VetScript Editor's Pick: November 2019 - Taking no shortcuts

They’re out there in the provinces and the cities, veterinarians doing the everyday work in neighbourhood and country clinics. In this series, VetScript visits a different clinic every month.

Bette Flagler talks to Sandy Cooper of Elles Road Veterinary Centre, Invercargill.

What’s the history of the clinic?

My husband Doug was also a veterinarian. We graduated from Massey in the class of 1974 (I was one of four women in a class of 45) and it was difficult to get two jobs together in the same area. We ended up in Palmerston North, but while I had a permanent job and a partnership offer, Doug’s was a short-term locum job. We looked around and found two jobs in Invercargill. We had been in Invercargill for three or four years and considered what we would do next. We wanted to set up our own practice, and built this in 1978 from scratch. We have always been in this building. I bought four sections with the aim of rebuilding a few years ago, but Doug was really sick at that time and McDonald’s decided the site was ideal for them. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so we stayed here!

What was it like in the beginning?

When we started, the deer industry was ready to take off. We’d learned nothing about deer at veterinary school, but we were asked and became very involved in the deer industry – so much so that we were share farming. That’s been one of the highlights of the practice. We knew nothing about their diseases, management or physiology. I don’t think too many people get a whole new species that they suddenly have to come up to scratch with very quickly.

When we came down here we both did large and small animals. Shortly after arriving, Doug had a car accident. It was nothing major, but it struck me that maybe it wasn’t a good idea for us both to be out on the road driving all over. I also found it frustrating that a downer cow I’d see today might be dead tomorrow, depending on what farm it was on and if the farmer followed my instructions – I like having more control over the outcomes! I’ve successfully delivered twin calves by caesarian section under a macrocarpa tree with rain bucketing down at two in the morning, by tractor head-lights. I’ve been there, and there is satisfaction in that work, but for me there are more challenges and more satisfaction in a job well done with the smallies. I miss the farming folk, but my son has sheep so I still get to look after them. I can still go and pet a sheep if I want to!

Tell us about Doug.

Doug became unwell after we lost a child to cot death in 1989. Doug was depressed after that, and it was thought that it was due to the loss of the child. The doctors all diagnosed him as suffering from depression. He suddenly lost interest in the deer and other things, and became not his usual self. It took some years before he was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, which we didn’t have any idea was in the family. The depression was the onset of the disease. He was diagnosed in 1994, and he left practice in 1996. When he decided to leave practice we decided to practise small animal medicine only. Doug died in 2013 and his brain went to the Neurological Foundation Human Brain Bank at The University of Auckland.

What is your staffing?

Right now we’re very lean in terms of veterinarians. There’s me and one part-time veterinarian, and we are actively looking to hire another full-time veterinarian. We have four fabulous veterinary nurses who all have diplomas. The Southern Institute of Technology veterinary nurse training programme is in Invercargill so we get to see many of the students when they come through.

How would you describe the vibe of the practice?

Ours is a small family practice. If I have happy staff and happy clients, then I’m happy. The staff get a lot of satisfaction from working here. We’ve employed a lot of people over the years and some of the veterinarians have gone on to own their own practices. That says something about us. As an aside, the first veterinarian we ever employed was Grant Guilford. We’re the only practice in New Zealand that he ever worked for. He was here from 1979 to 1983. The staff all know that we practise quality medicine and surgery. There are no shortcuts. I’m not into doing budget stuff. I don’t want to compromise on doing a good job. We need to send animals home better than how they came in, and there is pride in that.

How do you manage after-hours?

This is always an issue when you employ other veterinarians. It would be good to be able to share more. It’s been changing recently in Invercargill, but previously we were the only small-animal-only practice south of Dunedin. All the other practices did after-hours for mixed practice, and we couldn’t share that after we changed to just small animals.

What are your thoughts on pay rates?

There does seem to be a gender imbalance in a lot of practices. When Doug and I graduated there was a rate for a veterinary salary, and that was for women and men. If we back up and talk about better remuneration for veterinarians, that can’t happen without us charging more for our services. We used to charge for our consultations the same as the GPs charged. We’ve lost that, and we haven’t as a profession continued to increase the rates. It’s about people’s perceptions of what we do and our value. When I graduated, the Vet Clubs would publish an actual guide to what you should charge, and everyone up and down the country charged the same for a cat castration. Now we don’t know what others charge, and we can’t ask what others charge.

What are the benefits of having a small practice?

I think the benefit is that people see the same faces and they get a continuity of service. I’ve had people come in here and when I ask who they saw before, they haven’t got a clue – they haven’t had any bonding at all with their veterinarians. As a family practice, the staff recognise most of the regular clients and know a lot about them. From an owner’s point of view, it’s about having more control over what happens in the practice. We’ve always been active about embracing new technology. We had an in-house laboratory probably five years before anybody else in the province. We computerised really early on. We have always embraced new things – I don’t hold back from doing that. We can make those decisions really quickly and easily.

Tell us about your wildlife work.

I’m an honorary veterinarian at the Southland Museum and Art Gallery and one thing I am sort of famous for is treating Henry the tuatara.

Henry is thought to be 130 years old. We took over care of him and the others from a veterinarian who had been treating a lesion on Henry’s cloaca with lotions and potions. The curator at the museum was worried about him, and asked me if I’d take a look. I didn’t like the look of the lesion, and I biopsied it. It was quite an aggressive tumour – though slow-growing in a tuatara. I got most of it the first time, and did a second surgery to tidy it up and get any remaining cells. It hasn’t come back. Henry had been a grumpy old tuatara and never had any children. He fought, chewed off tails and attacked any other tuatara who came near him. Looking back, Henry probably had a sore body all that time. I removed the tumour and got his cloaca area back to health and guess what? All of sudden Henry wasn’t grumpy, he was suddenly into lovemaking. There was a movie made called Love in Cold Blood by a couple of students who were doing a wildlife degree at the University of Otago, and who came down and filmed the story of Henry getting back his mojo. One of them ended up getting a job with David Attenborough as a consequence.

What about your work with kākāpō?

We’ve done a lot of work in the past on kākāpō. Now James Chatterton at Auckland Zoo manages most of that and there are dedicated wildlife staff at Auckland Zoo, Massey’s Wildbase Hospital and the Wildlife Hospital in Dunedin. We’re here as an emergency measure if they need us. For example, we had a panic-stricken call from a woman working for the Department of Conservation (DOC) who had been tube-feeding a kākāpō and the feeding tube end fell off the syringe and disappeared into the crop. I told her not to panic, that we would get it back – and we did! The tube was curled up in the crop. Kākāpō are very forgiving under anaesthesia. They’re much better to anaesthetise than a canary!

This morning there was a light-mantled sooty albatross in the clinic. How did that end up here?

The people who found the bird on Bluff Road last night brought it in. The nearest colony for this bird is in the Auckland Islands. It probably came in on one of the storms and it couldn’t take off from Bluff Highway – it needs cliffs to take off. We’ll feed it so it has something in its tummy before it takes off, and DOC will take it this afternoon to where it can be released to fly home. It’s not injured, it’s just exhausted. We’ve always collaborated with DOC and have had a fantastic relationship with the local DOC staff. It’s a really rewarding part of our practice.