Thursday, June 11, 2015

Interview with Dr Karen Teasdale: practice owner, mum and style icon

Dr Karen Teasdale.

I first spotted Dr Karen Teasdale from across a massive auditorium at the AVA conference. Just about everyone else was in the "vet uniform" (jeans, collared shirt, RM Williams boots or variation of) and she was glowing in a 1950s style dress complete with victory rolls. Fortunately she was unperturbed when I raced across the room and requested a photo. And I learned there is so much more to this veterinarian than her style. She runs two businesses and manages a family. And she was generous enough to answer some questions about her life and career. 

What's your day job?

Like all jobs, my day job (being a vet) is a mix of many different disciplines in medicine and surgery...but my formal day job is the Practice Principal at Angourie Road Veterinary Surgery in Yamba, Northern New South Wales.  I have a single person practice, but hope to change that soon!

As well as running the practice, I also have a second business making memorial candles for grieving pet owners, but more on that later.

And of course, my other very important job (in fact the most important) is being Mum to my two human kids and my one fur-kid.

Not the best composed photo on my part (it was taken as another conference session was about to begin) but a very well composed outfit...
Fewer vets are owning practices these days. What made you take the plunge?

A number of factors came together at the right time to make practice ownership appealing.  I was not planning on owning a practice, and did not make a sweeping, 5 year plan to get into practice ownership.  This is unusual for me, as I like to plan everything (my nurses think it is hilarious that when I go to conferences I have a spreadsheet planned of what I will wear on each day...down to the number of bobby pins I will need to pack!).  

It was only after my son was born and my husband and I were living in Brisbane that I started looking, randomly one day, at a veterinary employment website.  It had a small, two line advertisment about Angourie Road Veterinary Surgery.  What intrigued me about the practice was it's husband is a surfer and to us, the location was perfect.  Brisbane was just not doing it for us.  So we went to the practice and quickly realised that it had huge scope for us to be able to build the practice to reflect the way I had always wanted to practice.  We bought the practice the next day, without really thinking it through too much.  It was a case of biting of more than I could chew, then chewing like hell! 

Karen's shoes on day one of the conference.
I learned everything about practice management and running my own clinic on the job.  I was very fortunate to have come from a family that encourages business acumen, so I had some basics down.  But really, there is no business course in the world that teaches you how to run a business like running a business.  I think many vets are scared about the whole business side of things --- we get basically zero training at vet school about how to run a business, so it is a daunting thought.  I am so grateful and happy with our journey, though.  Having a small clinic, and building it up, can provide so much scope for learning and eventually crafting a clinic that really reflects you, your passions, skills and the way you wish to practice.

It is, of course, an awful lot of work.  SO MUCH WORK.  It never ends.  So vets often have to make the decision about excactly how much control they want over their lives and the way they practice.  For a control-freak like me, I don't think I could ever go back to working for someone else.  Every time I get down about having to try to juggle all the vet stuff with making all the finiancial decisions, managing the marketing, dealing with HR, doing the BAS etc, it can seem a bit much.  But then I remember that I have wonderful half hour consults, I can work out exactly how many days I wish to do dental work vs seeing dermatological patients, and I feel pretty fortunate to be able to have that control.

By far and away the best thing about owning my own practice however was the ability to have my kids at work.  My son was 8 months old when we took over the practice.  My daughter was (almost!) born at the practice...working through the initial contractions were a great distraction! We have the freedom to build special areas for the kids, who think of work as their second home.  They are happy and comfortable at work, and I like that I can just have them around.  

My advice to other vets, if they are thinking about owning a practice, is to have a serious think about what is important to them.  If freedom trumps everything else --- the freedom to practice your own way, the freedom to set your own hours, the freedom to structure your life according to your own philosophies and desires --- then perhaps practice ownership is for you. 

Karen with another incredible look (note the shoes).
I met you at the AVA conference because you stood out. Tell me about your wardrobe and hair? Why go to so much effort?

Like everyone, what I look like now is a culmination of all my experiences so far this life.  As a teenager, I was never very confident.  In fact, thanks to bullying all through primary and secondary school, I had very low self-esteem.  I always thought I was too something...too fat to wear whatever was fashionable at the time, too ugly to dare wearing makeup, my hair was too fine and too straight to do anything with.  I thought that I would have to be content with being academically well off, and not blessed with being attractive.

