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Reading recent debates about the difficulties of conducting small animal home visits led me to reflect on my own life as an equine vet on the road. Those guys who spend most of their lives indoors behind a consulting room bench or operating table (and these days they are firmly in the majority) will probably have to look back to their days as students seeing practice to remember what it is like to spend a large part of your working day behind the steering wheel.
The biggest relationship in my life is with my car. I spend more time with it than I do with my husband. Sad, but true. It is more than a car. It is a mobile office, dispensary, dog kennel, dining room, changing room and even, on the odd occasion that I need to pull over for a 10 minute post-lunch nap, a bedroom. The driving seat is comfortably indented with the exact shape of my posterior and the door pockets and glove box contain everything necessary to sustain life on the road: hairbrush, moisturiser, deodorant, woolly hat, change of socks, emergency chocolate rations and a book to read, in case of unavoidable gaps in my schedule.
It occurred to me that I have never actually owned a car. I went to university in an age when students used public transport and owning a vehicle (usually provided by ‘Daddy’) was the preserve of one or two of the better-heeled students in the year. We merrily took buses and trains round the country to ‘see practice’ (no EMS in those days), clutching carrier bags full of wellies and waterproofs. On one memorable occasion I adopted a stray cat in a practice in Lancashire and thought nothing of returning with it, via two train changes, to Scotland.
My first car was acquired with my first job and since then I have slowly traded up – my last three have been new four-wheel drives, equipped, thanks to obliging bosses, with a tow bar to enable me to drag my event horses round the country on weekends off.
When I first qualified, my door pockets were stuffed with Ordnance Survey maps. It doesn't matter where you work, there is a vets' version of Murphy's Law, which says that your practice will be located on the intersection of at least four different maps, meaning that the gearstick and controls were often completely buried under great unfolded expanses of paper. The passenger seat was usually littered with scraps of paper with directions from my boss. These contained helpful instructions such as ‘turn left at Bill Jackson's farm’ (I had no idea who Bill Jackson was or where he lived – unsurprising, since he had died 10 years before I graduated) or ‘carry on past the red barn’ (the one that burned down without leaving a trace sometime last century). Few people had mobile phones so if you couldn't find a yard it was just a case of driving round and round in circles until you happened upon it.
These days I rely on the charming lady on my dashboard who implores me to ‘turn left’ or ‘continue straight ahead’ without reference to long-dead residents. Barring a couple of noteworthy exceptions I pretty much end up where I'm meant to be every time and I take great delight in getting there before her predicted time of arrival. Part of me would like to hate the relentless march of technology, but it's in competition with the part of me that hates driving round in circles unable to find a client's house, so the satnav is resolutely here to stay!
I do feel sorry for my small animal colleagues when I'm cruising the country roads, windows down, the dogs sleeping peacefully on the back seat while I catch the latest instalment of The Archers. Sometimes it's hard to believe that I get paid for it! At times I envy them their convenient supply of coffee (and proximity to a toilet), the fact that they have nurses and other vets to chat to and the fact that they probably don't clock up nearly 40,000 work miles a year. On balance though, I think I prefer being in the driving seat!
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