born and brought up on farms and with the business of farming. And with time, this moulded their nature. A genuine farmer is stubborn, hard-working, down to earth, independent and frugal. These are just a few of the characteristic features of a farmer. I dare not say whether or not these personality traits also apply to the farmer’s wife. But I never came across any sanctimonious types or entertainment-seekers on the farms in Brabant; I did meet a lot of very lovely girls.
Every veterinary practice always has someone on call for emergencies, 365 days and nights a year, even on holidays. Nights during which you need not leave your bed are rare; two or three calls per night are much more common. They never come one after the other, but rather just after you have fallen asleep again. Weekends on call always mean work. And come Monday, the telephone consultations start at 8 am as usual. Compensation for the irregular hours during evenings and nights in the form of days’ off is not an option, as the workload for those who stay behind would become too high: three weeks’ holiday per year is the maximum. And so working at a rural veterinary practice means working an average of 75 to 80 hours per week, 49 weeks per year. That corresponds to two full-time jobs for wages, without the normal free weekends and holidays.
Veterinary surgeons are therefore often sleep-deprived and so they are prone to minor car accidents. I never took my car to the garage for scrapes or dents: after all, you don’t want to have to do without your car due to repairs too often. But the quality of your work may not suffer under your fatigue: claims for damages are no longer unusual in daily practice and so it is essential to have adequate professional liability insurance.
A veterinary surgeon’s work is fascinating but also heavy. His back in particular must withstand a great deal. In practice, obstetric and surgical procedures never take place at the correct working height: operations are often carried out while the animal is lying on the ground. Which means you are bending over or on your knees. Moreover, the work is dangerous: you must be on guard constantly for kicks and blows: they can seriously injure you, or even render you disabled. Stable dust that you breathe in can lead to emphysema and allergies. Screaming pigs during vaccination procedures may lead to early deafness. And you are constantly exposed to all kinds of infections that can be transferred from animals to humans. It is not surprising that the incapacity for work is so high among veterinary surgeons; so high even that various insurance companies refused to accept them as clients.
We had four part-time assistants working at our veterinary practice. They were our home front. Taking calls outside regular consultation hours and relaying messages to the veterinary surgeons. At the front desk, they supplied farmers with medication and they ordered new stocks. They sterilised the instruments for Caesareans and other surgical procedures and they kept the building clean. They kept the books, recording visits and turning out bills at the end of each month. They put on coffee when their bosses were around, breathed a sigh of relief once they were gone and cleaned up the mess that they left behind. These are just a few of their many, many tasks.
A farmer on the telephone either says his name unintelligibly or not at all so as not to waste time. The medications that he wants to order always have difficult names; he does not have the packaging in hand or it is covered with shit. And he cannot read the small letters without his glasses: ‘For an udder infection, you know, the ones I always have‘. And strange but true: the assistant knows exactly what he means. And what you should never say to a farmer who, after much labour, cannot facilitate the birth of a calf and, when it is almost too late, calls the veterinary surgeon: ‘one moment please, I have a caller on the other line‘. A good assistant must be able to smell the amniotic fluid on his arms through the telephone line.
And no matter how rude the client is, the assistant must remain friendly. The same goes when she has to communicate an emergency to the veterinary surgeon on call, who is always very busy. And if you have a full schedule, then an emergency call never comes at a convenient time. Moreover, the veterinary surgeon may very well have been called to an emergency the night before. The assistant must therefore demonstrate the necessary tact and a lot of patience; she must not forget anything, she must not make mistakes and, more than anything, she must be friendly no matter the circumstances.
You may wonder how our assistants were able to keep going. It certainly amazed me quite often. Still, none of them ever became totally frustrated, bursting into tears or leaving, never to come back. And in all those years, none of them ever experienced a burn-out. The only reason we ever had to say goodbye to the ladies after a certain time was: pregnancy. Which was not unusual, as our more than capable assistants were also attractive women. Not only were we, the veterinary surgeons who had hired them, of that opinion; the farmers felt the same. They appreciated both the services provided by the ladies as well as their appearance, and so they were never reluctant to collect their medication at the practice.
In general, the contact between the farmer and the veterinary surgeon was cordial. Sitting at the kitchen table, we not only discussed the ups and downs of the livestock, but also things going on within the family. One example concerns a married couple with a strong desire for children that had remained childless for years. This came up over a cup of coffee after having discussed the farm situation. Seeing that one of the assistants was again soon to be a mother, the veterinary surgeon had the perfect solution: ‘Let your wife be one of our assistants, she will be pregnant in no time.‘
The farmer and his wife did not take him up on this friendly offer.
© Leo Rogier Verberne