It was only when I got to vet school that I suddenly felt like I had found my people, my tribe.  In fact, I can remember sitting on a narrow strip of grass near the Veterinary Research Institute at the University of Melbourne and having the epiphany that all these other people, these other vet students, were just like me.  They all worked hard at school and here we were, together.  The mood was radically different to high school, and I felt like I was home.  I felt like I could start the journey to really find myself.

Since then, it's been a journey of trying to become self-realised and understanding that it's ok to be confident and happy with yourself.  It's ok to experiment and find your own style.  It's ok to indulge in something as frivolous as snood styles of the 1940's and still be a serious vet.   It's ok to wear makeup and play around with hair.  In fact, it's more than ok, it's easy!  It's never been easier to check out new ideas and tutorials than now, with youtube tutorials for everything.

So, in summary, I guess the main reason I do it is because it makes me feel good.  My husband says that it's a community service...I see people looking at me and smiling.  So I have brought a smile to someone's face, what a lovely thing to be able to do!

I am also hoping that by setting an example of being happy with myself and my body, and being happy to “play” with clothes, that my daughter will see that and have a positive body influence.  She is a super-confident, outgoing and sweet girl, who seems to have no limitations on what she thinks she should look like, so I hope that so far it is working.

And honestly, it's not a lot of work.  It took about 20 minutes to get ready each day of the conference.  I don't wear makeup to work (only because I have to go into theatre) but I do wear my hair “done”.  I am even in the process of doing a study looking at correlation between hairstyle and economic performance of my practice.  It seemed like a silly premise to start with, but it really is startling that patterns that are starting to emerge.  Perhaps people with buns and victory rolls seem more trustworthy than those with ponytails?  Stay tuned for more data...

Karen with Dr James Moody.
What non-human(s) do you share your life with?

I have a sometimes grumpy FIV positive heat seeking cat named Moobycat.  He is very much attached to the idea of just me and him, and would not stand to share my affections with any other non-humans. 

Moobycat in his hoodie.
How did you meet?

Mooby was a kitten at the RSPCA with advanced cat flu.  He was pretty unpleasant at the time we met – basically a whole face full of snot.  He was tiny and needed someone to love him better.  He sneezed in my face and went to snuggle me.  We kind of stuck together – almost literally!  So I decided that (like all cats) he chose me.  That was back in 2003.
What do you do to spend time together? 

Moobycat is the conisseur of warm, comfortable places.  His favourite place to sit is on me, or on my laptop, or on the biochemistry machine...anything that you are currently working with, and gives out a heat source, will be Moo's favourite.  He also enjoys cuddles, snuggles, and lying with me in the sun looking for patterns in clouds. 

One of Karen's candles.
You began making candles for people whose pets had died. How did this come about?

We have been hand making candles for our clients who are grieving for a  lost pet for a few years now.  We used to send bunches of flowers --- until one very honest client called and informed me that watching the flowers die was just as bad as watching their pet die again.

Although flowers were ruled out, we still wanted to make a meaningful gesture to people at their time of grief.  For many clients, we vets are the only ones that truly understand the magnitude of their grief, and also their intense need to be able to grieve.  By developing a specific memorial candle, we see it as a way of giving owners permission to grieve.  We give them to owners at the time of euthanasia or death, and we ask that the owners light the candle when they are ready to remember their pet’s life.  We believe that ceremonies – and the simple act of lighting the candle is indeed a ceremony – are an important part of helping our clients navigate through the difficult time of losing a furry family member.  With more and more clients turning to us for hospice and end-of-life care, it seems fitting to be able to mark the time of death with a respectful gesture of love, compassion and understanding.

What could we do to make the world better for non-human animals?

First do no harm!

Any advice you’d like to share with veterinarians and future veterinarians?

Find your passion and pursue it.  Don't worry about what others think, move forward confidently and even if you're not confident, fake it until you make it! Be confident enough in the rest of your knowledge, and know its ok to say you don't know the answer to something (but then go and figure it out).  Be ever inquisitive.   

Thank you Dr Karen. You can check out Angourie Road Veterinary Surgery on facebook here.