Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Outback Vets

Have you ever contemplated working in the outback? Taking up a job in a remote area of Australia? What’s it like being a new graduate a long way from home, with little professional back up?

Author Annabelle Brayley spent a year finding out. The result, Outback Vets, documents the careers of 15 veterinarians working all around Australia, from Bourke (NSW) to Birdsville (QLD), Esperance (WA) to Norfolk Island, Marree (SA) to Launceston (TAS).

Brayley herself has a strong connection to the outback. When she married her husband Ian they lived on an isolated sheep and cattle station in south-west QLD.  She trained as a registered nurse and has worked in rural and remote communities.

As someone fascinated by the career trajectories of veterinarians I found this an un-put-downable read. From the story about Dave Hall, whose life was changed instantly in a near-fatal car accident, to Mary-Jane Stutsel who has had just seven days off-call in twenty years. (When I met Mary-Jane in Bourke almost a decade ago she’d just had a baby, and she was back at work, travelling between Bourke and Cobar, sole-charge in a demanding practice, with a smiling baby in the office).

If you’re thinking about working in rural or remote practice, this is a particularly inspiring book.

Annabelle Brayley. Image by Kathy Mexted.
Annabelle, now in the thick of researching her next project, took time out to chat with SAT.

The thing that struck me about all of the vets in this book is their incredible work ethic. All the vets I know are dedicated, but there’s something about this group that seems different.

I know what you mean. I wrote a book just before Outback Vets about nurses (Nurses of the Outback), and it’s a similar kind of workload and a similar kind of work ethic. But there’s something about the circumstances under which the vets work, and the isolation. If they fix it, it doesn’t get fixed.

They may not have hands-on back up but they do have computers, Google, social media, veterinary groups online that they can talk to. They are working remotely but not necessarily as isolated as they were in the past.

Some of the vets, particularly the older vets, have a work ethic that is common in the bush – if the work is there you just do it.

It is interesting, a lot of people will wonder why the hell would they work in the outback? They are a dedicated lot of people. I’m not comparing city vets unfavourably with them. City vets have different opportunities. But for someone like Mary-Jane Stutsel who has had 7 days off call in twenty years, geography makes a very big difference.

I’m sure that city vets work very hard, but part of ethic in the outback is there isn’t anybody else. The fact that they don’t walk away is admirable.

All of the vets I spoke to were just amazing. They have different individual talents but all of them are passionate about what they do, every one of them without exception.

Where did your interest in vets come from?

The year after I left school occasionally I used to go out and help a vet who was working where I grew up. If he needed a spare pair of hands I’d get out in the yards with him. I was probably useless really. Although I was involved with cattle, I wasn’t really interested in vet.

Having said that, in the 1970s Syd Miller, a retired vet who pioneered embryo transfer, came to my parent’s farm on Western Darling Downs in Queensland to do some of the first embryo transplants using semen from a red poll Devon bull dad had bred. He was the first Devon semen donor in Australia. So I guess subliminally I was always aware of this stuff.

When I married and moved to South west Queensland, we were a long way from town. There were occasions when we’d think about calling a vet but a lot of the time we didn’t. We treated them ourselves. Now there are more vets in the bush. I think there are a lot of people who don’t realise what an important part of their production system vets can be if you plan that into your work program. I certainly have a new appreciation of their value now.

How did you choose which vets to interview?

When it came to choosing them, I wanted to make this book Australia-wide. I was purposefully looking in all of the States and Territories. My main criteria was some sort of remoteness, although that means different things to different people. I met all of the vets except for Candice Snell. All along I’d chosen who I wanted to interview but I’d kept this space as I figured there’d be someone out there who was really isolated. And Candice is very remote on Norfolk Island.

The chapter about Snell, a tick in time, describes a case of tick paralysis in a puppy imported onto the island by a family. Paralysis ticks are not found on Norfolk and tick antiserum is not easily found. You described the harrowing night over which Snell and her nurse Kim Jensen stayed up all night, manually ventilating the dog, while pulling every string to organise after-hours transport of the antiserum from Sydney. In terms of veterinary emergency stories, this is about as gripping as it gets.

As a nurse I could imagine what it would be feel like for those two to do that all night, so far from any help waiting for that plane to come in. I could feel what it would be like to be pumping that bag.

The case loads of these vets are incredible. Why do you think it’s so hard to attract veterinarians to positions in rural and remote communities?

My feeling is that a lot of young vets really want connections, and life balance, they don’t want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere.

What makes a good outback vet?

People in the bush are really resilient. A lot of them know stuff, a lot of them look after their animals themselves because that’s what they have to do. It’s the same thing with these vets. One of the underlying features of all of them is this very strong streak of common sense. Even the youngest of them had a lot of hands-on experience to back up their veterinary training.

Did you get roped into being a human retractor or assisting in any cases?

When I went out with Ellen Litchfield to see a mare with a prolapse I think I handed her a bucket, but clearly they didn’t need me. I saw a few procedures but mostly I sat and chatted with the vets.

Do you live with any non-human companions?

We have a beautiful Border collie called Susie who we inherited from our son. He took her as pup to the Northern Territory when he was a ringer, but I acquired her when he went to do an apprenticeship in the city. I also have a cat who we inherited from our daughter. And we have chooks.

Do you have any advice to aspiring veterinarians or recent graduates?

There are so many fantastic opportunities for young vets in remote areas if they would just bite the bullet and go. I hope all young vets read it and feel more confident about the possibility of getting out and having a go.

One of the older vets told me, “If they don’t get out in the first two years and do something, you won’t do it.”

So I’d say to young vets just get out there and have a go. It’s not just about doing pracs. Go out there and do your graduate year in the bush with a remote area vet because you never know what is going to walk through your door. That’s true in the city, but you really don’t know in the bush. The range of animals and the diverse challenges that they present is so much broader. If you want to see everything, go to the bush.

Thank you for your time Annabelle. Outback Vets will be available from Penguin Books from 25 March 2015, for $29.99